A handy guide for my fellow female travelers
If you’re a woman with wanderlust, the question of safety undoubtedly pops up when you announce plans to travel on your own.
Actually, whether it’s your first or fifteenth solo trip, personal safety probably crosses your mind every time you and your ovaries venture out far from home — or hell, even into a dimly lit alley five blocks from your own home.
The quick answer is of course, yes. Very yes. Much of the world is safer for women now than it has ever been. We still have an absurdly long way to go toward global women’s rights and gender equality, particularly in certain regions that rhyme with Little Feast, but in a historical context, it’s a pretty great time to have ovaries and a passport. Amelia Earhart would be proud.
The longer answer, if you have a few minutes to spare while you’re busy being a badass female, is that the following nuances and watchouts apply, because nothing in life is actually black and white — except for these adorable yoga pants I saw on Instagram.
Disclaimer: Broad generalizations and liberal use of hyperbole are contained below. The world is a big, complex place, and no two travelers’ experiences are ever going to be quite the same. But I’ve traveled enough solo and have consulted plenty of other such gals, so hopefully the following tips are at the very least entertaining, if not surprisingly useful.
Let’s not pretend that every country and culture is equally receptive to females traveling solo, or that you’ll have the same experience in big cities as in small towns and remote countryside. So choose your destination carefully and heed travel warnings from official sounding sources.
My friend Esme is a seasoned solo traveler, but for places like Egypt, she knew better than to go alone. Despite joining an organized group tour, she still encountered some unnerving harassment from local men when she strayed just a few steps from her hotel. Even wearing a fake wedding ring and pretending to be married to a male traveler in her tour group failed to deter some men. “It’s such a beautiful country, but I would urge any woman not to go solo,” she says.
The point is, if you want to see certain parts of the Middle East and Africa, for the sake of your mother’s sanity, please join a reputable group tour like Intrepid or G Adventures — and be prepared for extra vigilance regardless.
On a happier note, the vast majority of places in the world get a giant green light for solo travel, if you apply the basic precautions below. Most of the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia, Japan, South & Central America — you go, girl! Follow the ‘gringo trail’ in each country. It rarely disappoints.
In these well-trodden places, the sight of a lone woman with a large backpack no longer garners glances of surprise or confusion.
It’s worth noting that when you travel alone, you are rarely actually alone. If you choose destinations that other humans also like to visit, you will meet fellow travelers simply by breathing. Often you’ll decide to team up. So the term “solo traveler” will be a misnomer for much of your trip, unless you actively seek out solitude or are entirely unpleasant to be around.
The times I feel most vulnerable and on edge while traveling alone are when I’m in transit, particularly if I have to be alone in a vehicle with a driver I don’t know. Annoyingly, this describes all taxis, tuk-tuks, private boats, horse-drawn carriages and the occasional rogue camel.
I opt for shared shuttle vans with other travelers whenever possible, and public transportation if it doesn’t have a reputation for thefts or other shadiness. When taxis or private cars are logistically much easier, wait in clearly marked taxi lines, ask a hotel to call one, or book cars from official travel agencies. Online in advance is even better, and Uber / Lyft are great options where available.
While traveling in Vietnam, a friend and I simply hailed a cab on the street to take our four ovaries and four tired feet back to our hotel. We knew the streets of Hanoi well enough at that point to panic when our driver needlessly got on the freeway, and in the opposite direction from our hotel. He spoke no English, but apparently opening the passenger door of a moving car is the international symbol for “Let us outta here!” After a few terrifying minutes of yelling at each other, he finally pulled over.
He likely intended to drive us around in circles to inflate the cab fare, rather than something more sinister, but the moral is, don’t hail random cars on the street if you can avoid it. (I can only vouch personally for every yellow cab in New York City.)
Other times you might feel especially vulnerable as a solo female traveler are at night. Do not take chances when it comes to sleeping arrangements. Spend a few extra bucks on comfort and peace of mind. Read reviews online. Choose busier parts of town rather than remote locations only accessible by a dark, empty road. Avoid renting rooms in private houses.
If your gut is undecided about a place, consider dropping by in advance to feel it out or ask another female how she likes staying there.
In general, guesthouses with a front desk or where someone is around 24/7 are preferable, not just for safety reasons but other logistical stuff. If you’re traveling in low season when some hostels are largely empty, opt for the more popular ones. It’s tempting to rent a sweet airbnb with a nice big kitchen, but if it’s far from the more touristy areas or requires you to walk alone at night, choose lodging that lets you meet other travelers instead.
I know that as a liberated modern gal, I’m supposed to say, “wear what you want, whatever makes you feel beautiful and sexy!” I will gladly say this on Halloween and during bachelorette parties in Vegas. But if you’re traveling solo, let’s class it up a little, ladies. Our clothing should not distract people from their daily lives, draw unwanted attention, or make locals feel offended.
Observe what the local women are wearing. I don’t mean copy their fabrics and styles (unless you want to). I mean take note of how much surface area they’re covering. I always pack a long, flowy skirt and a lightweight scarf or sarong, especially if I plan on visiting temples. No one would describe me as a conservative dresser, and my daily travel uniform is usually tight yoga pants. But I draw the line at looking like I’m on my way to Coachella.
(I’m deliberately omitting discussion about hijabs and burqas here, since that’s a whole other level of dress code, and I haven’t traveled through the Middle East extensively enough to write about this.)
EATING & DRINKING
Do we have to talk about roofies? I think everyone knows to keep an eye on her drink, don’t get hammered if you’re out by yourself without travel buds you truly trust, don’t take candy/drugs from strangers, yadda yadda.
The more useful lesson I’ve learned after going out alone is: always bring a book, even if you have no intention of reading it. Be prepared for another solo diner to strike up a conversation anyway. It always seems to happen. People get chatty when food and beer come together. Your book can be your escape if you don’t feel like socializing, or a great conversation starter if you do.
Plus, books are awesome and the ones you read while traveling seem to hold special meaning. One of my favorite habits is swapping books with another traveler when you’re both done reading yours.
FLIRTING & CANOODLING
Let’s close on the good stuff. If you’re traveling solo, and happen to be single / ready to mingle, feel free to delete Tinder, because meeting guys on the road is ridiculously easy. And not just grungy, jobless backpacker-types, but whatever your ‘type’ is. Everyone is traveling these days!
The same mating rituals and safety watchouts apply as in any bar back home, except that connections seem to happen on a very accelerated timeline. Knowing that your time together is likely limited and completely pressure-free, you skip the small talk and formalities, revealing your real self faster.
Just don’t confuse a genuine connection with expectations of commitment. Some people are only meant to come into our lives for a day or two, much like some of the places you visit.
Others you will bump into again when and where you least expect it. It might unfold like the plot of a rom-com, or simply remind you that the world is unbelievably tiny and interconnected. Either way, a travel romance is 400% more fun than a regular one, because sunsets and surfers and Australian accents.
If you haven’t taken your ovaries out on their own yet, I sincerely hope I haven’t scared you away from doing so. Nothing will test you as a female — and as a human, for that matter — quite like traveling solo. And nothing will reward you like it, either.
So please boldly go wherever your ovaries, your heart and your head are calling you. Not a single cell in your body will ever regret it.