10 lessons from 10 years of solo travel as a woman

What I have learned from globetrotting alone, bright-eyed and open-hearted with my wheely backpack and rip-off Birks. 💫

4 mins
Written by:
Nirvana Bhandary

I am 31 years old, but at heart still 25. Only recently did I tally up the numbers and realise that damn, I have been travelling solo for 10 years now, all throughout my 20s. It was never something I planned or imagined would be so important in shaping the course of my life. But the euphoria of complete freedom I experience when I release myself of all inhibitions, possessions and expectations of what a woman is allowed to do is a feeling that will never leave my bones. It is something I will crave for the rest of my life.

Here are some of the things I have learned over a decade of globetrotting alone, bright-eyed and open-hearted with my wheely backpack and rip-off Birkenstocks.

1. Eating dinner alone is the hardest meal of the day.

Breakfast, I am fresh as a daisy; I have stepped out of the hostel in my beige linen European summer outfit. I find a quaint café, after googling ‘best coffee in _______’ because the Melbourne cliché has embedded itself into my personality. I bring out my small notebook and ponder my beautiful life and chaotic thoughts. I am enjoying my solitude deeply. Life is great.

After a long walk exploring the city, it is time for a much-deserved lazy lunch. I find an outdoor restaurant that has a ‘Meal of the Day’ special. I order a glass of wine, because why not? I browse through social media while I eat. Life is good.

Panic starts setting in around 6 pm. I am beginning to feel hungry, and I have no one to eat with. The restaurants start lighting their candles, the couples are gazing into each other’s eyes over antipasto. I desperately begin swiping on Bumble for a dining mate. No luck with instant replies. I contemplate getting some fast food, but screw that, I want to eat well. I try to increase my confidence through pep talks. ‘You are a strong independent woman who don’t need no man. You got this.’

But do I got this? I finally summon the courage and walk up to the maître d who is judging me already. “Table for 1 please,” I whimper. I sit down and feel all eyes on me. ‘Why is this hot young woman eating alone? Poor thing, maybe her fiancée ditched her, maybe she is too weird to have any friends’ I don’t know what to do or where to look. I fiddle with my phone although I don’t want to. I feel very lonely and pity myself. I devour my seafood risotto and sprint out, crying into my gelato as I walk home. Life can feel sad when you don’t have good company to share meals with.

Photo by Ion Ceban

2. So many of the friendships I made I would not have if I had a travelling companion.

Travelling with someone else is a social safety net, and that can get suffocating too. There is no technical need for you to talk to or spend time with anyone except your travelling companion(s) and that can result in you missing out on other meaningful connections. I made so many friends throughout my travels. A guitarist in Dubrovnik, Croatia took pity/interest in the sole woman appreciating his music on the street corner and invited me to a hidden wine bar his beautiful friend owned. I spent a week making music and art with my Airbnb host and his friends in Asilah, Morocco. I met a girl at a bar in El Nido, Philippines who took me on a small boat at midnight with her friends to a secret full moon party on a deserted island. I formed deep friendships with intriguing humans I would’ve never encountered otherwise, whose perspectives broadened my mind and enriched my travels.

3. I explored my identity to ocean depths.

Through my solo travels, I came to understand and nurture facets of my identity that were yet to bloom. I felt a newfound appreciation for the silent joy of solitude. As I discovered the world, I uncovered more of my authentic self. This was especially true for gaining confidence in being an unconventional woman, in not wanting to buy a house, get married, or “settle down” as is expected for women all over the world. Experiencing the deep contentment of solo travel made me realise what is important in life to me, what my main guiding values and ideology are. Over time, I was able to assert my lifestyle choices to my South Asian parents, who were waiting for my exploration phase to be over and for me to become a “responsible adult”.

Photo by Emre Akyol

4. Budgeting actually enriched my travels.

Being on a budget for the longest continuous trip I have done – 15 months through 15 countries – required me to engage in volunteering stints to make my finances last. And so, I took care of the unvaccinated child of a hippie family living on the outskirts of Bulgaria. I spent a month at an English school in Morocco. I helped set up a community centre for refugee women in Greece. These are some of the most memorable anecdotes of my travels as I experienced what truly authentic community felt like. Not spending money allowed me to focus on finding creative ways of cultivating joy and building connections.

Similarly, lacking a travel companion to split the cost of a private room with, most of the accommodation I stayed in were hostels where I crossed paths with a plethora of fascinating people. I met a 76-year-old man who had been living in a hostel in Sofia, Bulgaria, for 15 months. I met an American family with four daughters who sold their house and all their possessions and were forever travelling as their new permanent lifestyle.

5. Dating apps are a godsend

The dating apps have not been particularly kind to me at home. There is zero effort put into starting or maintaining a conversation. People seem to be swiping with fingers itchy to quell their boredom and satisfy their egos and nothing more. But oh, how different and glorious it was to be on the dating apps during my travels! I met up with exuberant local residents who showed me the gleaming hidden nooks and crannies of their cities. They answered my many questions about the society and culture they grew up in. They were cute and genuine non-pretentious experts. I was able to get a break from all the other travellers like me clueless about our surroundings. Sometimes these dates turned into week-long romances, and other times, it just happened to be a splendid afternoon spent with a lovely stranger. But I am forever grateful to the dating apps for enhancing my travels.

