I Have Perfected the Art of the Solo Beach Vacation, And These Are My Secrets
Where do I stay? How do I make friends? And who will help me with sunscreen?
I don’t have to tell you the solo-travel trend is exploding. A quarter of Americans have done it and nearly half would like to do it more in the future, per a Travelex Insurance survey; 40 percent of people said they would feel comfortable taking a solo trip abroad, and 55 percent agree it’s more acceptable to travel solo now than it was a decade ago, per a report from Intrepid Travel. Google Trends shows that searches for “solo travel” have doubled since 2014. (The craze has even given us the horrifying term “mobilemoon,” for traveling with your phone instead of a friend, sad emoji/sad human heart.)
Here’s what’s changing: While solo travel once meant hostel-hopping in Southeast Asia or backpacking in South America or riding trains around Europe, it’s finally making the leap to — drumroll, please — warm, beachy bliss. Tropical getaways are number two on Americans’ wish list for solo destinations, according to an Expedia survey, above eating their way through a culinary region or visiting a spot specifically to attend a sporting event or music festival. (The most popular solo trip is the “weekend break,” either in a city or in the wilderness, which might say more about our lousy PTO policies than travelers’ preferences, to be honest.)
And I, for one, stan the trend. Much like Snake Plissken, I’m always eager to escape from New York, and as a single millennial who earns a living writing thrillers (and who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder year after freaking year), I’ve had the flexibility and the Vitamin D deficiency to seek out some sun. I’ve taken up just one sunbed at a romantic adults-only resort in Fiji, at the sprawling Grand Naniloa Hotel in Hilo, Hawaii, at the luxe and beachy Grand Fiesta Coral Beach in Cancun, and more. Filling a backpack and your days with ~sightseeing~ and ~activities~ and ~exploring~ is fun and all, but if you really want to slow down and have a moment with yourself, the tropics are the best spot to do it — without all the logistical headaches that make solo travel intimidating.
That said: While you don’t have to think about train schedules and timed entry tickets (your itinerary can literally just say “hang out at beach/eat delicious food when hungry” every single day), there are a few unique concerns that come up when you’re a beach bum, party of one. Here, my best tips for planning the beach vacation of your dreams this winter — and never once regretting that you didn’t bring a buddy.
Where should I go?
Not Dying should be high on your priority list when choosing a place. There are scary stories coming out of a number of our nearest tropical neighbors, with Americans caught up in gang violence and bizarre attacks in parts of Mexico and the Caribbean. You can check the U.S. Department of State’s list of safety levels by country. Treat it with a grain of salt, though. The list puts the Mexican state of Guerrero at Level 4 — Do Not Travel, same as Afghanistan or Iraq — and I spent a lovely week there, watching the waves crash into rocky cliffs from the five-star Banyan Tree Mayakoba Resort. (And as an owner of ovaries, I think about my personal safety 8-10 times more frequently than a guy might, on average.)
I think it comes down to your travel goals: Will you spend all daylight hours sipping tropical drinks from a lounge chair, reluctantly heading indoors when the sun sets to shower and shamble over to an on-property dinner? Then you’re probably good to seek out any resort with great ratings, tons of amenities, and traveler reviews mentioning how safe and well-cared-for they felt. (While I love a boutique, independently owned resort, international chains tend to care more about keeping Americans safe and responding swiftly to concerns.) If your vacation style involves wandering through the downtown, exploring remote beaches and checking out the local bar scene at night, stick with super-safe, well-trod territory.
And where should I stay?
To Airbnb or not to Airbnb — it’s even more complex than Hamlet’s dilemma. I tend to favor resorts and hotels over private homes found on VRBO and similar; I like having an English speaker at the front desk who can answer my questions and help me map out a jaunt around town. (Again, [points to self] ovaries.)
If you prefer to blend in with the locals, though, renting a private home (or a room in one) is the way to go. Bear in mind that while Airbnb offers every type of bed under the sun (from a legit boutique hotel room to a cot in an illegal basement bedroom via an enterprising renter), HomeAway only lists actual vacation homes — cabins, villas, beach houses and pied-a-terres listed by their actual owners.
I check TripIt’s Neighborhood Safety Scores to get a sense of what area might be best for me. There are categories like LGBTQ safety, theft and political freedoms, and they’ve helped me find neighborhoods that are appropriately boho but still super safe (yes, I’m one of those insufferable millennials who seeks out the Brooklyn in every city I visit).
Check reviews for mentions of a host or owner who’s friendly, helpful and accessible, and be sure to shake their hand (or at least give them a quick call) when you check in. Even if you don’t want a guided tour of the bungalow, when you’re on your own, it’s smart to have a local in your phone whom you can call in a jam.
How do I make friends in a town or on a resort that isn’t rife with solo travelers?
It can feel kinda strange being alone at a tropical paradise surrounded by families or couples (compared to a backpacker magnet like Thailand where out-of-towners chat with everyone at hostel bars). But there are plenty of ways to get your social needs met. Excursions, classes and tours are an easy way to meet fellow visitors — Airbnb has local-led “experiences” you can book even if you’re lodging elsewhere. At romantic beachside resorts, I’ve always found couples surprisingly eager to chat at the outdoor bar. (In Fiji, several duos celebrating anniversaries and vow renewals invited me to eat dinner with them “since we’re sick of each other anyway.”)
Of course, there’s always the classic social-media plea: “Hey, anyone have any friends in Honolulu/Costa Rica/Saint-Tropez who’d want to hang?” You can also cruise Meetup or the new, first-of-its-kind Adventurely (which helps you plan meetups with solo travelers and digital nomads at bucket-list attractions around the world) for sanctioned fun.
What do I do with my stuff when I want to go in the water?
Ah, the perpetual predicament. For the most part, I’ve found that beach trust is akin to airplane trust: we just stand up and walk away for minutes at a time, leaving our things in plain (plane!) sight and trusting our fellow sunbathers or jetsetters to leave it alone. (It’s incredible, once you think about it, that no one’s quietly pilfered your phone or wallet while you’ve stretched your legs somewhere over the Atlantic, no?) If I’m feeling warm fuzzies toward my fellow man, I’ll set my bag somewhere as close to the water as possible so I can keep a vague eye on it and hope for the best. (Leave your most precious valuables — wallet, passport, camera, etc. — in your room if possible.)
Another option is to get one of those dorky, around-the-neck plastic pouches with a roll-down top for your phone and a couple credit cards, but check to make sure it’s watersafe: I used one at a pool party in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand, and eventually discovered my phone bobbing in a half-inch of water at the bottom. (It was, remarkably but not surprisingly, not the biggest loss of the raucous evening — that would be my sunglasses, and also my dignity.)
How do I get sunscreen on the very middle of my back???
This is a VERY REAL CONCERN, compounded by the fact that if you burn in an impossible-to-reach area, you then can’t treat it with aloe or topical analgesics because … you can’t … reach. Spray sunscreen is your friend: spray the hell out of your back and any other hard-to-reach areas. (But don’t make it your go-to for the rest of your body; it’s generally not as effective as lotion, and there are concerns about the effects of inhaling the product, experts say. If you only have lotion on-hand (spray sunscreen is shockingly hard to find in even the rest of the Western world), slap a blob onto a sheet of plastic wrap, hold the two ends behind you and shimmy shimmy ya (ODB song optional).
See the world from your inbox.
Sign up for The Journey, our Travel newsletter.