Needing a spiritual cleansing, last summer 2017, David Peltzman set off on a seven-week journey to Lisbon, Budapest, Corfu, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Ho Chi Minh City, and points in between. In all, about a dozen exotic locales, purposefully planned as a solo mission.
"I just love traveling, and the trip was deeply spiritual, especially in Asia," said Petlzman, 57, from Roxborough. "It was about tourism and seeing other cultures, but also realizing the commonality among men."
A self-described "research guy," Peltzman prearranged most of his travel and hotel rooms before he left, not wanting to waste valuable trip time on planning. But he also allowed himself to deviate from the plan. "For example, the flight from Lisbon to Barcelona was $44 – so if I didn't take the flight, it didn't matter."
Peltzman immersed himself in local cultures by meeting people who would proudly show him around their city. "I'd sit at a bar and order a drink and offer one to the person next to me," he recalled. Hearing his American accent, a conversation would often begin and Peltzman would have his next guide.
Among many incredible experiences, one favorite happened in his hotel in Poland. Peeking inside a ballroom where a wedding was being held, he was quickly greeted by the groom. Despite Peltzman's wearing baggy, faded blue jeans, and a shirt with "10,000 miles," the groom offered him a drink and posed for a selfie with his bride and new American guest.
Peltzman is among a rapidly growing group of solo travelers, a trend started about five years ago, according to Intrepid Travel, an adventure group tour operator. "People are getting a lot more comfortable getting out and exploring the world by themselves," said Leigh Barnes, Intrepid's regional director for North America, based in Toronto.
Intrepid has seen a 40 percent increase in solo travelers over the past five years, with about half of their clientele traveling alone. "In the last 12 to 18 months, companies have started to alter their services to this market."
About a year ago, the company launched solo-only tours to Peru, Mexico, Bali, India, Vietnam, and Morocco, allowing people to choose their own destinations and schedules, but joining up with others looking for a similar experience. While their clientele includes people of all ages, 70 percent are female. "Traveling with a tour operator provides a safety net," Barnes said.
Five years ago, Liberty Travel in Center City helped one client traveling alone about every three months, said Ilyse Agi, team leader. Now, its three or four lone travelers every month, due in part to social media. "People see their friends' pictures and marketing from hotels, cruise lines and tour companies that encourage people to get out there," said Agi.
Pinterest saves for "solo travel" among women are up 500 percent from 2014, more than 250 percent in the past year alone, year over year from February 2017 to February 2018, said Larkin Brown, user researcher. "We are seeing a rise in saves in solo travel amongst women that includes everything from destination lists, travel quotes, and safety tips."
Diana Bauza traveled alone in 2015, backpacking for eight months in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. "I travel alone out of convenience and for the freedom," said Bauza, 27, from Collegeville, who worked for a travel agent in Lima, Peru, for a year after graduating college and then took time off. "I don't have to try to coordinate or see if someone else can get the time off, alter my budget or the way I travel. It can be very stressful when you and your travel companion have completely different ideas of what it means to travel."
Her four-month journey stretched into eight by "wwoofing" – a worldwide movement linking volunteers with organic farmers – and doing Workaway projects – working at hostels in Argentina and Chile and doing bioconstruction projects in Bolivia and Peru. By working for room and board, she kept her daily budget under $15.
"I never thought I'd get to harvest coffee beans or be on a farm with an 89-year-old and 90-year-old who spoke Aymara near Lake Titicaca, helping to put sheep out to pasture, collecting water – there was no running water – and harvesting potatoes, quinoa and, oats," Bauza said.
Recognizing that there was always a degree of risk, she carried a Peruvian cell phone and would text friends her whereabouts, and at times she'd travel for short stretches with people she met along the way.
Her drawbacks of traveling alone – no one to watch your bag while you check on transportation conditions or go to the bathroom or buy food, or your back when you get on the wrong bus or run out of money. But those inconveniences were worth it.
"Backpacking in South America was a bucket list item," she said. "I was tapping into these lifestyles I would not have encountered."
You don't need to wwoof or work to make traveling alone affordable. Room charges, once based on double occupancy, are now often reduced for single travelers. "They're still paying more than if there were two people in the room, but where it used to be double the per-person price, now it's maybe 50 percent more than the per-person price," said Judy Donato, travel consultant with Prestige Tours in King of Prussia.
Beyond costs, "people are becoming more comfortable traveling alone and there's no stigma attached to traveling by yourself anymore," she said.
Lone travelers must take safety precautions, Donato insisted, starting with having an international cell phone plan. "And leave your itinerary with someone back home and try to check in with them every day, even with a quick text."
Brianna Taylor spent four days alone in Naples, Italy, in 2013 when her traveling companion had to cancel at the last minute. While she enjoyed that experience, her preference is "hybrid style."
"I visit friends overseas, staying with them and using them as a home base, but then going off during the day to explore by myself," said Taylor, 33, from Society Hill.