Loni James boarded a flight from Washington state to London last year with a duffel bag, a day pack and an unconventional itinerary.
It was late March, and her plan was simple: To travel the world and go on a date with a local in every country she visited.
Days after she arrived in London, she swiped right on Tinder and met a French and British dual citizen who loved traveling. Pints of beer with him at a pub near the Tower Bridge turned into a five-hour dinner date and long conversations about previous trips.
She never saw the man again. But so began her journey – one with no specific itinerary in mind. Over the past year, James says she’s used Tinder, Hinge and Bumble to go on 34 first dates in 19 countries, a series of romantic rituals full of intrigue, surprises and cultural firsts.
There was the 13-hour date in Cairo during the holy month of Ramadan – her first date with a Muslim – with a man who charmed her with his beaming smile and “Friends” TV show quotes on his Tinder profile. Her next date was with another Egyptian man in Alexandria who blurted out that he was engaged and spent the date yearning aloud for a past love.
“He clearly needed someone to listen and I was a safe space,” James says. “I’ve had incredibly intimate and vulnerable conversations with people. There’s something special that happens when people know they’re never going to see you again.”
There was a date in the Italian city of Verona with a charming classical musician who squired her around on a scooter and gave her a nighttime tour of the city’s many historic spots.
There was also a disastrous date in Turkey with a man who became angry when she rejected his physical advances and dropped her off at his paragliding shop, promising to return. He never did. After waiting for hours in a storm, James spent the night on a bench in the store.
Her most recent date was with a South African man in Cape Town who whipped out a deck of cards over dinner and proceeded to do card tricks at the table.
But James, 40, says that even the bad dates have been memorable – and that all of them have taught her something.
“In the past, I looked at dating as a pass or fail. If I went out with someone on a date and it didn’t end in a goodnight kiss, or it didn’t end in the second date, I considered it a failure,” she says. “I don’t think of that anymore. I now realize the value of going on a date and being so grateful that someone opened up and gave you their time … shared their story with you.
“I’ve learned that romance comes in many forms,” she adds. “It doesn’t have to be expensive and there isn’t a certain formula that makes romance happen. For me, it’s when there’s connection and intentionality. It is the person who listens to you, who seeks to make you feel special, who wants to bring a smile to your face with a thoughtful gesture and the person who wants to know what you think and seeks to truly get to know you.”
James’ decision to go on a solo journey was borne out of tragedy.
She watched her mother battle early onset Alzheimer’s from age 48 to her death a year and a half ago at 63. It spurred James to seize the moment and launch her adventures.
“My parents had done everything right according to the American culture. They got married. They raised three kids … They had good jobs … they paid off the house,” she says. “They had big plans for their retirement, but my mom didn’t make it to retirement.”
James, who is not married and doesn’t have kids, started saving for her trip two years before her mother’s death in October 2021. She moved from Seattle to Spokane, Washington, rented a cheaper apartment and got a roommate. She later sold all her things and moved in with her parents to spend time with her sick mother during her final days.
She didn’t get a chance to share her travel plans with her mother before she died, but remembers a key piece of advice her mother gave her years ago before Alzheimer’s stole her ability to communicate.
“I told her about a boy I liked, and she told me to make sure he loved travel as much as I did,” she says. “That was really impactful, that in the midst of her disease, she knew how important that was for me … when looking for a partner.”
James’ international journey has coincided with an increase in solo travel, spurred partly by the pandemic.
Google searches in the US last month for “solo travel” were more than three times higher than in March 2020 in the United States.
“The uncertainty of being around others during a pandemic made travelers wary about traveling in groups,” says Janice Waugh, founder and publisher of Solo Traveler. “Many have continued to travel solo after discovering the benefits of solo travel such as flexibility, freedom, and personal growth.”
While it’s not unusual for solo travelers to find romance and friendship, it’s rare to date someone in every country you visit, Waugh says.
But James has thrown herself into the experience and embraced the good and the bad. She stays in hostels and Airbnbs or with friends and even friends of friends, always leaving room for spontaneity.
“People will just be at the hostel asking around, ‘Who wants to go here? Who’s free for seven days? Do you want to go do this?’ And you just end up with strangers in a car,” she says.
