Safety Tips and Stories from 23 Solo Women Travelers
Fairly often people make comments about my adventures such as, “Women can’t do what you do” or “this lifestyle is very dangerous for a woman” or “you can only do this because you are a man.” There are undoubtedly some risks that women deal with much more frequently than men but I still believe that women can travel safely and can even travel solo. I’ve met 100s of women who are living proof of this all over the world and in my own country. I’ve met women solo cycling across the United States, women backpacking through Latin America, frolicking SE Asia, and volunteering in Africa. I’m certain that women can do what I do.
I want to help people to understand the risks for women and how they can manage them and travel independently and freely if they’d like to. However, since I am not a female I am not the most qualified person to write on this topic. So to get help I made a post on Facebook asking for the input of experienced women who could share their personal stories and advice. Here is what they wanted me to share with you:
In my experience, it’s all about conscious discernment. Openness, but with a strong filter. It’s also very much about knowing how to very firmly say “no” to the ride, to the place to stay, to the date – to whatever doesn’t feel 100% completely right.
-Morgan Bolender, www.morganbolender.com.
I traveled alone in Nepal. I made a few risky moves as a female, but I was A-OK in the end. I traveled to the border of Nepal/India on a bus by myself. Generally females in that culture do not travel by themselves so I got a lot of stares and muttering by the mostly male population on the bus. I would recommend flying if you can or taking a train and sitting near female passengers for safety and comfort. Just as long as you are on your guard, you will be ok. Also, depending on which part of the world you are in you can always make new friends because there are plenty of tourists just like yourself.
At the age of 14 I fearlessly traveled from Moscow to Petrozavodsk on a 14-hour train journey all by myself. It was the first of many solo travels all over the world. At 17 I went to Tokyo. At 21 [I went] back to northern Russia for six months of winter. I was robbed… twice. Both times by very nice people who did not physically harm me. Mostly I remember always believing that everything would turn out okay. So far, it always has.
-Rachael Scott, www.rachaelscottbodywork.com
I went backpacking solo without a car in 2009 around the US and Canada – it can be done! I used couchsurfing and ride sharing on craigslist. I hitchhiked on the islands – it’s a form of transportation! Biggest tips – meet in public, the Internet is an amazing tool – you need a mobile device or computer, search who you stay with or ride with! Many females tend to only travel with other females. I actually stayed and drove with a lot of men and had nothing but great experiences. You need to be on guard, and aware of your surroundings. Know where you’re going and the route to get there. Tell people who you’re with and where you’re going! Take pictures of their car and license plate. Plan check-ins with family and friends. Stay with family and friends, or friends of friends. But strangers are friends you haven’t met yet. Develop your judgment and sense of character. Hide your cash close to your person. Don’t flash it in public or in front of travel companions. Have hidden compartments. Carry a day bag with your valuables. Travel light. Use a travel lock. Trust, and have faith in human kind. But be wary and aware. Read reviews of people on social media platforms. Don’t drink or do drugs when traveling. Have confidence. Blend in and make friends with the locals. Act like you belong, and you will!
I am traveling the world by myself at 70 years old. I feel more and more comfortable doing this. Life becomes a daily miracle.
-Cristina Terre, cterreacupuncture.com
People who say that women aren’t safe in the world watch too much US American TV… They are all designed to make people think they aren’t safe in their own homes so they need protection. Fear is the best money maker.
I’ve probably traveled 40,000 miles alone, with small children, and have never had a problem. Though I have left a couple places that creeped me out. Use your gut feeling, intuition, God’s voice or whatever you want to call it. And like my father used to say “Don’t ever act like you’ve never been anywhere.” Interpretation… walk with your head up, walk with authority, and if you have to check maps, info, etc… do it in private.
Trust your intuition always! Never compromise on your beliefs.
-Gwendolyn Mccomsey, www.lancasterdoulas.com
I’m 2,500 miles into a bike ride across the U.S. as a 21-year-old “woman.” Many people have been nicer to me than they would be to a guy, and not once have I felt threatened because of my gender. The scariest part of a bike trip is dogs. I stayed in a poor town in St Lucia last winter where I was the only non-native female and besides being called beautiful and hit on constantly (part of their culture, even grandmothers from their porches would “catcall” as we US Americans title it) it was a humbling and freeing experience becoming part of their culture and natural beauty for a little while.
Did a lot of hitchhiking in my early twenties… it was a different world then. Common sense and trusting my instincts have gotten me out of a few troubling instances.
