When I got home from my gap year last year, my parents encouraged me to take up self defense classes and the local YMCA. They were concerned with all the traveling and living away from home I’ve been prone to, it would be a good idea. I don’t doubt it and it doesn’t hurt.
There’s been headlines in the news about women encountering danger abroad. Last December, a nation was awakened when a local physiognamy intern in Delhi, accidentally boarded a private bus with a friend and was raped by six men. Even more recently, the body of 33-year old Sarai Sierra was found in Turkey after she had gone missing for two weeks.
It’s made the public and media becry – Is it safe for women to travel alone?
Obviously, a large part of me got heated by this.
Firstly, when women are treated abusively or violently, it infuriates me. But I’ve traveled in India twice now and love it and despite this news, will be returning solo in the future. (Read Breathe Dream Go‘s feelings about solo travel safety in India )
Also, the fact Sierra, a photographer, used an “amateur tour guide” (as the media puts it) to take her to places, puts her at a risk that’s greater than the average tourist. “Amateur” tour guides are a very nice way to say “unofficial” ones and in some countries, they’re termed “illegal”. I know this, because I’ve unwisely used them. In retrospect, it was my own ignorance and stupidity. To use an unofficial guide puts your safety at risk, as they could easily take you into dangerous places and into larger scams (Watch my video about How To Deal with Travel Scams). As a traveler, using them is unsafe and socially irresponsible.
When has living ever been safe for a woman?
I started solo traveling in 2009. I chose it out of necessity. Either travel alone or don’t travel at all. Those were my two options and it wasn’t an easy choice. (Read Is being a solo traveler easy… not!)
Telling me to fear solo travel because I am single and a woman, is like telling me not to breath, to go back to the days of foot binding and corsets and wait for a big, strong man to walk into my life and say “Let’s go traveling, babe“.
I don’t dismiss that danger is possible when you travel.
But the absolute truth is that as women, danger is a possibility in every corner of our lives. Solo or not, with crimes and violence on the rise, we must practice safety everywhere. There’s date rape, car hijackings , road rage, getting mugged and raped while jogging in the park or in your neighborhood, being with abusive partners, spouses or male colleagues at work, etc…
“Danger” is built into every woman’s history, the homes we supposedly find safety in and the cities we live in… it’s in our daily lifestyle.
So what makes travel different?
Why should danger only target solo female travelers abroad?
Although I have my share of scary travel stories, I’ll be honest… so far, most of the dangers I experienced in travel, came mostly from self-doubt, a fear of things “foreign” (read Twenty-Something Travel here) and the lack of confidence I occasionally have as a solo traveler.
The largest danger was my own head.
The shocking irony is that the real life danger I’ve actually experienced has been mostly …in my home country.
I lived in smack dab in the middle of Watts when the 1992 Rodney King/L.A. Riots broke out- talk about fleeing burning buildings and angry looters. Then there was 9/11 after I had just moved to New York in 2001. And in 2005, I had an ex-convict pervert stalk me on the fire escape of my Manhattan apartment, only to one day, grow enough courage to knock on my door, while standing in his birthday suit.
Is travel safe for solo women?
Well, I hope it’s safer than living at home in the U.S.!
The idea is not to question solo travel safety, but to create it.
As female solo travelers, many of us strive to build safety into our travel experiences. We learn to practice safe habits.
Another fantastic read covering sturdy travel tips is Solo Friendly‘s Safe Solo Travel (20 tips to stay safe) . There are also a good handful of female solo bloggers who’s articles I’ve listed at the bottom.
6 Solo travel safety tips for women:
Note: they’re actually survival tips I’ve learned from living in New York City! But if you see similar travel tips, it’s cause they work and for a solo female traveler, using them becomes like a religion. Now some of this may seem like common sense. It is. But the difference between everyday common sense blah, blah and traveler’s common sense is how you use it. As a traveler in a foreign environment, that common sense sits in the forefront of your mind and not on auto-pilot. That’s a monumental difference.
Being a female solo traveler, I have to place those things first in my actions. It’s activating skills I normally take for granted in modern society… basic survival. It’s as simple as remembering Animal Kingdom and exercising kegel muscles that you’ve never thought to use. The more you exercise this common sense, you’ll start to trust things like ‘instinct’ (Didn’t women could have that, did you? They do) and actually begin to feel alive and empowered. Solo travel can grant you a second, more adventurous life; one you’re not aware you’re capable of.
1. Always be alert to your surroundings and the people around you.
The idea is if you can see it, you can deter it. Be aware of your surroundings. Keep your vision open to 240 degrees. If you can see when someone is approaching or getting too close when there’s no need, then you can think quickly and react.
On my recent trip to Japan, an old Japanese woman I met on a bus tried to scam and pickpocket me. She was trying to get chummy with me so I would let my guard down . When my back was turned, from my periphery, I could see/feel her hand trying to get into my backpack. When I turned around, she whipped away and laughed. So I did what I normally do in unsafe places…
How to avoid getting pick-pocketed: Always keep valuables in front of you and close to your body, draping your arm over it. It’s an obvious sign that shows thieves that you are guarded. I swiveled my backpack (its got my DSLR lenses in it) to my chest, so I could keep a protective eye on it. Nothing enters my backpack without me seeing it.
2. Listen to your gut.
When something doesn’t feel right, that’s your intuition saying, “Something is not right”. Trust it. Use it.
How to deal with scammers: So you’ve got a scammer bothering you and they won’t go away. As women, the tendency is to be nice and polite and offer a “maybe” brush-off, but this does not work. Never offer personal details (such as hotel or length of stay) and don’t give them a “maybe” for the future or they’ll show up at your hotel and continue to hound you. Be upfront and honest with them that you won’t use their services.
