She's visited 63 countries by herself — and now coaches others on how to travel solo
Shakeemah Smith has visited more countries — by herself — than most people have visited in their lifetimes.
She's visited 63 countries alone, she said, and now coaches others on how to go solo.
Smith — who goes by the name of Keem — said she started traveling alone after a disagreement with a friend left her by herself on vacation in Amsterdam.
"From there, I was like … I don't have any other friends to travel with, that either have the financial means to travel, or don't have family obligations that will prevent them from traveling," she told CNBC by phone.
Smith, who is from East Orange, New Jersey, decided to plan a solo vacation to Paris, a place that was high on her bucket list. She started by writing a list of everything that could go wrong — and how she could best prepare, looking up the locations of hospitals and the U.S. Embassy, as well as researching the city's Metro transit system.
"I chose a country that I was so excited about going to so it would … diminish the anxiety around being alone," she said. Once she got to Paris, she felt the preparation was worth it. "I was walking around like I was the cat's pajamas down the Champs Elysees, because I kept feeling like I'm here. I did it," she said.
Since posting trips of her Paris vacation on social media, Smith said people have messaged her to ask for tips about vacationing alone. She created a nine-week online course via the Teachable platform named Travel Like a Bawse and has tutored 10,000 women in the art of traveling solo, she said.
A Teachable representative told CNBC that solo travel course enrollments grew 31 times faster than other types of course on the platform between the summers of 2020 and 2022.
Smith also runs private coaching sessions, which include itineraries, tours and contact details for drivers and photographers — she recommends hiring someone to take pictures for you. Her coaching also includes daily FaceTime calls for travelers' first solo trips.
Where to plan your first trip
Smith advises choosing a well-known destination, like Paris, for a first vacation alone.
"When you start off in such touristy places … there are so many other people that also are not from there, so you don't stand out as much as you think," she said.
You don't want your happiness tied to someone else.Shakeemah Smith
She also recommended Antigua and Barbuda, the Maldives and Bora Bora as safe destinations to go solo. "I know a lot of women are like, oh I want to wait until I have a husband to go to Bora Bora or the Maldives, and I'm like, so you're going to wait on a man to see the Indian Ocean?"
"You don't want your happiness tied to someone else," she said.
Popular places now
Solo travel is something that Angelee Rathor, managing director of luxury vacation company SevenTravel, expects to be popular this year.
Following an uptick in enquiries — many from women aged 45 and older — Rathor said her team created several itineraries such as a "solo sojourn" to South Africa and a "me, myself and Iceland" vacation to the Nordic country.
After Covid-era shutdowns, it was "well-documented that couples and families wanted to … have these blowout trips, but really solo travelers are also wanting to make up for lost time and are feeling more confident to explore new places," said Rathor.
The company specializes in upscale, tailor-made travel. An 11-night solo South Africa trip that includes Cape Town for culinary experiences, the Winelands towns of Paarl, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, and several nights at two safari lodges with spa treatments costs from £15,495 ($19,067), excluding flights.
Rathor's team designs vacations that balance activities and rest. Solo experiences in Iceland might feature a guided tour of its capital, Reykjavik, wine-tasting under the Northern Lights and a day at the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. The company provides 24-hour customer service on WhatsApp, which is added reassurance for those traveling alone.
She said people enjoy solo travel because they don't need to take anyone else's interests into account.
"They are doing on that trip — 100% of the time — what they want to do," she said. "When the wellness element is forming more than 40% of the trip, people do come back and say … 'I feel like a different person.'"
Group tours are another popular option for solo travelers.
Florida-based Judy Hoffman is a retired history teacher who, during her career, completed study programs in Nigeria, Japan and the United Kingdom.
She said she has always loved traveling, even as a young child.
"Since I put pennies and dimes in my 'travel the world' bank as a child [I] knew that was something I aspired to do in life," she told CNBC.
Hoffman has taken 10 vacations with small group operator Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.), visiting places like Nepal, Peru, Central America and East Africa, on trips that aim to help people get off the beaten path. O.A.T was co-founded by Alan E. Lewis "to take Americans to places Americans don't go," according to the company's website.
That seems true for Hoffman, who said she has most enjoyed "waking up to the sunrise in the mountains of Nepal, floating at night on the Amazon looking up at the stars, and swimming with sea lions and penguins in the Galapagos."
"Watching people travel from the countryside to a school in Tanzania, then standing in long lines to vote in an election, touched me more than I can say," she added.
O.A.T's website says it has 42,000 solo traveler reservations throughout 2023 and wants to encourage more people to travel alone. It has added more single-occupancy cabins with no single supplement, which are extra fees that solo travelers are sometimes charged to stay in a room by themselves.
A company representative told CNBC that popular cruises include its 15-day voyage from Lisbon to Barcelona, which starts at around $9,000, including airfare.
Solo travel tips
Hoffman offered advice for people who are traveling alone.
"If you are outgoing, which I'm not, you'll fit in immediately," she said. Otherwise, she suggested offering to take photos of fellow travelers as a way to strike up conversations.
She has another tip: "I always journal while I'm on a trip and always have a book for any down time."
Torunn Tronsvang, founder of Norwegian travel specialist Up Norway, recommends solo travelers stay open-minded.
"Don't be afraid to say 'yes,' step outside the comfort zone, show interest in engaging with locals," she told CNBC.
Like Rathor, Tronsvang has noticed an uptick in demand for solo travel, and her company created private itineraries accordingly.
One of its most popular is "Give me more," a 10-day trip starting from Oslo and involves traveling by rail, bus and ferry to Trondheim. It's a trip that includes nature, outdoor adventure, Norwegian culture and self-reflection, she said. It costs around $3,500 per person for accommodations, transportation, guided tours and some meals, but not flights.
She said solo travelers are "well educated" and range in age, from early 30s to 60s.
"They tend to be people with flexible jobs such as writers, photographers, or people in between jobs," she said. "We've also noticed a trend in people who want a different type of holiday in a hectic life, and people who search for meaning in their travels."