Is it safe for women to travel alone? As a girl who wanders the world by herself I get asked this question a lot.
However, the subject has received even more attention in recent weeks following media coverage of the rape and death of a young woman in India, the tragic murder last month of an America woman in Turkey and most recently the rape of a group of six Spanish women in Mexico. (Incidentally the six women were travelling with men.)
With these tragic attacks at the forefront of our news it is no surprise to me that the issue of safety is currently top of the list of concerns for female travelers.
Should women travel alone?
As devastating as these incidents are, I’ve been following comments on the subject and watching with growing sadness as would-be women travelers start to strike destinations off their list on a country-by-country basis. I’ve visited Turkey, India and Mexico, the latter two by myself and would recommend each of these places highly.
I’m a mere 5 ft tall, possess no super powers to get me out of a jam, have pale English skin that stands out like a beacon in many of the places I visit and yet I spend over 90% of my travel time going it alone.
Do I ever get scared? Yes. Have I sometimes feared for my safety? Sure. Does being a woman alone put me more at risk? Unfortunately, it does.
But does that mean I shouldn’t travel alone? Of course not.
When I venture out I am pursuing my dream – to travel, to see the world, to meet new people, to understand different cultures and to gain a wealth of experiences and fun memories along the way.
Most of my friends and family do not want to or cannot (due to other commitments) travel as much as I do and I am not prepared to put my plans on hold because of my gender.
But isn’t it unsafe for women to travel alone?
The short answer is: no (most of the time).
I regularly meet solo female travellers on the road and, like me, they travel without incident the vast majority of the time.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who are prepared to prey on those that they consider to be vulnerable, but a vulnerable person could be a man as much as it can be a woman – I know a solo male traveller who got robbed when he wandering the streets of Barcelona drunk in the early hours of the morning.
The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to increase your street smarts and decrease the risk of bad things happening when you travel the world alone.
After more than two years on the road, including to places some people might consider unsafe (Latin America, India and the Middle East come to mind) here are my tips for improving your safety as a solo female traveller. (Guys, a lot of these tips will work for you too.)
How to stay safe when travelling alone
In theory a good measure of morals should keep bad people from doing bad things, but unfortunately the world doesn’t work like that.
I once got my purse snatched in the street (ironically in my home town, not in the dark matter of Latin America as you might expect). I could have laid full blame with the ‘big bad man’ who robbed me, but I had to share responsibility. I had my money out in the open late at night outside an ATM. I had all but placed a ‘rob me’ sign on my back.
I licked my wounds for a few days but took a very valuable lesson from the incident: it is 100% my responsibility to make sure that I am safe and I do not assume or rely on the good nature of other people to keep me from harm.
Know what you’re getting into
I rarely turn up in a new country without understanding a bit about the culture and relative safety of the location.
I check the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office website for travel advice and if I want another perspective, I check their counterparts in other countries, too, particularly the U.S Department of State website, which I usually find to be more cautious and Australia’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade website, which I find very easy to use.
I also read the latest version of a guide-book aimed at indie travellers. I like Lonely Planet as they don’t tend to dance around the dangers – straight advice is what I’m really after and the information can be as specific as which streets to avoid after dark.
Speak to the locals and other travellers
I’m not a huge fan of seeking safety advice on forums unless I’m confident i) the person has been – recently, and ii) they have the same attitude to risk as me.
Even asking locals can be a bit hit and miss. I recall receiving advice from a fatherly figure in Santiago de Chile who suggested I take the next flight home (ironically to the place I was robbed) because ‘Latin America is dangerous and it definitely isn’t safe for women to travel alone’.
None of this means you should avoid local advice, just pick your sources wisely – the people who work in hostels are usually a good bet as are those who have just come from the town you’re heading to next.
If I were to pick one forum to rely on for advice, it would be Thorntree, but try to get advice from as many people as possible before forming a view.
Take it easy in the first 24-hours
The first 24-hours is thought to be the riskiest time of all when you’re traveling – if you’ve stepped off a flight, night bus or train, tiredness can make your protective instincts slip.
I always try to rest on arrival to regain my wits, don’t usually stray too far from my accommodation if I arrive at night and make sure I get to know a bit about the area before hitting full ‘explore’ mode.
Particularly as a new traveller it is advisable to always have a room booked at each new destination, research exactly where your accommodation is and plan how to get there. If possible, you should also always arrange to arrive during the day for safety reasons.
Know the lay of the land
I have a particular talent at getting lost. A good friend who has an internal GPS to rival any computerised version is always staggered that I manage to get myself around the world.
Coupled with a stubbornness that prevents me from asking directions and an inability to read a map, I find myself unsure of my whereabouts a large part of the time. And this can be risky.
My method of counteracting the risk is my willingness to splash out on a (licensed) taxi back to my accommodation if necessary. Yes, it can be potentially expensive, but I find it to be a good backstop.
The better advice is not to get lost in the first place – if you can read one, carry a discreet map (pop into a café or shop to check your location so you don’t illuminate the fact that you’re a ‘tourist’) and always keep your accommodation name and address on you.
Procuring a local map and business card with my accommodation’s address on are the first things I do on check-in (so my taxi driver can read them for me).
Blend, blend and blend some more. I couldn’t believe the number of Western girls in cheek-skimming denim shorts with award-winning cleavages on show in India.
