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4 Women on Getting Back Into Solo Travel After Lockdown

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 10/1/2020 Meredith Carey
a tree with a mountain in the background © Drew Payne/Getty

When Tiffani Reeves started her new role as a clinical research coordinator on an Alzheimer's disease project in March, she knew it was going to be tough. Just a few days later, she was working from home, where she lives alone, turning it into an office, living space, and safe haven all in one. “I was losing my mind because I didn't have the space or time between when I went to work and when I came home. It was all the same,” she says. By August, she needed a break—so much so that her therapist suggested a local vacation to get her away from her home-office and to reset after months of work. She packed up her masks, sanitizing wipes, some snacks, and sunscreen and took her first solo trip of the pandemic, driving from her home in North Carolina's Rahleigh/Durham area to the beach

Reeves is hardly the only one embarking on a vacation alone right now: when we reached out to our Women Who Travel Instagram followers, more than 40 women—all of whom live alone—responded with stories of solo hikes through Colorado national parks, California road trips, and even first time solo travel experiences over the past seven months. 

Solo travel, especially for women, has been on the rise in the last few years—and 2019 saw solo travelers of all genders making up around 18 percent of global online travel agent bookings, an increase of 7 percent over the previous year, according to Travelport. But in a COVID-19 world, solo travel looks different. Strangers-turned-friends are harder to come by, itineraries take extra planning, research, and flexibility, and social distancing means it's a little more isolating than usual.

But even with all that, the women we spoke to said the same thing: “Just do it.” We asked them how they made their trips work—and what advice they have for other women who are considering using up their remaining vacation days with a solo trip in the coming months. Here's what they had to say. 

a beach next to a body of water: Topsail Beach, near Wilmington, North Carolina © Getty Topsail Beach, near Wilmington, North Carolina

Pick your destination wisely

Depending on your comfort level and travel preferences, you may choose different destinations than you would have before. For Patti Lawson, a retired associate vice president of communications at Gettysburg College who now works part time for the Pennsylvania university, that meant going back to somewhere she knew well. Lawson has a cottage in southern Maine, where she relocated for 12 weeks in mid-June—and felt confident and safe doing so because of her 30 years of experience traveling to the house. “There's a solace that occurs when you are revisiting a place that has brought you joy,” she says. “Sometimes we just need a change of scenery.” It also helps when planning, since you likely know the route to take, where you like to eat, and how to plan activities you can do on your own. For Lawson, it also gave her the peace of mind that she'd know where to stop in case of emergency on her solo, 8.5 hour drive.

While she hadn't visited Topsail Beach, North Carolina, before, it was her existing love of the beach that drew Reeves in. “Yes, I was one of the crazy people with a mask on the beach,” she says. “And I woke up really early to get a spot pretty far away from other people. But as soon as I got to the beach, I immediately felt lighter.” It also helped that she was just two hours from home, felt confident about her hotel's COVID-19 safety and cleaning precautions after calling them before booking, and could spend her days on the sand reading and people watching. 

For those looking for a little newness within their comfort zone, take pieces of how you traveled before the pandemic and integrate them into your destination planning, like Atlanta-based Traveler contributor Nneka Okona did on a recent trip to Nashville. “Originally, I chose Nashville simply because the Airbnbs looked nice,” she says. “Typically, I feel comfortable renting a room out of a house because I enjoy having that social interaction with the host when I'm traveling, but this time I rented out a whole guest house.” It allowed her to still feel part of a neighborhood—and came with a kitchen for cooking her own meals so she didn't have to rely fully on takeout. 

Beyond location, budget can also come into play—but in this era of travel, it may turn out in solo travelers' favor, says Angie Helfert, a Portland-based project manager for Mortenson Construction. “I stayed at a hotel [on a trip to Santa Fe] that I probably wouldn't have been able to stay at by myself otherwise,” she says, because of lower hotel rates. COVID-19 changes also meant she was able to eat take-out from restaurants like Izanami, a Japanese spot in Santa Fe, that would have been too booked up and expensive to dine at otherwise. 

