I’ve been traveling solo for 8 years now, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard reactions along the lines of: “You travel alone?! What! I would never let my daughter travel alone!” or, “I couldn’t travel alone, I’m too scared.”
But the good news is that solo travel is very safe in most cases – even for single women. No, the entire world beyond your door is not a war zone filled with ruffians, thugs, poison ivy, quicksand, cannibals, snakes, and the plague (no matter what Mother Gothel may try to tell Rapunzel.)
But it’s also not a glimmering refuge of sunshine and daisies, either. Using your head and some common sense, trusting your gut and instincts, and making wise choices will almost always keep you out of harm’s way – or at least be able to get you out of it should you encounter an unfortunate situation.
Here are ten important safety tips for the solo female traveler (or really, any traveler!) —
1. Hide your valuables
It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how easy thieves have it these days. First off, they can spot a tourist out of a crowd of Where’s Waldo proportions, so don’t advertise yourself as one. Meaning: don’t carry that big expensive camera around your neck, don’t walk around holding your smartphone, and for the love of common sense, don’t wear flashy jewelry or accessories. And don’t hide anything in your pockets, either: big cities, even the relatively safe ones, are full of extraordinarily talented pickpockets who can slide that $800 iPhone right out of your front pocket without you feeling a thing.
I recommend using under-clothing security belts or neck pouches like this set. (I like the neck wallet for my cash and passport, and the waist belt for my phone and other small valuables.)
2. Befriend the staff
Tell your hotel/hostel staff whenever you come and go and give them an estimated time of return, so someone knows if you don’t show up. You might also want to email/call them ahead of your arrival to tell them you’re a solo traveler (and a woman) so they are aware — but don’t tell them at the desk when you check in! You never know who could be listening.
Tell the bus driver or train conductor which stop you need, so they know to find you when it’s time to get off. You can even tell them you’re alone, too, as they’ll usually keep a protective eye on you if they know this.
3. Avoid solo travel at night
It really depends on the area (I felt totally safe walking around by myself late at night in Iceland; not so much in Amsterdam), but generally try to avoid walking around alone or taking buses alone at night. Petty crime rates rise after dark, when people are generally less alert and easily caught off guard. But, if you have to go it alone, at least know where you’re going ahead of time (looking lost is a huge red flag to thieves), and remain constantly vigilant: don’t walk down dark alleys, stick to well-lit areas as much as possible, and don’t distract yourself on your phone. And if it makes you feel safer, keep a pocket knife or key in your hand, as well. Just in case.
4. Watch your drink(s)
At the risk of sounding like a total party-pooper, I recommend not accepting a drink from a stranger, no matter how nice they may seem. Unfortunately, “roofie” drugs are still way too common and women cannot be too careful these days (a sad truth, but why risk it?) I go out with people I meet in the hostels everywhere I travel – a beer or a cocktail in a new city is a great way to get a taste of the nightlife. But I always, always buy my own drink, watch the bartender pour it, and keep it in my hand at all times. I do this at home, too, but I’m even more alert about it when I’m alone, abroad. And on that note, I’d strongly recommend staying sober, too – enjoy yourself, but know your limits and don’t get to a point where your inhibitions are lowered.
5. Know the local emergency numbers and phrases
Learn how to ask for help in the local language (even just the translation for the word, “help!”) and program the local emergency number into your phone (it’s not 911 in all countries!) Most phone companies will allow you to dial the local emergency number from your cell, even if you don’t have international roaming capabilities (confirm this with your service provider before you leave.)
6. Don’t be shy
When you’re traveling alone, you need to be ballsy. If you’re walking down a deserted sidewalk at night, look over your shoulder constantly. Look people that you pass directly in the eye, even if they’re just going about their own business. If you’re in an elevator, bus stop, or other area where you’re alone and another person approaches (especially at night), address them directly with a friendly, assertive greeting. If there’s someone or something nearby that makes you nervous, don’t be afraid to approach another person nearby to ask for help. Criminals look for people on their own, whom they can isolate from others, and who look timid. Don’t be one of them.
That being said, don’t confront a thief if one does rip you off or, worse, robs you at knife or gunpoint. While the majority of travel-related crime is just petty theft, it’s not worth pushing your advantage in case you provoke someone into more drastic action. Hand over whatever they demand. Your life is more important than anything they’re stealing.
7. Let someone know your travel plans
Whether it’s a one-day getaway or a 6-month round-the-world trip, always leave your itinerary with family or friends back home. I always give my flight info to my mom, so she can track me and know I’ve arrived safely. I check in with her when I arrive at a new destination, and post on social media when I get there and when I’m leaving. Share a general idea of where you are, without giving specific locations, on social media so friends and family back home have a breadcrumb trail.
U.S. citizens can also check out the government’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which allows you to enroll your trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your destination.
8. Keep digital copies of everything
Okay, not everything. But you should keep digital copies of your passport and driver’s license, as well as all travel documents (airline tickets, train reservations, etc.) in a secure, password-protected cloud-based folder. (I use Google Drive.) Consider giving access to one other person you trust – like a parent. That way, if worst comes to worst and you’re robbed of everything you have, it will be far easier to prove your identity to the embassy or consulate and get your passport and items replaced.
9. Follow the news
Follow the local news in your destination – whether you read the morning paper or follow the news channel on Twitter. If there’s some impromptu demonstration happening in the city square that night and police activity will be blocking it off, that’s a good thing to know. Likewise, it’s a good idea to follow your own country’s department of international affairs (U.S. citizens can monitor world travel warnings and status updates here.)
10. Fake it ’til you make it
As I said before, thieves can spot a tourist out of a lineup practically with their eyes closed. Exude confidence and comfort, like you grew up ’round these parts. If you’re lost, consciously adjust your expression so your face doesn’t reflect it. Stay alert and vigilant, and walk with a purpose. And relaaaax. Most people and most places are friendly, welcoming, and ready to show you a good time. Don’t expect the worst; just be careful.