As a woman who has done a lot of travelling, much of it alone, people often seem surprised that I come home in one piece. I haven’t been kidnapped, decapitated or held prisoner in a basement for six months. Yes, some people really think that travelling alone is that dangerous. It’s easy to see why.
The news is riddled with stories telling us that danger lurks around every corner, both at home and away. We start to view people with suspicion even though our world is arguably safer than it’s ever been, or at least, not dramatically any more dangerous. There are more people on the planet than at any time in history. The current figure is 7.5 billion people and that number is going to rise my friends. Naturally, crime and danger are going to rise as people do. It’s kind of our thing.
That said, I really hate it when confident, ambitious or curious women feel that travel is not safe for them. Women who have not travelled independently before want to know what it’s actually like to travel alone. They know that the experience of walking down the street in a dress with a group of friends, or a boyfriend, is different to strolling down the same street solo and if you haven’t travelled, it’s easy to think that booking a trip might be a death sentence.
Here are some of the most common questions that I hear and what I, a solo female traveller, feel about them:
Aren’t there certain places that you shouldn’t go to alone? I mean, won’t you get hit on all the time?
This is an interesting question and it so uniquely pertains to the females of the species. Do you get hit on? Yes. Do you get hit on all of the time? No.
There are certain stereotypes that exist about solo female travellers. People believe that we are open-minded, curious, adventurous, easy and promiscuous. Some people see a female traveller as an easy target sexually. That doesn’t mean they will harm you, just that they will try every trick imaginable to win you over.
You have to remember that the outside world has two opinions of female travellers depending on how often they come into contact with them:
Group 1, who may live in rural areas or places not often frequented by foreigners may view you with curiosity, trepidation, warmth or as a trophy that they can accrue. Their understanding of western tourists may largely be forged by what they see in the media which does not always portray us in a favourable light. People will assume that if you can afford to travel, you are rich, even if back in your own country, you work a temp job for £8 an hour.
Group 2, who come into contact with foreigners more often, may have a jaded, hostile view of what tourists represent especially in countries where the relationship between tourists and locals could be construed as exploitative. On the opposite end of the spectrum, they may be more culturally acclimatised to tourists because they have had the opportunity to know them, date them and forge friendships with them.
Of course, if you are alone, many men, both locals and fellow tourists, will try their luck, just as they might at a pub or bar at home. If I share a few of my own experiences, I was mistaken for a prostitute in Vietnam when I stood on a street corner in Ho Chi Min City in a red dress waiting to meet a friend and in Thailand, the Thai man who returned my laundry grabbed my butt as I left. Aside from these two moments, I have been very lucky in that my experiences have always been jovial and friendly, rather than intimidating or dangerous.
My advice to all lone ladies would be to maintain your boundaries. It doesn’t matter how you do it; put on a fake wedding ring, pretend you have a boyfriend or simply be firm with your ‘no’s.’ Whatever strategy makes you feel comfortable, do it. If you are footloose and fancy free, feel free to enjoy the attention but exercise the usual precautions, as you would at home.
Are some places safer than others?
Yes, I’d say that’s true. Not everywhere in this world is the same and that is why we travel. Ultimately the core of people the world over is the same. People are largely welcoming of tourists and display tremendous generosity and kindness but you’ll also find your bad apples who view foreigners as walking wallets. Fundamentally, the people you will encounter are just trying to get on with their own lives but what shapes them further is their environment, religion, culture, political climate and current events.
With this in mind, there are certain countries that I would not visit alone, not because I think it’s 100% dangerous but simply because I personally would not be comfortable to do so.
I think that for a scared/sensible solo traveller, certain destinations are better than others. I would recommend Thailand, Bali, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea as great beginner destinations based on the fact that I felt so safe and welcomed in all of these locations. These are great places to find your feet before you explore countries that are not typically associated with solo travel like Russia, the Middle East and Africa, although you will find plenty of female travellers who have travelled here alone. If solo travel seems frightening, group trips and tours are a great way to go ‘alone’ (as in, not with anyone that you know) whilst sharing the experience with new friends. This is a great middle ground.
Are women seen as lesser?
How women are perceived is largely shaped by the culture of the country that you are visiting. I have visited certain countries and heard of certain customs that have made me uneasy. Some Buddhists believe that women are less enlightened than men and in India it is customary to serve men before serving women. As a Western woman raised with the ‘women and children first’ mentality, these customs naturally raise my hackles.
