As Heather Gibson sat in the airport, about to embark on a long-anticipated adventure, one thought echoed through her mind: “What the hell was I thinking?”
The University of Florida professor was on her way to Germany to join Semester at Sea, where she’d spend nearly four months teaching while circling the globe. Now the reality of boarding a ship full of strangers was hitting home.
Embracing the unknowns of solo travel, however, can have long-lasting benefits for women, Gibson says. She should know: A sociologist in UF’s College of Health and Human Performance and the associate director of UF's Eric Friedheim Tourism Institute, Gibson pioneered the study of women travelers and authored a seminal paper about solo travel in 1998. Many of the challenges women faced twenty years ago — from safety concerns to the objections of family and friends — still remain.
“I see a lot of the same issues today,” she said. “I’ll ask my students how many will travel by themselves, and only a few will.”
She encourages women to do their planning, reassure their loved ones, and venture out.
“Resisting the social script is very powerful,” she said. “That’s not to say you don’t need to be aware of your surroundings, but pushing back against social boundaries is where women get empowerment.”
If you’re considering a solo trip, here’s why Gibson thinks you should go for it, and some tips to get started.
Look to the experts.
When Gibson began her research, there weren’t many sources of travel guidance for women. Now women can turn to a universe of websites, blogs, YouTube channels and Instagrammers for tips, inspiration and answers to specific questions about your destination.
Give yourself time to adjust.
It might take a few days to warm up to traveling solo. Feeling comfortable with your own company takes practice.
Use smartphones ease awkwardness.
Gibson’s research shows that eating out, especially at dinnertime, could be uncomfortable for women traveling alone. Some women in her study felt so conspicuous dining alone that they ate in their hotel rooms. Browsing or keeping in touch with loved ones on your phone while eating out — or any time along the way — can soothe those lonely feelings, not to mention making it easier to make and change bookings, navigate new cities or get notified of flight delays.
Your first foray doesn’t have to be a month backpacking across an unfamiliar country. It can be a weekend in a city that’s well within your comfort zone, or a group tour that you join as a solo traveler. You could tack a solo jaunt onto a work trip by adding a few days of exploration on your own, as Gibson recently did in before a conference in Helsinki.
Make new friends.
In many hostels, you can book a private room — no bunking with strangers — but still take advantage of common areas where you can meet people from all over the world and discover places you might like to explore. During Semester at Sea, Gibson formed a group with other solo travelers that the crew nicknamed the Spice Girls. They remain close today. “Those are friendships I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been traveling on my own,” she said.
Embrace your freedom.
When contemplating a solo trip, we tend to focus on the companionship we’ll be missing if we venture out alone. But what’s hard to appreciate until you’ve tried it, Gibson says, is the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want. “In a group, you’re always negotiating what other people want to do and when. Someone’s bored, someone’s tired, someone needs the bathroom. When you travel alone, you’re on your own time.”
Explore your identity as a badass problem-solver.
Yes, challenges will arise. There will be times when you feel overwhelmed or uncertain. And plenty of people will tell you you’re foolish to even consider traveling solo. “Overcoming those barriers makes women feel powerful,” Gibson said. “The effects last long after the trip has ended.”