As a travel journalist, baby boomer, and an enthusiastic fan of seeing as much of the world as I can, I’ve flown, cruised, and driven a few million miles over the past 50 years or so. I’ve traveled with couples, friends, journalist groups, my husband, and most recently, I’ve taken a few trips on my own.
While at some point in my life, I may have eschewed the idea of solo travel, I now find it a very pleasant way to go. For others like me who still have the energy to schlep through airports, the strength to carry a packed suitcase, the patience to spend 12 hours strapped into an airplane seat, and the curiosity to see new places, solo travel can be an exciting experience.
I understand that others of my generation, and even younger folks, prefer to satisfy their urge to see the world by signing up with group travel companies that plan their itineraries, book their flights, reserve their hotel rooms, and arrange their meals and sightseeing tours. And I do recognize that certain trips, like adventure travels, are best managed in groups. You can even travel solo and join a group for a taste of both.
But I suggest taking a truly solo trip for the exhilarating experience of feeling independent, free to wander, and open to seeing for yourself what’s around the next corner. Here are some suggestions for making the most of your solo trips after retirement.
Do your research.
After deciding on my destination, I make the basic arrangements for flights and hotels. Some solo travelers like to play it by ear without making room reservations in advance — part of the adventure for them — but I suggest at least booking a room for the first night. We all arrive a bit tired, and it’s pleasant and safe to have a destination to start with. As far as flights, airfares vary by day of the week, airline, and connections, so it’s worth spending some time researching to save a few dollars on the flights. The same goes for hotels. Check booking sites and compare their deals by contacting the hotel directly.
Choose the right tour for you.
Picking the right tour for your needs can make seeing the top sights easy and stress-free. On a trip to Rome, I naturally wanted to see the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums. So do thousands of others every day, especially during the peak travel months. I signed up with City Wonders for their morning tour when I learned that the company’s official Vatican Museums partnership enables their groups to use a special no-wait entrance. (Even skip-the-line groups often wait up to an hour.)
I recently spent a week in London on my own, and I booked a walking tour of London’s West End with Lookup London. A private tour fit my schedule, and we visited the theater district, Oxford Street, and St. James’s Church (a Bridgerton filming location) where an afternoon piano recital was taking place. I loved having my own tour guide, but I also enjoy small groups where there’s interaction among the guests and a chance to meet other travelers.
Related: 14 Best Senior-friendly Travel Groups
Seek out new experiences.
By new experiences, I’m not suggesting bungee jumping or ziplining across a rainforest canopy, although I know many senior travelers who would strap in without hesitation. And while I admire them for it, I’m thinking along the lines of a cooking class that includes visiting a market, shopping for ingredients, and then cooking with an entertaining chef, as I once did in Florence.
In London, I visited the posh Burlington Arcade, one of London’s most historic shopping destinations. A Beadle in a delightfully British uniform greeted me with a bit of information about the arcade. From there, I went to cosmetics boutique Code 8, where a personalized lipstick shade was designed and created for me. Then, my next new experience was having my boots polished by a charming gentleman as I sat on a vintage shoeshine stand and watched shoppers walk by. I know — it’s not exactly skydiving, but they were a few of my novel experiences. You can choose your own.
Make a to-do list.
In wonderful destinations like Rome, Paris, or London, it’s easy to make a long list of places you want to see. Sometimes, it’s just not possible to do everything, so you may need to prioritize to be practical. “Save something for the next time,” is what I always say.
If you’re a foodie whose “to-do” list involves restaurants, it’s advisable to make reservations well in advance, especially if you’re after Michelin-starred dining spots or those receiving lots of attention. Your list will also help you decide where and when to go based on location. In London, I combined a matinee at a West End theater with dinner at Sketch, a unique restaurant I wanted to experience.
Keep an eye on your cell phone’s battery.
I relied on GPS to guide me around London on my recent trip, and I strolled around with the confidence of a local — until that low battery warning appeared. After a day of taking photos, texting, and using Google Maps, I had just about drained my phone. Fortunately, it was time to hop into one of those adorable black cabs, have a chat with the driver, and return to my hotel.
Now, I charge up and carry a battery, knowing that a day of sightseeing is about all my phone can handle. When you want to call an Uber or find directions back to your hotel, you don’t want to be stuck with no phone service.
Let someone at home know your travel plans.
For your security and for peace of mind for the folks at home, let someone know your itinerary. You don’t have to compromise your independence, but it’s advisable to let a friend or relative know what you’re up to. I leave my husband with a printed copy of my itinerary for my trips, whether I’m on a group trip with other travel writers or traveling on my own. And, of course, I text or call every day, although I admit once in a while I’m having such a good time that I forget.
If your home will be empty while you’re traveling, hold off on posting Instagram photos that let the world know you’re out of town. Better to be safe and share your experiences when you get home.
Related: 15 Trips You Need to Take as Soon as You Retire
Be polite, but don’t be a pushover.
For your safety, always be aware of your surroundings and alert to what’s happening around you. If you’re uncomfortable in a place or with someone who approaches you, go with your instinct and get away. Sometimes travelers feel pressured to take a tour, go to a club, or accept a handout from someone on the street who then strikes up a conversation. If it doesn’t feel right, just move on. I know we don’t want to be rude or offend someone, but your personal safety is foremost, and you’ve had enough experience by this time to trust your gut.
And beware of pickpockets and scams.
AARP warns of the creative ways criminals take advantage of travelers. We’re distracted or perhaps overly trusting of strangers, so being prepared will help you avoid becoming a victim of theft.
On my first small group trip as a journalist, my wallet was stolen from my purse at a major tourist site in a European city. I won’t say exactly where because this can happen anywhere, even at your local shopping mall. I was unwise to carry my cash, credit cards, and wallet in a purse on my arm, but at least my passport was in the hotel safe at the time. Now I carry only what I need for the day in a secure crossbody bag or a hidden wallet which I use occasionally. Others prefer to use money belts for cash.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but it’s good advice. Before you travel overseas, obtain some of the local currency, including small denominations. You might encounter places that only accept cash, like a small shop or place where you just want coffee and a snack. Also, you’ll want to tip hotel staff who help with your bags or provide other services.
While you’re traveling to experience new places, it helps to know a bit about them before you go. I recently went to a small town in Italy — so small, in fact, that there were no taxis, no Uber, and no way to get to the nearby beach. Fortunately, the hotel found a driver to take us (and also fortunately, he came back to pick us up later). Naturally, that was a cash transaction, and I was glad to be prepared.
Consider buying travel insurance. Flight cancellations, baggage losses, accidents, and illnesses happen, and you’ll appreciate the comfort of knowing you’re covered.
As a confirmed carry-on traveler, I consider myself a pretty good packer, but sometimes that 22” suitcase can get very heavy. That’s my sign to edit — do I really need those dress shoes? Or all those cosmetics? Probably not. Boarding a train, bus, or plane at a small airport without jet bridges requires carrying our own bags, so I make sure they’re manageable. While I appreciate it when another passenger helps me heave my bag into the overhead bin, I don’t count on that happening. (And it’s not the flight attendant’s job.)
Also, I always limit myself to two items. Then there’s no problem boarding a crowded flight where they check how much you’re carrying. Just as important, it’s easier to keep track of two things so nothing gets left behind. I do often start out with a purse, but I make sure there’s enough space to cram it into my personal item.
With these preparations, suggestions, and warnings, you can now proceed to plan your solo trip — hopefully, the first of many.