When Going Alone Is a Tonic

In 1985, Diane Redfern sold most of her belongings, packed what was left in a carry-on suitcase and embarked on a trip around the world. "A midlife crisis," jokes the Vancouver, Canada, resident, now 59, by way of explanation. During the next year she visited Japan, China, Australia, Africa, Europe and other destinations. And more than once, people noticed that she was without a traveling companion.

Solo travel isn't the norm. In fact, travel agents will tell you that the big trend now is family travel and even multigenerational travel, with extended families reuniting to vacation together. But with one-person households in the U.S. having increased to 26% from 17% in the last three decades, according to the Census Bureau, and with many married or otherwise attached adults disagreeing with their mates on the ideal leisure destination, solo travel is claiming a least a small piece of the pie.

While the first solo trip is probably the most difficult, Redfern says traveling alone can be not only habit-forming but empowering, producing a new awareness of your capabilities. Mental health experts agree; they say that while there are downsides to solo travel, there definitely are benefits when it comes to relaxation, stress reduction and getting away from it all--that is, if you travel on your own for the right reasons.

"You might decide to take a solo vacation to rediscover who you are, what you like and what really matters in life," suggests Dr. Mark Goulston, a Los Angeles psychiatrist and author of "Six Secrets of a Lasting Relationship" (Putnam, 2001), which includes a discussion of maintaining a lasting relationship with oneself. That's a good reason to go it alone, he says, because it is psychologically healthy.

So is indulging unrealized desires to visit a specific place or engage in a specific activity, he says. Suppose you love camping and your husband is more of an all-inclusive-resort fan. Going solo on a camping trip might ward off resentment later, when you accompany him to a resort.

A not-so-good reason? If you're going on the solo trip strictly to avoid responsibilities or stress at home. Once you're home again, Goulston notes, the trip-induced relaxation is likely to evaporate quickly.

Even in the best of circumstances, the solo traveler may encounter disapproval from partners or other family members. "Don't expect the people in your family to be great fans of the idea," Goulston says. "And as the trip gets closer, you may find them [even] less enamored" of it. You can deflect some of this negative attitude, he says, by arranging for someone else to take over the chores you are normally responsible for, even hiring somebody to handle them if necessary.

If you begin to have second thoughts or fears, you have company. "Just about everyone who thinks about taking a solo vacation does have some trepidation," says Karen Shanor, a Washington, D.C., psychologist who specializes in travel issues and has traveled solo extensively, including a stint as a Peace Corps psychologist. Traveling solo is very much a challenge as well as an opportunity for growth, says Shanor. Some people are more likely to be good at it, she says. Those who are uncomfortable being home alone without television, music or phone conversations are likely to have more trouble traveling solo than are people who are content without these distractions.

What solo travelers probably fear most is loneliness, Shanor says. Some worry that they will have no one to talk to. Their fears are almost always groundless. "People you meet are so available and open to talking to you," she says solo travelers report to her. "Families will almost adopt you."

"Regardless of all the reports of rape, robbery and revolution, the world is still a wonderful place," Redfern notes.

Once solo travelers depart, most quickly start to discover the mental health and stress reduction benefits of going off on their own. "You don't have to stand there and vote on what you are going to do, as you do with a group," Shanor says. That's stress relieving in itself.

Traveling alone can provide a time of renewal, she adds. Think of it as taking yourself out for an adventure. An adventure, she reminds people, isn't always comfortable. But you almost always learn from it, and it generally makes for fascinating stories later on.

As for those quizzical looks and nosy questions that solo travelers are bound to get, Shanor says they shouldn't be taken as criticism. Rather, the idea of independent travel may be novel to the person who asks, "You're by yourself?" Chances are, the idea of going it alone also plays into the fears of those who question the solo traveler. They may not themselves be brave enough to do it. At least not yet.

Several Web sites include tips and encouragement for solo travelers. Among them are http://www.solodining.com, which just launched a section on solo travel; veteran flight attendant Sharon Wingler's http://www.TravelAloneAndLoveIt.com; and http://www.cstn.org, the Connecting ... Solo Travel Network. The latter site, which Redfern maintains, is "a not-for-profit, international organization of individuals interested in sharing going-solo tips, news about single-friendly trips, and in promoting hospitality and goodwill among solo travelers everywhere."

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The Healthy Traveler appears twice a month. Kathleen Doheny can be reached at kdoheny@compuserve.com.

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