The independent ladies' guide to solo travel
Lately I’ve been fielding a lot of requests for advice about traveling alone as a woman. Like these questions from Travel Paint Repeat readers:
My adventurous side is just starting to come out, and I realized I think this is something I’d like to be able to do on my own. The thought of running around between several cities or countries with an entourage is just too stressful. Have you ever traveled alone? As a woman, I’m nervous about being in an unfamiliar place trying to catch the sites and sounds all alone.
I am curious to know your thoughts about traveling alone, especially as a woman. I have not yet done this, although I wish that I had the courage to do so. How do you stay safe? Do you make friends along the way? Is it less expensive traveling alone than taking someone with and splitting the cost? What have been your experiences with this?
First of all, kudos to these ladies. A lot of women would never even consider this, and I think that’s a damn shame. So, just because you don’t have an automatic, default traveling partner (or he/she can’t join you, for whatever reason) you’re supposed to stay home and miss out?
But let’s face it, it takes a certain amount of ballsiness to take an international trip by yourself, especially as a woman. That’s because A) it takes a willingness to spend a lot of time hanging out with yourself, and B) society tells us that women need protecting, that traveling alone with two x chromosomes is scary and dangerous. That is, of course, an exaggeration based on fear, xenophobia, and yes, a little sexism. Of course there are certain precautions you should take for your own security anytime you travel, alone or with a group, male or female, and I’ll highlight some of these in a bit, but it’s all mostly common sense. In reality, solo travel can be one of the most liberating, empowering experiences you can have.
“Do one thing everyday that scares you.” - Eleanor Roosevelt
If the idea of traveling by yourself scares you a little, lean into that feeling and explore it. What are you worried about most, and what’s the worst that can happen if it comes true? What are the actual odds that, if you’re smart and aware of your surroundings, something incredibly awful will happen to you? We humans like to think we make our choices objectively, based on logic, but in reality we spend a lot of time chasing feelings: it’s not necessarily a great career that we want, it’s the feeling of being successful; it’s not necessarily luminous skin or a slim waistline that we specifically want – it’s to feel beautiful. The same can be said of the feelings we don’t want to experience. So, be honest: Is it really just a feeling that you’re afraid of? Are you worried about feeling embarrassed, lost, or lonely?
The choices that push our boundaries and make us a little uncomfortable are usually the ones that reward us the most for taking them.
Here are my favorite reasons to travel solo:
1. Traveling solo by design forces you to learn how to be alone with yourself. I think it’s critical that women know how to do this, as an integral part of personal development. When you travel alone, there is no default person always at your side, someone to always talk to, to provide companionship. Your companion is you, so it’s to your advantage to quiet the negative voices and be okay in your own head. Solo travel forces you to get okay with you.
2. Solo travel serves as an incubator for developing a sense of independence and self-reliance. As a woman, when you travel with a man, everyone always assumes he’s in charge, which can encourage you to become lazy and just start acting like he is. Even I’ve been known to do this, especially in Spanish-speaking countries because my boyfriend is nearly fluent while I’m only semi-conversational, and he gets very irritated when I do (when we went to Italy recently, though, my Italian came back to me quickly and I led the way the entire week, which was empowering!). When it comes down to it, having a travel partner does mean you’re sharing the responsibility of travel logistics and translation to some degree. Traveling by yourself, it’s all you. Away from the normal pace of life at home, new and unexpected situations happen with greater speed and intensity. You’ll be dining in restaurants by yourself. You’ll be navigating airports, transportation systems, foreign languages by yourself. You’ll see and experience things you would not have if you’d stayed home (and isn’t that the point?). Proving to yourself time over time that you can handle it - this builds. It stays with you when you get back. And it feels pretty good.
