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Going Solo

Women Find Fun, Flexibility and Freedom


"Wow! That's incredible, it really does lean!" exclaimed Jamie McNeil as she gazed in awe at the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

She suddenly became aware of the puzzled looks of other nearby tourists at the Italian landmark.

"I had said it to no one in particular; in fact, I wasn't fully aware I was speaking out loud," she said.

And that's one downside of traveling alone: You have no one to share the wonder with.

But topping the positive aspects of solo travel is the fact that "you can do what you want, go where you want, whenever you want, without having to consider the wishes of anyone else," McNeil said.

McNeil, a veterinarian's assistant who lives in Bethlehem, Pa., toured Italy alone "by accident" a dozen years ago when her traveling companion backed out shortly before the scheduled departure date. It was such a good experience, she went back--this time deliberately alone.

Thalia Zepatos, author of "A Journey of One's Own" (Eighth Mountain Press, $16.95, 348 pp.), a book of advice for independent woman travelers, agrees that flexibility is one of the chief advantages of solo travel: "An unexpected festival, an extra seat on an excursion boat offered at half price, a town so exciting you decide to hop off the train and explore it: You'll enjoy being able to change your plans without discussion.

"As a solo traveler, you have the flexibility to join other travelers who are going your way. As long as your interests and plans converge, you travel together. When your spirit leads you in different directions, it's easy to say goodbye."

That was McNeil's experience. Among the folks she traveled with were two young Australian women "who were really naive. I ended up shepherding them around for a couple of days."

Through her chance meeting with a journalist while traveling in Germany in 1992, Liz Sarachek, an international sales representative for Dow Jones & Co. who recently moved from New York to London, became an observer of the war in Croatia.

"The journalist, who was Croatian, invited me to accompany her," Sarachek explained. "I called the American Embassy and asked if I could go. They said I could, although they didn't recommend it.

"So we took a 15-hour bus ride to Split and transferred to another rinky-dink bus for the ride to the journalist's family home.

"I was the only American tourist around, with United Nations health relief people, U.N. military people, and medical personnel. Unfortunately, I got terrible bronchitis there, but was treated by my journalist friend's aunt. After about a week though, I realized it wasn't a safe place and decided to leave."

Concern for personal safety is undoubtedly the biggest deterrent to women who think about traveling alone to exotic locales. Zepatos confirms that a woman can find herself in some tricky situations:

"Remember that a woman traveling alone is already operating outside the boundaries of normal behavior in many cultures, so observe what's going on and adopt the culturally accepted behavior, especially when it comes to interaction between women and men.

"Just looking a man directly in the eyes is considered a sexual invitation in some conservative countries. Whether from fantasy, personal experience or as a result of stories they've heard, some men view single female tourists as willing and adventurous sex partners. Their implicit assumption is that women travel alone to look for sex."

McNeil said it helps not to "look like a tourist."

She left her blue jeans and sneakers--the Americans' uniform--at home and donned khaki pants, walking boots and layers of sweaters in order to take on the guise of "an itinerant student." She also advised women to "travel light. If you need it, buy it."

Sarachek also swears by khakis and neutral attire. "No bright colors or designer clothing," she said, "and no valuable jewelry. I had a Swatch watch, small unobtrusive earrings and one ring.

Some travel agents suggest that women travelers, particularly those inexperienced in independent travel, might feel more secure in an escorted group with similar interests.

Carol Voorhees, director of physician recruiting at Lehigh Valley Hospital, Salisbury Township, near Allentown, Pa., pointed out that "you have to like being alone before you can travel alone." Her travels have taken her to Italy, Japan, Egypt and shortly she'll go to China. She's learned that some places, such as Bermuda, offer little for a woman on her own. "I like to walk," she said, "and the lone road around the island was treacherous because of all the mopeds on it."

Voorhees advises solo travelers to stay in cities "because it's easier to get around, and you don't need to take a taxi or bus everywhere." McNeil relied exclusively on trains and buses. She said that because European trains run "like clockwork," there was never any need to consider other transportation: "Just show up at the station and guaranteed, the train will be there for you."

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