I’m all for a woman’s right to wear what they want but choosing a foreign country, when your dress is at odds with local custom is not the place to wage that battle – it is downright irresponsible.
The reality is that in some countries men are less used to seeing flesh revealing clothes and it is often interpreted as provocative. Do yourself and your safety a favour – cover at least as much as the locals. Ideally even more.
Wearing your SLR around your neck like it were your family heirloom may make you feel proud of your purchase, but it marks you out as a rich tourist (even if you did get it second-hand on eBay for a fifth of its retail price).
Flashing your cash, jewels, iPhone or any other sign of wealth makes you an attractive target for thieves. The fact that you don’t seem to have the street smarts to keep your items covert makes you even more of a potential mark.
When I was in Rio de Janeiro, all the sensible advice told tourists to strip themselves of their valuables and leave them somewhere safe. I swapped my day bag for a reusable shopping bag (few people want to rob your milk and bread) and took every last piece of jewellery off including my $30 pink plastic watch.
Make some friends
The fact that you travel alone doesn’t mean that you have to be alone all the time. There are literally millions of people travelling the globe at any one point so there’s bound to be a few you can connect with in an unfamiliar city. It doesn’t take much to convince another solo traveller to frequent a bar, go for dinner, investigate a night-market or see the sights.
As well as having some company, you’ll have the increased level of safety that comes with an increased number of people. Obviously just be careful about picking your new friends – people you meet in hostels and have seen kicking around for a few days are likely to be a safer bet than strangers you have only ever chatted to online.
Never scrimp on safety
The backpacking mindset can see you quibbling over a price difference of a dollar at times. However, if you can afford to buy a plane ticket, book a room for the night and buy food, why would you scrimp on costs when it comes to safety?
I once let a pre-paid room booking slip away because the location of my accommodation in Barcelona was seedy even at 9 a.m. and I’ve splashed out on plenty of taxis to keep me from having to wind my way home at night through dark and potentially unsafe streets.
If you do have to spend when you hadn’t expected to, remember that you can always make it up later (a few nights of noodles should help).
Don’t be your own worst enemy
Whenever I’ve gotten myself into a squeeze or something bad has happened, more often than not it has been because of my stupidity. The mugging in my home town is a perfect example.
Equally, getting into an unmarked car early in the morning in San José when I was worried about missing my bus had the potential to go horribly wrong – I was so focused on getting to the station on time I didn’t think about the ‘taxi’ drivers lack of credentials. And that is one of the biggest parts of staying safe – think. A lot.
Trust your instincts
I’ve sat for dinner in the house of near strangers, hitch-hiked, walked home alone at night (although NEVER along a beach) and sat in all-male carriages on trains at night. Risky? Perhaps. But each time I was listening very closely to my instincts. Yes, our instincts can sometimes be wrong, but more often than not they provide a good sixth sense at telling us when a situation is safe or not.
I once accepted an invitation for drinks from a man and although it was the middle of the day and I was in a crowded place, something inside me urged me to go home so I did. I don’t get that urge very often and I’ll never know if something bad was going to happen, but I’d rather it that way.
Listen to your gut and if your instincts are erring on the side of caution – follow them.
Get street smart
As I said, I’ve not got any super powers and I’m vertically challenged so if somebody wants me to do harm, I’m unlikely to be able to do much about it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything.
I always try to make sure I’m alert to my surroundings (iPod out, ears and eyes taking things in). I notice people and I’m prepared to cross a road, change my route or stop someone and ask for help if I’m concerned.
Most recently I tried a self-defense class, Krav Maga, which taught me a few skills to get out of a tricky situation. Can I knock down a gang of attackers in the style of Lara Croft? No, but what little moves I now know are better than nothing.
Let’s start with the legalities: in many countries it is illegal to pack self-defence weapons, whether that includes pepper spray or a knife. Legalities aside, I do carry a penknife (for cutting avocado, officer) and I did have cause to wield it once when I was being followed by two men.
It was enough for them to back off and while I accept that escalating matters with weapons is not necessarily wise, it worked for me in those circumstances and having it in my backpack keeps me feeling a little more confident – even if I do only use the tweezers to pluck an attacker into submission.
Don’t be afraid
It can be very hard to bluff confidence when you’re trying to stop your bowels escaping your body through fear, but walking tall (in my case walking as tall as I can) and showing that you’re not afraid (even if you’re faking it) might deter the lazy opportunist.
More than once I’ve been confronted by men and quite forcibly (verbally) been asked for money. On both occasions I judged the situation and faked the confidence to firmly say no. The first man was about my height and wasn’t fully convincing in his request and the second man asked when I was with two other people.
Act fearful and you’re more likely to be identified as ‘prey’, fake a lack of fear and you reduce that risk.
If you want more advice…
If you’re still not convinced or want a bit more advice, feel free to contact me – if it means you gain the confidence to travel the world alone, I’d be more than happy to help.
The alternative: stop living?
I will leave you with this parting thought. I was engaged in the classic discussion with another traveller about the greater likelihood of slipping under a bus or on a banana skin than getting attacked while travelling.
He said: ‘Living is dangerous’
I replied: ‘Then we should shop doing it. Immediately.’
If you’re not prepared to stop living, then live your dream – it is perfectly safe for women to travel alone.