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Do's and Don'ts for the Solo Woman Traveler
I'm Just a Girl
So, yeah, it can really suck to travel alone as a woman. Even if you are a strong, brave and bad-ass woman. The stares, catcalling and occasional groping can be infuriating and sometimes even scary. There have been times while traveling on my own when I've just wanted to sit down and cry. But then I would remember all of the truly amazing things that I've seen and experienced while traveling solo that I would have missed out on if I'd had someone by my side. Traveling solo means that you get to do exactly what you want to do - no compromising with a travel companion. It means being forced out of your shell and meeting all sorts of unique people from all over the world. It means absorbing cultures and places on your own terms. While often frustrating and sometimes lonely, solo travel is always an adventure and can be fabulously rewarding. If done correctly, that is.
Here are some do's and don'ts of solo female travel gleaned from my own experiences while on the road in Australia, Asia, Europe and Latin America. While other women travelers may disagree or have other (perhaps even...gasp...BETTER!) advice on the matter, this is what has worked for me. I have never had any major mishaps on my travels and I've always had an amazing time!
1. Follow your Instincts. Always, always, always follow your gut feeling about a place or a person. This also applies to food, by the way. If someone or something seems a bit off or makes you feel uncomfortable, no matter what other people say or how legit the situation may seem, run in the other direction. On the other hand, if you feel in the core of your being that doing something or trusting in someone is the right and safe thing to do, go for it! This is my number one rule and it has never failed me. I have avoided disaster and had some pretty amazing adventures by following my instincts and not second guessing myself.
2. Keep a Good Sense of Humor. When you are tired, hot, hungry and so sick of those ridiculous men hassling you, this is a very difficult rule to follow. But trust me, keeping a good sense of humor through thick and thin is the one way that you will be able to make it through a solo trip with your sanity still in tact. Instead of feeling insulted or demeaned by the catcalls, try to take them as a compliment. No need to encourage them, but getting angry or responding aggressively usually just makes the situation worse. When you realize that you've been ripped off (and you most certainly will be at some point, probably multiple times) try to laugh about it and learn from the experience. After all, you can't change it now. You will most likely be caught in some pretty ridiculous situations - laughing instead of crying about it is sometimes the best comfort.
3. Learn Key Phrases of the Local Language. Even if your accent is terrible and your syntax is less than perfect, this little bit of effort is a good way to show respect to local people. If you are as bad at languages as I am, even learning "hello" and "thank you" can make a huge difference in how local people respond to you. While traveling in Central America, I was treated much more kindly when I spoke in Spanish - even getting little perks, such as the best seat on the bus or a good tip on where to eat dinner.
4. Be Culturally Sensitive. This rule is a no-brainer. All travel guides advise travelers - both men and women - to be culturally sensitive while visiting another country. I include it here because, though it is totally unfair, this rule is doubly important for women. Mostly because there tend to be more cultural (and sometimes legal) rules for women than men, especially in developing countries. Study these rules before you arrive. For instance, I cannot tell you how important it is to dress appropriately. This is not only to respect the local people, but for your own safety and comfort. Once, while I was wandering around Singapore in a tanktop and mid-thigh length skirt, I ended up in the Muslim part of town. While my dress was OK in other parts of town, I immediately felt self-conscious in attire that was so obviously inappropriate for that area. No one hassled me, but it ruined my enjoyment of what could have been an interesting cultural experience.
5. Push your Limits. You are in another country and you are traveling solo, and as a woman no less! Many people could never do this, but you are. Now is the time to do things that you always wanted to do, but never thought you could do before! While always remembering to follow rule number one and trust your instincts, challenge yourself to see what exactly you are capable of and I bet you'll be surprised. My mom came and visited me while I was studying and traveling in New Zealand my third year in college. After watching me bungy jump off a ledge in Queenstown (something I thought I would never do), she decided to go paragliding off of a mountain. She had so much fun that she decided that next she would go skydiving. This is a woman who has a slight fear of heights, but pushed her limits and had an amazing time doing it!
6. Be Flexible. I always tell people that my best adventures happened when everything went wrong. Even if you are the world's most detail-oriented, anal planner, I can guarantee you that not everything will go as planned. It never does. But that's the beauty of travel. So when the bus breaks down and you are stuck in a little town in the middle of nowhere, follow rule number two and make the best of the situation. I once got lost while trekking in the Himalayas and ended up in the wrong town in the pouring rain, but ended up staying in a beautiful guesthouse owned by one of the most interesting men I have ever met. It was so much better than if I had actually made it to the town where I was expecting to spend the night.
7. Always Keep an Eye (and Preferably a Hand) on your Bag. First of all, never let the important things - like money, credit card and passport - leave your body or the safe of your hotel room. Some people like money belts, I prefer to keep mine in a zip purse in an inner zipped pocket of a zippered bag that I never take off my person. On travel days, I also stash my drivers license, extra money and credit card in my bra. It may be a little uncomfortable at first, but you get used to the feeling after a few minutes. And this way, if my bag does somehow get snatched, I have identification and money to get to an Embassy. While in bus and train stations, in particular, always keep a hand or a foot on your big pack. An experienced thief can grab your bag in the split second that you turn your back on your bag. If you have to go to the bathroom, bring your bag with you. Try not to ask anyone else to watch your bag for you. Even those with the best intentions might not be as vigilant as you would want them to be. While on sleeper trains, I like to tie my big bag to the bunk or storage area and either use my small bag with the important stuff as a pillow, or hug it as I sleep.
