When people ask me if I get scared about traveling solo, I always immediately think this: I love my country – I love the food (when you know where to look), I love the big mountains out west and the little maple shacks out east and I love plenty of things in between. I love reading Kerouac when I have wanderlust and I love that people in my hometown always smile and wave when they see you. I love a lot about the United States, but if I lived abroad and the only image I ever saw of the US came from the media, I’d be too afraid to ever come here, and that would be a totally reasonable way to feel, based on all the information I would receive about American gang violence and high rates of homicides. So no, traveling doesn’t scare me, any more than hanging out in my own hometown scares me.
In this article, we won’t get into the joys of solo traveling in general (we’ll cover that later), but I wanted to speak to women who were concerned about traveling alone. I’ve been there – I first learned about couchsurfing in 2006, when I was working at a hostel in Ireland. I thought, ‘damn, that sounds awesome. But I could never do it as a solo girl!’ It’s a shame that I spent so much time being afraid, because it would have opened me up to a lot of cool experiences, and saved me a ton of money, too.
The truth is, traveling solo as a lady is awesome, and you’ll probably be accepted by local women who will love taking you under their wings and showing you around. You’ll be more approachable than men (which can be both a blessing and a curse). And people will probably want to give you free things, too (which you might not want to accept, because they can come with strings attached).
But there are things you should know:
1. You will be treated differently in other countries – I’ve been places where strangers thought nothing of grabbing me, groping me, saying lewd things to me, and, when I was 15, offering my father a couple of goats for my hand in marriage. Local women (unsurprisingly!) have mixed feelings about this. I spoke with an Italian girl who said that she never felt as ugly in her life as she did when she went to the States, and not a single person catcalled her. Most of the it is just harmless posturing, but if the machismo gets excessive, you can usually curb it with a firm “no.” Otherwise, don’t be afraid to cause a loud public scene and shame someone if they won’t leave you alone.
2. People will think you’re more vulnerable than a solo man would be, so you might be a target. Don’t let that freak you out because you should be fine if you keep your wits about you, but a little extra caution might be in order. I’ve never been let down by my PacSafe purse, even though it’s pricy.
3. You’ll want to notice what local women are wearing, and try to emulate them. This is mainly just to show that you respect local customs, but it will also help you stay a little more incognito. There probably isn’t anything you can do to blend into a crowd, but this will help a little. It will also help you earn the respect of those around you. When I was in Belize I noticed that many of the American women walked around in shorts and bikini-tops much of the time. I wore knee-length skirts and tank-tops like the locals, and I had several local women comment on how much nicer, more respectful, and more intelligent I looked in comparison.
4. I don’t hitchhike alone, ever. If I must hitchhike, I pair up with someone (male-female pairs are usually best). If hitchhiking is your only option, try to approach people (women, if possible) at gas stations and rest stops and ask them for a ride – this is because you’re much less likely to encounter a psycho with bad intentions if you come to them, as opposed to waiting for them to come to you.
5. Let friends and family know where you’ll be, and try carrying a cell phone with you. I have an unlocked phone and a global SIM card which works everywhere, but I try to buy local SIM cards if I’ll be somewhere for a while, to save myself a bit of money. It might also be worthwhile to keep note of emergency numbers local to the countries you’ll be visiting, since 911 probably won’t get you far abroad.
6. Even if you like wandering around aimlessly (I do), still confirm with a host or book your first night’s accommodation before arrival. You don’t want to be lost, searching for a bed in an unfamiliar place late at night with all your bags on hand. You already know which city you’ll be flying into (I hope), so this shouldn’t really interfere with your free-wheeling spontaneity.
7. Pack lightly! This is important for all travelers, but it’s essential for solo travelers. You’ll have to haul your luggage into the bathroom with you at the airport (and wherever else you’ll be stuck with your bags), since there will be nobody to watch it for you. You’ll look extra vulnerable if you’re struggling with heavy luggage, and the people who come to your assistance might not be the most savory characters.
8. Take advantage of your approachability and get to know locals (on your own terms, though). Public buses are awesome for meeting locals and couchsurfing meetups are also fantastic.
9. Don’t be paranoid, but don’t let your guard down, either. I think the world is a much safer place than most fear-mongerers make it out to be, but many travelers (male and female) throw caution to the wind when they’re abroad. This can be especially dangerous in new situations where you might not know the local customs and you might not understand how people are interpreting you.
10. Trust your instincts. We got ‘em for a reason, and if they’re telling you to GTFO, don’t be afraid to do it.
11. If staying in a private room, you’ll probably pay a single surcharge. If you really don’t want to do this, try finding another solo female to shack up with for the night to save a little bit of dough. You’ll probably end up making a great friend, and if not, you might at least get a good story out of the experience.
12. If you find a few travelers or locals you feel you can trust, they can usually vouch for other people. This is the principle behind Couchsurfing, of course, but it also works for people you meet in hostels or local venues. It allows you to widen your social circle without taking as large of a risk. However, if you are relying on a man to vouch for someone, still maintain a level of caution. I have found that trustworthy guys can also be trusting guys, and sometimes they just don’t realize how poorly other men can treat women because they aren’t present when those men are alone with a woman and suddenly become lewd or unkind.
13. Be aware of your body language. In some places things like eye contact, smiling, or shaking hands can be interpreted as a sign of sexual interest. Research online before you go, or ask other women you meet. Watch how other people interact, especially male-female pairs. Wear sunglasses if you are unsure or if you want to observe others unnoticed. Each country has a unique distance that most people maintain from each other at all times, whether walking down the street, riding the metro, or conversing. Figure out what that distance is and try to maintain it at all times, otherwise they will interpret your body language as stand-offish or come-on-ish.
14. Seem confident. Walk with purpose, don’t stand around looking at large maps, always have something with you to make you look occupied (ie. some blank postcards to fill out, a novel to read, etc.). If you are lost, try asking for directions in a store or restaurant.
15. Check the travel advisories for the country you are about to visit. If there is a lot of violent crime against women, it should be listed. It is also just a good idea because you should know about all crime and safety risks before you arrive.
Just one more note – nobody ever actually wears fake wedding rings (you’re more likely to find women who leave their wedding rings safe at home, actually). However, you will almost certainly find yourself inventing a fake boyfriend, and he will be very burly and very jealous.