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posted: 9/2/2012 6:00 AM

Traveling alone doesn't have to be intimidating

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Last week, I received a letter from a recently widowed woman who feels her traveling days are over.

"I need to get away," she said. "But I'm afraid to travel alone and have no friends my own age who'll join me. I guess I'm stuck."

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Not according to my old friend Jean Cowden who has been traveling alone for years.

"It's empowering," Jean said. "You can do what you want when you want to without worrying about somebody else."

Such trips do require some careful planning. Here are some things to consider before taking your first solo trip.

Follow a passion: If you've always loved Italian food, consider a trip to Italy that includes cooking classes. Sometimes you get lucky and can combine more than one passion. One friend joined a horseback-riding tour to Tuscany that ended in a three-day wine-tasting event. She said after riding several hours a day through the gorgeous countryside, sitting at a vineyard sipping wine was perfect.

Know your limits: Watching "The Sound of Music" will make trekking through Switzerland look romantic. But if walking from your car to the grocery store wears you out, don't even think about climbing the Alps. A trip to a spa might be a better choice.

George Fink thought a cruise through the Caribbean looked like a great way to relax. He ignored his propensity for motion sickness and booked the trip. George spent most of his time in his state room thinking death would be more fun.

Avoid loneliness: Just because you're going it solo doesn't mean you have to feel alone. Before Jean traveled to Costa Rica, she talked to friends who had been there. One of her neighbors knew a family living in San Jose. When Jean arrived she met them for dinner. A year later, that family visited her in Madison, Wis.

Consider joining local classes or tours: You get a better feel of the culture and may meet some local people. When Susan Gates planned a trip to Belize, it was strictly for the birds -- literally. She hooked onto a birding club group and saw some magnificent birds while making some interesting new friends.

According to Jean, the first time you go it alone can be an intimidating experience. Before you throw yourself to the wind, consider getting your feet wet by joining a tour group. Check with local colleges. They often sponsor reasonably priced tours focused on a certain interest such as photography or formal gardens. If there is a single-supplement fee, they may help you find a roommate to cut the cost.

"Some of my fondest memories and best friends have resulted from traveling by myself," Jean said. "It forces you to take charge and turns travel into your own personal adventure."

Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached via email at gailtodd@aol.com.

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