Every time I set off on a new international adventure, my mother remains at home and faces the onslaught of questions from concerned family and friends. These recurring conversations often go something like this:
“So where is Janna now?”
“She’s somewhere in Central America.”
“By herself? But isn’t that dangerous?”
“It might be. But she knows how to take care of herself.”
“I’m sure she can. But it’s not her I’m worried about. It’s— the other people.”
And that’s largely because, as women, we’re taught that these proverbial “other people” are exclusively a threat to us. And the only way to keep ourselves safe is to stay far away from them, and to stay close to home in order to do that.
But solo traveling can be a wonderful experience, especially for a young woman. It fosters a profound sense of confidence and independence and it implores you to explore the many cultures and sights and sounds that the world has to offer.
That said, we girls do face a few more safety challenges while traveling than our male counterparts do. So before you pack your bags, arm yourself with these tips to stay safe while seeing the world.
The first step is in preparing your trip. When selecting where in the world you want to go, inform yourself of that country’s culture, their politics, rules for social discourse, and even some phrases in the local language. You can avoid most sticky situations if you know not to say something that may be offensive. Being prepared also means preparing the logistics of our trip. Do you know where the bus station is? Do you know how to get to your hotel? What about how much the bus costs or how long the commute is? A simple Google search may prevent you from getting stranded somewhere.
Know Your Surroundings
When you’re traveling solo, you have complete control over deciding where to go. This can be as daunting as it is exhilarating. It also means that you have to watch your own back. Make note of where you are, and how to get back to your hotel from there. Be aware of who’s around you. As women, we also need to be aware if we are being followed. If you feel like someone might be following you, get yourself into a public and well-lit area. You might feel like you’re being paranoid, but your peace of mind is well worth the five minute delay in your commute.
Walk With Confidence
Depending on where you are in the world, it may not be feasible to try to blend in with the locals. But you can at least try not to stand out. Part of that is looking like you know where you’re going (even when you have no clue.) Walk with purpose and other people will be less likely to try to draw your attention. At a loss for which way to go? Be inconspicuous when glancing at your map. When asking somebody for directions, look for a person in uniform like a police officer or bus driver. They’ll have more accountability than a total stranger.
Carry a Dummy Wallet
Pickpocketings and muggings can happen to women just as easily as men. Should you be in a situation where someone is demanding your wallet, toss the dummy wallet at your assailant’s feet and take off in the other direction. Pack your dummy wallet with some petty cash and pad it with old gift cards and money cards. Store it in an accessible place on your person or pack to appease a pickpocket and avoid a more physical encounter.
Learn To Be Mean
At home, women use a whole repertoire of clever and polite means of getting out of an uncomfortable encounter with a strange guy. But when you’re by yourself and far from home, you’ve got to kick it up a notch. Learn how to say “NO” and to say it strongly and with conviction. This means saying no if someone wants to buy you a drink, pressures you into buying something, or invites you to go to a bar or house or anywhere you don’t feel comfortable going. It may sound silly, but the word “no” is a lone woman’s greatest form of self-defense.
When “No” Doesn’t Work
Leave the kickboxing at home. Even if you’ve taken a self-defense class, the unfortunate truth is that women are often overtaken when fighting with a man. Especially when you have a thirty-pound backpack strapped to your shoulders. Your best bet, obviously, is to avoid any physical confrontation. If that fails, flee the situation. Make it a rule for yourself that you always have an escape plan for whatever building or social interaction you’re in, just in case things get dicey.
Stay in a Hostel
Yes, really. Despite the horrors that movies like Hostel might propagate, hostels are far safer than hotels for solo travelers. This is primarily because hostels and guesthouses give you the opportunity to meet other travelers. When I’ve solo-traveled, I feel like I’m never alone. That’s because hostels are full of other travelers who are looking to make friends to hang out and travel with. Sit with some of your dorm mates at breakfast and exchange travel plans for the day. Inevitably you’ll find a couple of other people who want to tag along on your adventure for the day— or maybe two or three.
Let People Know Where You Are
Inform someone from home of where you are each day. You can use apps like Whatsapp and Viber to send free text messages to friends and family at home to let them know where you are. And you can “check in” to places on Facebook and Foursquare to document where you’ve been. This is all about being accountable for yourself and, if need be, making sure someone knows where to find you in the event of an emergency.
The easiest solution? Don’t. You’re best off expending your travel budget doing things you can’t do at home- and that doesn’t include drinking. Having a beer or two at the hostel bar can be a great way to socialize and make friends. But be wary. Keep an eye on your drink. Don’t drink in excess. And, if you do decide to drink heavily, buddy up with a fellow trusted female and keep an eye on each other.
Buy The Ticket
It’s easy to get intimidated and cower away from traveling. But the fact of the matter is that if you want to go somewhere, you should go! The hardest part is summoning the courage to buy the plane ticket. Do that, and you will be rewarded with experiences that will forever change you and your perceptions of the world. Solo traveling means being in complete control of where you go and what you do. And it can be hugely empowering for a young woman. Exercise the same common sense you use at home, and you’ll find that most people around the world are the same: kind, hard-working, and well-intentioned. Just be sure to keep your wits about you when you get out there.
Janna Karel is a tour guide in Las Vegas and a seasoned international solo traveler. Contact her on twitter @jannainprogress.