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A Little Honesty … On Safety and Solo Female Travel

Concerns about my safety on the road plagued those who love and care about me when I first announced my plan to travel solo around the world. Long-term travel is still an uncommon practice in the United States (compared to Europe and Australia) so perhaps the chief issue I dealt with was the fact that most of my friends had never heard of someone taking a round the world trip. Then top that with media portrayals of other countries and you might think every country outside the United States is fraught with peril at every corner.

Top of the Monument

Traveling totally solo and feeling very safe in Scotland, safe enough for this selfie on top of Stirling Monument.

I have not found this to be the case on the road these past years, but in my  early days of planning, their fears became my fears and the entire situation caused, to-date, the only anxiety attacks I have ever had. It was the solo aspect more than the safety when I first left (in the throes of the naïveté of my mid-twenties), but both fears were present during that first year. Before I left, my biggest solo fears circled around the idea of loneliness, but safety is the biggie that got thrown in my face most often then, as well as now, when I announce new places I plan to visit.

I am a young solo female and thus pretty much lowest on the totem pole in terms of the types of travelers. Couples have safety in numbers and male solo travelers have an easier go of it in terms of world-wide gender inequality issues, a fact not up for debate—it’s just different for a solo man. So I’d like to take a look at the different elements of safety on the road, it’s broad topic in regards to travel and most travelers I know have, at one time or another, dealt with safety fears related to: health, physical safety, and risky activities. Health is a topic for another day; today I’m focusing on physical safety fears that I could have let overcome my desire to travel over the years. Ones that I still have to make the conscious choice to overcome each time because it’s not a one-shot deal … the nature of some fears is that they are solved for a time and place, but not in general. I travel, but it does not mean that I don’t still harbor some fears; fear is a part of the human experience and evolutionary wise it was needed for survival. Now though, a lot of what triggers those fears on the evolutionary scale is no longer valid (it’s unlikely a cougar will stalk me down a city street at night) but they are vestiges of being human, so they have to be understood and addressed.

On Traveling as a Solo Female

If we boil down the core fear for solo women it’s rape. And I can’t downplay that, it’s a fear I share and it’s the main differentiating part of traveling as a solo woman—it’s my fear and the fear of every person who has raised an eyebrow when I announce that I travel solo. My best friend’s mother heartily disapproves of my travels, and though it often concerns the places I choose to visit (US media does not treat Mexico well in the news), she has known me since I was in high school and I know she genuinely fears for my safety; she fears that something truly devastating will happen.

And for my family, my dad puts a lot of trust in my judgment because he seldom mentions the core dangers. He emails me travel warnings and keeps me updated on conflicts in areas nearby my travel route—so I know he’s concerned—but he trusts me treat my own life with care, and that’s the main advice I usually email to other travels: respect your own life. I take precautions and steps to mitigate the chances I am in a bad situation; I choose hostels in safe areas, I stay sober, and I stay aware. There are more practical actions too, and I share more at the end of this post. Beyond that, I can’t stop random acts of violence on the road any more than I can at home—and the rape/homicide rates in many US cities prove that home is dangerous too.

M's 8th birthday enjoying hot pot with traveler friends in Chiang Mai.

Not alone unless I want it, if I named all the friends and bloggers in this shot the list would be long :)

My final bit about safety as a solo female traveler specifically concerns sexual harassment. Several readers have emailed me to ask  if I’ve ever feared for my safety, if I’ve had negative experiences on the road. I am tempted to write that I am lucky nothing terrible has happened to me, but that statement just pisses me off because it shouldn’t come down to luck. As a woman, I shouldn’t have to hope and pray that a man doesn’t decide to harm me, but it’s the state of the world right now and a topic my friend Jodi really covered well a few months ago after a woman traveler was raped and killed in Turkey, and Christine also shares some thoughts.

To answer the question specifically though, which I rarely do, I have been aggressively groped three times in my life. Each time I was disappointed and mad more than anything, and none were to the point that I feared it would go further. And each time it reminded me that the way society sees women has a long way to go in a lot of places in the world, my own country included. Once was in broad daylight during a festival in India and another in Jordan, also during the day. The third was at a bar in Los Angeles and of the three it was the most aggressive, invasive, and left me feeling the worst—and it was in a crowded bar with my friends nearby.

Me and Jordi around Town

Since guards are down with locals during India’s Holi celebrations you have to be alert, but I will always remember the fun times with my friends Jordi and Neil wandering around town during the Festival of Colors.

I have never mentioned these incidences on the site not out of fear, shame, or covering anything up, but rather because they did not define my travel experiences in either of those two countries, nor in LA. And I wasn’t solo for any of them. In fact, in all three instances I had men and friends nearby and it didn’t stop the harassment. Three continents, three entirely different cultures, and yet similar attitudes toward women created that shared experience … more a statement on the way women are treated the world over rather than on travel specifically.

