For the 50+ Traveler

Solo travel is an amazing opportunity to discover the world. It comes with a few challenges. One of them, especially for women, is worrying about safety. I’ve now been to every continent except Antarctica. While in Colombia, I didn’t see people with guns, apart from the police. Nobody grabbed my phone on the streets of Buenos Aires. I wasn’t kidnapped in Peru, and I wasn’t mugged or threatened in South Africa. I did follow a set of self-imposed safety rules. If you plan to travel alone, here are some of my guidelines that I hope will keep you safe, too.

I Trust My Intuition

This matters more than anything I hear, read, or see. If I have even the tiniest feeling I should reject an invitation, walk on a different street, or say no, I listen. I was recently alone in a touristy area in Cape Town, South Africa. A man approached me. He asked, “Are you from here?”

My inner alarm went off since it seemed obvious that I wasn’t. He launched into a story about his car being stuck, going to a funeral, and needing me to walk to his vehicle to help him. His story was too long, and my gut didn’t trust him. I said no and walked away.

I learned later that this is a typical scam in the area. Had I given in, a number of horrible things could have happened to me. They didn’t because I trusted my instincts.

I Ask The Locals

The first thing I do when I check in is to ask the staff whether the neighborhood is safe both day and night, and what areas to avoid. I listen to their advice.

In Brasilito, Costa Rica, my hotel owner told me to return by dark. One evening, I walked back around dusk. A male stranger began walking next to me. He acted friendly, wanting to know my name and where I was from. I got uncomfortable when he asked what hotel I was staying in. I pretended I forgot the name, made an excuse to stop walking with him, and went a different direction to get back. Going forward, I made a point to be back by dusk instead of dark.

The writer exploring the streets of Cartagena.
Heather Markel

I Learn From My Mistakes

In almost two years of travel I've had only one bad experience. I spent four nights at a hostel in Argentina. One of the owners offered me wine every evening in the lobby. He wanted me to drink more, but my intuition stopped me after one glass. On my third evening, he proposed cooking dinner for me and a staff member. I accepted, feeling safe since we wouldn’t be alone. After dinner, the three of us went next door for a drink. I felt secure in the belief that I had two friends to walk me home.

That safety illusion was broken when we got back to my door. The staff member said a quick goodnight and ran off. The manager began to kiss me and tried to enter my room. Luckily, I was able to say no and push him away. I closed the door. Thankfully, I also locked it because he came back later and tried to enter without success. I was terrified, but that was the worst of it. Since then, I’ve refused to have dinner or drinks alone with men unless I’m interested. I may have missed out on some friendships, but I don't feel like taking the risk.

I Have A Travel Buddy

It’s great to call home once in a while and let everyone know I’m safe, but ongoing plans made on a whim can be overwhelming for family.

Last year, I met a lovely solo traveler, Jackie, in Thailand. We agreed to keep each other posted on travel itineraries and safe arrivals as we went. We were in touch every week, sometimes multiple times, letting each other know about plans and safe arrivals for most of this year. If I didn’t hear from her and got worried, I checked on her. Sharing each other’s emergency contacts back home also helps.

I Keep My Technology Hidden

Our iPhones alone can make us targets for theft in many places. Until I get my bearings and watch how other people behave with their valuables, I keep my phone and camera hidden. I use paper maps on the street or ask people for directions. If I do use my phone, it’s in a store or away from the street.

One irony, however, was in Buenos Aires. I was warned that people on motorcycles would grab my phone out of my hand if I used it too close to a street corner. I found that the locals used their cell phones in the street so much that I felt more of a tourist for not using mine!

The writer taking public transportation in Santiago.
Heather Markel

I Stay Positive And Manage My State Of Mind

I believe our thoughts and attitudes determine the types of people we attract. I’m happy and have friends who behave with integrity. I travel the world treating others well and looking forward to the potential new friends I may meet each day.

In Cape Town, when I ended up at the last stop of a local bus line and it wasn’t where I wanted to be, I asked the driver what to do. He told me I needed a different bus and insisted on driving me to it so that I wouldn’t be mugged. At the transfer point, he waited with me for my bus, ran across the street with me, flagged down the other driver, and made sure he took me to the right place. These are the types of people I attract, and as I travel, it’s the kind of people I expect to meet. When someone out of integrity shows up, I feel it and walk away.

I Have My Key Ready

On my way “home,” I put my key in my pocket long before I get to the door. When I get close, the key goes in my hand. I look around to see who else is on the street. If anyone makes me uncomfortable, I keep walking or turn around and let them pass. It may sound simple, but once I’m at my door, I open and close it quickly.

The writer exploring the mountains of Colombia.
Heather Markel

I Carry A Flashlight

You never know when you’ll find yourself alone in a blackout or on a street that’s not well lit. My flashlight is clipped to the outside of my bag so I don’t have to search for it. This was a godsend all over Costa Rica. I stayed in many cheap places with either bad lighting outside or a dark street on the way. It can double as a weapon if you need to shine the light in someone’s eyes!

I Notify Friends About Taxi Rides

My Uber app notifies five selected people of every ride I take. If I use another taxi company, I take a photo of the license plate, and sometimes the driver, and send them to my designated five. This ensures someone knows who I was last with, and it can deter a driver from taking advantage of me. In countries without Uber, I ask my hotel to send a car for me. Safety is worth paying extra for.

Female solo travel isn’t always easy, but it is extremely rewarding. I know of no better way to deeply connect with who you are and what you want out of life. If you’re willing to abide by some basic safety guidelines, there’s no reason to fear traveling alone.

Want more on making the most out of a trip, wherever you go? Read 10 travel tips for personal safety when traveling abroad, written by a seasoned traveler who’s traversing Europe by motorhome.