For many women, sharing sights and experiences with another person is part of what makes travel wonderful. But some of the same women who love to venture off in a group or with a companion often feel the urge to travel alone. Others do it of necessity, and a few travel alone by choice.
Most women who have toyed with the idea say the fear of loneliness restrains them. Where is the joy, they wonder, in seeing the Taj Mahal by moonlight if you're alone, rambling solo through the English Lake District or eating in a fancy Parisian restaurant at a table for one? Travel can be isolating, especially in countries where you don't speak the language. So why intensify the problem by going alone?
The answer is that you meet more people when you're on your own because there's something a little unapproachable about couples and groups. Then, too, solo travelers are free to do as they like, without having to maneuver around the wishes and feelings of a companion.
But as an almost constant solo traveler, I have found that solitude is a benefit in itself. Antonia Neubauer, director of Myths and Mountains, a tour company based in Incline Village, Nev., notes that being alone and being lonely are different. She recalls waiting out a 36-hour snowstorm on a trek in Nepal with a group of couples, each in their own tent. While the storm raged and thunder cracked, she was alone in hers, but not lonely or scared. She says she often feels most creative when she's traveling by herself.
In "Solitude: A Return to the Self" (Ballantine Books, $11), author Anthony Storr, a professor of psychiatry at Oxford, suggests that the ability to be alone is linked with self-discovery, which jibes with something that poet and author May Sarton once wrote: "Alone we can afford to be wholly whatever we are and to feel whatever we feel absolutely."
For me, this is the chief attraction of solo travel. I don't know why, but on the road alone I can really hear my own voice.
This doesn't mean I don't get lonely. Like everyone, I miss my loved ones and my home, especially on long, difficult trips. Evelyn Hannon, editor of journeywoman.com, an Internet travel site for women, says: "I expect to be lonely at some point. I know it's going to happen. But I also know it's going to pass."
For many, loneliness strikes most sharply in romantic places like Paris, where the whole world seems to be part of a couple, murmuring in candle-lighted restaurants or walking hand in hand along the Seine. I'm not fond of Paris for precisely this reason. A woman friend who hasn't let the fact that she travels alone deter her says that when the pervasive romance of Paris starts to get to her, she asks herself, "Wouldn't I rather be lonely in the City of Light than at home in New Jersey?"
I also know that single men often find something attractive about women who travel alone. And I sometimes wonder what all those happy-looking couples are murmuring about. In "The Other Wife," a short story by Colette, a couple enter a restaurant where they notice the man's ex-wife, seated by herself. They don't approach her, but her presence makes itself felt as the man explains that she was impossible to satisfy. "You have to feel sorry for people who are never satisfied," he finally says. "But we're satisfied. Aren't we, darling?" The question hangs in the air as his new wife steals an envious glance at the ex.
I often remember this story when I'm alone at a restaurant. Of course, it isn't enough to staunch loneliness when it comes in full force. But there are things you can do to keep it from spoiling a trip:
* Marybeth Bond, a travel expert for iVillage.com and editor of "Travelers' Tales: A Woman's World" (Travelers' Tales, $17.95), says that when she starts to feel lonely and low, it's often because she hasn't been taking care of herself. She hasn't eaten or she's had too much caffeine. Staying well fed, fit and rested is the most basic way to keep loneliness, depression and sickness at bay.
* My friend Penny Kaganoff says, "You're never really alone if you have a good book." So she finds a bench in London's St. James's Park or the Place des Vosges in Paris, where she enjoys the excellent companionship of Jane Austen or Simone de Beauvoir. If you choose the right book, say Rudyard Kipling's "Kim" on a train in India or "Quo Vadis?" by Henryk Sienkiewicz on Rome's Spanish Steps, your travel experience is enriched.
* Pamper yourself in little ways, says editor Hannon, by having a manicure or a massage, or eating chocolate. When I start to feel out of sorts, I buy fresh flowers for my room, or dress up and have a drink at some ritzy hotel bar.
Or do it in a big way. Marilyn Mason, a psychologist and author of "Seven Mountains: Life Lessons From a Climber's Journal" (Plume, $11.95), suggests upgrading yourself to first or business class on a plane, having a glass of wine and letting yourself be waited on.
* Don't let loneliness stop you. Push on. Make a list of things you want to do, then get to it. Pretty soon all you'll be thinking about is whether you can fit in a visit to Westminster by sunset or how to make it back to your hotel room with all your shopping bags.
* Keeping in touch with loved ones also is important, though many women who travel alone advise against calling home when you're feeling lonely because it makes matters worse. I do call home whenever I need to, write postcards or stop at an Internet cafe to send and check for messages. I also give my family a detailed itinerary before I leave home, with phone and fax numbers for the places I'm staying. So sometimes when I get back to my hotel, there's a fax from my sister, which reminds me that, wherever I am, I'm never really alone.