I can’t say that nothing will befall female travelers, but I can say that it is not the norm. Truly. Kindness the world over has been the baseline of my experiences all over the world, but it’s hard to combat that when the random acts of violence against women are highlighted more prominently in global media. I know that if something happens to me—and there is that chance—that it will likely be random, and it will be poor timing: wrong place, wrong time. And it could just as likely happen in the months I spend in the US as in the places I visit.

I can’t live from a place of fear and so I travel with self-defined policies, agreements I have made with myself to lessen the chances that I put myself in risky situations. Beyond that, I put my trust in the world.

how to make a krathong

A friend in Thailand shows Ana and M how to fold traditional patterns into the palm frond krathongs.

On Taking Risks

There is no one-size rule. Life, and travel, is about constantly assessing a situation, making predictions, observations, and acting based on those assessments. Sometimes the assessments are off and I make a bad choice. But it is an absolute fact that traveling has greatly increased my ability to size up a situation and a person and make an accurate judgment. In talking to people from all walks of life, all cultures, backgrounds, attitudes I have created a book of knowledge from which I pull when I encounter something new. If safety is the topic, then I have only increased my safety by traveling and added new experiences from which I can draw in uncertain situations.

Surf Camp

Not so risky, but tricky enough for me. Learning to surf in Byron Bay, Australia.

A reader emailed me in February about taking risks. He heard my story about hiking an active volcano in Guatemala on a podcast and asked: “Something that called my attention was your positive attitude towards risk, so different from mine. [Please share] a few sentences about how you approach risk in your travels, and especially inside your mind.”

My response to him was this:
I am not the most adventurous traveler by any stretch of the imagination—there are those who do all the big, risky sporty things, for me though, I try to push the bounds of my comfort just a little, but there are many things I won’t do that others will. Travel is highly personal, so if you don’t want to hike a volcano then I say don’t do it and stand firm in that decision.

When I was in Belize, just before I traveled through Guatemala, I had a big decision to make and I erred on the side of caution because it made me intensely uncomfortable to do something that some other travelers easily think is okay. I was at the blue hole, a very popular dive site off the coast of Belize, and I had planned, dreamed, and anticipated diving there for several years. Once I arrived though, I didn’t like the attitudes of the dive companiesmany take down very novice divers even though it’s a difficult dive. The thought of diving that deep made me nervous, and I just didn’t think seeing the caves 140 feet below the water was worth the risk—I assessed the situation and realized I didn’t care enough about the experience to put myself on what I perceive is a risky dive. So I didn’t. Instead I went snorkeling nearby, did a couple of shore dives to the reefs and had a perfectly enjoyable time. And there are divers who think my decision was silly because thousands of people do that dive without harm, but it didn’t feel right for me, and I trusted that and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Traveling is highly personal and what one person does, enjoys, or finds interesting another won’t—and the same goes with risk. Find the travel experience that you think fits you personally and that makes you excited to travel and go do that! Travel should excite you and push just at the edge of your comfort. That’s how we grow and change, not by doing  outright risky things, but by confronting the small fears that are boxing us in and not allowing us to live the life we want.

My fear of that dive made it unsafe for me. It pushed me too far outside my comfort zone, and it’s likely I would have done something dangerous from that fear. I knew it wasn’t a good choice because I wouldn’t have stayed calm, and that could prove fatal in diving that deep, when there is no margin for error. For me, the balance of facing a fear versus the risks and safety of travel becomes learning what are informed fears—which are based on a truth—and which are instead masking fears of change or fears of challenging the status quo. It can be hard to tell the difference, at first, but there is a big difference in the actions that should result.

Holding a tarantula in Guatemala

On the Actual Dangers

The very basic fact of it all is that if something serious happens to me on the road it will likely be a transportation based injury—just like at home. Traffic accidents are far more common the world over than tragedies from these other fears according to the US State Department, and fatal traffic accidents far outweigh death from terrorism, plane crashes, or infectious disease says a report from the CDC.

Some chicken bus drivers in Central America are on duty for 24 hours while driving decades-old buses on pot-hole strewn roads. The rickety buses in India speed over high mountain passes in the dark and careen around curves protected by guard rails held on with scotch-tape and wishful thinking. Rampant corruption in Mexico (and Bali, and India, and …) means no matter your traffic infraction you can likely buy your way out of the ticket for less than $100 (and often just $20).

