“You’re not going there, are you?” “Oh, I couldn’t possibly be as brave as you, going to all those dangerous places.” These phrases are all too familiar to female solo travelers. Even well-meaning sentiments can have a discouraging, disheartening effect.
It’s important to remember that, statistically, the most dangerous environment for a woman is her home. Women face a far greater threat of violence from those closest to them, not from strangers in another country. However, the unfamiliarity of a new location in combination with cultural and linguistic challenges can make situations abroad hard to read.
Here are some safety tips for female solo travelers that focus on confidence and common sense.
1. Find Strength In Numbers
There is strength in numbers. You’re less likely to be harassed by pesky men when you’re part of a group. On buses and ferries, seek out other female passengers. A simple smile and a hello in the local language is all you need. And, in the best-case scenario, you’ll make a new friend! When I lived in Malawi, I carried a small photo album filled with pictures of my home, my family, and my pets. It was an invaluable icebreaker, and I felt safer and more secure with my new pals by my side.
2. Consult Your Guidebook
I’m a huge fan of guidebooks. At the end of each city chapter, you’ll find a list of resources including women’s advocacy groups and gender-specific local safety tips. There are also resources for LGBTQ travelers, people of color, and those who need accessibility information.
Don’t think of your guidebook as something only for a time of crisis. Many will refer you to great websites that provide helpful tips and information about community events. They also often recommend private guides and interpreters who can help you discover the city.
3. Trust Your Instincts
You might never have set foot in a Moroccan market or Thai train station or British art gallery before, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot of good common sense. Ask yourself: Where would a pickpocket most likely set up shop? Which person in this crowd is a smooth-talking troublemaker? Where’s another woman I can trust? You know far more than you give yourself credit for. If a situation feels dodgy, or if something is telling you to move on from a conversation, trust your instincts.
4. Be An Anthropologist
Another helpful question to ask yourself: What’s really going on here? Many common scams rely on tourists -- especially women -- being polite, concerned, or sympathetic. Someone bumps into you, places their hand on your arm, and apologizes. You assure them it’s nothing -- while their partner steals your wallet. It’s time to disrupt that pattern! It’s perfectly okay to ignore a distraction or an unexpected conversation or petitioner. Add a secure crossbody bag with hidden pockets and locking zippers, and you’re no longer the easiest target in the room.
5. Perfect The Art Of Making A Scene
There’s a great scene in the movie Confessions of a Shopaholic in which Rebecca lies on her resume, confident that she’ll never be tested on whether or not she really knows how to speak Finnish. Of course, before long her boss introduces her to a Finnish client. She frowns in concentration as the handsome man chatters away happily in Finnish. Then suddenly she gasps, slaps him, and says in disgust, “Men like you are the reason I left Finland!” Talk about moxie!
While I don’t recommend slapping innocent Finns, two of the best travel safety tips I’ve ever heard involve channeling this sense of moxie. The first is the callout. Should you ever be confronted by someone acting inappropriately -- from an aggressive flirt to a flasher -- you should scream “Pervert!” and shake your finger in an exaggerated shaming fashion. Your gesture and tone will be instantly recognizable to any woman in any culture. Sure, you’ll be making a scene, but you’ll also be honoring your inner Rebecca, full of spunk and self-preservation.
6. Repel And Retreat
Following the other tip requires both moxie and a bit of imagination. If you’re in a situation where you can’t immediately escape the other person and you’re afraid -- for instance, if you’re alone with a leering jerk in a subway car late at night -- catch your observer off guard by talking and singing loudly to yourself, rolling your eyes, swatting at imaginary bugs, and spilling food on yourself. This will quickly transform you from a vulnerable solo traveler to someone best left alone.
7. Use Clothing To Your Advantage
I’ll bet you’ve seen more than a few lists of travel tips that focus on what women should or should not wear. These can help you complete your packing list, but the reality is that sexual harassment can transpire no matter what the victim is wearing.
