Solo Lady Travel: 7 Safety Myths Debunked

I never planned to be someone who routinely made looks of horror cross people’s faces.  And yet when I tell people I’ve traveled solo around the world for six months, that’s the most common reaction I get.

“Really?!” The eyes grow wide.  “Weren’t you worried about…” And the conversation will turn to one of many myths when it comes to women traveling alone, many of which fly counter to the realities I’ve faced during my travels.

Here are a few of the bigger chunks of mistaken lore and advice I’ve encountered:

“The rest of the world isn’t safe.”

World isn't safe

One effect of the 24-hour news media is many people are convinced anywhere outside America’s border is not a safe place to be.  Statistics will tell a different story however. Many countries are actually safer than the USA in terms of violent crime, especially when considering cities like New Orleans or Washington DC.  So all those common sense things you’ve been doing all your life such as never letting your valuables out of your sight and always having enough money on hand to call a cab are just as sensible to do while traveling.

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I’m not saying you should currently consider going on an Iraqi adventure, but doing research about places in advance goes a long way.  I also made a point to ask staff at each new hostel about where in the area was safe to wander and what to avoid.  In these cases they were always more than happy to explain the situation, which had the added bonus of getting such information from a local.

“You’re more vulnerable to attack on the road.”

More vulnerable on the road

False. Studies have shown that the odds of getting sexually assaulted by a stranger on the street are practically negligible compared to it happening from someone you know. You can reduce your vulnerability by common sense measures all travelers should follow, male and female, such as not wandering down strange alleys alone at night and using a money belt.  After all, the most common crime a traveler has to deal with is a moment of opportunity theft, and you can reduce these opportunities by calling a cab instead of walking home alone and getting a good padlock for when you leave your stuff in a hostel.

Further, being in a group can often make you more vulnerable to theft as many people decrease their vigilance when traveling in a group.  The one time I had anything stolen I was actually with a group of travelers when one of them swiped cash from my wallet in the hostel, which was a small price to pay for the reminder that safety does not necessarily lie in numbers.

“Local men will be aggressive towards Western women.”

Local men more aggressive

This can often be minimized drastically by learning how local women dress in a particular country and acting accordingly- in a culture more conservative than the West, for example, it’s probably not a good idea to wear a miniskirt.

The truth behind this myth also depends a lot on the country itself as well, as a travel buddy can cut down on unwanted attention in India but in Italy many men are just more forward in making their intentions known.  I once saw an American woman get upset when an Italian Romeo said he thought she was pretty and wanted to buy her a drink, to which his bewildered defense was just,  “But you are!”  I’m not saying this now exempts all men from boorish behavior, but rather that understanding cultural perceptions can help you discern between something innocuous and dangerous.

“You can meet unsavory people while traveling.”

pickpocket 511

My parents were very worried about me when I first announced my intent to travel, and this point was of particular concern, but I took the viewpoint of my 90-year-old bedridden great aunt who counseled, “She can make bad friends at home just as easily anyway.”  Good point.

Nothing is certain in this world, but staying at home because of the terrible things that might happen sounds very silly.  After all, you spent all those years honing your instincts and learning how to take care of yourself, and continuing to use them on the road goes a long way.  Taking a few short trips by yourself before a longer solo trip can also help you build confidence in your abilities to travel solo and keep track of your surroundings.  I was quaking in my boots the first time I did a solo trip during a semester abroad in New Zealand but came out of it with a lot of valuable experience about solo travel.

“You should wear a fake wedding band.”

Wedding ring

I am convinced this is the woman traveling alone myth equivalent to “an American should sew a Canadian flag on their backpack” because you hear this bit of lore all the time.  In actuality though, I don’t know anyone who does this while traveling alone, nor have I met someone who has. If you ever find yourself with an unwanted paramour, in most cases he will leave you alone once you explicitly tell him to.  A story about a fake boyfriend can also be used in a pinch, which has the same effect a fake wedding band would have anyway.

