I am delighted to start a solo travel junkies interview series on the Rocky Travel Blog. As a solo travel addict myself I have written hundreds of posts about my adventures. Now I want to share the voice of fellow solo travellers around the world.
Some time ago I met Marie-France Roy on Social Media and found out that we have much in common. We both grew up with cats and we adore cats. We started travelling solo as young women in our 20s. Marie-France, at 29, made her first overseas trip to Europe in 1992. I went solo to Canada and US in 1993 on my first overseas trip. I was 29 too! With no travel blogs, no Social Media, no smart phones, no digital cameras. A travel guide in our backpack and high in spirit we were off to see the world on our own. 🙂
Today I am interviewing Marie-France to share her story and her insight about solo travel.
Q: How did you start travelling solo and why did you choose Italy for your first solo trip overseas?
A: I had wanted to travel badly since my early teens. But travelling, I figured, required three things: time, money, and a travel companion. By the time I had saved enough money and vacation time to go to Europe, I was in my late 20s. However my boyfriend was still in school and had neither time nor money. When that relationship ended, I asked a few single friends to come with me to Europe, but I could tell that most people had other priorities. And then it occurred to me that I didn't really “need” another person in order to travel. I was 29 and didn't want to wait anymore. So I consulted guidebooks and travel agents (that was 1992) to organize a three-week trip to France, Switzerland, and Italy. France because my family is French Canadian and my ancestors came from there. Switzerland because I knew someone who was working there at the time. Italy because it was one of those Mediterranean countries that looked so romantic in movies, as well as having a lot of history and antiquities. And I liked Italian food!
Q.: I know that you have been travelling solo for 25 years, do you think solo travel has changed over the years and how?
A.: I think it's a lot more common now. In the 90s, people in developing countries seemed surprised to see me travelling alone. In Asia they were always asking where my “husband” or “family” was.
A lot more young people are travelling now, and many go solo. Many older people also gather the courage to travel solo. You can research, plan and book your own trips online these days, which makes the whole process a lot easier than 20 or 25 years ago. In recent years, many “shared economy” options like AirBnB, EatWith, and the Global Greeter Network, have popped up, reducing the costs for solos, but also giving them more insights into the culture and making them feel more like a visiting friend than a tourist.
Q.: What do you think are the benefits for women +40 to travel solo? What about the downsides?
A.: The main benefit is that you engage a lot more with your surroundings, the local culture, and other people when you're by yourself. With a companion, you spend a lot of time focusing on that other person. Women in their middle years also seem approachable by pretty much everybody: young, old, men, women. I also think older women get more respect when they travel solo in some regions, like the Middle East. When I was in Istanbul two years ago, a young man told me that I reminded him of his mother! Trust me, this is a lot better than being trailed on the street and asked to go to a bar!
Travelling solo is a great confidence booster, especially if you've been part of a couple for a long time and suddenly find yourself single after 40. Out there on the road, you’ll find out what you’re really capable of. Ironically, being solo can actually be safer because you're not distracted, and you're free to follow your instincts when something doesn't feel right. The main downside of solo travel for anyone is cost. In most places, the cost of a single room is a lot more than half the cost of a double room. And if you join cruises or tour groups, you're often hit by a huge “single supplement”.
That's one reason why it's much cheaper to travel independently than with a tour group if you're solo. Some tour companies will offer to match you up with another traveller of the same gender to share a room, in order to avoid the single supplement. The other downside is that there is nobody to watch your stuff at the beach when you want to go swimming, or to put sunscreen on your back! Fortunately I'm not a big beach person. And of course once in a while, you wish there was somebody there to share that amazing view, sight, or meal. That's why I always travelled with a journal to record my thoughts and impressions, which has now become a blog.
Q.: Did you ever feel unsafe as a woman travelling alone? If so, in which country? Can you tell us about an unsafe situation you have experienced?
A.: I've never felt in real danger, but on a few occasions I've found myself in places that just didn't feel comfortable. Cape Town in South Africa is a beautiful city, but as soon as it gets darks, the streets become eerily empty and a little creepy. Once in India, in broad daylight, I was walking on a countryside lane on my way to some sight, when I caught movement through the corner of my eye. There was a man sitting on his porch who looked like he was masturbating while watching me. Quite creepy. Egypt is a country where I didn't feel unsafe per se but was continuously harassed by men when I was on my own. This was compounded by continuous attempts by locals to scam me. This is definitely a country that I recommend you visit with a group: get in, see the sights, get out.
Q.: I know that you have been in Australia 3 times on your own. Do you think Australia is a good country to travel solo for women and why?
