Midlife travel solo

Last month I told you all about my women only trip sailing around Thailand. That post looked at where we went and what we did but there was so much to say that I couldn’t finish with what it taught me and that’s what I want to talk about today. People set out on midlife travel solo journeys for all kinds of reasons but travelling without Mal wasn’t something I’d ever thought of doing before and I’m so grateful that I had the experience.

You see I had, for a while, been noticing that I was slipping. It was a midlife kind of slipping accentuated by lockdown. I’ve found that since 2020 I just do far less on my own – for myself. It’s largely down to the fact that I don’t have anywhere near as many London meetings as I used to. Before Covid I used to go down at least once a month and stay for a few nights, going to meetings during the day and then catching up with old friends in the evening or sometimes going along to an event. Now though almost everything’s done by Zoom and so I strike out into the real world far less on my own.

In a lot of ways I find it suits me; Mal and I have always been one of those close couples – we like as well as love each other so we enjoy living, working and travelling together. Over the years we’ve worn together like a hand and a leather glove so we have an easy harmony. So when the email arrived inviting me to go to to Thailand on my own, it was like a bead of ink dropping into the pool of my life. Thoughts and feelings, a mixture of anticipation and apprehension, began to percolate because we both knew it was an opportunity I had to take. But of all the places… Thailand! You may remember that Thailand has been number one on our travel list since we planned our dream trip there for our 20th wedding anniversary in February 2021. However we all know what happened to travel plans then so it was outstandingly generous of Mal not to hesitate in urging me to go.

Parting day came and I don’t want to turn this into a Mills & Boon but leaving him at security was a definite wrench. Some of you were with me on Instagram as I stopped to take a breath on the other side and I thank every single one of you who sent an encouraging message at that point. I know none of this is cool. I should be writing this as an influencer who strode out alone, confidently, with a skip in her step, raving about the importance of living our best lives. But you know me better than that; you know that I’ll always eschew cool for warm so I can only speak honestly and tell you how it really felt.

The thing is that underscoring my churning emotions was that little voice that’s been piping up for a while saying, “you’re losing sight of your ‘self'”… berating me for settling too comfortably into this midlife zone. Some settling is a pleasure at this stage of life, security and comfort is what we’ve worked hard for after all but a bit like a ball pool, the risk lies in sinking down so deep that it can feel too hard to get out again. So even when I was sitting in the airport here talking to you with a long journey alone ahead that felt hard, I knew I was doing the right thing.

Nikki Garnett Midlife travel solo

And once the goodbyes were over it wasn’t too bad. It felt a bit odd floating around the airport on my own but before I knew it I was boarding my first thirteen hour flight and my destiny was no longer in my hands. Landing in Singapore gave me a piercingly emotional connection with my dad that took me by surprise. You see back in 1946 he opened the runway by landing the very first plane at the airport there. It was a military base then so he was flying in a Lancaster Bomber but as we were cruising down along the coastline, it struck me that I was looking down on exactly the same terrain that he would have seen back then. And in a quantum moment I almost felt as though I could reach through the years and take hold of his hand.

When he landed in Singapore he’d left not just Europe but also his new bride of two months behind for the first time. He and Mum used to tell me how hard that parting was and when they said their goodbyes they were unaware that their first baby was in utero – or that his unanticipated overseas posting would last for nearly two years. My sister was already walking when he met her for the first time.

Thinking about them and the wartime separations they endured helped everything to slot into context. By the time I finally got to Thailand a feeling of adventure had taken over. I was back in touch with my 20 year-old self who thought nothing about living abroad for a year and I could feel that version of me crackling with anticipation at this jack-knifing juncture.

Luckily I had a little time to adjust before meeting my fellow travellers; I arrived at the hotel early in the morning but the others weren’t landing until later that day and there were a few times when I felt more alone than comfortable. As I sat by the pool on my own I was surrounded by honeymooners and families. And asking for a table for one at the idyllic breakfast spot felt strange, especially when my sun cream made my eyes start to water and I could feel people casting worried glances at the solitary woman with tears sliding down her face.

Midlife travel solo

Living closely with strangers

As well as the strangeness of being alone, I was worrying about how I’d get on with the other people on the trip. In total there would be six strangers living together on a small catamaran for a solid seven days. There were the three of us who’d chosen to take the trip and hadn’t met before, Doni who owns Girls’ Guide To The World (GG2TW), Joy our captain and Yuut, the Thai chef. As an outgoing introvert I’m very sociable but I’m also very aware that when my battery runs low, I need to withdraw and recharge. If I can’t retreat I close off into silence; we’re all the same in our family which makes travelling together easy but I was worried that others might think I was rude.

