One Woman, 39 Countries: The Free-Wheeling Adventures of a Solo Traveller
For Charlie Elliott a chance stopover in Hong Kong in 2014 was the beginning of a love affair with seeing the world on her own terms…
“I love the freedom of solo travel. It’s when you realise it’s not just capital cities you can see, it’s all of those little places that you never think of going to in a group. You don’t have to ask anyone else’s permission.”
For writer Charlie Elliott, solo travel wasn’t so much a choice as a chance discovery. In March 2014, she found herself on a stopover in Hong Kong while returning from a work trip. “It was the first time I’d been in Asia. Seeing the temples and huge buildings, all the crowds and the food – I fell in love with it. I remember texting my mum and saying, ‘I have to see all of the world now.’”
Thirty-nine countries (and counting) later, Charlie’s adventures have taken her as far south as Queenstown, she has hiked up glaciers and she has even taken a day trip to the North Korean border – all on her own. And even now she’s engaged to her partner of nearly three years, she has no plans to stop. “My fiancé is originally from New Zealand and he moved to the UK on his own, so he knows the excitement of solo travel,” she explains. “My opening line to him was that I’d just booked a trip to Japan, so he knew from the beginning that it’s very much a part of who I am.”
For Charlie, the idea that just because you have a partner, you have to travel everywhere with them seems outdated. “How you have fun, how you find enjoyment in the everyday and how you feel fulfilled in life doesn’t have to revolve around another person. I’m somebody who relishes alone time and the challenge of achieving things by myself. Do what makes you happy.”
Seemingly, she is not alone in this, as it’s been reported that an increasing number of women are looking to explore the world on their own. Solo travel is on the rise, with ABTA figures showing one in six people holiday alone each year, citing the opportunity to do whatever they want as the main reason.
Charlie began her adventures with a four-month tour, taking in Malaysia, Singapore, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, but since then she’s tended to take shorter, more frequent trips.
While countries in South America and Africa are on her hit list, exploring more of Europe is her priority right now. “I think a common misconception around solo travel is that you have to go for months – actually, it can just be a weekend in Edinburgh. You’re still on your own, you’re still somewhere unfamiliar, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.”
“If you’re nervous to do a big solo trip, then just get the Eurostar to Paris for a day – see how that feels. I did that, a couple of weeks ago. I met up with a friend there in the morning, then had the rest of the day on my own. I walked around, I drank red wine, I sat by the river – it was really nice.”
Solo travel can be daunting so Charlie – who is on a one woman mission to encourage other women to give it a go – suggests starting by heading somewhere where you know at least one person. “They can show you their local haunts and they’ll know the rules and laws,” she says. “Also, you don’t have to go out and get drunk. If you want to go home at 9pm and watch Netflix in your hotel room, that’s fine.”
“I’ve generally felt safe travelling. South Africa’s the only place where I haven’t freely walked around with my camera or my phone out. [My friend and I] had a couple of instances where people would come up to the car or block us in with other cars – there was a lot of screaming and ‘oh my God’-ing. But it’s the same as anywhere: have your wits about you, don’t let your guard down, and don’t go anywhere where you have a bad gut feeling. I wouldn’t use it as an excuse not to go back, because it’s a beautiful country.”
If you’re itching to jump on a plane yourself, heed Charlie’s tips first. “If you’re going to a different time zone, book a tour for the first day after you get there. Having to be up and ready will get you over jet lag. Driving routes are a great way to explore countries, especially if you don’t like to plan too much – just stop off along the way. Take a thin scarf – it’ll cover your shoulders in temples, shield you from the sun and you can wrap it around your pillow if your hostel is dodgier than you expected. Get travel insurance. And finally, just check in with your family every now and again.”
But the ultimate lesson Charlie has taken from her travels is a more personal one. “I’ve learnt that I don’t have to rely on other people and that I really like hanging out with myself,” she says.
“That’s given me so much more confidence to know that I can go to the other side of the world, meet like-minded people and have a good time. I feel it really makes me who I am now.”
Follow Charlie’s solo travel adventures on her blog and on Instagram @charliedistracted