My first experience with traveling alone was in my 20s. I had just received a degree in comparative religion from the University of Colorado and exploring a mysterious land filled with thousands of gods and goddesses seemed like a great way to spend a few months.
So, with my few possessions packed into a single bag and $500 in my pocket, I set out on my first great adventure. I don’t mind telling you that I was absolutely terrified!
Now, looking back on my first solo travel experience, I can see that most of my fears were either exaggerated or irrelevant… but, it certainly didn’t feel like this at the time.
My first experience in India deserves its own post, so, I will leave out the details for now. Let’s just say that I experienced soul-lifting beauty and heartbreaking poverty. I found new friends and lost a few childish beliefs. By the end of the trip, to paraphrase one of my favorite poets T.S. Eliot, “I was back where I started but new the place for the first time.”
Over the next 45 years, I continued to travel, sometimes with my family and sometimes solo. I visited remote islands and slept in rainforests on two continents. I traveled in tuk-tuks and trains, luxury cars and decapitated camper vans.
Through my travel experiences, I have learned that most of the fears that we have about traveling alone as women are, at best, exaggerated. At worst, they are actually the opposite of what we think they are. If this last statement sounds cryptic, it will be clear by the time you finish this article.
Here are a few of the “what if” fears that women face when they travel along… and what to do about them.
What if I Get Robbed… or Worse?
When I ask women to tell me the one thing that holds them back from traveling alone, the first answer that they give me is “it just doesn’t feel safe.”
The truth is that safety is, to a large extent, an illusion. I know women who walk alone on the streets of Detroit, New Orleans or Baltimore without a second thought. But, ask these women to walk alone in Taipei, Frankfurt or Hong Kong and they would be terrified.
This is completely natural. But, just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it is good for you. This is true when it comes to food and it is equally true when it comes to travel.
By the way, Detroit, New Orleans and Baltimore have among the highest murder rates in the world, while Taipei, Frankfurt and Hong Kong are among the safest.
On a practical level, there are plenty of common sense things that we can do to stay safe when we are traveling alone.
Human nature being what it is, poverty will drive desperate people to do desperate things. This is true in Delhi and Detroit. So, I always make a habit of dressing comfortably but humbly when I travel. I leave my expensive jewelry at home and avoid talking on my $800 iPhone in the middle of the street.
Second, I almost always find a local to show me around when I arrive in a new city. Sometimes, this means paying someone a few dollars to give me a tour. Other times, I simply ask the hotel if there is someone that would mind spending an hour with me.
Not only is this a great way to get acquainted with a new city, but, I have also formed genuine friendships with many of my guides. As we are walking, I always ask about local customs and where the safe (and dangerous) places are to walk alone. If you are looking for a tour guide, Vayable is a great website to start with.
Finally, more for peace of mind than anything else, I also use an app called Followme. This way, if I really did stop responding to emails for a few days (most likely intentionally!) my kids would know where to find me.
What if I Run Out of Money?
There are two ways to interpret this question. The most obvious is “What if I literally have no more money in the bank?” The second is “What if my credit cards stop working or I can’t access my money?” In most cases, the women that I have spoken to are talking about the latter scenario.
I’m sure that everyone handles money differently when they travel. Myself, I’m a have a “back-up-to-the-backup-plan” kind of girl. Here are a few things that I do to take the stress out of dealing with money when I travel alone.
First, I always have money stored safely in different places. I carry only enough money to cover my daily expenses when I go out. I keep the rest of my cash in the safe at the hotel, assuming there is one. I even hide some emergency money in a sock that I keep stuffed at the bottom of my backpack back at the room.
Second, I always make copies of my passport, credit cards and bank accounts and leave these with my adult children before I travel. Who knows, maybe this is too “old school” for many of my younger sisters. If so, I guess that you could just leave your bitcoin wallet number for someone to send money to in an emergency!
Third, I usually leave my debit cards at home when I travel and rely entirely on credit cards for electronic payments. As you probably know, getting your money back when someone goes on a shopping spree with your debit card is like trying to wrestle a banana away from an angry gorilla! Credit cards are much easier to deal with if the unexpected happens.
Finally, I enter all of the customer service numbers for my bank and credit card companies into my phone before I leave. There is nothing like being stranded with a blocked card and no access to wifi to help you practice all of those local swearwords that you shouldn’t have been paying attention to.
