Stephanie Maisonneuve visited the walled city of Cartagena, a port city off the Caribbean coast of Colombia. She rode horseback down the city's cobbled streets clucking past flower-filled balconies and massive, wooden arched doors. The travel enthusiast trotted a hill to a chapel that sat at the city's highest point. She ended her nights devouring street food.
That was Masonneuve's Thanksgiving holiday last year.
For many travelers, the winter break welcomes built-in, extended time off from work. Maisonneuve, 31, who no longer celebrates many secular American holidays, said she feels isolated staying at home. "I rather go somewhere else and have a good time."
Maisonneuve is like a growing number of millennials who want to explore by traveling solo. According to a recent survey by the personal finance site Cashlorette, 58 percent of millennials would travel solo, and 26 percent have already gone alone. Among female millennials, 26 percent have taken a solo vacation, where as 27 percent who haven't said they would.
And for whatever reason, some travelers are not allowing the holidays to slow them down.
Tia Smith hasn't decided where to spend this Thanksgiving. She has considered Tokyo, Lisbon and Australia. And, she strongly contemplating Thailand for Christmas and New Year's Eve.
"I desire to see the world even though I do not prefer solo travel," said Smith, who has visited 13 countries. "I also do not wish to miss out on opportunities to do something I desire and enjoy. My goal is to taste my way around the world."
Street Smarts Apply
Smith said she picks her travel destinations based on a few factors: interest in the location, cost of the trip (flights, food, lodging and activities) and safety as a solo female traveler.
Traveling solo requires normal street smarts.
Smith said she remains attentive to her surroundings and tries not to be too flashy with expensive jewelry or money. She also splits her cash and credit card. That way if someone steals one; Smith always has another stash. She said she also researches to identify places to avoid and sites with heightened risks.
The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service by the U.S. Department of State that allows Americans traveling or living abroad to notify the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate of their upcoming stay. A travel warning indicates a major conflict (unstable government, civil war or frequent terrorist attacks) within the country and means that the government wants Americans to reconsider their visit. The department also issues travel alert for "short-term" issues that a traveler should contemplate. A few days ago, an alert pointed to "reoccurring political protests throughout Togo, some of which have been violent, especially in the northern city of Sokode." The alert is set to expire at the end of January.
Maisonneuve, who has traveled to 20 countries, said she tries not to let others' preconceived notions about a place deter her. Before she went to Cartagena, people told her "sordid stories of drug cartels and murders."
"No one can deny Colombia's history; however, it has certainly revamped itself," Maisonneuve wrote on her blog Girl Gone Solo. "I will never forget my very first introduction to the kindness of Colombian people."
She took a taxi from the airport to her lodging. The taxi driver told her the ride would be 16,000 pesos or $5. She heard 60,000 pesos. The driver gestured that she had given him too much money. He explained the currency and how to count in Spanish.
"That interaction warmed my heart and set the stage for my entire trip," she wrote.
Regardless, it's important for family members to know a traveler's whereabouts. Smith sends her full itinerary to two people and checks-in daily.
"My mom is always nervous about me traveling solo, but she understands and supports my desires to explore the world," said Smith, who sends her mother a postcard from every destination.
Backing the wandering heart
Amy Williams, who has been to more than 35 countries, agreed that family support is key. Williams' mom and sister — who are not big travelers — wait to celebrate Christmas until after she returns from her annual holiday trips. Most years, it's more than a week after the actual day.
"It's the spirit of the day that matters not necessarily the day," Williams said.
When she heads to her mom's house in Melbourne in January, a two-hour drive east of Tampa, she expects to see the Christmas tree with unopened presents awaiting. She also anticipates a huge homemade breakfast.
Like always, she'll bring back gifts from her latest excursion, like ornaments for her mom to hang on the tree.
"You come back and appreciate home and everything you have a little more," Williams said, who last year explored the safaris of South Africa. She flew over the Victoria Falls in Zambia. She ate warthog riblets and burgers made of elk and Kudo, a large mammal that reminds her a deer.
Even though she is traveling alone, Williams said it doesn't mean she can't make new friends. In December, Williams plans to visit Morocco and Portugal with a Canadian couple and a woman from Boston, who she met in South Africa the previous year. Between social media, video chats and phone calls, the travel posse planned their two-week adventure.
"What's funny about solo travel is that you don't ever really have to be alone," she said.
When travelers don't have family and friends who prioritize traveling, they sign up for local tours, stay in hostels or other community lodging and connect on social media to find other travelers. They share travel tips, places to see and things to eat.
"Traveling alone forces you outside your comfort zone and essentially makes it easier to make friends in the places you visit," said Omar Seidel, who has been to 59 countries and 46 states. "This has led to some wonderful friendships from all around the world that otherwise may not have materialized had I been with a group or a significant other."
Why Solo Travel
People choose to travel alone for various reasons.
"Solo travel allows me the opportunity to get away from everything, self-reflect on life and goals and decompress," said Mustafa Khan, who has been to more than 30 countries including China, Singapore, Thailand and the UAE.
Khan said he explores unfamiliar places, learns about diverse cultures and languages and observes breathtaking views. He works in the medical field with a flexible schedule and the ability to work remotely. He once wrote a business plan during a 15-hour flight to Dubai. Being single adds to his flexibility.
While many solo travelers are single or have no children that's not always the case. Shauna Wilson said her boyfriend encourages her solo adventures. His schedule is not as flexible as that of Wilson, who has traveled to about 45 countries. But, when they can, they travel together.
Wilson often purchases jewelry during her trips that she later sells through her Tampa-based online store called A Queen's Ransom Boutique. "Travel is definitely an asset to my work life," she said.
Contact Tierra Smith at tsmith@ tampabay.com. Follow @bytierrasmith.