Chicken bus guatemala

A decked out chicken bus (painted school buses) on the streets of Antigua, Guatemala

And a “Thai tattoo” in Thailand doesn’t refer to getting some ink while tipsy and high on life … it’s the scabs, scars, and road rash mottling the skin of travelers who have crashed their motorbikes. Something that happens often enough that it has a nickname (and so common in Bali too that it’s called a Bali Kiss). In 2011, I got in a traffic accident in Laos with Ana because I made a riskier decision than I probably should have and I have several gnarly “Laos tattoos” that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Ana came out of the accident unscathed (thank god) but I had a serious muffler burn, went into shock, and limped away with a lot of road rash on my hip, elbow, and knees.

Did you know that fatal traffic accidents in Thailand are the second leading cause of death for US travelers abroad … the first being traffic accidents in Mexico? No joke.

Three to a motorbike

Three to a motorbike with Jodi and Ana in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Now compare this to the dialogue from people each time I leave for Mexico or Thailand … I hear about the: drug cartels in Mexico, getting seriously sick, and the “scary people” who may harm me. The reality is that while precautions for the other areas are needed, sometimes our perceptions are skewed by what outside forces are telling us … and they’re often trying to reinforce political doctrine or maintain societal norms.

The map of the world according to mainstream media would have me think a broad swath of the world is untravelable … that the people in these countries I visit cultivate hate and will actively harm me. That’s not true. More than 95% of the world may not like the politics of the west, they may not like my religion, but they are not seeking out ways to harm me. Or you. In fact, that 95% doesn’t really think about me at all. They raise their kids and work each day to put food on the table … just like in the US. So in terms of harm, I don’t feel the religious or cultural based fears at all. Granted, there are regions I approach with caution because of the gender inequality issues, but the danger map of the world is far different in actuality than you might think, so I point you to this post for more on accurately assessing location-based fears.

On Overcoming Fears

Have enough fear to keep you present each moment of your travels, enough to keep you cautious, but not enough to stop you from traveling. Male or female, there is a basis for fear or we wouldn’t discuss this issue. Bad things can happen. But travel has changed my life; it made me a better person, it opened opportunities in my life and facets of understanding I never knew I lacked. It bred compassion into the fiber of who I am as a citizen of this world.

Safety and risks come down to time and place as much as anything. It’s hard for me to cover all the ideas swirling through my head on this topic in one post, perhaps out of a personal fear that it will seem like I am painting the entire world with a single brush stroke. Each region, country, or moment of life comes with its own issues, risks, and fears … I take the steps to accurately understand the risks of a place, and I act with my own safety in mind. Then I release the rest to chance, which is all any of us can do because risk is a part of life. Just as there are little risks, there are big risks too, the biggest one for me being looking back at 80 and thinking “what would my life look like if I had traveled young?”

A Little Adrift

There are many things I may look back and regret but this will never be one of them. To close this out, and before mentioning the specific female travel tips, I will say, as I have many times, that I have found more true kindness, friendship, and generosity in each corner of the world, in the mostly unlikely of people, and in countries other Americans assume are only filled with foes. People have gone out of their way to extend help when I needed it, times when I was at my most vulnerable—sick, lost, alone—and that common thread of generosity follows me around the world. Fears have their place in keeping us safe, but without frankly talking about the true facets of traveling in diverse places it’s easy to believe the world is the sum of its dangers. By and large it’s the opposite, traveling becomes the sum of human kindness and it only takes a commitment to shifting your perspective to see that.

“How safe do we want to be? How much of ourselves are we willing to give up for it?” — Sarah Hepola

Practical Solo Female Travel Tips

SOLO

These handful of tips should be paired with commonsense and they will take you most any place you want to go in life:

Understand Local Cultural Norms
The first thing I recommend to any traveler—male or female—is to understand the cultural norms. Read about your upcoming destination; read memoirs and histories and the accounts of travelers and locals in that destination. Email local expats or locals who blog; figure out the geo-politics and religions and these will inform your travels as well as your behaviors. I have a whole section of this site dedicated to travel literature broken down by region/country for this very reason—so you can learn and understand before you leave and have a baseline for your actions. In some places you should cover your hair (Iran) while others it’s best to cover shoulders and legs but belly is acceptable (India). The interactions between women and men differ and you cannot travel and assume your home culture will follow you. Though Western women are afforded “male” status in some countries, you cannot accept that as a given. That means things like direct eye contact, touching, and even the way you address others is up for adjustments as you travel.

Involve Others in Your Safety
Look around you and find ways to involve the people in this new place in your safety—usually just telling them you are alone is enough. This applies to bartenders, hotel clerks, and any place you might be waiting around. Tell your hotel you’re traveling alone and they will make certain you know any risky areas in the city; many also go out of their way to make sure you arrive home each evening. Bartenders only need to know that you’re concerned to take you under their wing. The same goes with waiting. At bus stations, when I have hours of sitting around, I will ask other groups if I can sit near them (or I’ll just do it). Recognize that you being alone is often a choice, and telling the right person gives you a network of people also aware and concerned for your safety.