“Don’t go into bars unless you’re in a group.”

Alone in bar

I’m not saying you should do a solo tour of the shady dive bars in town or get falling-down drunk and walk home alone, but surely any savvy traveler knows that bit of common sense. There’s nothing wrong with having a pint on the main street of Galway, Ireland or enjoying a cool drink on a hot day in Luang Prabang, Laos – you can always take a book if you don’t want to be disturbed, and bar staff are always quick to deal with troublemakers. Just never leave your drink unattended, and don’t accept any drinks from strangers unless you saw the bartender make it yourself.

“Never tell anyone where you’re staying.”

Don't tell where you're staying

No one ever?  Really? I don’t see why this is top-secret information if you’re staying in a place with staff and security and a traveler asks you in an attempt to swap travel tips.  After all, saying the name of a place isn’t the same as giving him or her the key to your room. Further, isn’t it sometimes a good idea to let any travel buddies you meet along the way know where you are in case something happens and they need to find you?  Once again this one comes down to instinct.

There are a few more travel myths out there, but those are the biggest ones.  Honestly though, after hearing these arguments and suggestions, what always strikes me as strange is how they’re just plain bad advice.

First, they imply that the world is too scary a place for an independent woman to explore. Second, they turn good advice for solo travel, regardless of gender, into something women should do because they’re afraid and not something everyone should do because of common sense. Ultimately, the worry about adhering to a myth instead of practical advice is how it only makes you feel safer and thus you might let your guard down towards things you should really be concerned about.  Putting a wedding band on your finger will not do a thing if you walk alone at night in cities or leave your drink unattended in a strange bar.

While you should take precautions and always trust your instincts, there’s no reason a woman should shy away from solo travel because of what might happen.  Confidence in yourself is always needed and can go a long way – there is no way I would have ever considered traveling around the world alone before I did a semester abroad in New Zealand, for example, but small trips during my time there helped me learn the difference between being safe and being paranoid.  After all, isn’t “I wanted to travel but no one else could come” a terrible story for the grandkids?

Check out the following articles to learn more about solo travel:

manifesto - caution

Photos by: jackiews, spo0nmanXhanatos, Yvette Cendes, Jeffrey and Rachel VannesteFrederic Poirot, skampy, Derek Ramsey


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Older comments on Solo Lady Travel: 7 Safety Myths Debunked

20 August 2010

LOVE the post! I’ve recently had a number of conversations with female friends urging them to take the plunge and go travel, even if it’s a solo trip. I’ve passed this on to all of them.

22 August 2010

Thank you so much for debunking some of these myths about solo female travelers! I have taken a number of trips on my own and have met great friends and have some of my best travel memories from these solo trips. Solo travel can be frightening, but the rewards are so worth it! Thanks for the great post!

Miss Tee
23 August 2010

I loved this article. I’m leaving for Paris and possibly Florence and Rome (backpacking) in just 14 days. I plan to go on this journey alone and my family members can’t seem to get those worried looks off of their faces. I’m 24 and feel I am able to go at this alone and be successful at it. I appreciate this article because a lot of this is simply common sense, as you said. We have to take these same precautions no matter if we are home or abroad.

24 August 2010

I am currently traveling solo around the world as a female. While I agree with most of what you have to say, I think the fake wedding band idea can be useful in some, not all, countries. Especially the Middle East. I met two girls with wedding bands and fake fiances, just so they would be left alone. Once a Jordanian man finds out you are “taken”, there is a visible shift in how they are treating you, usually with more respect. The same can be said for the Israeli and Palestinian men I met, too.

The basic tenet when traveling solo is to listen to your gut. Those first impressions are usually right. I also recommend taking a self defense class before going, too! I haven’t had to use it, but I know I have the skills if I need them.

Paul Telesco
25 August 2010

I know this writer and she is as capable a person as I’ve met in my life. If she were my daughter, I’d be worried as any father should be, but it would be more about bad weather than any doubts as to her abilities to handle traveling around the world.
Next time she had better take me with her. It’s BORING where I live!

