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. 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.
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 solo fears circled around the idea of loneliness, but safety is the biggie that gets thrown in my face most often, then as well as now, when I announce new places I will 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 the world. These are fears that I still consciously choose to overcome each time I leave 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 harbor fear; fear is a part of the human experience and evolutionary wise it was needed for survival. Now though, a lot of what triggers fears on the evolutionary scale are no longer valid (it’s unlikely a cougar will stalk me down a city street at night) but they are vestiges of being human, so let’s understand and address the main fears, one by one.
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 raises their eyebrow when I share 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 (U.S. media does not treat Mexico well in the news), she has known me since I was in high school and 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 U.S. cities prove that home is dangerous, too.
Safety as a solo female traveler also involves discussing sexual harassment. Female readers have asked over the years if I’ve ever feared for my safety, if I’ve had negative experiences on the road. I’m always tempted to write back that I’m 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.
Let’s look at that idea more closely: Safety for female travelers comes down to luck and not preparation alone.
Anyone who says that they avoided issues on the road “because they were prepared,” or because they did “all the right things,” imply a false sense of security. Plus it’s an insult to any woman who has been harmed while traveling—citing preparation as the sole reason for safety does a grave disservice to the facts. Violence against women is an epidemic. It’s a problem in the U.S., and a problem in many countries I visit. I can take steps to minimize my exposure to risk when traveling, but I can’t change the nature of the world—this ready violence against women. No one can plan against the sheer ill-luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For the sake of transparency on this issue, I have been aggressively groped three times in my life. Each time I was disappointed and mad, and (luckily) none were to the point that I feared it would go further. Each incident 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. In 10 years as a solo female traveler, I have experienced only two incidences of clear violence against me. One was in broad daylight during a festival in India and another in Jordan, also during the day. The third incident happened before I left to travel, 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.
I didn’t write about these incidences at the time not out of fear, shame, or covering anything up, but rather because they defined my travel experiences in neither Jordan and India, 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 during my time in the U.S. as in the places I travel.
I can’t live from a place of fear. I travel with self-defined policies, agreements I have made with myself to lessen my exposure to risky situations. Beyond that, I put my trust in the world. It may fail me, but that is a risk I have consciously chosen.
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 that I add to whenever I encounter something new.
If safety is the topic, then I have only increased my safety by traveling—I have a greater breadth of experience and knowledge that I can draw from when assessing uncertain situations.
[divider_flat]A reader emailed me 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:
I am not an adventurous traveler by any stretch—there are those who do all the big, risky, sporty things. For me though, I try to nudge the boundaries of my comfort zone, 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 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 companies—many take very novice divers down even though it’s a difficult dive. The thought of diving that deep made me nervous, and I decided that seeing the caves 140 feet below the water was not 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 snorkeled nearby, did a couple of shore dives on the reef, and had a perfectly enjoyable time. Other divers may think my decision was silly because thousands of people do that dive without harm, but it didn’t feel right for me. I trusted that feeling, 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 zone. That’s how we grow and change—not by necessarily 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 while diving that deep, when there’s 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.
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 and drowning are far more common the world over than tragedies from these other fears according to the U.S. State Department. Fatal traffic accidents far outweigh death from terrorism, plane crashes, or infectious disease according to the CDC.
Some chicken bus drivers in Central America are on duty for 24 hours while driving decades-old buses on pothole 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 that no matter your traffic infraction, you can buy your way out of the ticket for less than $100 (and often just $20).
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 nicknames in every places travelers take this risk (it’s also so common in Bali that it’s called a Bali Kiss). In 2011, I got in a traffic accident in Laos with my niece 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 U.S. travelers abroad? The first being traffic accidents in Mexico. No joke.
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, our perceptions are skewed by the media. Outside perspectives often simply reinforcing 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 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 U.S. So in terms of harm, I don’t feel the religious or cultural based fears. 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 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. Each region, country, or moment of life comes with its own issues, risks, and fears. I take 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 on my 20s and 30s and thinking “what would my life look like if I had traveled young?”
