Six Guiding Principles for the Solo Traveling Woman
I’ve known that I wanted to travel since I first started moving around as a kid. I grew up in a military family that moved around all the time. I moved seven times in seven years, enough that I got used to being the new kid in school. While I resented it at the time, as I got older, I realized how lucky I was to have such a diversity of experiences. I got to live in a range of climates across the US — from the sands of Hawaii to the mountains of Washington state and lowlands of North Carolina. I made a ton of friends. The whole experience made me adaptable and prepared me for adulthood in ways I never could have anticipated. When I became old enough to survive on my own, I knew I had to keep a good thing going.
I enlisted in the Navy and saved up for six years while I traveled for work. I got to experience the desert heat of the Middle East, and live in sunny SoCal for a year. I ate fish and chips on a port call in London and got to live in the idyllic Saratoga Springs, NY for a while. Still, it wasn’t enough. As I was prepared to separate, I started looking into solo travel.
If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that sometimes you can’t wait for other people, or for that perfect time, to live out your dreams. I didn’t know anyone else who wanted to drop everything for a year to travel or was willing to spend their life savings on this goal like I was. And that’s perfectly okay. But if you’re like me, you know what it’s like to have that itch that can only be scratched by taking in a new and exciting place.
I separated from the Navy in November. Unfortunately, I’m also one of those people that hates the cold. The thought of going to Europe in the winter intimidated me. So I started looking into trips to the southern hemisphere, where it was summertime.
I will be the first person to admit that, as someone from the US, I hold a lot of biases about other parts of the world. One of those biases was definitely: “South America is dangerous.” The US Department of State loves to slap Level 4 Travel Advisories (aka Do Not Travel) on Latin American countries for reasons like kidnapping, crime, and civil unrest. My friends and family told me I was crazy going there alone, especially as a woman.
But I started to read the stories of other women who traveled solo, women like Adventurous Kate and Be My Travel Muse. I realized that if they could do it, why couldn’t I? Why is it more dangerous to travel as a woman than a man?
I’m not here to unpack the bias, justified or no, people born in the US have against other parts of the world, although we sure need to be critical of these biases. I’m also not here to delve into gender relations. There are some questions we all need to be asking ourselves. Why is violence against women still so pervasive? Why are many of us inclined to believe that traveling alone as a woman is particularly reckless or unsafe? I also want to acknowledge that traveling as a cis woman is different than traveling as a trans woman. While I can’t offer any advice on that, what I can say is that I have felt unsafe while traveling. I do believe that some situations were unsafe for me by virtue of my gender identity, and that’s not okay.
It’s frustrating reading and writing lists like these because I strongly believe that lists like these shouldn’t need to exist in the first place. I dislike the idea of placing responsibility on women to keep themselves safe when the perpetrators are often men. This advice isn’t meant to victim-blame. With that said, here’s what I’ve personally learned as a woman who’s traveled alone. FYI, a lot of these tips can apply to everyone!
- Keep Your Things Close By
People are far more likely to be victims of pickpocketing than they are to be murdered, kidnapped, etc. Be vigilant about your stuff, too. Make copies of all travel documents, especially your passport, and hide those copies in a different location than where you keep your passport.
Don’t flash expensive electronics and jewelry in public. Pack light so you have less to lose and it’s easier to move around. Keep money in two different places at all times as well. I like to bring two cards, one I keep in my hostel and one I bring with me while sightseeing! Also, definitely invest in a crossbody bag or a fanny pack. Are fanny packs still in by the way? Anyway, keep your hand on your bag in crowded spaces, and don’t keep anything in your pockets (especially your front pockets — but most women don’t have to worry about those because we don’t have them).
Another tip for any of you traveling for longer than a few weeks — ditch the heels and bring a pair of flats. I brought a pair of heels only once, on a three-month trip to Europe, and do you know how many times I wore them? Zero. I was so pooped from walking around every day that the thought of going out in heels at night was torturous. It’s not worth it! Bring flats!
