Woman traveling alone

Photo by Andrea Rose

If you’ve ever had to haul your children kicking and screaming through a museum, or drag your male counterpart across a market selling traditional textiles, you know exactly what I mean when I say traveling solo really has its advantages.

When you holiday alone, you’re free to see whatever you want whenever you want. If you dream of spending your vacation time looking at renaissance art or Ming vases, you can go right ahead. If you’d rather just lie on the beach the whole time, you can do that too. There are no fights, no compromises and no wasted opportunities. You, and only you, dictate how your vacation plays out.

But traveling as a solo female also has its downside: safety.

It’s an unfortunate reality that the world is less safe if you’re a woman – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t venture out there. True, some places are best avoided unless you’re with company, but there are many more destinations where a solo female can get around without any trouble. It’s simply a matter of knowing how to take care of yourself and how to handle potentially risky situations.

Here are some of the major issues you’re likely to encounter as a single female, and my tips on tackling them.

 

Dealing with unwanted attention from men

When you’re traveling alone, chances are the opposite sex will notice you. This is especially true in some countries where it’s unusual for women to be seen traveling without their spouse. Now, maybe you’re not opposed to a little summer romance. But if the attention is unwelcome, here’s how to counter it.

  • Dress modestly. It goes without saying that if you bare cleavage and strut around in miniskirts or short shorts you’ll attract stares. But sometimes even showing your shoulders, arms or legs can be considered too much skin. Find out what’s appropriate for the country you’re visiting and dress to blend in.
  • Avoid eye contact with men. In some places, making eye contact with someone is a sign of flirtation – even if it was just a quick, unintentional glance on your part. Avoiding this though, can be tricky, especially when you’re a curious traveler looking all around you as you try to soak everything up. The easiest solution? Wear sunglasses. You can look wherever you want and no one will be any wiser.
  • In some countries, simply talking to other men suggests that you’re interested in them. If a guy strikes up a conversation with you and you’re not interested, ignoring him entirely is the appropriate reaction. This can seem really strange – and downright difficult – for those of us from countries where the polite thing to do is respond. But it is what it is. Take your cue from the other local women. How do they react?
  • Wearing ear buds/music headphones can help deter others from approaching you. Just be careful that you’re still aware of your surroundings – it’s important to remain alert. One trick is to pop the earbuds in your ears but not actually turn on the music.
  • Wear a ring that looks like a wedding band, even if you’re not married. It will stop the majority of harmless flirts in their tracks.
  • If someone asks you whether you’re traveling alone, avoid saying yes. Tell them you’re meeting someone, or that your spouse is at a business meeting and expecting you soon. If you’re staying alone at a hostel/hotel and are uncomfortable about the fact that you’re there by yourself (even though it’s evident), say that you’re visiting friends in town but they don’t have room for you in their apartment, hence you’re staying at the hotel.

Choose your accommodation wisely

There’s more to picking a hotel room than knowing the thread count of the sheets or whether there’s a hairdryer provided. You’ll need to do a little bit of forward planning if you want to ensure a safe and happy stay. Here’s how:

  • Book your first night’s accommodation in advance. You don’t want to be wandering around in an unfamiliar place looking for a place to stay, nor do you want to show up to a hotel and find that it’s already full.
  • Check hostel/hotel reviews carefully. If you’re in a private room, you want to make sure you stay in a place where you are able to lock your door at night. If you’re sleeping in a dorm that’s mixed gender, you might feel safer in a room with a larger number of beds (and thus more fellow female travelers). Many hostels also offer female-only dorms, which some people might be more comfortable with.
  • When staying in a hotel, ask for a room in the busier part of the hotel – near the lobby for example. You don’t want to be the only guest in an isolated section of the building.
  • Choose accommodation that’s within easy reach of public transportation and make sure it’s in a busy area on a well-lit street – you want to feel safe when you’re coming and going from your hotel at night. Information about these kinds of things can often be found in online hotel reviews, or you can ask around on travel forums.
  • If you’re meeting someone at your hotel, don’t have them come up to your room and knock on your door. Instead, meet them in the lobby where there are other people around.

Safety when out and about

When you’re walking around in a city you don’t know, full of people you don’t know, it’s obvious that you’ll have to be extra cautious. There’s no need to be paranoid that everyone’s out to get you, but don’t be too quick to trust people either.

