Today, more older Americans are traveling solo — and that doesn’t mean they’re looking for a mate. Solo travelers say they love their own company, want to make their own itineraries and prefer to travel at their own pace. Traveling alone also makes it more likely that you’ll interact with the locals.
Still, for many women especially, the thought of venturing out all alone can be intimidating. We worry we’ll feel lonely or unsafe. We dread sitting by ourselves at a café or restaurant.
It doesn’t have to feel that way.
We’ve come up with interesting international choices for solo travelers who want the option to connect with others — or even to be a part of something bigger. They’re not beach vacations; they are adventures.
“That 2-week package tour of Peru would cost far more than you are paying to spend two weeks making some toddlers’ lives happy in a Peruvian orphanage. And what you bring home from your volunteer experience is priceless.” Global volunteer Dorothy Conlon.
Merging overseas travel with volunteer service, voluntourism is a way to learn while you’re traveling, immerse yourself in another culture and give back in a tangible, significant way.
The opportunities to help are endless. You could provide care for orphaned children, teach English, build schools or assist in field research on coral reefs or among nesting sea turtles. Whichever you choose, you’ll be part of a specific project, allowing for both together time and opportunities to go it alone.
Because you’re older, you’ll probably find that the skills and patience you’ve developed will prove extremely useful all over the globe. And many voluntourists create lasting friendships with fellow project volunteers and the locals they serve.
How long? Trips can last anywhere from a few days to months.
How much? As a voluntourist, you pay your own expenses, including a built-in donation to the project. If the voluntourism organization is a nonprofit, your costs — including airfare — may be deductible. Costs vary, depending on destination and trip length. Program fees in Peru or Costa Rica through the Global Volunteer Network: $250 application fee; $495 per week up to the first four weeks, then $200 per week. This includes housing, meals, airport transfers, supervision, training and coordination. Flights, travel insurance, Visa (if required) are not included.
Single supplement? Varies, but in most cases there is no single supplement. (Some organizations pair single travelers with other singles in a double room.)
We recommend picking an organization that is member of VolunteerInternational.org. Among them:
A Cross-Cultural Solutions volunteer describes her experience:
“New friends and fresh knowledge: that’s what the hostel experience for an older independent traveler is really all about.” Bill Hrick
When you think of hostels, you probably think of students backpacking around and sleeping in dorms. But after the summer, when students are back in school, hostels become a low-cost and community-centric alternative to hotels for seniors. Many offer single rooms, and the global locations and variety of accommodations, from remote country cottages to historic castles and downtown buildings, means there’s something for everyone.
Hostels emphasize the communal. While some ask visitors to pitch in with cleaning help, making for an all-in-it-together atmosphere, the global chain Hostelling International has abandoned that practice. But HI hostels do offer communal kitchens, and most have TV lounges, bars and cafes for leisure time. Others offer themed activities, such as environmental study, local cultural tours, special events and performances. And most hostels offer a range of accommodations — you can choose from a mixed or single-sex dorms and private rooms (in this case, you pay less for single occupancy, not more).
A few “cons” to consider: possible nighttime noise from the common areas or dorm rooms, even though there are quiet hours, and strict curfews — don’t be late getting back in the evening, because they really do lock the doors!
How long? Book one night or up to several weeks at a time.
How much? Varies depending on destination and length of stay. With Hostelling International USA, senior membership for ages 55+ is $18 annually. Rates for hostels in the HI chain or independents start from $17 + tax per night for a dorm room with 8 to10 people, to up to $99 + tax for a single room per night, which includes breakfast.
Single supplement? Not in a single or bunk room!
3. Hosted Accommodations
“Couch surfing has enabled me to meet some amazing people and have experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’ve sailed with a host who is a skipper in La Rochelle, France and stayed in a hamlet in the Welsh countryside.” Stephen Bugno
Through so-called sharing economy’s “hotel alternatives,” Airbnb and Couchsurfing, you get to enjoy the advantages of travel solo without being so alone. Both options involve staying in someone’s home, and not only are seniors the fastest growing group of hosts — they also, according to a recent report, tend to be the most welcoming and friendly.
Couchsurfing International is a global network of people who offer a spare room or just a sofa for free to travelers as a way to connect with people from around the world. AirBnB is also worldwide (including, most recently, Cuba) and hosts charge per night. Both services require hosts and travelers to fill out detailed profiles that offer a sense of who they are and their lifestyle. Traveler and host review one another, too. Some hosts make a point of saying that they’ll leave you alone, so if you’re looking for company, read the profiles and reviews carefully.
How long? Couchsurfing has no minimum or maximum stay, but you are taking advantage of someone’s hospitality; on AirBnB, some hosts stipulate a minimum of two or three days, and prior bookings by other travelers might limit the length of time you can stay.
How much? Couchsurfing is free. AirBnB is cheaper than most hotels. The 300-plus options listed for Vancouver, Canada range from $20 to $157 per night, with an average rate of $99.
Single supplement? AirBnB hosts generally charge the same for one or two people — but if you’re alone you don’t get to share the cost of the room.
4. Special Interest Tours and Cruises
“I’m dancing on the top deck with a 71-year-old feminist and psychotherapist whom I’ve come to think of as the Twirler. We’ve spent two days attending seminars on The Nation magazine’s Alaska cruise…. Now, at almost midnight, my fiercely intelligent and opinionated new friend Charlotte is putting all the heady political talk behind her by bodily twirling.” Henry Alford
Have a hobby or interest you’d like to indulge in while traveling? Find a niche tour or cruise by entering “[your hobby or interest] + tours or cruises” into your Google search bar and surf the options.
These groups are usually small. Tours typically limit capacity to between 10 and 24 people, and cruises are on smaller passenger or expedition ships or might be a sub-group on a larger cruise ship.
A niche cruise could be the perfect travel solution for a first time solo traveler. You book a private cabin but have a community of people who share your interest right outside your stateroom door. You control the mix.
You can find niche tours geared for seniors only (Road Scholar — formerly Elderhostel) and LGBT travelers (Brand g Vacations). Some options include tours for theater lovers and literary tours to Italy or Paris that explore where a favorite author lived and wrote. You can find non-traditional cruises online for interests such as motorcycles, reggae, history, wine, Big Band and even craft beer.
How long? Varies depending upon trip, but most are 7 days minimum and some are as long as 2 to 3 weeks.
How much? Varies based on destination and length of trip.
Single supplement? Tour operators and cruise ships have drastically reduced or altogether eliminated single supplement charges, but be sure to read the fine print before booking. Some will pair you with a roommate — a chance to make a new friend (if you’re lucky).
Which if any of our options appeal to you? Share your thoughts — or your tips — in the comments section below.