6. Travelling alone as a woman is not as scary as people believe it to be.

When a woman announces that she is planning to travel solo, the first question people usually ask is, “Aren’t you scared?! Is it safe?”

I usually reply with a wise smile, “It is as scary as it is to exist as a woman anywhere in the world. I feel my sense of safety and danger is the same whether I am at home or overseas.”

Of course, I have had unpleasant experiences – falling sick, getting robbed, being sexually harassed, missing trains, getting lost – but nothing has been intense enough to deter me from travelling alone again. In these situations, through the tears, I have known that I only have myself to rely on, and I’ve summoned the depths of my courage. I have learned to trust my instincts, and I have a short list of strong strategies to protect myself. This is not to say that I have to be hypervigilant at all times. I have enjoyed the sunshine topless on the beach and frolicked in parks after dark with a gelato. But I have developed enough perception to know where it is culturally appropriate and safe for me to do such things, and where it is not.

I have also realised that a pretty face and smile almost guarantee that people are nice to you. This is because young beautiful women possess socio-cultural capital in our patriarchal societies, but as an individual it has also made my life easier.

7. Dating people around the world has been the most culturally immersive experience of my life.

Being single on my travels was one of the best decisions I made in my 20s. I formed relationships with fascinating men from completely different walks of life and felt the depths of love in ways that I will never forget. I fell in love with a sailor on an island in Croatia and lived on his boat with him for two weeks. I ran towards sunsets in Italy with a lanky Dutch redhead, who took me to tulip fields and whisked me around the Amalfi coast on a scooter over the subsequent year. I camped on nudist beaches and ate copious amounts of dolmades with a Kurdish human rights activist in Greece. I got a glimpse into the workings of masculinity across different cultures through sharing intimacy and that was fascinating to analyse as a feminist writer.

Photo by Samson Katt

8. Being a woman alone in public spaces can be challenging.

I first became afraid of the attention I would receive for being a young woman existing alone in a public space in Morocco. On my second day as I manoeuvred the alleys of the medina overflowing with vegetable vendors and fake Adidas sweatshirts, I became aware of every single pair of eyes I passed boring into me.

They know. They know I am different and that I do not belong here.

I arrived back inside the safety of my hostel and burst into tears. I was overwhelmed, and I was terrified of the thought of having to experience that attention, discomfort and fear every single day. How was I going to live here for two months?

I ended up living in Morocco for five months, five spectacular months filled with some of the best experiences in my life, however the times I was alone in public were rare. I can count them on one hand. I had tactics – never smile, never make direct eye contact with men, never look around to observe the surroundings, walk with your head down knowing where you are going and get there as quick as possible. I knew I could never let my guard down and it was exhausting. I continued to apply these tactics, as many other solo woman travellers know very well, to other countries where women alone in public spaces is rare such as India and Sri Lanka. I had the privilege to take private transport as much as possible, but I knew that my travels would’ve been so much safer and easier if I had a male companion by my side.

9. Money is power. Dollars and a strong passport are privilege, no matter your gender.

During my travels, I have often dated men living in their home countries and over time I have realised the power imbalance between us. Before I began travelling and as I started my journey as a feminist, I viewed all men as my oppressor, that I as a woman, was subjugated by the power that all men benefit from due to centuries-old patriarchal institutions. And while this is true, simultaneously I realised that having an Australian passport and earning in dollars gave me more political and economic power than the men I was dating. They were not able to even dream about travelling solo around the world like I was because their passports were weak, meaning it was difficult for them to get tourist visas everywhere, and their earnings were not enough to sustain such a trip. This was an uncomfortable realisation for me as I had never been in situations before when I was the privileged one.

Similarly, as a passionate feminist who wanted to create something meaningful out of her travels, I began collecting and sharing stories of women across the world through a digital storytelling project. In that pursuit I recognised that although I may consider all women of the world as my sisters, they are very aware of our power imbalance. Patriarchy does not cripple us in the same way and privilege is relative. To have the choice to travel the world alone as a woman is a huge privilege that I should always be grateful for.

10. We are no longer a rarity or an anomaly.

In 2023, there is a multitude of women travelling alone who share their experiences through blogs, vlogs and social media. I have met them on the road and been inspired by them digitally. We are a growing community of women passionate and courageous to seize everything that world has to offer us. Female travel content creators have become a significant demographic and how cool is that. For the first time in history, there is visibility of solo woman travellers en masse, there is more acceptance of our unconventional life choices, and there is a wealth of information and advice from role models that are just like us. This is powerful and it shifts the narrative of travel away from the predominant voices of male travel writers like Pico Iyer and Jack Kerouac whose stories we could not relate to. Now, more and more women are able to see that chasing wanderlust, becoming a nomad, and exploring the world alone is something that is within our reach as well.

Photo by Semina Psichogiopoulou

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