8. Limit Alcohol and Drug Use. Or don't use them at all. This is an especially important rule for solo female travelers. Even if you've met someone on the road who seems like a perfectly upstanding man or woman, it is important to remember that you don't really know this person. The only person you can truly count on to take care of you is you. Even if your new travel buddy is the nicest and most trustworthy person in the world, he or she has only known you for a limited amount of time. They may not be as invested in your safety as your best friend back home might be. They may not stop you from going home with a guy that you shouldn't be leaving with, not because they are a malicious person, but because they don't really know you. And then there is also the worst case scenario that the guy that you just met traveling is in fact a predator of some sort. As a solo female traveler it is very important to stay in control and keep your instincts sharp. Drinking and doing drugs to the point where your judgement is seriously impaired makes you an easy target for all sorts of nasty people. I'm not saying that you can't imbibe at all, just that you need to limit intake (and this is coming from a girl who was once known by her friends as the "beer monster"). Plus, cutting down or completely cutting out alcohol and drugs will save you money and help keep off those pounds that women travelers are often cursed with putting on during a trip.
9. Pack a Great First Aid Kit. You probably won't need half of the stuff that you pack, but it's better to be safe than sorry. Make sure that you have all the usuals - band-aids, bandages, disinfectant, painkillers, cold medicine, etc. Also remember to include women-specific items, such as yeast infection treatment, cipro (for UTIs, but it also tends to help for other infections too), birth control, condoms and the morning after pill (because who knows what could happen - with or without your consent). Though not exactly a first aid item, I suggest that you bring a good supply of tampons. These can be really difficult to find in some places and are often expensive.
10. Keep a Journal. I think everyone should keep a journal, whether traveling alone or with a partner, but it is especially important for solo travelers. When you don't have anyone to talk to about something that you just need to get off your chest, a journal is a great way to vent or gush. A journal can help stave away any loneliness. It is also an excellent self-exploration tool. Traveling on your own allows you to have a lot of time to look inward. A journal can allow you to record what you learn about yourself. Reading it after or towards the end of your trip, it's a fun way to see how you have grown and changed. On a more practical note, keeping a journal is also a good way to discourage unwanted attention when you are sitting alone during a meal. Most people (read: men) won't approach you if you look busy. And if they do approach you, explain to them that you need to do some writing and need to concentrate. Then they'll usually go away.
1. Let Fear Ruin Your Trip. Yes, there are definitely certain safety issues that solo female travelers need to be aware of while on the road. And yes, the world can be an ugly place. But it can also be an exciting, wonderfully beautiful place. Do not let your fear of getting ripped off or pick-pocketed or hurt get in the way of this incredibly cool experience that you are about to have. If you are careful and trust your instincts, you should be fine. Women travel by themselves all the time and the great majority come home safe and sound.
2.Sweat the Small Stuff. I am from Washington, DC where everyone sweats the small stuff. In fact, nothing is even considered "small stuff." Everything is a big deal and needs to be argued over and hashed out in a billion meetings and conference calls. Well, you can see where that's gotten us.... This trip is your chance to shed all of that. Get rid of your apartment, put your stuff in storage, get auto bill pay, take off your watch and turn off your cell phone. You are now entering a world where your bus will probably be three hours late, your waiter won't bring out the bill until he finishes his dinner and it is expected that you will bargain for that scarf you love so much. Just go with it and you'll soon realize that almost everything is the small stuff.
3.Cut Yourself Off from Making Friends with Locals and Other Travelers. A place is only as good as your attitude going in and the people you meet. I loved visiting the Angkor Temples - they are truly stunning - but what made my three days among temples so special was my tuk-tuk driver Vanndy, the boy named Krum with whom I chatted on the top of a temple one afternoon and fellow traveler Steven. Your trip will be all the more rich if you open yourself up to meeting people. On more than one occasion, people have asked to join me while I was sitting alone eating. Sometimes it would be a disaster, but more often then not I would at least get a good conversation out of the meeting. On tours, I always try to sit with the guides and get to know them and their stories. This is a great way to make local friends and get more insight into the culture of the country. Bus and train rides are also good places to meet locals and foreign travelers, and can pass the time quite nicely. However, remember to trust your instincts. Don't hesitate to walk away from a new "friend" that doesn't seem quite right.
4. Trust Someone Just Because they Speak English.Some of the slickest con artists are those who speak perfect English. There are also really wonderful, interesting people who speak English. Before putting your trust into a person, or follow them anywhere, make sure you know which category they fall into. Always remember that a person is not trustworthy just because they speak your language.
5. Stay in a Private Room without a Lock. Always check the lock on a room before taking it for the night. I once stayed in a room by myself with a faulty lock. I set up an elaborate booby trap system involving bungy cords and a fan, but I still didn't sleep a wink that night. If you are staying in a hostel room, try to get one with at least eight people in it. I know a room with just four beds can sound like heaven, especially if you've been doing the hostel circuit for awhile, but remember that those three other beds could be occupied by anyone. I once stayed in just such a room and ended up being the only girl surrounded by a group of three guys traveling together. I woke up in the middle of the night with one of them sitting up in his bed and "ahem" pleasuring himself while looking in my direction. While not the worst thing that could have happened, it was not exactly a good situation.
Ten Essentials for Solo Female Travelers
The best backpack specifically designed for women EVER! It saved my back from complete destruction while trekking for 26 days in the Khumbu region to Everest Base Camp
For more packing Essentials, check out my other Hub, Everest Base Camp Trek Packing List for the Female Trekker!