Travelling solo after 40
If you've never done it before, it can be daunting to take your first solo trip in your 40s. But plenty of people are doing precisely that - the stereotypical image of the solo traveller may be the pre-university gap year student, but these days the biggest solo travel growth demographic is the over-35s.
We've spoken to four experienced solo travellers in their forties to find out what motivates them to travel the world solo, and get the lowdown on what to do and what not to do if it's your first time.
You're never too old for a gap year - or just to treat yourself to a break
Whether you've been travelling solo all your life and never plan to stop, or your thinking of trying solo travel for the first time.
If you've been travelling solo for twenty years or more you probably don't need our advice on how to do it (though if you have any tips we've missed, we'd love to hear them!). So we've rounded up the experiences and advice of the seasoned solo travellers we found, to make taking that first leap a little bit easier.
Experienced solo traveller #1 - David Edgar
David lives in Manchester and loves mountaineering. His trips tend to focus on the solitude and wild beauty of remote mountain regions, so lend themselves almost inevitably to solo travel. David is an adventurer with a very focused passion, so while he has sometimes travelled with friends and companions - for example he hiked to the Everest base camp in Nepal with two friends - he says he finds himself striking out off the beaten path on his own even when he takes other people along, so starting the whole trip that way is often simpler.
First solo trip:
"Straight after graduation, I spent a couple of weeks' mountain hiking in Norway. A few days in Oslo, then a bus to Jotunheimen and the hike along Besseggen Ridge (which according to local legend - Peer Gynt was chased along by a reindeer)."
Most recent solo trip:
"I just got back from two weeks in Sri Lanka. I started in Colombo, then took the famous Kandi to Ella train. One guided hike up Knuckles Range, and then unguided up Adam's Peak. Then finally up to Jaffna, which used to be out-of-bounds and is more remote with fewer tourists."
On the bucket list:
"Central America - Colombia and Nicaragua."
David exploring the mountains of South America
"A lot of my trips are focused around mountain hiking"
David's advice for solo travellers 40 and above
Decide what you want to do and how you want to spend your time. Really do you want a completely solo holiday or just a bit of peace and quiet on your own for part of the trip? Decide the parameters before you set out.
If you're set on a solo adventure, like mountaineering somewhere remote, do lots of research - pore over the maps, check the blogs, watch the videos to make sure you're going to be safe and see the things you came for. The perils of an adventure holiday aren't always obvious - sometimes it's the adventure itself but sometimes it's crime, sometimes disease, sometimes (says David, from clearly bitter experience) it's even leeches!
Be flexible about where you want to stay. If you're happy to spend nights roughing it in a tent or a hut you can do more adventurous things and stay longer for less money - but it's best to find out whether that's for you before you fork out for a whole fortnight under canvas somewhere far from home.
If you're willing to live like the locals - drink the local water, go without aircon - you can adventure in many of the remote corners of the world very cheaply indeed.
If you're curious about the Ella to Kandi train route David took in Sri Lanka, our video review team have tried it out too - see our take on this epic train journey below.
A roundup of our top tips for the nervous first-time over-40 solo traveller
- An organised trip will pretty much guarantee you a ready-made group of friends to see the sights with. Saga offers specialist solo trips for over-55s and Solo Traveller World are solo travel specialists
- Start small! If it's your first solo trip, you don't have to book a whole month trekking the steppes with just a yurt and a compass. Give yourself chance to try it out - you can start small with a European citybreak and see whether solo travel is really for you before you book that month in the jungle.
- Combine your trip with visiting friends or family. Drop in on some friends, stay a day or two, see their city, then head off on your own again for as long as you're comfortable with
- Or, invite friends and family to meet up along the way. If your heart is set on a month motorbiking down the length of South America but none of your mates share your passion, maybe one of them still fancies meeting up for a week exploring Santiago or lying on the beach at Cancun
- Follow your interests and hobbies! Don't just poke around a strange city - if it's your thing, go to Vegas for the poker, Vienna for the opera or Barcelona for the football and you'll make friends in no time
- Google Translate will translate menus and signs, and a couple of weeks on DuoLingo can give you a decent smattering of any language before you go
- Don't be scared to dine alone - if you're embarassed take a book or plan your trip.