-Catherine Gladys Crompton
This is a discussion I have had frequently during my cross-country bicycle travels over the past three years. I do not believe in “random acts of violence”. Most people who choose to be aggressive assess their targets over a period of time to determine their vulnerability in part because being aggressive invites an aggressive response and most would-be attackers are going to give at least some attention to the risk of being harmed themselves. Consequently, there is a big difference between a woman who runs through the park every day at 6:30 am in shorts and a tank top (a) being predictable, and b) showing that she is not carrying any weapons and maybe not even a cell phone), and a woman on a heavily loaded bicycle passing through a town. In my own case, I am carrying so much gear that the possibility of my carrying something I could use as a weapon is pretty high, so even if a potential aggressor were to notice me at all, they’d have to take that into consideration. In addition, I think there is actually something a bit intimidating in and of itself about a woman being out on her own. As a woman who does this, I get the feeling I project the kind of demeanor that says, “I’m not a person to be messed with” or to be made a “victim”. At the same time, in order to share my message about “Waging Peace” I have to also be open to engaging with people should they approach me. So, again, I do not believe in “random acts of violence” and have not suffered from any in the 2,000 + miles and many months I have been on the road so far. However, I do wholeheartedly believe in “random acts of kindness” and have been the perpetrator and beneficiary of those acts over and over and over again!
Best tip I could think of is…. women, have a plan! Study and do your research of areas you will be traveling. Inform yourself if only for awareness alone. This will have you planted firmly.
Don’t try to negotiate room rates in developing nations… I did this in Bali and let’s just say he wanted something in return. He cornered me in the room, trying to hug me and pull me closer. I got out quickly but some women aren’t as tall and strong as me so it’s a good idea to take the price as is and lock your door before you go to sleep.
I am 70 years old and traveled ~9,000 miles over two months this past summer with my kayak and camping gear. I had such a good time I may do it again next summer and take my bike too.
-Anne B Barnard
I have found the kindness of others to be overwhelming sometimes. Once, while studying for a summer at the University of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, I boarded my usual bus from the market back to where I was staying. What I didn’t know was that for some reason, this bus had changed its route that evening. Not a single person on the bus spoke English, and I soon found myself in a rural village where I was obviously less than welcome as a white, non-Swahili speaking woman. One kind man on the bus saw that I was in a sticky situation, so he sat next to me and motioned to ask if I had a cell phone. I did, thankfully. I was able to call someone at the university who spoke to the man in Swahili to explain where I needed to go. The man then went to the bus driver and worked out a safe way for me to get back to where I needed to be. He then stayed with me until I was back to safe surroundings. Kindness and generosity transcends any and all barriers!
It’s funny how it’s men who have the most negative opinions about women’s real/perceived safety. The thing is, even though we are not always in danger we do always have to be vigilant and prepared and it is exhausting. That one time we let our guard down, something does happen and we have to decide whether or not to deal with a legal system that will make us relive the circumstances as well as defend our behavior. Quite frankly, most men who make asinine remarks about women’s safety are not cut out to be women – they don’t have the fortitude.
I’ve travelled very often on my own as well as moving to two countries with two small children. I do not lack self-confidence. I try to be wise about the level of risk I’m willing to expose myself to and err on the side of caution if I have no other information.
I’ve traveled to nearly 30 countries now, most of which on my own. Traveling solo has given me more freedom to change my plans along the way than if I had to consider someone else’s preferences. I’ve also found that as a woman, people are attracted to your story- where you’re from, what you’re doing, where you’re headed. Many find a woman traveling on her own almost more interesting than she finds herself, which is both empowering and a testament to her and what she’s doing. You have to be smart, instead of foolish, but of course you should do that anyway. Solo travel, like many unconventional things, is an evolving growing pain no woman should avoid; you have to be willing to push yourself. I’m an outgoing person by trade, but still have to pull my own heels out of the ground at times; it’s so easy to dig them in when navigating through unfamiliar territory. Nonetheless, it’s those nights with backpackers at that discotec in Cusco, or that motorcycle ride along a hillside in central Rwanda, that I’ll never forget. Not only because of how spontaneous and exhilarating the experiences were, but because of how much I grew from them.
