In TMRW’s “My First” series, we highlight true stories from readers who open up about the pivotal moments in their lives — from their first jobs to their first breakups and more — and what they learned from these personal milestones.
Last year, I turned 40. I didn’t plan a birthday party. I didn’t plan to go out. Heck, I didn’t even think I would leave my house.
My life was in turmoil and it was shaping up to be a rough year. I was working too much, getting a divorce, taking care of my three children and feeling overwhelmed. I was throwing myself into work to the point of burnout. My marriage was over and I kept having to go back to court to sort out custody issues. I felt like my life and my family had just gone awry.
But I was determined to pick up the pieces and turn my personal mess into success and encourage other women along the way. I knew I could do it even if it wasn’t going to be easy.
I left my job and started my own company. I left my toxic relationship and embraced my next chapter as a single woman. I settled into a new home with my 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old twin sons. I was gradually making a plan and sticking to it.
One night I was up late, checking my email and browsing the internet, when I spotted a message that hooked me. It was one of those “We’ve got a deal for you" travel emails and I couldn’t resist taking a peek. I was on a really tight budget so I wasn’t looking to go anywhere, but I clicked and started searching around and dreaming about future trips.
I didn’t expect to find anything. But it was the Thursday night before my birthday and there it was: a great offer for a balcony cabin room on a seven-day Norwegian cruise along the Western Caribbean route ... and it was leaving on Sunday, in just a few days.
“You know what, Senam," I thought to myself, "You fought very long and hard to get here.” I was going to be 40, and now what?
I decided I would start this year — this new decade and this new me — by really living the life that I wanted to live and doing the things that I wanted to do. And one of those things was to travel by myself.
I summoned what I call “mindless bravery” and decided to book the cruise. I then used travel miles I’d accumulated on my credit card to book a flight from my home in Chicago to Miami the next day. I Googled a bunch of hotels to stay overnight at in Miami and even called one and talked to a helpful woman at the front desk. Since my credit card gave me a 24-hour cancellation period, I just went for it. After all, my children were heading to sleepaway camp, the dates lined up perfectly and what was holding me back?
I tried to come up with reasons to back out of my solo trip — I should use my travel points to take the kids somewhere! I should save and not spend my money! — but I forced myself to follow through. I called my neighbor who travels often for work to borrow some luggage, I told my best friends and family, I bought travel insurance and I did as much online research as I could to prepare for my impromptu adventure.
At my hotel room in Miami, I was feeling nervous so I called Norwegian to ask when and where I should meet the cruise ship the next day. When I told the representative my story, he asked, “Wait a minute, how much did you pay for this?” It turns out my fare was for an aft-facing balcony room and normally would’ve cost at least $5,000. It was a huge, beautiful room and I got a fantastic deal at just $799.
One of my favorite parts about my first cruise was that I made a bunch of friends. The great thing about cruising is that companies like Norwegian offer group activities for individual travelers. On the first night, I went to meet up with other people who were traveling solo.
I met two women who were around the same age as me and we hung out almost the entire time, made good friendships and even connected on Facebook after the cruise ended.
Every morning and every day on this trip, I got to decide for myself, “What do I want to do that day?” And then I did it. The cruise arranges tickets for all the shows and events for you so you don’t have to do that by yourself.
There’s a funny video of me singing my No. 1 karaoke song, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” with the cruise director on my first night on the ship. This cruise proved to me that I could go above and beyond and thrive in my life.
Nowadays when I’m stressed, I play a recording of the ocean that I took during that cruise and remind myself that things can be peaceful. I have no regrets about taking the risk and going on my first solo trip. I came back refreshed and ready to make more decisions for myself.
After my solo cruise, I was able to surprise my children with a family cruise to the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. We all loved it! I joke that if I can take my kids on a cruise by myself, I can do anything at this point.
It doesn't have to be very expensive. I didn't do any expensive excursions on my first cruise and I didn't buy any of the pictures and additional things offered on board, because I had a budget to stick to.
If you’re considering traveling by yourself, I say, go for it. Live your life and expand your own world.
Traveling can help you understand things. It can make the things that you do have at home feel even more important and it can make your problems seem a little smaller because you realize there is so much world out there and so much more calling you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.