For women, solo travel brings its own set of joys and challenges. It can be an extraordinary experience, to go where you want when you want and meet new people along the way. Many women who have traveled alone describe an incredible sense of freedom and possibility. But there are also the challenges, ranging from loneliness to safety, making solo travel daunting enough that many women never attempt it.
That’s not to say it can’t be done. To help you get the most out of a trip, here are ten tips compiled from the advice of women who have traveled alone and will do it again.
1. Exercise hotel safety
There are many ways you can make a solo stay at a hotel safer. At check-in, you might consider asking for a room near the elevator so you won’t need to walk down long, potentially ill-lit hallways to reach your room. When filling out guest registration forms, consider using your first initial instead of your name, and skip the “Mrs/Miss/Mr” check box. Additionally, make sure the clerk writes down your room number instead of saying it out loud. This will prevent anyone in the vicinity from knowing where to find you later.
If you’re at a hotel that requires you to leave your keys at the front desk, make sure that a desk clerk is there to put your key in a safe place; never just leave it on the counter. SmarterTravel.com’s Executive Editor Anne Banas cautions to never hang a filled-out breakfast card on your door; doing so lets people know you’re alone in the room, and means there’s a situation already set in which you’ll be expecting someone at the door. If I’m not sure about my accommodations, I bring along a rubber door stop to wedge under the door in case the lock is unreliable.
2. Arrive during the day
Arrive in new cities during the day. Areas around bus and train stations can be scary and/or deserted, and small towns tend to shut down early. Veteran solo traveler Mara Rothman of San Francisco notes that plenty of beautiful towns can appear eerie at night, and locals who are genuinely trying to help you can appear unnecessarily threatening. Arriving during the day means you’ll be able to find a place to stay and get your bearings before dark.
3. Keep your documents safe
If you choose to wear a money belt, use it for storage and not as a purse. Constantly reaching under your shirt for money draws attention to it, and tends to defeat the purpose. Instead, keep your passport, extra stores of money, and other important documents tucked away, and use a bag or purse for carrying daily spending money.
Keep copies of your passport and credit cards in a separate and secure location. Rothman suggests slipping copies of such documents under the insoles of shoes. They may not smell great, but they’ll be there if you need them.
4. Dress appropriately
To avoid attracting unwanted attention, dress as conservatively as the women you see around you. This doesn’t necessarily mean donning the traditional dress, as that can sometimes backfire. When she arrived in India to travel on her own for six months, Eva Winter of London purchased the traditional Salwar kameez long tunic and pants. But as she traveled around the country, she noticed that she was actually attracting more attention from men who were curious about the six-foot-tall blonde in the customary cultural dress. Suspecting she might be giving the impression of attempting to appear traditional to attract an Indian suitor, Winter switched back to conservative Western dress and was hassled far less often.
A good rule of thumb is to dress modestly. Think knee-length or longer skirts. Bare arms, shoulders, and legs are considered risqué in some countries, so do the research before you go and once you’re there. Note which body parts the local women cover and do the same.
5. Know when to buddy up
Traveling alone doesn’t always mean being alone. There are plenty of situations in which seeking out company can make for a safer and more enjoyable experience. On vacation in Jamaica, Banas wasn’t comfortable walking alone from her resort into town for dinner and a reggae show, so she invited a couple she’d met earlier in the day at the pool to join her. By doing so, she got to try out a new restaurant, dance the night away, and make new friends.
Smaller hotels and hostels are great places to find like-minded travelers to explore new places with. And even when you can’t find someone to buddy up with, there are often ways to associate yourself with others so you’ll be less likely to be bothered. In some countries, there are women-only sections in trains and women’s waiting rooms at train stations. Sticking close to families on public transportation and in unfamiliar public markets and bazaars is another technique some women use.
6. Combat harassment
A few might argue that it’s just a well-developed appreciation of women, but unsolicited stares, calls, and attention feel more like harassment when you’re alone in unfamiliar territory. Having a repertoire of harassment deterrents can be as important to women travelers as a sturdy pair of shoes and a passport.
SmarterTravel.com Contributing Editor RaeJean Stokes, who lived in Eastern Europe for two years, found that the combination of a basic understanding of the local language and the ability to feign total ignorance was a useful deterrent. After all, she said, “it’s not as fun to harass someone who can’t play back.” As an extension, not engaging with people who are bothering you can make you a less interesting target.
If you want to avoid being approached during lulls in activity, such as while waiting for or while traveling on trains, it can be a good idea to carry a novel or paper for writing to friends (they miss you, you know, and want to hear how your trip is going). That way, you’ve got a prop that makes you look busy and involved.
If a situation of harassment escalates, making a scene can sometimes be effective. Many societies place a high premium on respecting social norms, so drawing attention to harassment in a loud and clear manner may solve the problem. The sentence for “leave me alone” is a handy one to learn.
7. Research body language and culture
Depending on the country, seemingly innocuous gestures such as eye contact, shaking hands, smiling, and small talk can be construed as come-ons. Learning the subtleties of body language and local culture before you arrive can prevent awkward or misleading situations.
Reading up on the culture before you go can also make your trip more enlightening and enjoyable. When in doubt, spend some time observing those around you, and then follow suit. And if you’re someone who likes to people watch or study faces, a dark pair of sunglasses can come in handy to avoid any confusion about eye contact.
8. Exude confidence
Whether you’re on a street at home or 7,000 miles away, walking confidently and with direction is an effective technique for deterring unwanted attention, since appearing lost or confused can make you vulnerable. If you are lost, walk into a shop or restaurant and ask for directions there. Try to avoid obviously looking at maps while you’re in the street. Study your route before you go, or find one of those wallet-sized maps that you can discreetly palm and refer to on the sly.
9. Keep in touch
If you’re traveling alone, it will be important to have a few regular contacts who can keep tabs on you. Leave a general itinerary behind with family and friends, and send regular emails so that people at home know about where you are. You can also register your trip with the Department of State online. Registering a trip means that the embassy knows of your presence in a country; this can be especially helpful when traveling in dangerous areas or in the event of a natural disaster.
10. Use common sense
Using common sense is perhaps the single best tip for staying safe and having a good time while you’re traveling alone. This category includes the usual recommendations: don’t walk around late at night, don’t drink with strange men, don’t ride in empty compartments on trains, don’t compromise safety to save a few bucks on a hotel or transportation, and know how to use a pay phone.
Though these tips have been compiled for solo women travelers, they’re good ones for general travel as well. Awareness and a bit of street-smarts are the keys to safe and happy travels.