–Lauren de Remer, www.laurenderemer.com
There doesn’t need to be a specific how to step guide on traveling. Grab a travel book, read it and decide from there what places you want to see. Use your intuition and if something doesn’t seem right, don’t do it. Know that you are more at risk driving in your car than you are walking on the beach alone in Mexico. The leading cause of death for people under 34 is car accidents.
I think there is always some fear in us and the best way to deal with that feeling for me is (after some experience giving into it) to sit with it and really understand what exactly I am scared of. Where it comes from and how much of it actually makes sense. Mostly I find that I am scared of something in the future that may or may not happen. I go with the “may not” and follow my gut.
When times are tough, I tell myself, “this too shall pass” and when I am scared of something happening, I ask myself “Right now, you are OK, but what is your gut feeling about this? If you have a good gut feeling and if you go a little bit further will you still be OK? Let’s try… and a little bit further? Lets try!’ I also think it is unwise to make quick decisions when one is hungry and tired. Stop and think before being desperate!
I would say there is, here and there, this skewed idea that women are, by nature, always or often weak, vulnerable or easy prey. Truthfully, they can be, as can men or children. But ultimately, I think most people often see past biased notions and still recognize the individual. When seen as an individual we have the opportunity to be seen as we see ourselves, given the way we carry ourselves and based on our words, behaviors and attitudes. Personally, I think it’s often how we see ourselves that adds to or alleviates how vulnerable or not we really are. If I feel and believe I am strong and safe, I convey strength rather than vulnerability or weakness, thus not making myself such a target.
For me, I can come about this feeling or believing I am rather safe in a number of ways.
One way is through actual safety precautions, which to me means being thoughtful about when and where I go alone rather than carrying mace or the like. Another is by experience. While traveling alone, in time, you learn how to better handle or avoid the slightest questionable or compromising situation. Additionally, trusting some in my own physical strength, even just my ability to walk away or to run from a situation. But above all that, I find this sense of safety mainly in my attitude and perception.
However the saying goes, if we see the world as a threatening place it can often be. Yet, if we see the world as a safe-ish place, it very much can be too. Granted I’m of the naturally positive, optimistic persuasion, but I’ve had a slew of life experiences to back up my point of view. You have to have a good deal of trust in yourself and faith in humanity to see the world as an overall safe and unthreatening place. Clearly some places are statistically safer than others, and I’ve been to some more and less safe places, but purposefully choose not to go solo to places that have a reputation for crime or violence. In that situation, perhaps take a partner or consider going elsewhere. And once there, be very mindful of how you portray yourself and how you perceive and speak to others.
I’ve learned to speak confidently when I feel a little uneasy. Passing by or approached by a stranger that instinctually triggers a bit of fear or hesitation in me, I opt to speak up and be calmly assertive, rather than look down or passively shy away. I offer a friendly greeting; maybe ask in a pretty genuine way how they’re doing. Ask a simple, friendly question. Convey that I am sober, paying attention and rationally not afraid. In other words, do not treat them as a threat. I did this often walking home alone late from arch studio while in school in LA. Since I have learned to do this, I have found in every case that the individual was in fact not a threat to me, or did not threaten me. Maybe, maybe, someone thought to harm me but then did not. Maybe I deterred him or her. Or, maybe the person was truly harmless all along. It’s not only possible but also logical to carefully and mindfully craft an approach of trust in the individual and faith in humanity that leaves you both feeling and being safe.
Having worked four years now as a pedicabber, a bicycle taxi rider, I’ve been told I’m crazy or just plain stupid to work long hours and late nights, often until 4, occasionally 5 A.M., out on the streets in a city, period, but particularly as a woman and without carrying a weapon or deterrent like pepper spay. What’s not crazy is knowing my own strength is my weapon and how I talk to others is my deterrent. I’ve never fallen into a situation I couldn’t handle. Many situations I could have handled better, but at least I preserved my safety. I recognize an abnormal act of violence or an unusual accident could happen at any time and put me at serious risk or cause great harm. That is always the case in life, but that’s also why I am particularly aware of my surroundings when working, or while traveling alone, often via bike or the occasional hitch hiking.
After a good number of adventures by bike for days, weeks, even months on end, I’ve found I seem no less safe on my own or as a woman. Not unsurprisingly, some truly good-intentioned people will even go out of their way to ask me if I’m ok or if they can help me in any way. Often the answer is no but thank you kindly. Now, I think at times there is a bit of preferential treatment given to me as a youngish white woman, and I try not to acknowledge or make a thing of it at the time. Just as often as my gender or a little bit of any one thing about me makes me a target of negative attention, it makes me the focus of more positive attention, care or awe. In travel, I see more and more people wanting to help me than hurt me. This is both due to my unearned privilege and my well-earned respect.