Continuing the example above… When I initially saw the old lady waiting for me in the rain, outside of Kyoto’s Golden Palace, something didn’t feel right. I knew it was a scam of some sort. Afterall, no one waits in the rain for you for 30 minutes, without wanting something in return…
She wanted to give me a friendly local tour because I looked lost. How long was I in Kyoto for? Where was I staying? Was I traveling alone? I gave her general information. She even wanted to invite me back to her house for tea. Having dealt with illegal tour guides before, I knew how this worked and I wasn’t going to go anywhere with her. Despite the logic that Japan is one of the safest countries, with a relatively low crime rate, my gut said something was very, very wrong with this. I knew I had to find a way to ditch her quickly.
So I told her the truth- I had little time in Kyoto so I didn’t have time to waste and I’d be moving very quickly. A person of her grandmotherly age would slow me down. Also, I’m an unemployed backpacker doing this trip dirt- cheaply. I would not be able to compensate her monetarily for her time. There was no way for her to swivel my truth in her favor. She left.
3. At night, avoid and lonely dark streets and carry protection.
If you go out at night, then be smart. Dark and desolate places aren’t good places to enter or walk down, even if it’s a short cut.
Also, know that any pointed object, like your room key (held between your index finger and middle finger) or a pen can instantly turn into a weapon if someone attacks you. Walking home at night, I keep it in my hand– not in my bag. If someone jumps me, I won’t have time to fish for it in my bag.
My roommate used to carry pepper spray… goes to show, that not even New Yorkers consider their city safe.
4. Attitude: Walk with bold confidence, like you know the place.
The trick is all in the attitude. I can’t stress this more. Look lost or unfocused and that’s what you’ll convey. Thieves are looking for people who are unaware of their surroundings.Eyes forward and aware of what’s going on around you. Walk as if you belong to the place or you’re not someone to be screwed with. If you don’t feel confident, bullshit it.
People who don’t exude confidence or act too day dreamy, tend to make great targets for thieves and attackers.
5. Check the travel alerts for the the country and keep in touch with others; let them know your itinerary.
As an American, I check into Travel.State.Gov for travel alerts on the country before visiting. It’s so I can see if it’s considered high risk or not. Usually they have up-to-date news about crime and whether a country is considered safe for Americans. Also, I try to read up on local scams. If I know about them, then I can usually spot and avoid them.
It’s good to entrust others with your whereabouts. I always give my family (or a friend) my travel itinerary and update them regularly to let them know I’m on course or if I’m going off of it (It helps to have a concerned mother, that hounds you on your whereabouts). Secondly, I sign up with Smarter Traveler program created by the U.S. government. This is my way of documenting my travel, in the case anything happens to me abroad.
6. Dress appropriately for the culture.
Research appropriate dress for the country. It’s not only out of respect for the culture, but also that if you dress to be seen, you’ll probably attract attention from undesirables. Sellers and thieves assess your worth by your appearance. Dress rich, you’re saying you have money. Dress provocatively or revealing and you’ll probably get a lot of unwanted attention and catcalls.
You don’t know how many tourists I cross who’ll wear strapless sun dresses and tank tops with exposed bras in a country, which is ultra-conservative. I want to shout, What are you thinking?! I never like to think that any woman asks for it, but some tempt it. Ladies, I know you won’t attract any hot guys in your duds, but for every hot guy, there’s twenty undesirable ones ready to do the bidding and they’re confident to try.
For this reason, I actually dress hobo. When I travel, I like to go unnoticed. I also dress to compensate the fact I’m usually also traveling with a lot of media gear. Also, traveling in my duds makes haggling easier for me.
Related Posts on Solo Travel at GRRRL TRAVELER:
•How To Deal with Travel Scams)
• Is Solo Travel Still Safe for Women? …6 Safety Tips that make it so
• Is Being a Female Solo Traveler? Not!
• How do you spend your nights as a solo traveler? (14 fun ways to spend your nights alone)
• How to travel solo in India:Interview with Chiaki Nakashima
• Solo Travel: How to Hurdle your Fears of Traveling Alone (Planning your First Solo Trip)
• The Crash Course Lessons of a First-time Solo Traveler in India
• India Tour Agency scams and How to Get Out of One (aka How I Became a Solo Traveler)
More female solo travel bloggers with tips on how you can travel fearlessly:
Below are some fierce femme soloists, who are currently rallying the media’s recent scare tactics on women who want to travel alone. They all know how much courage it takes to make the decision to go solo in the first place. They’ll give you encouragement, support and more tips to make your travel safe and confident.
If you’d like to follow more of this on Twitter, enter in #WeGoSolo to see the updates, as more female solo travel bloggers join the rally.
5 Safety Tips for Women Traveling Alone Solitary Wanderer
Yes it Is Safe to Travel Solo Travel Yourself
Dear Dad: Please Don’t Worry (A Treatise on Solo Female Travel) A Dangerous Business
Top safety tips for women in India (and elsewhere) Dream Breathe Go
The Truth About Solo Female Travel and Safety Adventurous Kate
Solo Travel Safety – a link that takes you to 31 posts about solo travel safety. Solo Traveler
Solo female travel: why it’s a label I support Cez Christine
The Women Traveling Solo Question Almost Fearless
Revisiting the solo female travel experience Legal Nomads
Choosing Accommodations for Solo Travel Wanderlust & Lipstick
Am I the Pollyanna of Solo Travel? Solo Traveler
Traveling Solo As A Woman Lynne Neiman