Plan out every scenario

Naturally, trips take more planning now than pre-pandemic. For Lawson, that meant meticulously prepping for her eight-hour drive and subsequent 14-day quarantine at her vacation home in Maine, including packing cleaning supplies and a portable bathroom for her road trip to cut down on stops (she's pleased to say she did not have to use it, saying “I must be part camel”) and having her daughter, who lives nearby, pre-stock her kitchen with groceries before her arrival. It even came down to mapping out gas station stops, like in New Jersey, where it's required for station attendants to pump your gas for you so you don't even need to exit the car, and leaving on a weekday to avoid any weekend traffic. “You plan for all the variables and just hope you don't have to use any of those plans,” Lawson says.

But even with those plans in place, your travels can still be unpredictable. “On [Topsail] island, some of the restaurants that said they were open online were actually closed, and others had really long waits because they were the only options,” says Reeves. “I'm glad I did some research ahead of time on grocery stores and other options, otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to eat.” 

On all of their trips, that level of flexibility—the art of the travel pivot—came into play. “I had an idea of what I wanted to do but then the reality of what's actually open, at what time, and whether you need to make a reservation is all changing now, so I was a lot more flexible […] than I normally am,” says Helfert. 

a body of water with Cumberland River in the background: Okona spent time walking along Nashville's John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, which offers views like this of the city skyline. © Getty Okona spent time walking along Nashville's John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, which offers views like this of the city skyline.

Prep for alone time

For most of the women we spoke with, meeting strangers and making new friends is one of the true joys of solo travel. The threat of COVID-19, however, made that unlikely on their recent trips. “I love sitting at the bar, talking to a bartender and asking them how long they've been there, and where they eat, where they go to drink," says Okona. "But we're in a pandemic and I haven't dined in a restaurant or a bar since March. I definitely felt more isolated this trip." 

That sense of isolation extends beyond the bar, too. “I met someone on a hike at Mount Rainier recently—we were talking on the trail about where we had been and what we were doing—but then we both just disappeared," says Helfert. "Usually, I'd be like, ‘Maybe we should meet up and do this.’ But I think people are understandably more unwilling to do that and are sticking to themselves.” 

Instead of making new acquaintances, most planned more activities than usual to fill their days and stave off loneliness. Okona planned a donut crawl through Nashville and made time to wander and take photographs throughout the city. Lawson tackled Steven King's 863-page 11.22.63. Reeves picked up journaling on the beach. “I wasn't going with the hopes of having that level of connectedness I'm used to,” says Reeves. “I knew that I wouldn't have it—and that helped me prepare.” 

Take the break

Everyone had different reasons for needing the time off. For Reeves, it was a break from the burnout of work. For Lawson, it was a chance to see her family in the outdoors. For Helfert, it was a sabbatical postponed from March that she still wanted to make the most of. And for Okona, it was the chance to keep with her August tradition, planning what she calls a “grief-cation” to celebrate the life of a friend lost in a car accident three years ago. 

“I didn't realize until I got to Nashville how much anxiety and stress I had been feeling," says Okona of her solitary months in quarantine. "It completely melted away in a day. To have that fascination and distraction of something different—and that novelty of finding something new—it made such a difference.”

Now she's working to recreate that feeling even closer to home, making trips to her local H-Mart, a Korean supermarket chain that stocks Asian ingredients often not stocked by American grocers. “I'm realizing that I have to find those little glimmers of travel where I can and that's going to sustain me for however long I need it to,” she says.

Besides alleviating stress, the difference between solo travel then and now—like the need for more planning, more flexibility, and more alone time—also forced some women to actually relax. “Usually when I travel, I do a lot more," Helfert says. "I have so many things I try and squeeze in—but this time, because I had to be more flexible and do less, I felt a little more relaxed. This time, I didn't feel like I needed a vacation from my vacation.”

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