“I realized that long-term travel is so different than just going on vacation … for a week or two. I really wanted to lean into the culture, and I wanted to have a very different experience by being on the road for a long time.”
James says she is up front with her dates about her goal to date someone in each country she visits. She promises them anonymity, and except for sharing a few photos, declined to provide their contacts to CNN.
Maybe her most memorable experience was the 13-hour date last year with the Muslim man in Cairo. They shared conversations on everything from online dating to Muslim culture and arranged marriages. Because it was during Ramadan, they shared iftar – the meal eaten by fasting Muslims right after sunset.
“I’ve never had a man put so much effort in a date,” she says of their day together, which also included visits to museums and a monastery, a ride in a rickshaw and a nighttime folk-dance show in the desert. “There was so much food, it was so colorful. I tried all these new things. Egyptian food is amazing.”
She’s since had dates in Jordan, Cyprus, Turkey, Switzerland, France, Italy, Slovenia, Norway, Iceland, the Azores islands of Portugal, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Namibia and South Africa.
As a woman traveling alone, James says she is careful about safety. She shares her location with friends, doesn’t drink much alcohol, make sure her phone is charged and uses a ride-share app so she can exit a date on her own.
She communicates with men via the dating apps and doesn’t give out her phone number until after she has met a date in person. She also never allows a date to pick her up from where she’s staying.
Waugh, the expert on solo traveling, encourages women to meet dates in public places and be careful about who they approach to ask for directions.
“I meet people all the time and I do so by taking the first step. I think that it is more likely that an inappropriate person will choose me than I will choose them,” Waugh says. “I choose whom I talk to, where I go, or where I sit. If I need to ask for directions, my first choice is to approach a family and then perhaps a couple.”
James has not yet felt unsafe on a date, but she has had some frustrating experiences. Men have stood her up twice: in Paphos, Cyprus, and in Cape Town, South Africa.
Then there was the man in Zurich who picked her up in a Lotus, took her to dinner at an expensive restaurant despite her objections and ordered her food for her, along with a $84 glass of Chablis. Then he asked to split the bill, blowing her weekly budget.
“I know that it sounds glamorous, and some of my dates have been glamorous,” James says. “I’ve gone paragliding (in Fethiye, Turkey) on dates. I’ve also gone fishing in the Arctic Circle on dates. But I’ve been on some really weird ones, too.”
James hasn’t returned to the US since she left in the spring of 2022. She plans several more months of traveling in Africa before heading to Asia, Australia and South America.
She hopes to turn her global adventure into a book that’s both entertaining and educational.
“Maybe someone’s not going to pick up a book about Egypt or Namibia or Tunisia. But maybe they would be intrigued by my dating story, and if they happen to learn these other things about this country during that dating story, then I consider that a huge bonus,” she says.
“I realize Egypt maybe isn’t on everybody’s bucket list, maybe Morocco isn’t, even Namibia. When I write about these places, I hope it builds a curiosity … I hope the stories make people laugh, dream and cross oceans to meet interesting people all over.”
Until then, she’ll keep traveling – for at least the next year. There’s so much more to see, so much more to do.
James still hasn’t found a partner. She says she’s open to having a boyfriend who lives in another country. But if it doesn’t happen, she’s relishing almost every moment of her journey.
“I love having the different races and religions and music and style and knowledge and background,” she says. “There’s just so much to be learned when you surround yourself with people from all different areas (of the world).”
Meeting up with men in different countries has shifted her perspective on dating, she says.
As a younger woman, she saw dating as a means to an end: to find a husband. But now, she says, she considers it a privilege to hear someone’s story and get to know them without the burden of expectations.
“I’ve learned that the challenges of modern dating exist everywhere,” she says. “People are still learning how to tackle online dating, and people still get ghosted. Being stood up sucks, even when it happens on a beautiful island. Your insecurities don’t just disappear when you cross an ocean.”
James says she’s glad she didn’t put off traveling until she had a partner, like she’d done in the past. The past year, she says, has taught her a lot about herself.
“I’ve learned that I’m the best version of myself when I’m traveling – the most open and the most curious,” she says. “I’m fascinated by the way that different countries approach the same things. I’m constantly reminded that there’s not one right way to do things.”