  • Don’t get too drunk and watch your drinks carefully when you’re at a bar or club. Remember that even bar tenders can be in on any drink-spiking schemes, so be vigilant when they pour your drink. If you’re sitting at a table and a waitress is bringing the drinks to you, she should be opening your beer bottle at the table. And finally, never get so drunk that you can’t make your own way home.
  • Study your map before venturing out of your hotel. Keep a folded up/pocket size map for reference if you need it, or have directions written out on an inconspicuous piece of paper.
  • If you’re lost, ask for directions from other women or families, or enter a shop and ask for help from the shopkeeper. You still need to be careful as even women could take advantage of you (by trying to pickpocket you, for example), but by approaching people who seem safer, you at least reduce your risk.
  • Always appear confident, even when you’re lost or confused. If someone sees your concern and randomly offers to help you, it’s usually best to decline, as you simply don’t know what their intentions are. Find someone else of your own choosing to help you.
  • Avoid traveling on overnight trains by yourself, especially ones that involve you riding in a sleeping cabin with others.
  • When traveling on subways, ride in the women-only carriage if there is one. Many Muslim countries have these facilities to prevent women from being groped or leered at.
  • If local trains are empty (e.g. late at night) travel in the guard’s compartment whenever possible. These are often marked by a light.
  • Only catch official or clearly marked taxis.
  • This should be obvious, but it bears repeating: don’t hitchhike. Despite the many travelers who will inevitably boast about having hitchhiked without a problem time and time again, there’s always someone with a horror story. Don’t let yourself become one of them.

Mind your belongings

Personal safety is of course your priority, but no one wants to deal with the hassle of stolen wallets and passports while they’re abroad. Deter theft with these tips:

  • Always keep your purse with you, for example, have it on your lap when you’re sitting in a restaurant. When you’re on a plane, your purse should be with you by your seat, not in the overhead bins. Take it with you to the bathroom as well.
  • Wear a cross body bag to prevent purse snatching. If you must carry a shoulder bag, wear it on the side of your body that’s away from the road – in case of drive-by purse-snatchers.
  • Stash money in places other than just your handbag. For example, if you have a bra with removable padding – take the padding out and use the space for cash.
  • Don’t wear expensive jewelry. You don’t want to make yourself a target for theft. There’s plenty of fun costume jewelry you can wear instead – just make sure it doesn’t look like real gold.
  • Travel light. If you’re juggling lots of luggage, you might end up with strangers offering to carry your bag – which they can then run off with, or use as an excuse to accompany you to your hotel room. Take just one bag that you can carry yourself.

 

General safety advice

 

Ultimately, staying safe is about using some common sense. Here are a few final thoughts:

  • Try to arrange your flights and transport so you don’t arrive in a new place late at night.
  • Have a small amount of cash with you when you arrive in a city so you won’t have to hunt around for an ATM at night, or in an unsavory part of the city.
  • Some places are fine to wander about during the day but become unsafe after dark. Make sure you note what time sunset is so you can plan accordingly.
  • Know a few useful words in the local language, for example, ‘help’.
  • Trust your instincts. If your gut tells you something’s not right, listen to it.
  • Don’t let your guard down because you think you’re in a safe city or country. If you wouldn’t walk down a dark alley in your hometown, why do it when traveling?
  • Keep in touch with family back home. Make sure they have your itinerary and know your plans.

Okay. So you’ve probably finished this article and are thinking, “Jeez, that’s all I have to worry about? I can’t wait to walk around by myself dressed in my nun’s outfit, cross-body bag and sunglasses with cash stashed down my bra and the cops on speed dial as I look over my shoulder every five seconds. Sign me up!”

I know this was a loooong list of things to be wary of, but the point wasn’t to frighten anyone off from traveling – it was to show you that there are ways of countering the vast majority of threats you might face as a solo female traveler. Truth be told, most of these things become second nature after a while, and if you’ve grown up in a big city, chances are many of them already are.

So don’t let the lack of a travel partner hold you back from seeing the world. It’s really not as scary as it sounds.

 

What do you think? What other tips or tactics have you found useful for staying safe on the road?

 

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