One of the most frequently asked questions I get when I talk to people about travel is why I’m not afraid to travel solo as a woman. Part of the reason is that I tend to travel to relatively safe places, particularly if I’m travelling alone. Of all the places I’ve been, I’ve only felt unsafe (because of my gender) twice: one when two drunk men followed me whilst I was in London for the first time, and one when a man followed and grabbed me whilst I was visiting a friend in Bonn.
I won’t sugar coat traveling as a solo female. Although I’ve never encountered serious problems, it can be quiet intimidating, particularly when you’re 5ft5 and not particularly strong/intimidating looking. Even if you never encounter any serious issues, the potential of them happening still has to be taken into consideration. That said, I definitely recommend travelling alone if it’s something you want to do, regardless of your gender.
I thought I’d share a few of my tips with you in case they’re useful for anyone. Some of them are pretty standard and apply regardless of gender, but others are definitely more woman-oriented.
1. Research: This is a pretty standard tip, but I think it’s especially important if you’re traveling as a solo female. Check out sites like Smartraveller and government websites for official tips, but also scour forums and blogs for information from women who have visited/live in the countries you want to visit. In particular:
– See if there are any dress codes you should follow: do you need to wear a crew neck tshirt rather than a v-neck? Can you wear short shorts and mini skirts?
– Will you be expected to cover your hair when visiting religious sites (if it’s standard practice for women to cover their hair day to day you might want to consider doing the same so you don’t stand out as a foreigner).
– Will you be safe walking around after dark, or should you plan to finish your sightseeing by sunset?
– Is it culturally appropriate for you to hug/shake hands with/hold hands with men (or women) in public, or is touching between people of different genders frowned upon?
– Is there a woman’s only floor in your hotel (some hotels do this, you need card access to get out onto it so only the women staying on your floor and female staff can access it) that you’d be more comfortable staying on? Can you stay in a female-only room in your hostel?
Understanding cultural expectations and laws related to women (as well as general laws) and packing accordingly can help avoid unwanted attention once you’re there. Also, this should go without saying, but if the place you’re planning on visiting has high rates of sexual violence against women or you might be unsafe, reconsider your plans or travel with as a group or with an organised tour!
2. Understand cultural attitudes/behaviours: This relates to the above tip. For example, I knew that Italian men are typically more forwards with romantic advances, but that they’ll also (usually) back off if you’re not interested. Knowing this meant that when men flirted with me in Italy I didn’t immediately view it as a threat – it was more an extension of cultural friendliness. Understanding how men and women interact in the places you’re visiting will help to prepare you for what to expect (and what is harmless vs threatening) whilst you’re traveling.
3. Learn the language: Now I’m not saying you have to be fluent, but being able to get around without relying on English (or your first language) really helps you to blend in. In some countries being a foreigner can make you a target for pickpocketing and other forms of crime, so being able to order food or catch a tram in the local language will stop you from sticking out. Also, in my experience it’s a lot more rewarding when you challenge yourself to speak as much German/Japanese/Arabic as possible. At the very least learn the basics (hello, goodbye, yes, no, please, thank you, do you speak English?).
4. Consider wearing a fake wedding ring: I know a lot of women do this when travelling alone, and I’ve definitely slipped my rings from A onto my left hand on occasion. It doesn’t have to be flashy (in fact it’s probably better if it’s not), but a simple gold or silver band and maybe a fake engagement ring can definitely help ward off some unwanted attention. Additionally, in my experience men are far less likely to consistently harass you if you mention you’re engaged or married than just ‘in a relationship’ or single. I don’t really know why this is the case, but whenever I’ve been hit on or harassed by men whilst travelling they stopped if I said ‘I have a husband’. Of course, if you feel confident enough to travel around without a ‘wedding’ ring, then go ahead! Just carrying a ring with you in your bag might make you feel better if, for whatever reason, you feel like you need it.
5. Have a working phone and know who to call: When I was on Topdeck barely anyone had an international/local sim card in their phones, and it literally made no sense. International sim cards are available at most post offices or travel centres, or even better you can pick up a local sim when you arrive at the airport or from local stores (depending on where you are you might need your passport but most countries sell prepaid ones that are readily available). I would NEVER travel without a sim that worked in the countries I was in. You can usually get a sim that has a set amount of data, which you won’t regret paying for when you’re lost in a foreign country and need to know how to get back to your hotel. Make sure you have local emergency numbers, as well as your insurance, emergency contact, hotel/hostel, and taxi numbers saved in your phone so you can access them easily. You never know when you’ll need to contact someone, and it’s better to have the numbers and credit ready and never use it than to be stuck in a situation where you can’t call for help. When I was in Europe most taxi drivers gave me their cards (if they spoke English) so I could call them up and travel with them, I definitely think this is a good idea if you feel comfortable with the taxi driver (and they speak your language).
6. Carry some sort of alarm/protection: I’m not saying carry around pepper spray or a mace or anything like that (in some countries you won’t even be able to get them through security), but having a ‘rape alarm’ (they must have a more official name than that) is definitely a good idea. My friend gave me hers when she left Edinburgh before I went travelling, and it’s great. There’s a button to press for light, another button to sound the alarm, and you can even pull out the lanyard to make it go off continuously until you plug the lanyard back in again. They’re great for attracting attention, and if you even did feel threatened sounding your alarm would not only attract the attention of literally everyone else around you, but it would also probably deter whoever was bothering you. I’ve never actually had to use mine (although I did wish I had it on me when the man grabbed me in Bonn), but I felt better having it.
7. Keep family and friends updated: Make sure people know where you are. Register on Smartraveller (or your country’s equivalent) before you leave, and send your family/friends regular updates on what you’re doing. If I was going out at night I would always message A to let him know that I was home safely at the end of the night, and he and my parents had a copy of my entire itinerary as well as my travel insurance/passport details. When you’re travelling alone there’s no one around to look out for you, so the next best thing is making sure your family and friends know what’s going on and know that you’re safe.
8. Travel smart: Don’t carry around a huge handbag day-to-day. DON’T leave your handbag open. Avoid wearing ridiculously flashy jewellery in certain places. Maybe don’t wear those 6inch stilettos if you’re going out alone at night. Don’t flash around cash whilst you’re out shopping. Know where your passport is at all times – either carry it securely with you or keep it locked in your suitcase in your room. Follow local laws. You’d think that things like this would be obvious, but I’ve seen (and heard of) too many people who just don’t think and end up having their purse stolen or losing their passport or injuring themselves or just generally ending up in trouble.
9. Enjoy yourself: Travelling alone regardless of your gender is a huge experience. I’ve learnt so much about myself whilst travelling alone (particularly that I don’t like travelling with people, except for A), and I’ve grown so much in confidence. I don’t think that anyone should miss out on the opportunity to travel alone just because of their gender, you just have to be careful. That said, don’t spend your entire trip glancing over your shoulder with your rape alarm ready and your phone set to call the police. Some people are jerks, but most people are either genuinely friendly or too busy going about their own business to care about what you’re doing, particularly if you’re not drawing attention to yourself!
Let me know if you have any other tips I might have missed!