Every solo female traveller faces questions and concerns of personal safety- from friends, family and others. As someone who often travels solo, I have come to realize that the world is largely a safe and welcoming place, people are generally kind and as long as you use your common sense, the solo travel experience is fantastic and rewarding. This is not to say that the fears of loved ones are completely unfounded. Sexual harassment and crimes against women are a grim reality in many parts of the world.
As a woman who likes to travel by myself, I am aware that in some parts of the world, I look like an easy target because of my gender. But it’s unacceptable to not do something I really love because of fear. The value that solo travel brings is far greater than the risk involved; it would be foolish to ignore the fact that the number of times I’ve experienced warmth, compassion and the kindness of strangers is far greater than the unpleasant or scary incidents.
Sometimes travelling solo seems like such an incredibly empowering experience that it can be easy to let your guard down and get carried away by the need to socialize, meet new people and just enjoy the journey. Often, caution is confused with paranoia but it’s important to remember that you’re responsible for your own safety and so you should do what you need to do to feel safe.
Here are some tips- things that I have learnt and habits that I’ve developed over time that help me feel confident and can do the same for you, whether you’re starting out on a week-long trip or a longer journey.
1. Do Your Research
Awareness is one of the most important ways to protect yourself. Avoid travelling solo to places known for high incidences of crimes against women or foreigners. I say this purely from a safety perspective but if you want to champion your right to go wherever you wish- that’s upto you. Know the areas or streets of the city that should be avoided and those where petty crimes, mugging or drug peddling are known to occur. Always ask your hosts, hotel or hostel staff what is a good time in the evening to be back and know what time stores shut. Have a basic idea of routes, transport options and times. Make sure you know how to return to your accommodation- address, landmarks, and local names. Keep their contact number handy so that you can call them if you need help.
Register with your local embassy and the tourist police where there is one. Save the local police, tourist police, ambulance, hospital and all other helpline numbers in your phone. If you’re phone free, then write it all down on a piece of paper and put it in your wallet or pocket.
2. Build A Circle of Trust
Solo travellers are rarely alone especially if they have been travelling for a long time. It’s normal to meet, travel and hang out with fellow travellers. If you’re volunteering abroad, it’s almost certain that you will have a network of fellow volunteers and coordinators. Often, the staff at hostels, B&Bs, guest houses and hotels is warm and friendly and helps with booking activities. Be open and ask for recommendations, get advice and casually inform people from this circle of fellow travelers, volunteers, coordinators and hosts if you’re going to dodgy areas or expect to return late at night. This helps them to look out for you and it’s good to know that someone knows where you are and will notice if you’re missing.
3. Dress Appropriately
Every traveller should dress in a manner that’s culturally appropriate, whether it’s a man or a woman. As a guest, you owe it to the country to make sure that nothing you do offends the local culture. Women should do this also to blend in and attract less unwanted attention. Often your appearance may make it difficult to blend in in certain parts of the world, but dressing modestly helps to a great extent. In many countries, foreign women, especially if they’re all by themselves are seen as ‘easy’, resulting in romantic overtures or a flurry of questions such as, “Are you alone?” or “Where’s your husband?” .
The debate between your right to wear what you want and dressing to fit into local culture is a long unending one. But, if safety is the objective, I’d always recommend dressing as modestly as local women do. This by no means that you need to wear yards of fabric wrapped around you if you’re visiting a rural village, but just wearing something that’s not too form fitting and covers your shoulders and knees shows that you respect local culture. During my time in a Bangladeshi village on an internship with the Grameen Bank, I realized that dressing to fit in is always appreciated by locals, creates a sense of familiarity and helps them to warm up to you. I always carry a few scarves that can be used to cover up if required or to cover my head in certain places of worship.
4. Carry A Safety Whistle
While planning my first solo trip abroad, I came across this article by Jodi Ettenberg of Legal Nomads, in which she talked about carrying a whistle for safety. I went and bought myself one and find that keeping it by my bedside on solo trips and having it handy on solo treks or when I’m in dark alleys adds greatly to my self-confidence. Of course, like she said, it also helps with the monkeys like I experienced during my visit to the Swayambunath Temple in Nepal.