Before travelling anywhere it is always useful to brush up on the local culture, especially if you are staying off the beaten track. It’s following the old ‘when in Rome’ adage and avoiding any cultural ripples and clashes. You don’t have to travel anywhere that you consider to be misogynistic or sexist and many countries are very accommodating to Western values and know how to treat female travellers.
On the plus side, female travellers are often taken care of better than their male counterparts. We tend to be categorised as helpful tourists; volunteering in schools or with animals or working as teachers rather than the negative stereotypes that can dog male travellers. Local people will tend to want to take care of you and check that you are alright. For example, in Japan, a local man went out of his way to walk me to my hostel in the rain under his umbrella.
Do your family accept that you travel…alone…as a woman?
I am lucky in that my family and friends have been completely supportive of my travel whims. The people in your life may be less so. I think this is largely down to misconceptions about what travel is like and the tendency to jump to worst case scenarios. Often, people will just be scared that something may happen to you or they will miss you or they will be afraid that you wont want to come back! Fear should never stop you from doing anything and other peoples fears certainly shouldn’t prevent you from finding a travel experience that suits you.
Isn’t it really lonely going on your own?
Trust me when I say that as a female traveller, you will never be lonely. You know how drunk girls in club bathrooms always end up chatting the night away? Travel is, for the most part, one big drunken girls bathroom. People will want to talk to you, people will be curious about your plans, they will want to know you. You might even be batting people away just to savour a little of the travel experience for yourself. Solo travel is many things, but rarely is it lonely and even if/when it is, that loneliness can be eroded in minutes.
Didn’t you miss your family?
Two words: hell yes. I’m very close with my family and the most traumatic part of travelling was the first flight. I cried the entire time that I flew to Thailand. I was watching Brave and missing my mum, dad and brother. The kind of sadness I felt was powerful and I wanted to go back home. Missing people that you care about is normal. It’s better to have people that you value enough to miss than to have nothing. It’s easy to travel if nothing and no-one is holding you back but when you have ties, well, you can feel them pull when you move too far away. What helped me was reminding myself that home is always there and those that love me are not too far away, especially with Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms. Feeling homesick should not prevent you from at least trying to travel. If it really isn’t for you, you can always go home!
How can I avoid being hit on when I travel?
Before any trip, it is vital to learn about the local culture. Gestures, clothing and body language can mean very different things overseas than they do at home and although this can be frustrating, learning this language can save you from lots of embarrassing and awkward situations.
Maintain firm boundaries, show respect to the culture and remember that the easiest way to avoid mishaps, especially if alone, is to blend into the culture rather than to jut out. In Thailand, a local man explained to me that Western women who smoke, drink and have tattoos are often viewed as prostitutes. Although the views of others should not stop you from smoking, drinking or getting a tattoo, it is important to be aware of their perceptions.
What advice would you give to a woman about to go travelling alone?
Be confident, be brave, be courageous and be prepared. You cannot plan out exactly what your travel experience is going to be like and often it turns out very differently to what you expected! That said, a little planning goes a long way. Anything that makes you feel comfortable and safe should be accounted for, including phrase books, contraceptives and medications. Ensure that you are secure financially and have the necessary visas, brush up on local customs and laws and follow your intuition. Your intuition rarely lets you down and in times of doubt, will keep you on the right path.
Am I too old/young to travel alone?
Age is totally irrelevant to travel. If you want to go, go. You seriously meet people from all walks of life and of all ages when you travel. How boring the experience would be if you only met people like yourself…
What matters more than age is your approach. If you are warm, approachable and open-minded, you will embrace the experience.
How can you prepare for solo travel?
Get used to doing day to day things alone such as a trip to the cinema, restaurant or local pub. Sign up for a class that you’ve always wanted to do. Turn up to a party alone. Get used to doing things independently and it will soon lose it’s ‘oddness.’
I’d also recommend a short trip such as a weekend away or a solo day trip to push you out of your comfort zone before embarking on a longer, larger trip. The skillset you use for a short or long trip is largely the same so its a useful form of practice.
It’s understandable that as women we worry about our safety. The dangers we encounter are very unique to us as women navigating the world. It’s important to remember that women have travelled and are travelling as we speak, to all corners of the world, and they are doing so safely.
Be aware, be prepared, be confident and most importantly, have fun!
All my love