3. You can design your dream trip, because there’s no one to compromise with. Traveling by yourself? Congratulations, you are officially the master of your own destiny. You get to do whatever the hell you want to do, and you can plan the trip (and change it at whim!) however you want. Are you intent on seeing every major cultural site in your destination? Not everyone would be, but screw them, they’re not here! Care to spend a few extra hours in that museum, or linger a little while longer in a city than planned? No consensus is needed, because there’s no group (or accompanying group-think) to have any say in the shape or pace your trip takes. There’s also no group-dynamic drama to distract you from your awesome independent-lady adventure. Nice.
4. You’ll meet more (and more interesting) people when you travel solo. For one thing, if you’re alone, you might be more approachable by other friendly folks, but not having a travel partner makes you more likely to initiate conversation with new people too. If you’re traveling in a big group, you’re in a bubble – you’re not truly immersing yourself. Take advantage of your solo status by booking at traveler’s hostels, where there are a lot of common areas and activities, and people are often open to meeting new people. You might make some amazing new friends this way – and even potential future travel partners. In fact, there are entire group tours available for people traveling solo. I’m not big on group tours, but if you’re new to traveling and shy, that could be a great way to break the ice.
5. On that note, it’s worth noting that solo travel is great for both introverted and extroverted types. Hello Miss Introvert, you’re better equipped for the solo aspects of traveling alone, because spending time alone is how you recharge. You’re also more likely to appreciate the way it allows you to experience more than traveling with a group. And Miss Extrovert? You’re probably outgoing, which makes you better equipped to make new friends during your trip; you’ll appreciate those connections that you may not have made if you went with someone you already know.
Fortunately, traveling solo is a choice more and more women are increasingly taking – in fact, according to this 2013 poll, ladies now take more solo trips than men. Sometimes that’s by choice, and sometimes it’s just easier to take the trip you want without worrying about finding someone to drag along with you.
So, how do you make the most of this experience?
What do you need to plan ahead for, how do you stay safe, and what choices might you make that you wouldn’t if you were traveling with a partner or in a group?
1. Stay alert and aware of your surroundings. If you’ve ever been to a big city, this is a natural part of being out and about, and we’re not talking about any measure much more extraordinary than that. But it does mean you should be careful of how much you imbibe, so maybe cut yourself off from the vino a little earlier than you would have at home. When all you have to rely on is you, you need sound judgment.
2. Know where you’re going. Do as much research as you can on your destination. Being informed is half the battle. What are the cultural expectations of women in that country? Because guess what, you will be temporarily joining their ranks. For example, even in Muslim countries where it’s not expected for western tourists to cover their hair, you still shouldn’t show off that sexy wrist or ankle. Even if changing your wardrobe that much makes you feel a little repressed or indignant (something I struggled with a little), it’s better than dealing with the unwanted attention (which I got anyway, but could have been worse). Also find out what kind of crime is most common there, what neighborhoods not to go to, and how to get help if you need it. Wikitravel and TripAdvisor are my go-to websites for getting a cursory knowledge of my destinations, and the State Dept. has country-specific safety information. Guidebook quality can vary by publisher and destination (making it impossible for me to blanket-recommend any one publisher over another) but most now include a section on safety for female travelers.
3. Stay in public areas whenever possible, and especially when you don’t feel safe. The more people who can see you, the more pressure creeps feel to act in a way acceptable to overall society, and generally the safer you are. You might be traveling by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you should be truly alone when you’re out exploring if you can help it.
4. Be careful of who you give information to. Don’t reveal too many details of your itinerary to people you meet, especially where you’re staying. Your hotel or hostel needs to be a safe haven. This can be tricky because asking the name of your hotel can be an innocent question, but if you’re alone you should be a little more cautious.
5. On that note, make sure the right people do know your plans. Give a trusted family member or friend a copy of your itinerary and let them know if anything changes mid-trip. Check in with them regularly so they know all is well. To be extra safe, you can also register your travel with the State Dept.
6. Trust your gut. If a person or situation feels off, there’s probably a reason. Your brain takes in way more information than you can reasonably process, and it’s putting two-and-two together under the surface. Intuition and gut feelings aren’t made of fairy dust or unicorn farts – they’re real and should be heeded.