5. Drink Sensibly
This is pretty self-explanatory. With the number of alcohol induced incidents against women that take place every day, it’s not hard to see why it’s smart to drink sensibly and always get your own drinks from the bar. If you’ve left your drink unattended to go to the bathroom, just get a new one. It’s not about trust; it’s about looking out for your own safety when you’re all by yourself in a foreign country, sometimes with a bunch of people you just met.
6. Pre-book Accommodation
If you’re arriving late after dark, spend a little extra and get your accommodation to pick you up. Not only does it save you the hassle of arranging and negotiating transfers after a long tiring flight, but it also ensures your own safety. The first time I traveled solo, I arrived in the chaotic city of Dhaka late in the evening and having my hotel pick me up was the best thing I could have done, being worn out and slightly hazy after a tiring flight. Knowing that it was my hotel transport and not a random taxi taking me through the pitch black lanes and back roads put my mind at rest.
7. Carry A Paper Map
I always carry a paper map even if I have GPS on my phone to ensure that I am not stuck in case the battery dies which it did very often when I was walking around from temple to temple in Chiang Mai. But make sure not to ponder over it in the middle of the street in some dodgy area or very late in the evening. If you look completely lost, you look like an easy target to a tout. Use traffic signals, bus stops, shops and cafes to look at your map.
8. Ask Shopkeepers Or Women For Directions
Sometimes you need to ask for directions if a map is just not working for you. I try to ask other women, families or shopkeepers because it helps me to avoid unwanted attention, overtures or persistent attempts at making conversation. Exploring the Old Quarter of Hanoi by foot made it necessary for me to ask for directions at every other intersection and not once did I feel vulnerable. This does not mean that it’s risky to ask a man, you just need to use your judgement based on where you are. Personally I cannot assess someone’s intentions in a fleeting moment and so I prefer to do this in some parts of the world.
9. Don’t Display Your Valuables
If you’re walking around with an expensive camera around your neck, your smart phone, IPad and other gadgets in your hands and a wad of cash falling out every time you open your wallet, you’re basically asking to be pick pocketed or mugged. Be discreet in a new place and don’t carry all your valuables on your person unless you really need to. Use safety deposit lockers available at your accommodation and keep your passport in it. A photocopy of it and your visa for the country must be carried, of course, every time you leave your hotel or hostel.
10. Don’t Feel Obliged To Talk To Strangers
I’ve often seen some women travelers being too polite to persistent local men trying to talk to them. You’re not obliged to talk to anyone and it can be hard to refuse strictly if you’ve never faced something like this before or are shy. But you need to let the giver of unwanted attention know that you’re neither enjoying it nor are intimated by the situation. Don’t ever tell anyone where you’re staying; touts can be very persistent in trying to get this information from you. I experienced this in the old city of Bhaktapur in Nepal where a tourist guide would not stop talking to me and following me around when I refused to hire him, and kept asking me where I was staying. I yelled at him threatening to go to the tourist police in the area and he went away.
Another time, my room mate and I were persistently being invited to the local bar for drinks by the manager of our guest house in Sapa who wanted to take us out with his friends. We refused firmly saying we were not interested and did not want him to bring it up again, that was enough to shut him up. Be impolite and downright rude if you have to, but get the point across. Raising your voice and asking to be left alone can attract attention and help from other people in the street and scare someone into giving up. If you look strong, confident, bold and fearless you’re more likely to be left alone.
Finally remember that most of the risks that you face while travelling solo are also a reality in your own country and when you’re with someone. Crimes of all magnitude occur everywhere as do those against women. Rape, sexual abuse, harassment and physical violence are an unfortunate reality experienced by women in developed, urbanized countries, sometimes in their own homes, by people they trust. Therefore the issue is not travelling solo as a female; it’s enough to be one to be at risk in a world where women are not respected as much as they should be. This does not mean that we cannot experience the world as we would like to- it only means we have to be alert and make smarter choices.