Quick bonus tip: if, like me, you always seem to have trouble finding ATMs when travelling, this article has a few options.
What if I Miss My Friends and Family?
I totally get this fear. In fact, emotionally speaking, my travel pattern is pretty much as follows.
Weeks 1-2: “What family?”
Weeks 3-4: “I wonder what my family is getting up to?”
Weeks 5-6: “Wow, I didn’t realize how much I would miss everyone.”
Week 7: That’s it! I’m booking a ticket home.
Week 8+: (After a cry and a glass of wine) I’m so glad I decided to stay. My family will be there when I get back.
Everyone is different, but, when it comes to staying in touch, I find that technology really does make long-term travel possible. If anything, the Skype conversations that I have with my family while I am on the road are more colorful and exciting than when I am in my apartment.
One time – and I’m not kidding here – my son pointed out a monkey that was sitting just outside of my bedroom window. I thought he was joking. “Hey, mom, you do know that there’s a big grey monkey behind you” Yeah right! Pull the other leg!
On a more serious note, I have become more aware of the fact, in recent years, just how emotionally reliant we become on our family and friends. This is especially true for older women who have spent a considerable amount of time raising their kids.
From this perspective, learning to miss people just a little less is actually a good thing. And, like so many things in life, independence can only be learned in the school of life.
What if I Get Hassled?
Sometimes, we’re not afraid of being robbed. We simply don’t like the cat calling, greasy stares and inappropriate remarks that we encounter on the road.
The obvious advice is “just ignore it.” But, this advice only goes so far. After all, the more you try to ignore something, the more you end up thinking about it.
While you can’t change people’s behavior, especially when you are in a country where cultural norms may be different, you do have some level of control over how much attention you draw to yourself.
Unless you are going out with the intention of attracting attention, it makes sense to pay attention to local customs regarding attire and to blend in a bit. When I travelled through India, I learned to love my colorful saris. But, even if you don’t dress like the locals, dressing conservatively is usually a good idea… at least until you really feel like you understand the cultural nuances of a place.
To be clear, getting hassled happens much less often than you might think. And, when it does, it is usually fairly harmless. But, if you do feel threatened, here are a few tips that I have learned along the way.
My first line of defense is just to keep walking. In most cases, people won’t leave their comfy spot to follow you. If someone does start to follow you, pick up your phone and call a friend on Skype. If you can’t get a connection, just pretend to have a call. Then, find a hotel or restaurant and pop in for a cup of coffee. 99.9% of the time, this will solve the situation. If you still feel nervous, you can always call a taxi to take you back to your hotel.
What if I Get Bored?
If anything, I find that I am less bored when I travel alone. Without the constant compromises that come with group travel, I am free to explore the world in my own way.
In my experience, the sooner you can get engaged with a local culture the better. I already mentioned that I try to hire a guide for an hour or two in every city that I visit. By the end of the tour, I always have a list of activities, restaurants, clubs or other sites that I want to see. More than once, I have been invited to have dinner with the guide and his or her family.
Co-working spaces are also an excellent place to meet people – not to mention the Internet speed is amazing! Their target audience might be a bit younger, but, in my experience, they are very welcoming to women of all ages. Some of my favorite places to search for co-working sites are coworker.com and desksurfing.net.
Another technique that I use is language learning. When I am going to be staying in a country for more than 2 weeks, I look for a local language tutor. Learning how to order a cup of coffee in a loud voice is one of the true pleasures of traveling. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see someone’s eyes light up as a giant grin makes its way across their face when you speak their language – especially if it is an uncommon language.
When my son and his wife visited Brazil for the first time, they spent 2 months learning Brazilian Portuguese with a local tutor. After a couple of weeks, they were treated like family. They still continued to pay for the lessons, but, their evenings were filled with events that only locals experience. Now, 5-years later, they still keep in touch with their old friends in Brazil.
Traveling alone as a woman is a unique experience. Even if you have a husband or boyfriend, I encourage you to set out on your own once in a while… even if you just take a bus to a new city in your home country.
At the end of the day, most of the fears that we have about traveling alone are exaggerated or easily mitigated. I hope that my own experiences, earned through 45 years of travel, have helped to set your mind at ease just a little bit. If I can do it, you can too!
Do you enjoy traveling alone as a woman? What are your greatest fears about traveling alone? What advice would you give to the other women in our community who may be traveling alone for the first time? Please join the conversation!