7. Protect your stuff - this usually means leaving nice things at home. When you’re out walking around, don’t carry too many valuables – and remember that even things you may not consider all that expensive could be worth a lot where you’re going. Leave expensive jewelry and electronics at home. If it would be devastating to lose it, you probably shouldn’t bring it. I’ve never worn one, but money belts are a good way to keep valuables safe. They even make ones that clip onto your bra. I also prefer to carry cross-body handbags to make it a little less easy for a thief to grab it from me – and then wear them so the purse-side is opposite from the street, with my hand on it always. That alone is usually enough to deter thieves from targeting you, because you look alert. (For more general packing tips, check out How to Pack for a 2-Week Trip in a Carry-on).
8. Protect your travel documents. Book rooms that have safes in them if you can, because in most locations you’ll want to leave your passport in your room. Carrying it around with you on days you’re not flying is asking to have it stolen. I have a photo of my passport saved in my phone at all times and this, along with a driver’s license, is usually going to be sufficient to identify yourself if needed when you’re out exploring. The State Dept. also advises having the address and emergency contact information of your nearest US Embassy or Consulate on you at all times. I’ve never done this, but it couldn’t hurt.
9. Study maps ahead of time and access them discretely when you’re out and about. It’s important to have a general idea where you’re going, but nothing screams “I’m a tourist, take advantage of me!” like studying an open paper map on a street corner. I myself have occasionally had to do it, but it’s a good idea to avoid this situation. Get to know the layout of the city you’re visiting – and then download an offline city map on your smartphone. I recently discovered an iPhone app called CityMaps2Go and now I can’t imagine travel without it. For $2.99 you can download almost 7,000 interactive maps for all parts of the world – and they’re all available offline, which is important because you should always have data roaming turned off while traveling to avoid crazy $20/MB charges. It’s a lot more discrete to study your phone than a paper map, but of course you should also be careful not to flash your phone around too much either.
10. Write down the address of where you’re staying and keep it with you, hidden in a safe place. If you get lost and can’t communicate in the country’s native language, you can still show this to a cab driver to get home safely.
11. Wear clothing that is both modest and makes you feel confident. Writer and career coach Jennifer Dziura recommends making the classic blazer your light jacket of choice when traveling in an article I’ve personally referenced many times, “How To Travel Like A Gentlewoman”:
“Every time I go on vacation with “vacation clothes,” I realize that a vacation is no fun at all if I don’t feel like myself, or if I look like someone who is not fully capable of calculating how many rupees an autorickshaw ride to the Bull Temple ought to cost, thankyouverymuch. I then hightail it to the local Zara and spend $100 on something with well-defined shoulders.”
12. Consider travel insurance.Rarely appreciated until you need it, travel insurance can be a safety net for the financial investment you’ve made, which might be worth it just for your peace of mind. If you have an AmEx card, check with a customer service representative because you get some (limited) travel insurance benefits with card membership.
13. Stay open to new experiences. The whole point of traveling at all is to expose yourself to new cultures, ideas, people, and environments. Going solo opens you up to this aspect of travel to a greater degree than if you travel with friends. Solo travel can be (and usually is!) just as safe as traveling with others, so don’t let irrational fear keep you from having an amazing, life-changing trip.
14. Keep a travel journal. There’s a lot going on both around you and within you when you travel by yourself, and later you’re going to want to remember it. But once you’re back, home life settles in again and the memories of your trip will start to fade or run together. Keep a good record of your time abroad without letting it pull you out of the moment.
15. Plan the first day of your trip well.Booking international flights with miles for free as I do, I have to be flexible about the timing of my flights. But if you can make it happen, you’ll feel much better about arriving during daylight hours. Try to plan your trip so that you arrive in each new location with plenty of sunlight and time to get to your accommodations. Most international flights leave in the evening and arrive in the morning, so this is pretty likely to be the case anyway, but it’s worth noting.
Godspeed, ballsy lady adventurers!