Whether by necessity or choice, a quarter of Americans take at least one vacation by themselves each year. Some solo travelers are single. Some have partners who dislike travel or have different interests or can't get away. Some just crave freedom.
But all face the same question: What's the best trip for the person traveling alone?
"The key is to know yourself," said Beth Whitman, author of a guide for women traveling alone and founder of Wanderlustandlipstick.com, a website devoted to advice and tours for women on the go. "There are times when you just need to get away, to recuperate. And then there are times when you want to be with a group.
"If you just had a breakup, you don't want to run off to Paris because everyone is kissing."
But unless you're a misanthrope, you'll probably want to socialize a bit. With that in mind, here are 10 vacation suggestions for solos. The ideas are gleaned from experts and based on my own experiences.
1. Special interest tours: Whether it's a cooking class in France, a camping trip in the Rocky Mountains or a gay cruise, you'll make friends faster when you have common interests and inclinations. These days, you'll find group tours for seemingly every niche. A good travel agent can point you to the right one.
To see what's out there, check the United States Tour Operators Assn. (www.ustoa.com), where you can call up operators by interest and trip type. The National Tour Assn. also offers a search at http://www.ntaonline.com/livelife. But beware of the single supplement, an often-hefty surcharge for solo travelers.
Another good source can be nonprofit groups, such as the Sierra Club and ski clubs, that organize trips for members.
2. Volunteer vacations: Do good, see new places and meet other humanitarians.
About two-thirds of volunteers with Habitat for Humanity International (www.habitat.org) sign up solo, said David Minich, its director of global volunteer engagement. The nonprofit, ecumenical Christian ministry, based in Georgia, builds affordable housing around the world.
Most Habitat trips, which cost about $100 to $150 a person a day, plus airfare, are priced for double occupancy, but trip leaders can match you with a roommate, Minich said. You usually work five days a week, with weekends free.
3. Bed-and-breakfast inns: Handy for socializing and getting travel tips.
"You're often forced to chat with one another because you're sitting around the same breakfast table," Whitman said. "You meet the proprietors and get the inside scoop on what's in the area."
4. Hostels: These budget lodgings, known for dorm-type accommodations, are not just for young people. You typically pay per-person rates (except for private rooms, which many hostels also offer), and you can meet travelers from around the globe.
Hostel life isn't for everyone. You'll likely share a bath whose cleanliness depends on your fellow guests. Some hostels aren't in the best or most convenient part of town.
Whitman thinks hostel folks are friendlier and that "the higher-end the hotel, the fewer people you're going to meet." From my own travels, I can vouch for that.
The nonprofit Hostelling International (www.hihostels.com), the best-known name in this field, lists thousands of places in scores of countries.
5. Rail trips: The beauty here is that you can keep to yourself, reading or staring at the scenery for hours, or socialize in a view car or dining car. Fares often match or beat airfares.
But Amtrak sleeping accommodations, priced per room, are not for the budget-minded; they can cost hundreds a night. I prefer day trips such as Amtrak's Coast Starlight, which departs Los Angeles in the morning and arrives in San Francisco (after a short bus connection) at night. Then you can stay a night or two in town and fly back.
6. Road Scholar tours: This program, formerly known as Elderhostel, changed its name in June but not its mission: learning vacations aimed at the 50-and-older set. Each year, it sends more than 100,000 travelers to more than 90 countries.
"This is a great way to get back into life after losing a partner through death or divorce," said Jim Moses, president of the nonprofit Boston-based company that runs Road Scholar. "It's very much like being on a college campus, from a social perspective."
Trips, which range from $500 to thousands of dollars, are priced for double occupancy, but Road Scholar offers roommate-matching, Moses said.
Activities can be as diverse as a historic walking tour of Boston, a lecture in Morocco on Islam or visiting Gandhi's home in India. Info: http://www.roadscholar.org.
7. Small towns: I find big cities exciting, but small places are often friendlier.
"In a city, people don't have the time and interest in meeting strangers," Whitman said. "In a small village, people are going to come to you because you're going to stand out and be interesting. The pace of life is slower."
On a Paris street, the French may stare past you with Gallic indifference. In a village, they may invite you to see their wine cellars.
8. English-speaking countries: "It's easier to travel where people speak English," Whitman said, then quickly added: "But it isn't any fun." Clearly, Whitman prefers adventure.
But I often get lonely on long trips if I can't conduct a real conversation. And for novice globe-trotters, speaking the language can be reassuring.
Beyond the obvious, such as Britain and Canada, consider New Zealand, Australia, the Bahamas and any other country where Britain has left its mark over the centuries.
9. Cruises: With a nearly around-the-clock menu of activities and hundreds or thousands of fellow passengers, you won't lack for things to do or people to meet on a typical cruise.
The downside: Most ships still price by double occupancy, although a few, such as the new Norwegian Epic and P&O Cruises' new Azura, offer solo cabins. Some singles travel companies, such as Singlescruise.com and Singlestravelintl.com, can help you find a cabin mate to avoid the single supplement.
10. Road trips: For the self-reliant, why not? Go full-throttle on your freedom by heading where you want and when you want. I have friends who swear this is the most satisfying way to go it alone.