As a flight attendant for 27 years, Sharon Wingler has traveled millions of miles. Even so, after she was divorced 12 years ago, she found the prospect of a solo vacation daunting.
To ease her concern, Ms. Wingler, who lives in Chicago, joined a tour to Italy. But, she says, "I realized very quickly I didn't need the security of a group. I enjoyed my time on my own. I met more people and learned more about Italy and the Italians that way than I did with the group."
Since that confidence-building discovery, Wingler has taken two major solo vacations a year. Her destinations have ranged widely, from Greece and Yugoslavia to Argentina, Singapore, and Australia. In the process, she has discovered what legions of other single travelers are also learning: the freedom of self-reliance, and the heady pleasure of new adventures and new acquaintances.
Nearly 40 percent of adult Americans are single - unmarried, divorced, or widowed, according to the US Census Bureau. As these voyagers take off for destinations both familiar and exotic, they are pumping millions of dollars into travel industry coffers. They are also creating a burgeoning market for single-oriented travel books, newsletters, seminars, and networks.
"Going solo is becoming easier," says Diane Redfern of Vancouver, British Columbia, who publishes Connecting: Solo Travel News. "The world is opening up."
Yet what isn't becoming easier, single travelers insist, is paying for single supplements, which add hundreds or thousands of dollars to a tour or cruise. When Paul Spillar of Ross, Calif., publisher of The Single Traveler newsletter, surveyed singles in four English-speaking countries, nearly 90 percent admitted being "rankled" by the travel industry's "discrimination and unfair treatment."
So pervasive is the problem that Mr. Spillar wants to establish an advocacy group to "stimulate the travel industry to appreciate singles as desirable clients, instead of pariahs." It would offer services and discounts similar to those given to members of the American Association of Retired Persons.
"Every new hotel room and cruise ship cabin is built for two," says Jens Jurgens, editor of Travel Companions newsletter in Amityville, N.Y. "In the old days, some cruise ships had single cabins."
Wingler, the author of a new book, "Travel Alone & Love It" (Chicago Spectrum Press), suggests that hotels build one floor with half-size rooms: a twin bed instead of doubles, a 16-inch TV instead of a 26-inch TV, a shower instead of a big tub shower - whatever it takes to cut costs.
Beyond money, solo travelers cite another concern: loneliness. Although Wingler acknowledges "fleeting moments" of feeling lonesome, she sees this as "a small price to pay for the freedom to do whatever you please."
For Dale Kline of Cambridge, Mass., a veteran solo traveler, that freedom includes being able to set his own pace. "I like to sit and soak it in, to experience a place," says Mr. Kline, an accountant.
During a recent three-week stay in Greece and Turkey, he says, "I spent a whole day on the Acropolis in a state of wonder. Nobody was saying, 'Let's go.' " He also relaxed near a subway station in Athens, listening to fruit vendors yell "Chiquita banana!"
Julie Smith of Brookline, Mass., who teaches evening classes on solo travel, emphasizes that going alone "does not mean you never hook up with anybody. If you meet someone at a museum, you might say, 'Gee, would you like to have dinner?' "Ms. Smith still corresponds with a couple she met 30 years ago in England.
Adds Wingler, "If you're at all open to meeting people, you will. If you're in a theater, waiting in line, or on a bus, comment about the weather or say, 'I'm new here. Can you suggest a place for dinner?' People will take it from there."
Wingler and Smith both shun big hotels. Wingler likes "Mom-and-Pop, family-owned hotels," which she finds through tourist offices and guidebooks. Smith favors bed-and-breakfasts, guest houses, and hiking inns, saying, "In smaller hotels, there are common rooms to sit in, and you meet people."
As another way to mingle, Mr. Jurgens advises solo travelers in Europe to buy a rail pass rather than renting a car. "On the train, you have people to talk to."
Even getting lost can produce rewarding connections. When Kline asked a Greek woman for directions last month, she showed him the way herself. Although her English was limited, he says, "We kind of communicated, and we talked and laughed." When they said goodbye, she gave him a flower.
It is experiences like these that become part of the lore of a trip. Says Ms. Redfern, "Even if you blunder around, when you get home, predicaments are the part you love to talk about."
They're also the stories that make good diary entries. "Because you're not sharing your experiences with anyone, keeping a journal is a given," Smith says. Adds Wingler, "I record not only what I do, what I eat, and what I shop for, but also the things photographs can't capture - moods and feelings and thoughts."
To ensure safety, travel experts underscore the importance of relying on good judgment, common sense, and intuition. At the same time, they encourage lone travelers to try new experiences.
"Everybody has an adventurous side to their nature, but we get so engrossed in the fear-mongering that goes on in the media," says Redfern. "You have to take certain precautions, but you need to balance that viewpoint. This interaction with different cultures is a life-changing experience."
Redfern herself once spent a life-changing year traveling alone around the world.
Eleanor Berman, author of "Traveling Solo" (Globe Pequot Press) finds that single travelers sometimes harbor two regrets: They wish they had been more adventurous. They also wish they had done more planning.
"If you read ahead of time and plan your day, even if you don't follow it to the letter, you feel more secure," she says. "The more you know, the more confident you feel. That's very important to having the most rewarding experience on your own."
Wingler's advice is brief and upbeat: "Have a sense of humor and an open mind, and be friendly. Once you make the first move, you'll find you've got friends all over the world. You just haven't met them yet."
How to make solo trips enjoyable and safe:
* Think carefully about your travel preferences. Do you want to relax, or do you prefer an active vacation? Avoid resorts, particularly on romantic islands, where couples predominate. Instead, consider golf or tennis resorts, sailing schools, and hobby-related workshops, such as painting or photography. "You have enough structure so your day is set up for you, and yet you have free time and a place to meet people to spend the free time with," says Eleanor Berman, travel-book author.
* Start modestly by going to a nearby city or booking a guided tour. "Nobody expects you to trek through India if you've never left Indiana," says flight attendant Sharon Wingler. She calls her own tour to Italy her "parachute," because it enabled her to test her travel wings without fear. But Ms. Berman adds, "Be sure you're someone who really likes being on a tour. They're very fast-paced, and you don't see anything in depth."
* For a first trip overseas, consider an English-speaking destination - Great Britain, Holland, Scandinavia.
* Pack light, using a suitcase with wheels. "You don't want to be weighted down, literally and figuratively, with a lot of things from home," says Julie Smith, who teaches a course in solo travel. She limits her own luggage to a spartan 18 pounds. "I do a lot of hand-washing," she explains. Taking more than you can handle yourself, travel newsletter editor Jens Jurgens warns, can leave you vulnerable to pickpockets, who sometimes offer to carry a solo traveler's heavy bag - and then disappear with it.
* Before leaving home, photocopy your passport, tickets, and credit cards. If you do have a problem, it's easy to stop payment and take necessary steps to get replacements. Don't carry all your credit cards in one place.
* Book accommodations for the first two nights before you leave home. After two nights, you can change hotels if you find something better.
* During your trip, rest for an hour in the afternoon whenever possible. "When you're tired, that's when you're going to feel unhappy because you're by yourself," Berman says. "Resting is more important than seeing one more sight, because your spirits will be so much better."