Dear Solo Female Traveller,
You are awesome and courageous and brave. Whatever your age, whatever your reason for going on your journey, I admire you.
If you’re from the western world where feminist thought abounds, it might be hard to think about your vulnerabilities – to recognize that there are ways that you are disadvantaged as a woman travelling. That there are things you’ll have to think about more so just because you’re a woman.
This thought might anger you. It might enrage you. It might make you so angry that you don’t actually want to do things differently because you’re a woman.
Dear Solo Female Traveller, I’m here to tell you that there is power in that vulnerability. It isn’t anti-feminism or inherently bad to do things differently to keep yourself safe. Sadly, it isn’t an equal world. But remember – you are going against the grain by travelling independently. And there are things you can do to keep yourself safer.
Here are a few of my tips for you to keep yourself happy and safe!
1) RECOGNIZE YOUR VULNERABILITIES
The first step is recognizing your vulnerabilities and committing to putting your safety first. And I don’t just mean gender. Your skin tone, hair colour, eye colour, body shape…what will make you “stand out” where you’re going? Awareness is the first step.
2) RESPECT THE DARK & ADAPT ACCORDINGLY
You are always safer during the day. Be careful at night. Always carry your cell phone with you, keep the address of where you’re going and where you must return close at heart, and try to mentally memorize the path you’re taking. I often take pictures of my street, and streets on the way to where I’m going. If I get lost, I can show someone a picture. Even if we don’t speak the same language, if they recognize it, they can help!
Also avoid visiting the ATM at night. There might be a guard at the machine, but who knows who was watching you take out that wad of cash?! Also, as soon as you get to a location, find out from someone trustworthy (i.e. guesthouse keeper) what time the night becomes more unsafe. In Dar es Salaam I was back by 10 pm; in Lilongwe, by dusk; in Thailand where I am right now, it’s 8 pm. Listen to locals as your guide…and trust them!
3) ADOPT THE ‘DRIVER’S ED.’ APPROACH TO SEEING
Remember in driver’s ed when your instructor taught you about peripheral vision: you look straight ahead, but you engage your peripheral vision so that you can really see everything that’s happening around you. In a lot of countries, women get stared at A LOT! To stare back can be either cultural inappropriate or considered flirtatious. Learn to stare straight ahead but know what’s going on around you.
4) TAKE LIGHT-HEARTED ADVANCES LIGHTLY
Most men you’ll meet on your travels are kind. If they ask you to marry them or out on a date, whether or not they’re serious, a polite decline is normally fine. However, an angry decline may result in an angry response. In some places, ignoring the person will invite them to follow you and keep trying. Learn the culturally best approach for where you are, but never should the response be anger. You never know who you’re dealing with.
Before I was married, I found light-hearted response like “What?! I’d be a terrible wife for you – I can’t even cook your __(insert name of local dish)__” very helpful. I’ve had unmarried friends wear wedding rings to avoid flirtation. Do what works for you best suiting your travel location.
5) USE LOCAL WOMEN!
Often when we travel to countries where women are especially marginalized, it’s easier to communicate with men because they speak the trade language (i.e. French, English). But there is the concept of non-verbal communication that bonds us women wherever we go. Not feeling comfortable about a situation? Find a local woman! Even through nods and gestures, if you can’t communicate verbally, you can tell her you’re concerned and she can either direct you to safety, get help from someone else with her local language knowledge, or even let you sit with her until you feel comfortable. Women understand women and safety! Don’t ignore the woman working at the market or simply walking by with her child…she can help!
Local women also give you the dress code. Some people will disagree with me I know, but dressing as the local women can not only be culturally appropriate, but also lessen your vulnerabilities. Not necessarily exactly what they’re wearing, but something of similar showing. What might be a good outfit in your country, may be highly suggestive/provocative where you’re going. My advice? Try to blend in, not stand out.
6) DON’T LOOK LOST
Read maps inside a shop. Tell the taxi driver to start going somewhere before you call the hotel for further direction – don’t sit in the taxi looking lost. Look confident and like you know where you’re going, even if you don’t.
7) NEVER CARRY WHAT YOU WOULDN’T WANT TO LOSE
I once had a thief laugh at me and forget robbing me because he had never seen a foreigner carrying such little cash. Scared of robbery? Have nothing to rob! Feel like you are in a place where you should keep some extra cash with you for those ‘just in case’ moments (I hear ya!)? Hide it well! A favourite spot I learned from a friend? Make a little slit in your bra. You could easily carry $200 without anyone ever knowing.
8) DON’T LET ON THAT YOU’RE ALONE UNTIL YOU TRUST SOMEONE
Think about your backstory and stick to it: “my friends are coming.” “my husband’s just next door shopping.” “can I get a table for 2?….ope he’s running late.”
9) AVOID THE SAME DAILY ROUTE
Take new routes, new roads, new places home, new bus schedules, new running routes. Don’t establish a routine that someone could get to know.
10) ALWAYS BE ON GUARD AT FIRST
I don’t mean paranoid. Most people you meet are decent people. But don’t give away a wad of personal information to just anyone. Make sure they earn it through trust. I once had a travel agent use my personal information to try to connect with me outside of our business relationship. Don’t trust your small hostel? Give a fake address. Want to be polite but get the guy to leave? Give a fake phone number.
11) ASK! ASK! ASK!
Find a local person that you can trust and get their advice – what time is too late to be out? what areas should I avoid? cabs or tuk-tuks – what’s the safest way home? can I take a bus after dark? what are the safest neighbourhoods? what bars should I avoid? etc., etc.
12) USE YOUR GUT INSTINCT
You are smart. You are lovely. You are an intelligent woman who has organized herself enough to independently travel somewhere new. We women have been blessed with an intuition…USE IT! These above tips are great, but they are just suggestions – not a guide for every single encounter you will face.
Use your intuition! Don’t worry about being rude or inappropriate. I don’t care if the person you’re with is the son of your roommate, the cousin of your boss, the taxi driver always used by the hostel…if someone or something doesn’t feel right to you, use your instinct and get out! Politely walk away.
Dear Solo Female Traveller,
I wish you the most wonderful time, exploring the world! Be safe! Happy travels!
And if you have an extra question about travelling as a solo woman that you don’t feel comfortable asking in the public comments section, feel free to drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wishing you all the best in your travels,