Stay Aware
One reason I sleep for a week straight when I go home is because my brain is taxed after months of maintaining awareness of everything around me. When I’m walking down the street, there’s only one brain mapping the city to make sure I can get back to my guesthouse. On buses, if I’m solo then I’m likely not asleep. To date, the only times I have had issues is when I pair up with another traveler and both of us relax in ways we never would otherwise. We lose awareness and we forget things, get lost, allow ourselves to be surrounded by touts, etc. As a solo traveler, you need to assess and make decisions constantly. This post on how to build situational awareness is brilliant. Read it. Borrow a couple of those books from the library before you leave. And though it’s written for a male point of view, the descriptions of how to teach yourself to continually assess new situations is a valuable skill on the road.

Stay Sober
This is a personal choice and it dovetails with stay aware. While I love a good beer, and while enjoying drinks in dive-bars around the world is a backpacker rite of passage, I don’t ever get sloshed when I’m solo. My stance on drinking when I’m with others varies depending on the time, place, and situation, just as it did when I lived in Los Angeles.

Know Basic Self Defense
Before I left in 2008, I spent four months learning Krav Maga, an Israeli form of self-defense training. The gym was near my home in L.A. and I booked an unlimited package so I could rapidly build my self defense skills before I set off solo. Self-defense training for women is important, not only do you learn reflexive defense skills, but it’s a huge confidence booster. I have never used my Krav Maga training, thankfully, but every day I am the road I carry that knowledge. I know how to properly punch, and I know how to move beyond the exhaustion-barrier in a fight. Again, while I’ve never needed it, and there is every reason to believe that you won’t either if you are aware and cautious, there is no reason you shouldn’t research local classes and learn the basics. Many local YMCAs, libraries, or women’s group offer affordable classes. I highly recommend it.

Carry Travel Insurance
Since we’ve honestly looked at the safety issues, the biggest threat is actual bodily harm from traffic accidents. I carry travel insurance every time I leave the US. Although I have never used it—I paid for the Laos hospital visit out of pocket since it was only $80—I feel safer knowing I can call on medevac or a hospital visit if I am in a serious accident or very sick. This section on my resource page gives a detailed breakdown of how to pick a good company; or just head to World Nomads if you’re a backpacker and looking for the best policy my research has found, with decent rates to boot.

Carry a Doorstop and Safety Whistle
My travel friend Jodi highly recommends both, so though I carry only the whistle, I know several solo females who feel a lot safer with both.

Pay for Your Safety
Take a cab. Spring for the closer hotel. Plan enough of your day that you’re not left risky areas after dark. Traveling on a budget often puts us in a mind-frame of penny-pinching and it’s easy to get caught up in the notion of saving every dime possible. Before I left, I vowed to myself that if I caught myself in a moment when I was about to make a decision that valued my money over my safety that I would reconsider the choice. I take the cab when I’m lost, unsure, or have far to go, even though a cab is surely not very “backpackery” of me. I schedule my flights to arrive in a new city during the day if possible, or I book easy transport to the hotel if not.

What are your thoughts? This was a hard topic to cover and at more than 4,000 words I will end it. Do you agree with my assessment of the safety or have any other tips?

This post is a part of my monthly series on overcoming fears to travel, check out all the posts here, new ones on the first Tuesday of every month.


  • Alicia

    Hi Shannon, I just found your article while googling for tips on travelling as a solo female. I’m about to embark on my first ever solo trip – to the USA – and my friends have put the fear of God in me about being alone in some areas they refer to as “questionable” in terms of their safety. To allay their (and my) fears, I have opted to do group day trips at my first stop to try and ease myself into it.
    If you have any tips for me, I’d be most appreciative :)

    • http://alittleadrift.com/ Shannon O’Donnell

      Hi Alicia! Crazy to think that your friends have to warn you about the U.S., but I do understand why they might. More than anything, when there are cultural norms that are a bit different you just need to find the way to blend. That part is likely fairly easy, I would say that whatever cities you choose, to ask your accommodation about areas that you should avoid. Then employ the same precautions you would most anywhere — don’t walk home alone late at night, avoid getting too inebriated, etc. There are some dangerous neighborhoods in the cities, but the only times I have been hassled is when you might expect: late at night walking to my car or in a club.

      Sightseeing and the such, the big dangers are less. If you’re in NYC, keep your purse in front of you and across the body, don’t hold your smartphone out in front of you when looking at it. Most of the areas tourists go to are not the places we have issues. I wish you the best of luck and an amazing trip. :)