Maybe lastly I would advise don’t think or act a victim, think and act a self-sufficient, capable person, a warrior, a survivor, or just your everyday well deserving human being. Encourage others to see you as well deserving and suggest that you see them as the same. Also, I cannot stress enough how much I do believe faith in humanity is the best asset we can possess. My faith has been shaken at times, and soared at others, but remains as true to me as the ground I travel upon and the air I breathe.
A friend once told me a tale of a simple commuter bike with the words “faith in humanity” clearly painted on the top tube that was left unlocked and unattended in various parts of St. Louis for over a year without a theft or vandalism. Just brilliant and a wonderful reminder to others. There’s one true story I’ll never forget. Find your own strength and kindness and you will see others’ goodness come to greet you. Not always, but often. Be smart, be strong, have fun and stay safe out there, man or woman.
“Women and Men cannot discover new oceans unless they have the courage to lose sight of the shore”
–Adapted Andre Gide quote
I am tailoring this article to all people not just women. In fact I know more women who travel alone than men. It seems to me that more of my female friends have the urge to go explore and get off the beaten path than the men I know.
This is not being biased; it’s just my personal circle of friends. For example I have flown to Africa six times alone, my brother has never even traveled to a foreign country alone. I encourage all men to a journey of solitude even if it’s not out of the country before they settle down. Traveling Alone = Better Education than you can find in any university.
The first time I went to Africa was 2007; I went alone to volunteer at an orphanage in Uganda for two months. I was 22 years old and my mom was convinced that I would die because I was going to Africa. I walked about unscathed other than the burden of America’s gluttonous existence and how was I going to put my journey into an elevator speech for people to understand. I was transformed yet not. Since I was two years old I knew that I would someday work with orphans, pet a lion and walk the Nile River.
I feel so thankful to be able to shed light on the miss-education of traveling alone and traveling as a woman. I have never learned so much, felt so gratified and fulfilled as I have while traveling alone. Knowing that I have a seven hour layover in
Paris and having the confidence to venture out alone from the airport to the city by train without knowing the language, to see the Pompidou and the staggering architecture of Paris, to walk through the bustling farmers markets, to leave the comforts of my all-inclusive resort to take mopeds into the small villages in Dominican Republic to meet the people on the “other side of the tracks” where dogs and children roam the streets looking for things to eat.
In October 2013 I took a six week trip to Mali, West Africa alone for a consulting job and all of my friends and family were up in a roar about Ebola; which in fact did come rather close to me, a block away to be exact. A few of my friends refused to see me for twenty-one days until I was out of my incubation period. I was not afraid to go to Mali and if I had been I would have missed one of the greatest experiences I have had thus far. I worked with an NGO for Sanitation, and taught people how to run their own business selling concrete slabs for toilets. I return again next month and cannot wait!
I attribute all of this to FEAR. Right outside of your comfort zone is where growth occurs. I used to hear this a lot in my book training with the Southwestern Company and I hold dear to this statement. It has helped me reach farther than most people in the travel arena.
*Have a plan of what you would like to get out of your trip but keep it loose.
*Go where your feet take you
*Buddy system when walking at night
*Find people you can trust, women, seek out local women in the areas where you
are traveling and ask to know their culture or their craft.
*Be interested not just interesting….
*Don’t carry a purse; always have a small leather sling containing your important documents that you can hide under clothes or keep close to your body.
*Let people help you and do kind things for you
*Follow your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right don’t take the risk if you are alone.
*Make friends often
*Don’t buy a bunch of things when traveling alone
*Drink tons of clean water, stay hydrated
*Stay of sound clean mind.
*Almost all countries give cash withdrawals of the LOCAL currency out of ATMS, so have very small amounts of cash on you at a time – no need to worry about bringing cash for currency exchanges.
I have been travelling between jobs for many years, spending anything from a few months to a year on the road. In my twenties I worked at summer camps in the USA, and traversed the States extensively by bus afterwards. I also took a yearlong round the world trip, starting off with a friend, but going separate ways half way through. Since then, I have travelled mainly with my partner, Teresa, and we have created a blog http://journeyjunkies.co.uk detailing our travels and hopefully inspiring others, who are considering a similar path. My experience of being a female traveler has been overwhelmingly positive. Ironically, my worst experience took place when Teresa and I were travelling with three male friends in Lima, and we were car jacked when our taxi stopped at some traffic lights in Lima.
