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Singing the praises of solo travel

Growing up in rural central Illinois 10 miles from the nearest town, Lucinda Vriner had to hop on her bike, walk or “figure it out” if she wanted to get somewhere.

That spirit of adventure has never left her. Now 62, she calls on her ability to find her own way four months a year when she travels to remote corners of the world, usually by herself, carrying little more than a pack on her back. She’s traveled this way through most of Africa, Nepal, India, Vietnam and a host of other countries, one of a growing number of travelers who believe traveling solo is the best way to see the world.

Like Vriner, some leave at home a spouse who either can’t get away or doesn’t want to travel. But most travel solo because they no longer have a significant other due to divorce or death.
That’s what first set Evelyn Hannon on her solo travels around the world. When she found herself divorced at age 42, the Toronto native gave herself a challenge: Travel for five weeks.
“I cried for most of the five weeks,” she says, “but I survived.”

Today she’s a 71-year-old world traveler who has turned her passion into a business. Her website journeywoman.com offers tips and advice for other women who want to travel the world.

Start small
Her advice for someone who has never traveled solo and isn’t even sure she’s solo travel material? Take baby steps. Start with a two-day trip to a city where they speak your language and it’s relatively easy to get around.

“Do some shopping. Go to a movie by yourself,” Hannon says. “Test the waters to see how comfortable you are. If that feels OK, try a little more. Choose a country in Europe where they speak your language.” She likes the Netherlands, a small country that is easy to navigate and where it’s not a big deal to see a woman by herself.

Those who aren’t comfortable touring completely on their own can opt to join an organized tour. That’s how Pana, Ill., native Bob Cvengros travels now.

Cvengros, 76, is a retired school teacher who has been around the world solo eight times. He began traveling in his twenties. Back then, he says, he “would not have thought of taking a tour. Now at my age, I take tours because I need help. I don’t have any physical disability, but I want help carrying my luggage and things like that.”

However, he nearly always adds a week or two of solo travel after his tours end. This is often the way solo travelers like to do it, says Beth Whitman, author of “Wanderlust and Lipstick, the Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo.” She runs a business encouraging women to travel alone which, ironically, has turned into a business guiding tours for women who don’t want to travel by themselves.

“Here I write this book to encourage women to travel solo, and they ask me to lead a tour. That was not what I was trying to get across, but I heard them,” says Whitman, who leads tours to places such as Vietnam, Papua New Guinea and Santa Fe, N.M., which she calls “the starter tour.”

Often, women take her tours, learn it isn’t so hard to travel alone, and decide to stay on for several weeks to further explore an exotic locale.

Online connections
Like Hannon, Whitman tells people who think solo travel will be frightening or lonely to start small. For example, if you’re worried that you’ll feel lonely dining alone, head to the next town, where you don’t know anyone, and have a meal. Bring a book, magazine or journal if you’re afraid you’ll stick out.

For your first solo trip, visit a friend in another town and spend the days touring local sites alone, knowing you’ll have company later. Another option is to make contact with locals before you travel. Websites such as couchsurfing.com and tripping.com are free ways to connect with locals interesting in meeting visitors for a drink, dinner or tour.

Jen O’Neal, founder and CEO of tripping.com, says her site has users from 130 countries. The biggest groups are older adults and college students. She’s even started a special 50+ group to allow older adults to connect.

Safety first
Obviously, use common sense and heed travel experts’ standard warning to solo travelers: Before your trip, be sure to let family and friends know where you’ll be and how to reach you. If you’re headed to a far-flung destination, sign up with the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (formerly the Registration with Embassies program). Online registration is free and tells the embassy where you’ll be so they can notify you about dangerous conditions in the area you’ll be visiting. The embassy also may be able to help you more easily if you get into trouble.

Finally, Hannon recommends taking a test run before heading to the airport for your first solo trip. Pack your suitcase with everything you plan to take and then schlep the bag on a walk around town, up and down the stairs and over rough terrain.

“Then come home and unpack half.”

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