However I’d been reassured by GG2TW’s focus on small groups and the individuals within them. Pack mentality isn’t my thing and if it had been a prosecco-fuelled influencer trip I just wouldn’t have considered it but the wording on their website makes it clear that GG2TW trips are about building a deeper bond through shared interests and conversation. So I travelled with blind faith that we’d be like-minded…

… and we were. The moment I met my travel buddies Bea and Cheri I could sense that they were both gentle, open souls. And for the whole time that we were together there wasn’t a moment of friction and that’s extraordinary when we were living in extreme heat and humidity in such close quarters. That’s what made the trip so very special and I put it down to the mindset that we’d all travelled with – to see the best in everything and everybody.

It’s since occurred to me that of course that’s the best way of approaching not just a trip but life in general. Midlife gets easier when you let go of any expectations of perfection. By this stage most of us have been bashed and battered in some way and yet we have a choice in how we handle the outcome. It isn’t easy but we either become choked by disappointment and bitterness or we take what lessons we can from the tough times and use them to move ahead into an amended future. It might not be the one we imagined – but it’s something we can work with. It can be hard to keep hope intact but it’s worth it.

Midlife travel solo

Midlife travel solo – what it taught me

It’s been a particularly strong message for me over the last few weeks because Bea and Cheri were incredible examples of the way that your chosen outlook can help you power through really tough times. After long, happy marriages where they’d each worked hard with their husbands to build their own businesses, they’d suddenly found themselves widowed in midlife. It was five years ago for Bea and two for Cheri. Both of them were living with the blow of losing their husbands very suddenly and unexpectedly while they were with them.

I know now that spending a week with them so closely, listening to them talking about their lives and how they’re moving forward was a privilege – and it’s had a big impact on me.

Midlife travel solo

As we so often say on here, there is no roadmap for midlife. Unlike other transitional phases such as adolescence or motherhood it’s a stage of life that is overlooked and bypassed. There is no guide and we so often find ourselves totally unprepared for what lies ahead. Bea and Cheri opened a window onto a future that many of us might find ourselves facing – widowhood. I had been approaching the trip through my own narrow aperture of missing my husband for twelve days and remembering how to operate alone for a little while. The overlaying of their experience, looking ahead to the whole of the rest of their lives without their life partners gave me a whole new focus.

One night the three of us sat up together long after the others had gone to bed. Cloaked by the warm darkness of the Thai skies, they talked in depth about their experiences – from the pain of what were unwittingly their last moments with their husbands to their aching journey through grief. With the intimacy that often arises between people who have come together only for a short time, they shared what it was like without shrouding their experience with niceties and in those few hours I learned so much. With their permission I will be weaving it into my book but there are two pieces of wisdom that I want to share with you straight away.

The first is their early realisation that ‘this is it.’ Quite soon after their husbands died they’d each decided that they had no intention of rushing out to find a replacement. Therefore they knew they had to learn to live alone. They both agreed that it had taken them a year of living in bewilderment while they worked out how to do it. They’d had to figure out who they had around them (not always the people they’d imagined) so that they had a fallback. However they’d both been determined not to lean on others unless they had to and so they’d come up with their own systems for ploughing through the every day.

Bea said that she’d found talking herself through every new task out loud helped. I heard her doing it while she was organising her bags when we shared an airport hotel room on our last day together and I instantly understood how it must help. It went along the lines of, ‘now we need to think through this bag for the flight – what are we going to need on board?…’ I could understand how it was both soothing and a brilliant way of mapping the mind practically without allowing any emotions to rear up.

In the same conversation Cheri told us that planning things to look forward to had helped her through the harder days at home. This is where GG2TW has come in and she’s already been on quite a few different trips with them. The surprise outcome is that on these trips she’s met other likeminded women of all ages and planned further travels with them. Together they’ve set off on adventures of their own to places like Vietnam and Cambodia as well as closer to home in the US. It isn’t how she imagined travelling at this stage of her life but she’s committed herself to fully embracing new people for a completely different set of adventures

Midlife travel solo - what it taught me

The other very simple but actually quite mind-altering piece of advice that Bea gave us both is that ‘you have to accept that there are going to be uncomfortable times.’ We were talking specifically about learning to travel solo when she said that but she added that it had also applied to everything that she’d faced over the last five years. Rather than just distracting herself she’d found it best to lean in to the uncomfortable times, knowing that they would pass and that difficult feelings would be processed and healed on the way through. I’ve used her advice in small ways since the trip and it works. Sometimes we need to just sit with our feelings don’t we?

