Is the world an infinitely more dangerous place for a solo female traveller?
Yes and no.
There is no succinct answer. Much of that depends on the places you decide to visit, the precautions you take and the force of a charming personality that can actually overcome some obstacles that an otherwise surly person wouldn’t.
Thus far, I’ve kept my travels to countries that have been relatively ‘safe’, but I’m never more painfully aware that the definition of this particular word differs from person to person. I’ve not taken any self-defense classes (though I wish I did); neither do I really carry mace or pepper spray or god forbid, a knife around. They’re also illegal in some places and I’d rather not spend a night in jail.
Buy a package tour, endure the extra single-bed charges and you’ll have company and the relative safety of a group looking out for you; walk around blindly as a large group and risk your pocket getting picked in the crowded streets of Rome. Plan your itinerary from start to end without the help of a tour agent and you might just find out that the accommodation you’ve reserved has suddenly been given up to someone else, leaving you on the streets at midnight with nowhere to go.
There are however, some rules of common sense that I do adhere to when I’m out alone and these aren’t exactly new or groundbreaking in any way, but they’ve worked for me.
The single rule that I’ve always gone with is that preparation is key.
1. Do the best prep you can
I never leave it to chance when it comes to getting an itinerary all rolled out before I depart, which means that the preparation begins weeks or even months in advance. I peruse versions of a map, sometimes even going into Google streetview just to see where my hotel is, so that I don’t fumble and looking like a lost sheep after stumbling out of the airport. It does take the spontaneity out of the fun of wandering wherever I want to go, but I would rather not find myself stuck in a train station overnight when all the rooms in the area are full. Look out for festival or events that will run at the same time you’ll be in the city too – rooms go so quickly that sometimes, the only way around this is to modify my entire itinerary and skip the place altogether when there’s no place to stay that wouldn’t blow my budget.
Tripadvisor and Booking.com give me the best places to look for places to stay and the reviews – driven by other tourists – have been infinitely helpful in helping me to decide where I want to put my head to rest for the night.
That’s just the start. I do go into the nitty-gritty of arranging transport way ahead of time by checking out the ways I can get around, not just for cost effectiveness, but also boat/train/bus/rail timings. Mostly, I keep my moving around confined to the daylight hours and if I do indeed venture out at night, I mostly ensure there’s a clear and direct way back to the place I’m staying.
Think you’ll be in for a culture shock? Do a little reading on forums about what people expect of travellers (and single women travellers for that matter).
2. Body position, language and dressing
How do you carry yourself? I’ll never be able to blend in, say, in a place like India or in Tanzania because I don’t look remotely like the locals, but dressing conservatively goes a long way in not drawing any attention to yourself. In this case, being sloppy (my personal attire of choice) works, unless you’re too fashion-conscious and determined to strut down the cobblestones in the latest D&G to make an impression on everyone.
In crowded alleys, I’d rather look stupid and defensive than fashionable and swanky, so I do keep my backpack close to my body at all times.
I keep my guard up at all times – which makes for exhausting evenings – and by the same token, keep the same measure of caution when speaking to the locals, even fellow travellers. Don’t be too quick to get drawn into conversations with people you don’t know, although I’ve heard and read of people who’ve found lifelong friends or even partners during a trip.
Trust your instincts in general; don’t do what you wouldn’t do in your home country.
Getting hassled? I’ve been there. From crazy stalkers in Birmingham and Athens (I ducked into the nearest shop and took refuge) to even crazier carpet-sellers in Istanbul, these incidents can be anything from stressful to scary. Don’t hesitate to make a scene if you think your safety is compromised. Overreact, embarrass the fellow(s) publicly, run or simply ask for help from people around you. Invent a boyfriend, a husband or a group that you’re travelling with and say you’re waiting for them to join you.
3. Day tours
These offer a more controlled environment if you’d like to see the place while meeting other people as well. In fact, I’ve done this more times than I care to count and while some were loads better than others, I can’t deny it’s a great way to see a new place without the 9-day commitment of a tour group’s fixed itinerary.
4. Travel Gear
I’ve only recently started looking for more secure bags, but these aren’t strictly necessary. Pac-safe’s anti-theft stuff, for instance, has been tempting me for a while but they aren’t easy on the pocket, especially when you’re looking to spend your hard-earned money on other things. I’ll say it right here though, these things aren’t necessities. Keeping a good head, staying calm and generally maintaining a semblance of good ol’ common sense has helped me more than fancy equipment.