Flying Solo: The women who are breaking down barriers through travel

Perse Klopp, a junior double major in film and art history, stands on the beach in Spain taking a break along the Camino de Santiago (Photo courtesy of Perse Klopp).

Women find that solo travel brings them freedom, confidence and independence. 

Society warns them that solo travel could lead to kidnapping, assault or death. 

Young women are often told horror stories about what will happen to them if they travel alone, but solo female travel has been on the rise as more women are becoming comfortable enough to take trips for leisure by themselves. 

“Going somewhere on my own is a very different approach, but it’s not a bad approach,” said Autumn Johnson, a senior film major and Heidelberg International Programs ambassador. “I feel like it is time well spent and if I keep waiting for someone else to go with me, I’ll never go see these places.”

Students said the feeling of freedom that comes with traveling outweighs the potential problems they might face traveling alone. 

Why women travel alone

The decision to travel alone varies from person to person but for three Pepperdine students, the underlying reasons were focused on freedom, independence, determination and self-growth.

The discomfort of traveling alone is enticing to some. 

 “I like facing fears as head-on as I can,” Johnson said. “So I think the part of feeling uncomfortable made me want to do it.”

Johnson traveled alone to Copenhagen, Denmark, Zermatt, Switzerland, and London, England, during her time abroad.

Johnson is not the only one who sees a benefit to being outside of her comfort zone. Perse Klopp, a junior film and art history major, said she believes that growth comes from navigating uncomfortable situations. Klopp backpacked alone in the United States, but the majority of her travel abroad was weekend trips in Germany.  Her biggest solo trip was hiking the Camino de Santiago through Spain.

“The whole point is to be uncomfortable,” Klopp said. “It’s an automatic feeling that comes with growth and development as a person and experiencing new and different things.”

Junior communication major Morgan Purdy took her most extensive solo trip during the COVID-19 pandemic. She traveled alone in the Netherlands, Austria, and more extensively in the United States.

The one-year anniversary of her father’s death prompted a road trip through more than 20 states during Pepperdine’s January 2021 term. For Purdy, this journey was partly about self-exploration, but also about reconnecting with her father through nature. 

“It marked the year of my dad’s passing and I just felt like I just needed time to decompress and figure out my thoughts,” Purdy said. “Traveling was always something my dad and I connected over, as well as nature. So I went and visited the national parks in those states kind of to honor my dad but figure things out for myself.” 

Purdy said she couldn’t imagine her life now without the road trip. It gave her insight about herself as a person while also enabling her to reconnect with her late father.

She said when she went to Utah she felt so in touch with her dad because of how beautiful the national parks were there.

Potential problems/experiences

There are many potential problems anyone could be presented with when traveling solo. 

A Pepp Post survey of 50 students found that 90% have traveled alone. Most respondents were female, only 11 male, but there were no gender differences noted in willingness to travel alone.

 Those who have not traveled alone or would not travel alone again, it was primarily because of safety and loneliness concerns. 

Students who have traveled alone primarily do so to visit friends and family or to take vacations. 

During her walk along the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain, Klopp stayed in a hostel along the way where they focused on a plant-based lifestyle. Upon her arrival, they took her phone and tried to keep her passport. The staff also made her change out of the clothes she was wearing and into the clothes they provided her with. She said it was a very scary experience and she was glad she left when she did. 

Klopp also recounted a time where she almost eloped. Along the Camino de Santiago, she met a man, who lived in France. They walked together for a while before he suggested they elope and she live with him in France. Klopp agreed and then walked to France from Spain (over the Pyrenees). But after a short time of living with him in France, her fiancé ditched her because her French-speaking abilities were not up to par. 

How to stay safe

With so many dangers and possible risks, there are many different ways women can make themselves feel safer and more at ease during their travels.

Elizabeth Whatley, the director of Pepperdine’s Florence International Program, said she believes that as long as women trust their intuition and do not put themselves in compromising situations, they should be fine. 

“I, myself, personally am a single woman and have traveled around the world by myself and have never felt in any danger,” Whatley said. “I also think it goes back to being wise.”

To Whatley, being wise includes three golden rules: don’t drink, don’t do drugs, and always keep one’s phone on one’s person, charged and with service.

All three student voices in the story who travel alone said they research cities beforehand and try and trust their intuition as much as possible. 

Johnson said she chose to stay in hostels because they felt safer. This is due to the number of women who stay in hostels. To Johnson, they create an environment that is accommodating to solo travelers.

Johnson also said she didn’t put herself in “at-risk situations.” This meant she didn’t drink and didn’t stay out too late when she was by herself.

Students also said they let others know where they are as an important safety measure. Before her big road trip, Purdy downloaded an app called Roadtripper. This app allowed other people, like her friends and family, to see her location and stopping points at all times. 

Teagan Cunniffe, a marketing coordinator at the Solo Female Traveler Network, said companies like hers are working to keep women safe during their trips. 

The Solo Female Traveler Network has been working to make solo female travel more accessible to women by offering group trips and tips for travelers. They also work to help the local women in the areas they visit, preferring to use and recommend female-owned businesses for tours and accommodations. 

“At its core, we are a community that provides support to women traveling,” Cunniffe said. “If you are struggling on the road, if you need advice, if you are feeling lonely, or if you just want to reach out and connect, then our Facebook platform has been a fantastic way to do so.” 

This platform enables women who travel by themselves to have the safety of a group, without having to worry about finding people to go with.

 “Fostering the environment of all ages and all types of people,” Cunniffe said. “We advocate for people to commit and to share stories and learn with each other through travel.”

Pros and cons of group travel 

As enticing as solo travel is, lots of women find traveling in a group safer, less lonely and just as exciting. 

 Junior biology major Maeve Mueller chooses to travel with friends instead of going by herself. She said it provides a more comfortable environment where she can form stronger connections with her peers and friends.

Mueller also loves group travel for the safety aspects like the buddy system. Mueller called the buddy system “a beautiful thing” because it pairs people up with someone else and makes each responsible for the other in order to minimize risk.

Just because someone prefers to travel in groups or alone does not mean they cannot see the value in the alternative. There are moments when solo travelers like to travel with others.

“It goes in phases to some extent,” Klopp said. “I think there are certain times when we crave more sociability and we crave constant stimulation from those around us, whether we like them or not. And then I think there are periods that we go through where we feel more introspective and want more isolation.”

Johnson said shared experiences are a special part of traveling in a group. Although she prefers to travel by herself, she doesn’t mind going with other people and occasionally, she likes group travel more.

“It has definitely made me appreciate being with people more because I always thought I was really comfortable on my own, which I am, but I like having the shared experience,” Johnson said.

Mary Rockelman completed the reporting for this story in Jour 241 under the supervision of Dr. Christina Littlefield and Dr. Theresa de los Santos. Dr. Littlefield supervised the web version of the story.