And so it turned out that the ‘travelling with strangers’ part of the journey was the biggest joy. More even than being somewhere I’d always wanted to go. And I would never, ever have imagined that. The thrilling thing about meeting new people in midlife is that you’re fully formed. You have a lifetime of stories and experiences to share and so if you’re together with others who have open hearts and open minds, you learn endlessly and intensely from each other.

Nikki Garnett, Midlife travel blogger

On top of the talking was the experience of travelling together… the bolstering each other when one was more confident or comfortable in a certain situation than another. Being on a trip that was exclusively for women really brought that to the fore. I will be forever grateful to Cheri for calmly encouraging me back to the boat when we suddenly hit a strong current after a long swim. Coming from the sunny southern US states with their own pools in their gardens they were both stronger swimmers than me and I can tell you I was scared. We were both swimming hard without seeming to get anywhere but Cheri kept talking me through it, getting me just to focus on the small patch of sea in front of me rather than the long distance to the boat. She made me believe it was possible… and she made me laugh afterwards at how politely British I’d remained. Apparently I quite literally kept a stiff upper lip, smiling with gritted teeth even in the very depths of my panic!

We all marvelled together at the new sights, tastes and sounds. We supported each other through any low moments such as when I had food poisoning. And we laughed at all kinds of things – especially our cultural disparities. Who’d have thought there would be such a difference between the Brits and the Americans? I have a whole new lexicon of sayings in my head from them… getting ‘gussied up’ to go out and ‘it’s hot as hell’s ass in here!’ I learned that they become deeply unhappy if they don’t have aircon or ice in their drinks and they soon got used to our dead pan way of delivering a joke.

Being a word person I was endlessly fascinated by the differences in our supposedly shared tongue. There were so many times when I looked at them blankly or they did the same to me and I’m going to finish with my very favourite word moment. We’d shored up briefly at a backpacker resort because we’d run out of ice on the boat (I told you they couldn’t live without it). Doni and Joy went off in different directions to find some while the three of us ambled off together to look at the shops but it was just too hot. So when Cheri spotted a bar that looked cool and green with lots of fans whirring around, we all agreed that it was the only place we wanted to be. The problem was that we couldn’t cross the busy road to get to it and after a few minutes of wilting under the hot sun our conversation went like this…

Me: “it’ll be easier to get across if we find a zebra.”

(Cheri and Bea look at me in what feels like a rather odd way)

Me (earnestly): “they do have them here – I saw one before when we were walking that way.”

(anxious glances exchanged by the two of them)

Me: (a little impatiently) “come on, this way, there was one just down here”

(they follow me with what seems like some hesitancy)

Me: “look, you can see the black and white stripes just down there…”

Cheri (with a gasp of relief): “Lord above – she means a crosswalk!”

A perfect storm of pure cross-cultural confusion and it still makes me chuckle. I mean come on Americans – how can you not call it a zebra?!

And so we shared each other’s laughter and tears during a week of delight that our lives had collided on this trip together. And that’s what you get from travelling solo in midlife. Yes it’s a risk but everyone who has seized the opportunity is in the same position. Everybody there has invested their time, money and hope into it so as long as you all take realistic expectations along with you, the outcome is likely to be very special.

I’m so grateful that I had this opportunity. And I’m glad I travelled with Girls’ Guide To The World where the trips are managed with care and empathy ensuring that whoever you turn out to be, you’ll have the best time they can possibly give you.


My trip to Thailand has adjusted my vision of the future. The unexpected outcome when I came home was just how glad Mal was to have me back. I think it’s always much harder for the one who’s left behind so I’m thankful to him for his big hearted way of letting me go without making me feel guilty. And there’s been a point in every day since where he’s turned to me and said, “I can’t believe how much better even the smallest moments are with you in it.” I think I need to get one of those signs made with those words on it before he forgets!

As for me, I’ve been reminded of how lucky I am to have him still – so many people lose their life partner too soon. I feel strengthened by the trip and the knowledge that I can still quite quickly pick up traction on my own, if and when I need to. As I learned from my new friends there will always be uncomfortable moments in life – but lean in, sit with them and they too will pass. There are so many wonderful people in the world, you just have to have the courage to put yourself in a situation where you’ll collide with them. One of my dad’s favourite sayings was, ‘your best friends are the ones you haven’t even met yet.’ And isn’t that a great thought for midlife?

Disclosure: ‘Midlife travel solo – what it taught me’ is not a sponsored post. I was invited to go to Thailand for the purpose of reviewing trips with Girls Guide To The World however I contributed towards the cost of the flights.

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