- Be safe - always check out the Foreign Office advice on where to travel and pick somewhere you're comfortable matches your taste for adventure
- Check up on the safety and culture of the places you plan to visit and make sure you'll be comfortable on your own there
Experienced solo traveller #2 - Faye Courtney
Faye is a multilingual opera buff who works from home in Kent. She often travels with friends or family, but since she's normally travelling to see particular operas her travelling companions aren't always available when the show she wants to see is on, in which case she'll happily strike out on her own.
First solo trip
"My first big solo trip was to New Zealand in 2003 or thereabouts. A tour around all the Lord of the Rings film locations. My friends who share my passion either couldn't afford it or had kids and wanted to go in expensive peak season, so I realised if I was going to go I just had to get on with it."
"It's great to just go when it's convenient"
Most recent solo trip
"A bit more than a year ago, March 2018. I went to Vienna to see the opera, and watched Verdi's Macbeth and Handel's Ariodante. All in all, three operas in five days! It's lovely to have the flexibility on a trip to just do the things you enjoy, and not have to worry that the people you're travelling with might not want to sit through three shows in a week."
Faye enjoying the sights of Rome
On the bucket list
"South America and the holy land. But there are safety issues with both. When I travel on my own I put safety first, for example booking a hotel right next to the opera. That's less of an issue travelling with friends."
Faye's top tips for solo travellers over 40
There's no need to feel nervous.
A lot of the time you meet up with other people - on my first trip to New Zealand there were ten other women on the same tour and we made friends very quickly.
On one solo trip on the Orient Express the staff made a lot of effort to look after the solo travellers - they sat us together at dinner and made sure we were comfortable.
The tricky bit can be finding places to eat on your own you can feel comfortable - take a book or a laptop to dinner.
Top destinations for your first solo trip in your 40s
JapanJapan hits that sweet spot of properly exotic but very safe indeed. It's not a cheap country to visit, which may be why the gap-year backpackers tend to give it a miss, but for older professionals with the cash this is a great place for a first solo trip that combines the thrill of a very different culture with very little risk.
TallinnDifferent to home without posing any of the perils or uncertainty of travelling to the developing world. It's a compact enough city to walk around and it was part of the old Soviet Union, so if you're old enough to remember the Berlin Wall coming down you'll probably enjoy the museum to the KGB.
QueenstownNew Zealand is a great adventure destination. It's a long way to go, but as an English-speaking country with the same standard of living as you'd expect at home it's a good choice for your first big trip.
EthiopiaIf playing it safe doesn't float your boat even for your first time out, try Ethiopia. Most of the country is safe to visit if you take sensible precautions, and the Foreign Office has a handy map and guide to the regions that you should avoid. Ethiopia is beautiful, rich in ancient culture and boasts some of the most interesting cuisine on earth.
For more suggestions, see our guide to the best destinations for your first solo trip.
Experienced solo traveller #3 - Seamus McCauley
Seamus is a former travel writer and now editor of the Holiday Extras website. He used to live in the Malaysian rainforest and travelled from there all over South East Asia. These days he usually travels with his family - he took his 9-year-old twins to Brussels in December so they could see the Christmas market and eat waffles. But as his children grow up he's dipping his toe into solo travel again, making use of cheap off-peak deals to slip away for short breaks when the kids are off at cub camp or visiting family and friends.
First solo trip
"Thailand in 1999. I was supposed to be travelling with my wife to write up and photograph the old Thai capital Ayutthaya and we got separated at the border by passport issues (hers had run out and it took her a few days to bribe her way around the problem). I ended up in Bangkok on my own, which is a fascinating and vibrant city but possibly not the most forgiving place to find yourself unexpectedly travelling alone. The traffic, the noise, the touts, the endless offers of every imaginable vice - it's not a place for the fainthearted."