There are many things I may look back and regret, but this will not 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 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 a 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. It only takes a commitment to shifting your perspective to see that.
Practical Solo Female Travel Tips
These handful of tips should be paired with common sense and they will take you most any place you want to go in life:
1. Do Your Research & Bookmark Important Resources
Read the national travel advisories and research what the government says are the key dangers—many local embassies around the world will update country and city listings with nuanced safety information surfaced by no amount of Google searching. The U.S. government has one, though I find the Canadian one more thorough in some regards. The Canadian one also includes an extensive section on risks for women—have a read and then bookmark because it has a section for “If the worst happens.” While your embassy is one potential point of contact for Americans abroad, Pathway’s to Safety International provides care for American victim’s abroad.
2. 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 the best travel books 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. Although 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.
3. 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.
4. Choose When You’re Solo
Finding ways to get comfortable once you land, and know that you don’t have to be solo even if you are traveling solo. I often take a free walking tour on my first day or two in a capital city. These tours offer a lot of history and all of that, which is fun, but there’s often cultural information included too, which helps me understand where I should put my attention. And what’s more, walking tours are filled with other travelers visiting for the next few days or weeks. It doesn’t always work out that I meet someone I want to do something else with, but sometimes I will at least meet with tour people for food/drinks/daytrip another day. Even more, I have paid for one- or multi-day tours when I just wasn’t in a state of mind to handle things myself. If you arrive abroad and don’t love how things are going, book a tour, buy your peace of mind. If you mentally set aside a bit of budget to cover it, just in case, then it’s there if you need it.
5. 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 from a male point of view, the descriptions of how to teach yourself to continually assess new situations is a valuable skill on the road.
6. 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.
7. 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 push through 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. Will it save me if someone truly means me harm? I don’t know, probably not—but I like my chances better for knowing it.
8. Stop Being Too Nice
Say no to anything that makes you uncomfortable. I read once that men who want to do harm prey on the societal expectation that woman are polite and accommodating—many of us were taught to give indirect and polite noes. Reading that changed how I approach interactions that make me uncomfortable. Because I did that, all the time. There were times in my early travels politely listened, or tried to gently ditch to an over-eager tout, cautious of being perceived as too aggressive or mean. Now I just don’t care if I’m rude, and you shouldn’t either. I would never be rude in the general course of life, but if it’s something unsolicited and I feel uncomfortable, I go for blunt and immediate. You don’t owe them your kindness, you owe your instincts and gut your attention.
9. 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 U.S. 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 post thoroughly reviews options and 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.
10. Carry a Doorstop and Safety Whistle
My travel friend Jodi highly recommends both, so although I carry only the whistle, I know several solo females who feel a lot safer with both.
11. 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 and you’re not riding on an overnight bus. 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, and I book easy transport to the hotel if not. Uber is now in most major cities around the world—download it, set it up, and be ready to use it in a pinch (and of course, buy a local SIM card when you land so you can summon said Uber).
What are your thoughts? Do you agree with my assessment of the safety or have any other tips and resources for solo women?
Other Entries in the ALA Travel Fears Series:
- Why I Decided to Travel the World: A close look at the personal motivations for my 2008 round the world trip, as well as what made me want to stay on the road all these years.
- How We Make the Big Decisions: How do you know if you’re making the right choice in your own life? This piece takes a look at how we should make the big decisions in our life and where the risks and questions lie.
- Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely: Many readers have emailed about if they should take off on a solo trip, and this looks at what it’s like to travel solo, as well as why it can be a life-changing experience.
- On Health and Travel Sickness: Getting sick on the road is a primary concern for a lot of travelers; this post takes a deep-dive on where, when, and why I’ve been sick on the road, as well as tips for staying healthy.
- On Fear, Vulnerability, & the Less Sexy Side of Travel: This is the intro piece about why I started the Travel Fears series on ALA.