Whenever I have felt fear in my travels, it turned out to be totally unfounded. In Mexico, my friend and I became stranded in the desert when the tire blew on our car. We took a risk when two men stopped and offered to take us to the nearest town so that we could purchase a tire, promising to return us to the car and change it for us. As there wasn’t much passing traffic, we hopped in the back of their car and off we went. Mariachi played on the radio as they took us to a dusty house in the middle of nowhere. At this point my hand was on the door of the car, and I was ready to jump out and start running across the Sonoran Desert. It transpired that one of guys just wanted to pop in to let his wife know that he would be late home! True to their word, these two kind men took us back to our car and changed the tire for us.
This was not an isolated experience, but one of many positive experiences I have had whilst travelling both alone and with female friends.
I have visited India several times. Although a solo female traveler will draw much attention, it rarely feels threatening. Indian men will often surreptitiously take photographs of western women on their cell phones, and sometimes just stare. It can be annoying, but the best ploy is to ignore it and carry on walking.
I am not naive, and know that not every woman who goes out into the world is as lucky as I have been. All I can say is that in thirty years of travels, I haven’t been in any situations that I have found exceedingly threatening or frightening on account of my being female. Common sense, intuition and not putting yourself in a vulnerable situation obviously helps, but the fact is that when you are travelling, you quite often have to put your trust in people. In the vast majority of cases the people you put your trust in turn out to be helpful, kind and genuine.
TIPS/ADVICE FOR WOMEN TRAVELERS
1) When travelling in India, it’s a good idea to wear a wedding ring or say that you are married, especially if you are over thirty. You will receive looks of shock, horror and pity if you are discovered to be without husband!
2) When arriving in a city that you don’t know (especially at nighttime), take an official taxi. Mexico City, for example, is known for its 20,000 pirate taxis, which operate outside the law and are considered to be dangerous to use.
3) If you are in a dodgy area, walk confidently and give the impression that you know where you are going (even if you don’t!) Don’t make eye contact.
4) Dress appropriately according to local custom to avoid drawing attention to yourself. 5) In some countries e.g. Malaysia, the trains have separate carriages for women. Take advantage of this option, as it is safer.
–Ku King, www.kingsue53.wix.com
During my teens and twenties I hitchhiked, lived in a car, and camped outside in cities on rooftops or in un-designated sections of woods or beaches. I tried it all solo at times, too, throughout the Americas, Europe & Asia. It was amazing… I but want to share a word of caution.
I was approachable and petite so I got lots of attention, much positive and welcoming, but tired of unwanted attention, I eventually slowed down. I have scary stories, but made it out of every situation. The situations weren’t fun and could have gone other ways, not because of poor choices – I was savvy and intuitive- but because circumstances could have made me more vulnerable.
I wouldn’t trade the experience- it gave me the insights and wisdom to know I have an obligation to seek platforms for change and connectivity. I also had many more lovely experiences that gave me faith in humanity’s potential. But I encourage other women to always be mindful. I knew savvy, strong women or over-confident ones who sometimes ended up in the wrong place. Even streetwise women, with beauty concealed behind the hardness of their life, are assaulted. Men are targeted, too. Experience is not a guaranteed protection, given remarkable global disparities, and especially in border towns. But most people everywhere are fairly decent, so I wouldn’t discourage solo travel.
When carefree it’s easy to forget we travelers are cultural ambassadors or promoters of global citizenship. Our riskier actions and choices can perpetuate perceptions that leave us targeted. But when thoughtful and at least minimally cautious, I also believe travel and cultural exchange brings out our best wisdom and potential. And sometimes you get to hitch a ride on a biplane.
–Renee Bogin, PDXFoodRecovery
A final note from me:
As I said I am not here to give the advice myself as I am not the most qualified person to do so, but I do feel that I can offer one small word of advice. That is, if you are worried about your security, then set up your lodging in advance and use websites that will connect you to the locals and their culture. I highly suggest couchsurfing, WWOOF, Warm Showers, Workaway, and Helpx. Check their references and do your research and that way you’ll have a welcoming place to start your adventure in each new place that you visit. I hope the personal stories, experience, and advice of these 23 women have served you well and will encourage you to chase your dreams and do it in a way that you feel confident and secure.