A.: Australia is a great country for women travelling solo. Safety-wise, it's comparable to England or Canada, except sunnier and warmer! The people are very friendly and helpful, public transit in cities is efficient, and they know their coffee! There is also a wide variety of sights and activities you can participate in, from exploring cities, to hiking, beach sports, and wine tasting. It's just different enough to be interesting, but familiar enough to be comfortable. However Australia is an expensive country with large distances between places. If you're on a budget, you'll be eating a lot of pizza, fish and chips, and meat pies!
Q.: How did you travel around Australia and what type of accommodation did you use?
A.: I travelled around by train and once by plane. Australian cities have very good networks of urban and suburban trains, and there are a few discount airlines like Virgin and JetStar. I haven't done any of the long-distance train journeys yet, such as The GHAN from Adelaide to Darwin, but I hope to someday.
On my last two trips (2014 and 2016) I stayed with AirBnB hosts and house-sat. Some of my best AirBnB stays and house-sits have been in Australia. The first time (2009) I stayed in hostels and also with someone I had met through VirtualTourist, one of the first communities of travellers established online (way before blogs were a thing).
Q.: What did you like most of your solo trips in Australia and what less, if anything?
A.: I loved the different vegetation and animals and all those crazy birds. Some birds that are considered “exotic” in Canada like cockatoos are all over the place here. It's also easy to find good food, wine, and coffee, and Australians are experts at creating brunch and breakfast dishes. Also people are very informal. I have yet to meet a stuffy or arrogant Australian.There isn't much I disliked. I was a little worried about the sun, given the high UV index and incidence of skin cancer. And of course the high prices meant that I had to watch my pennies (especially on my last and longest trip).
Q.: How much do you research and plan your adventures before going on a solo trip? What do you think is the most difficult part of planning a solo trip?
A.: I used to try to cram as many places as possible within the time I had, and schedule everything, sometimes down to the hour! I'm more laid back now and I travel more slowly. I'll start by reading about a destination to make sure it's affordable, reasonably safe, and has decent weather when I plan to visit. Next I'll book the air tickets a few months in advance, or whenever I see a good sale. After that I may buy a guidebook and/or keep researching online to figure out which cities and sights I want to visit, and how much time I need for each in order to build some sort of itinerary.
Then I'll book accommodation for the first week or two. If the trip is longer than two weeks, I just book things as I go so I'm more flexible with my plans. I have a list of highlights I really want to see, but I mostly decide on my day-to-day schedule as I arrive in each new place and find out what's going on, taking tips from my local hosts and the tourist office. Honestly, I don't think planning a solo trip is any more difficult than planning a trip for two or more. In fact I would say it's easier because you don’t have to discuss every choice you make. Booking accommodations is the most time-consuming part, especially with all the choices and reviews found online nowadays. As a solo, you're probably not renting a car, so you want to make sure you find a place near the centre of the action, but also in a safe area.
Q.: Which are the 3 top worldwide destinations that you would recommend to a female solo traveller and why?
A.: That's a really hard question. There are so many places. In Europe I really loved Portugal because it's not overrun with tourists (especially the North). It’s beautiful and affordable, and distances are short. You can also combine it with Spain next door. In South America you can't go wrong with Argentina, which has an incredible variety of landscapes and something for every female traveller, from hiking, to shopping, to wine, to tango. It's a developed country and parts of Buenos Aires feel definitely European. You can also add Uruguay and Chile on a longer trip, all safe places with good infrastructure.
I'd also recommend New Zealand and Australia. (If you’re travelling this far why not see both?) I've talked about Australia earlier. New Zealand has the advantage of offering pretty much every landscape within a small area and it's a little cheaper because of the exchange rate. NZ has great hiking trails and the perfect weather for “tramping” (as they call it), but if you want a hot beach holiday, then you have to go to Australia. These three regions are good for starters. When you're ready for something a little more exotic and challenging, I'd say Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia in that order.
Q.: Out of your experience so far, can you share your best tip to a female traveller who wants to embark on a solo trip and is +40?
A.: Pack light. Seriously. You want to make it easy to keep an eye on your stuff in busy places. And you don't want to wreck your back or shoulders carrying heavy packs or dragging big suitcases up and down stairs.
Marie-France Roy is a freelance writer residing in Toronto, Canada. Her blog bigtravelnut.com focuses on affordable solo travel. After visiting nearly 60 countries and every continent, she helps solos travel cheaper, further, and longer, while discovering off-the-beaten-path destinations. You can follow her on Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube
Disclaimer: all of the above photos are owned by Marie-France Roy.
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