Most recent solo trip
"Japan, January 2019. I'd always wanted to pop in to Tokyo, go to Tsukiji fish market, eat the sushi and then fly home. Since this is clearly a ridiculous thing to do no-one would do it with me, so I went for a long weekend on my own, taking a daytrip to Mount Fuji and kicking around Tokyo for a couple of days, getting up at the crack of dawn to get the best of the fresh fish each morning."
Steps up to a shinto shrine overlooking Mount Fuji, Japan
On the bucket list
"Antarctica, while it's still there. Three weeks via Chile and ten grand if you don't splash out too much on a fancy cabin. That being the case, it's more of a long-term pipe dream than a plan at this stage."
What advice do you have for solo travellers?
If it's your first time out on your own, start with something simple. Start by checking you're happy with your own company in a foreign country. Don't commit weeks to a huge solo bucketlist adventure until you're sure you'll like it.
You can combine solo travel with visiting friends - drop in on some friends, stay a while, see their city, then head off on your own again. Or you can tack a few days of solo travel on to a work trip, which often means you're somewhere exotic but aren't spending extra money and carbon footprint to get there.
If you're on a longer solo trip, friends and family may be delighted to meet up along the way.
Some places are as safe as home for solo travellers. Some require more planning, support and frankly a dose of good luck. Find the right balance of adventure and security for you. You don't want to come back from holiday more stressed than you left.
Some places are safer at different times of year. In some places during the tourist peak season corrupt officials run a side-line in extorting bribes from foreigners and they love targeting solo travellers. Go off-peak and they'll be off running a different scam and likely to leave you alone. Lots of places have inconvenient or dangerous weather, fevers or unrest, but only for part of the year, so plan accordingly.
Don't splurge on hotel rooms - you're not going to be in them much. A capsule hotel in Tokyo is ideal - cheap, clean, secure and as much space as a person needs to sleep for the night.
Since you're free to do as you please when you travel solo, you may not need to plan every detail of your trip. A hotel for the first night or two might be enough, and after you've got the lie of the land you can either stay put if you like it or strike out and see where the road takes you.
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Experienced solo traveller #4 - Vicky Smith
Vicky is a sustainable travel entrepreneur, running the award-winning sustainable travel website Earth Changers. Vicky travels all over the world promoting sustainable and low-impact tourism, so often takes the opportunity to spend time in the places she visits for work. As she says, the longer you can spend in a place once you're there the more use you're making of the carbon it cost, so best to hang around and make the most of the places work takes you. Even when she travels for business Vicky likes to treat every trip as an adventure, a chance to immerse herself in the culture and meet new people - she'll stay in hostels, travel by bus and live like the locals to get a proper feel for the places she stays.
"Never be afraid to change your plans. When you travel solo you can do as you please, so take advantage of it."
First solo trip
Thailand, Indonesia and Australia in 1995. Bali has big water problems now, not least because of disposable plastic bottles dropped in its waterways by tourists so you should buy one of the reusable bottles that filters out microbes.
Most recent solo trip
Taking the train from Singapore to Malaysia. Then I went to southern Thailand to see how they've rebuilt since the tsunami. I normally travel on public transport and hostels to save money and just because I like it. In terms of responsible tourism you get a better feel for the country, a bus trip is less impactful. I travel overland as much as possible to reduce my carbon impact.
Tips for solo travellers
Female solo travellers are going to get sleazed on. If I'm sitting by myself in a restaurant guys will come and chat, so you need to be able to send them packing
Since I first started travelling solo in the mid 90s, the big difference is how much electrical kit people travel with. If you can minimise the wires you carry around you're on track to keep your luggage manageable
Have a backpack that's not top-loading - zips all the way round so you can pack and repack easily
Take shampoo bars and conditioner bars - no liquids so less impact, and you can carry them on the plane as hand luggage
You can book hostels online now, and find amazing places where you'll make more friends than in a chain hotel
Research national holidays and festivals, weather, clothing. Monsoons can close a place down. Ramadan or new year can close a place down.
Never be afraid to change your plans. When you travel solo you can do as you please, so take advantage of it.