Instead of looking at your travel wardrobe as a series of dos and don’ts, think of it as a form of armor that gives you confidence and allows you to travel like a superhero, slipping into and out of places virtually unnoticed.
Don’t be afraid to wear stylish sunglasses. They’ll make you feel glamorous and mysterious -- and allow you to ignore catcallers by hiding your worried eyes. A pair of gorgeous ballet flats will allow you to museum-hop all day -- and help you to make a speedy exit if needed. A beautiful pashmina scarf isn’t just a way to demonstrate that you respect cultural norms of modesty -- it’s also a luxurious tool to make drafty flights cozier.
8. Reexamine The Ring Trick
Does wearing a fake wedding ring to deter unwanted male attention really work? Maybe. It’s certainly true that pesky men are more likely to back off when they think another man has a claim on you. As such, it’s not a bad tactic to employ when your requests to be left alone are disregarded. But it’s not a guaranteed safety plan, so forget the boring fake wedding ring and buy yourself a pretty (but not flashy, of course) piece of jewelry to celebrate your solo voyage. Every time you see it, you’ll be reminded of just how much you value yourself and your journey. And if an annoying barfly takes it as his cue to back off, all the better.
9. Be Hotel-Savvy
There’s no one type of accommodation that is guaranteed to be safer than others. You have to find the best fit for your budget, your interests, and your travel style. But what all safe, secure, accommodations have in common are cleanliness, polite staff, and a track record of positive, detailed reviews from other customers. Of course, clean sheets and a great rating don’t guarantee a worry-free visit, but they do give you a sense of what to expect.
Here are some other tips to feel more secure in hotels and other accommodations.
- Request a room close to the elevators and away from any renovations. When possible, avoid the ground floor, which is more easily accessed from the outside.
- Always secure all available locks and invest in an inexpensive rubber doorstop. This simple device adds an extra layer of resistance to prevent your door being forced open. I was happy to have one with me when I stayed in a cheap hotel in Bordeaux, since the rickety doors gave me no sense of security.
- Designate a special spot for your hotel key in your bag. Knowing exactly which pocket to reach for when you’re coming back to your room late at night is more reassuring than a frantic fumble.
- When you’re going out, leave on a light, turn the television on, and hang up the Do Not Disturb sign. The impression that there is someone else in the room is a deterrent to would-be thieves and harassers, and returning to a well-lit room is always heartening.
- One of my all-time favorite travel tips comes from a travel story I read long ago. Women hiking remote trails would stick a pair of huge, well-used men’s hiking boots outside their tent at night. Anyone who happened to pass by would get the impression that a burly, tough man was sleeping there -- and was not to be messed with. How clever is that?
10. Proceed With Caution When It Comes To Romance
Travel provides an opportunity for adventure, self-discovery, and escape. And for some women, that means more than just a little fun and flirtation.
If you’re open to romance when you travel, keep the following tips in mind.
- Note that nothing good has ever come from a smooth talker sidling up to a single woman on a bridge at sunset in Paris. No one, not even a Parisian, approaches perfect strangers to tell them how beautiful their eyes are.
- Keep things on your turf, especially at first. While your companion might know the most darling cafe a few blocks away, you can just as easily get to know one another at the Starbucks around the corner from your hotel.
- Ask yourself what your new friend is getting out of the arrangement -- besides the obvious. They could well see you as an exotic conquest based on your ethnicity, religion, age, or body type. They could also see you as a potential banker, just the person to take to their friend’s gallery or neighbor’s studio.
- Keep a close friend in the loop about your plans, or, at the very least, leave some notes for yourself and check in occasionally with the hotel staff. Your new paramour should know that there’s someone keeping tabs on you.
- Attitudes toward sexual health vary from culture to culture. Be prepared to supply protection and have a direct conversation about it. This is no time to be bashful.
- Finally, while this may be the beginning of a glorious, lifelong love affair, chances are it’s just a fling. Be sure to keep one foot grounded in reality.