2. Sleep Safe
Trigger Warning: Creepy Dudes
One time, when I was in Rome, I stayed in a six-bed mixed dorm. I met my bunkmate at the bar, who was thoroughly intoxicated. I humored him with conversation for five minutes. He tried giving me not one but three hugs. I let it slide, thinking he was a drunken idiot. We said goodnight, and that was that.
I woke up in the middle of the night to this guy trying to get into my bed. What’s worse, he erected a ‘privacy curtain’ using his sheets around my bed. I screamed and ran out. Because of this, I now stay in women-only dorms when I have the chance. It sucks that it has to be this way, but it’s true. I feel safer in women-only dorms.
Enjoying poetry at Pablo Neruda’s home in Valparaiso, Chile
This person was way out of line, and I’ve felt safe otherwise, but 1/100 hostel experiences going wrong like this were enough to get me to be a little more cautious. I also recommend bringing a door stopper with you to feel extra safe if you’re staying in a private room.
3. Stay Sober and Stay Public
This brings me to my third point. I enjoy a nice cocktail now and then, I will admit, but I try to take it easy when traveling alone to err on the side of caution. This advice applies to everyone, not just women — please don’t walk around alone at night. Use the buddy system if you can, tell people where you’re going, and avoid leaving public places with strangers. We all have needs, so to speak, so if you do find yourself hooking up, trust your intuition! If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. This is one of my favorite articles on the ways women tend to minimize situations that make us uncomfortable. Most of all, we minimize our own discomfort. I know I do, anyway. It’s easier said than done to stop doing this, but please, if you feel uncomfortable, listen to yourself. It can wait.
4. Planning, Planning, Planning
At the very least, I like to plan for my first night in a new destination. Try to arrive while it’s still daytime, if possible. Figure out how you’re going to get to your hostel from whatever airport, bus stop, or train station you arrive at. Take screenshots on your phone of detailed transit instructions, your hostel or hotel’s address, and perhaps even a picture of your route on Google Maps. It’s also worth noting that Google lets you download offline maps, which is super helpful!
I’ve had trips where it was nice to plan every train ride, hostel, and activity beforehand — but I’ve also enjoyed trips where I took it a day at a time. If you’re going to do the latter, rigorously plan your first night and go from there. I always like to have the first night booked.
Another pro tip: if you’re lost or in a pickle and in desperate need of WiFi, McDonald’s and 7/11 are two fool-proof free WiFi options, anywhere you go! I know 7/11 isn’t as common outside of the US and Japan, from my experience, but McDonald’s is everywhere.
Pink lakes in Bolivia
Oh, and research local scams before you go somewhere. More on this shortly.
5. Be Social and Be Rude
If you’ve ever been to the Sacré-Cœur in Paris or the Duomo in Milan, you’re probably familiar with the guys I call “ bracelet men.” It’s a classic scam in which someone will approach you, place a bracelet on your wrist without your consent, and then ask you to pay for it. I personally hate being touched. Having a stranger grab my arm or shoulder is very unpleasant for me as I’m sure it would be for anyone. Don’t be afraid to be rude. If someone is approaching you in the street and being friendly, they’re probably trying to sell you something. I’ve read stories of people falling for the bracelet scam and then being coerced into withdrawing money from an ATM.
I’m from the South, and it’s been deeply ingrained in me to be polite and kind to everyone. But sometimes, I’ve realized, I have to be assertive. I don’t make eye contact with people in the street, try to walk with confidence, and keep walking if someone tries to approach me. Sometimes you might be rude doing this, of course, but I’ve found it’s a method that works for me more often than not.
6. Have Fun
Most of all, have fun. I know this list was a bit serious, but I hope this doesn’t dissuade you from traveling alone. I’ve been to over fifty countries by myself and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Not only has it been a rewarding experience in itself but I’ve grown a lot. I’ve gotten more confident, assertive, and street-smart. I think most of all, have fun but stay vigilant. This applies not just when traveling, but when at home too. These are tips that can be used anywhere, by anyone. But I hope to inspire other women to travel alone if they want to the way I’ve been inspired by other solo travelers before me. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
Originally published at https://www.roadgoat.com on April 22, 2021.