The Art of Self Defense for Senior Women Who Travel Solo


A recent New York Times article argues that the statistics of violence done to female solo travelers are scary. Women traveling on their own, and there are vastly more of us of all ages now than ever before, are subject to all manner of dangers. We disappear, we get attacked, we die a brutal death.

Women are dragged off, their bodies discovered later. Women hiking the Everest Base Camp alone disappear into thin air, leaving their families devastated.

Is It Really All That Bad?

Let’s be clear. There are dangers when you and I travel solo. However, between the fondness for sensationalism by news outlets and the unfortunate foolishness of those who don’t bother to take fundamental precautions, there are losses. They’re inevitable.

Men disappear too, but they have far fewer cultural biases than we as women have to negotiate. We are all too often seen as commodities.

As the NYT article above discusses, far too many governments don’t deem women important enough to track their disappearances. And, just like the beach town in the movie Jaws, they are loath to report on those incidents for fear of scaring away tourists.

As someone who left home at barely 16, and who has traveled solo all her life, I can attest to how easy it is to get into scrapes.

Most of you aren’t likely to stand by the side of a highway outside Kansas City with your thumb out, which I did at 19. It’s remarkable to me that I survived with nary a bruise. Hairy stories, yes, but I came away just fine.

What can you and I do to prevent dangers? More so, how can you and I enjoy the world and all it has to offer without allowing fear to keep us at home?

Bad Decisions Lead to Bad Outcomes

Most of the fear is unjustified. Here’s why:

In far too many of the cases, the woman in question made very poor judgment calls. She took off with someone she didn’t know and didn’t let her friends or family know where she was going and with whom.

She trusted a dating site (which is a haven for abusers). She got drunk or allowed others to buy her drinks. She had no clue what might have been slipped into her drink. She went to popular bars known for catering to young tourists. Where do you think predators are going to hover?

She went out alone after dark or walked through unsafe parts of towns. She engaged in sex with a near-stranger or went to their home without precautions. She trusted police or authorities in countries where those very institutions are some of the worst abusers.

In one case, the Airbnb host’s security guard committed the crime because he had the keys to all the doors.

I could go on. You see the pattern.

While I am deeply sorry for their families’ losses, the uninformed hubris that led to the demise of these people is unforgivable in today’s environment, where so much information is available – where there are plenty of ways to protect yourself.

The Self-Defense List

These are the basics that are my best defense against potential danger:

Establish Curfew and Safe Group

Never go out past 7 p.m. unless you are with a group that has a designated driver or a guide given the task to get you home. Entrust that to a group member or someone vetted by your hotel.

Don’t Do AirBnB

I don’t trust AirBnB. Period. I just don’t. Because of its size, its access to deeply personal information, and the lack of controls over a great many of its hosts, I suspect that Airbnb is going to be among the next targets for a huge hack to mine personal data.

I find my own hotels and homestays and get to know the operators. As they know I’m going to review them, they have a vested interest in my safety and security. Then I reward them with a great review and am welcomed back as a dear friend.

No Drinking

I don’t drink. EVER. While that may not appeal to you, it has kept me out of trouble for 50 years. If you must, make sure you have direct control over what goes in your glass. Even better, BYO.

If You Do Drink, Buy Your Own

Do not accept drinks you didn’t manage, handle, or observe being made.

No Drugs Policy

Never ever, ever – ever! – touch drugs of any kind. Get all your medicines through a trusted international medical facility.

Act with Authority

Adapt the Alien stride. If you don’t know what I mean, let me explain.

Sigourney Weaver is over six feet tall. In the movie Alien, she has the authority and command that brooks no interference. She’s my muse. So, when I’m in a foreign country – especially in developing nations – I affect a strong, powerful stride when I walk alone.

I look people directly in the eye until they look down, especially if it’s someone clearly searching for an easy mark. If someone grabs me, the way determined shopkeepers can, say in Kathmandu, I immediately swivel and release myself.

Then I ask in my best command voice (I’m ex-Army), “HOW CAN I HELP YOU?”

I don’t like being touched or grabbed by strangers anywhere. Most people don’t expect this reaction. They let go immediately. Now, if you need to, you can take off.

You might find this a bit aggressive. It has likely saved my life more than once. In my mind, people who grab, unless they are desperate for help, don’t incite trust.

Don’t Look as a Victim

Never look, act, or talk like a potential victim. Hesitance, stopping in the middle of the street to fumble with a map, clearly being confused, all telegraph that you’re an easy target.

Get a trusted guide if you don’t know where you are. Don’t advertise helplessness. This isn’t the same if you’ve had an accident. In those cases, I find people leap in to assist.

Know Where You’re Going

Research what both the American and British State Department have to say about your destination. Know the dangers, the most recent problems and warnings. Then take them with a dash of salt. By no means let those reports dissuade you from heading out. Just head out informed.

New Friends Matter

Make friends locally. For example, when I was in Chiang Mai a while back, I befriended the owner of an antique shop just across from my hotel. She became an excellent advisor for what to do and where to go. We spent untold hours of girl time which added immense value to my trip.

When in Need of Service, Be on the Lookout

Trust, but verify. Before you hire someone, see if there is anything about them online. In many countries, the moment you are through customs and out of the airport you can be inundated.

Hoteliers, taxi drivers, and hucksters are often hired to dissuade you from your intended destination by telling you that your hotel is closed or some such. Never take a taxi from someone not authorized by the airport authority – just to save a few bucks. That might save your life.

Your Instincts Are There for a Reason

Follow your instincts. One woman in the Times article had a bad feeling. She didn’t trust it and ended up dead. Your high alert system is there for a reason. Listen to it.

You’ll note that nowhere did I recommend that you take self-defense lessons. While that’s a useful skill, I would rather you never put yourself in a position to need them in the first place. The whole point is to be safe, be joyful, come home transformed and eager to do it all over again.

Do Travel, Just Travel Smart

Finally, traveling solo abroad is not much different from traveling in your own country. There are places you know not to go. Parts of cities that scream danger. If you wouldn’t go there in your own country, why would you take that chance in another?

If traveling solo for the entire journey is a bit overwhelming, you might consider joining a cruise of like-minded women.

Margaret Manning has recently started, which can help even the most timid of travelers get started. That’s a great way to get a toe into the travel world and make new friends along the way.

In every sense possible, I have found the majority of people and places all over the world friendly, welcoming, and eager to do what they can to make me want to come back. That’s just one reason I travel so much.

However, as with all parts of home – and not home – there are bad operators. Prevention is the best self-defense of all. For resources, all you have to do is type in solo female traveler into your Google bar and you will get oodles of helpful information. Happy traveling!

How do you prepare for safe travel? What tips can you offer which will help first-time solo travelers to feel confident on the road or overseas? What resources can you share? Please do so in the comment box below.

Let\’s Have a Conversation!


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