27 August 2010

I think people underestimate just how modern other countries are and how well connected they are. ‘Woman from the west’ is probably less exotic to them than their country is to you because we are so good at advertising ourselves (thanks to the movie and music industry mostly).

Humans are on the whole decent. The safety precautions you take abroad should be the same as you do back home. Mini skirts invite as much attention in western countries as elsewhere.

02 September 2010

I am female & have been traveling solo for a number of years– being “street” savvy is a skill for any place (close or far from home)My parents still worry about me BUT they also realize the education gained via traveling… as for the debunked travel myths. I wear a ring on my left ‘ring’ finger most of the time.(I’m not married, but it was given to me by a good friend as a ‘promise’ ring) I’ve gotten lots of these same type of questions/ fears over the years. Honestly, the same things that can happen close to home–happen on the road. And in reality, I just like traveling…so I just continue to do so! 🙂

Basho Matsuo
07 September 2010

“The rest of the world isn’t safe.”

Some parts are not. Clear reading/study ahead will assuage this and divide unneeded fear from actual danger. (eg: conventional wisdom says not to cross from Malaysia to Thailand via the East Coast)

“You’re more vulnerable to attack on the road.”

Of course. But what this really is saying, is – you are more vulnerable to attack when alone. This is obviously true. That is not to say you are more likely to be attacked if you are safe minded.

“Local men will be aggressive towards Western women.”

Local men CAN be aggressive towards Western Women, but usually in the case of cultural difference regarding their societal structure. I certainly saw this in parts of India where Western and Indian values clash (eg Goa), and around Western events imported into the country (eg Valentines day). I also welcomed four solo female travelling companions (at different stages of our journey) to join Cesca and I as they were “fed up” with the single persons journey and it’s challenges.

“You can meet unsavory people while traveling.”

Obviously – I certainly did, fellow travellers as well as locals, but this is no reason not to go. I met a vast number of great and special people and those I remember.

“You should wear a fake wedding band.”

I saw a lot of this, but its “magical” effect (if any) works only on Western men. Many foreign places do not use Wedding Rings/Bands (India again) and so don’t get the message. I was often taken aback by Indians thinking my wife and I were brother and sister.

“Don’t go into bars unless you’re in a group.”

Non-sense. However, do check the bar is welcoming to women/foreigners/men/whites/whatever and is not a knocking-shop (unless that is what you are after).

“Never tell anyone where you’re staying.”

Robberies happen, so just use some sense regarding your sleeping arrangements and perhaps secure your pack?


Clare Appleyard
07 September 2010

I love the “unsavory character” comment – LOL, some of the most unsavoury characters are those you live with or work with!

Great article Yvette, thanks!

Victoria Lyon
07 September 2010

I’ve been travelling solo since the early 70s, and one of the major benefits is getting to really immerse yourself in the local scene. When alone, you can’t retreat to the security of a familiar companion when things get weird and so become adept at sorting things out in situ… making new friends in the bargain.

BikeTravellers Blogs
07 September 2010

true x 7. Same goes for travel in general and bike travelling in specific. we have heard all of the above many times. One of the reasons I started & is to share that the world is not such a dangerous place as the media likes to scare you about.

Enjoy and get out there!

20 February 2011

Yvette this was a very interesting and inspiring read! You mentioned this article in answer to my post about solo female travel and I’m glad you did. Thanks for posting this, it helps get me more excited and confident about my own trip!

01 March 2011

Nice article but… I’m afraid I have to disagree with your wedding band point. As someone who has backpacked around the world for more years than I care to count (as long as three years at a stretch, solo) I DID wear a wedding band much of the time, especially in Africa and parts of Asia. It wasn’t to ward off male attention – but to ward off pity. In many countries a single woman is to be pitied – it means you’re not wanted, you’re an outcast, you haven’t ‘succeeded’ in finding a husband. Wearing a wedding band gives you the opportunity to avoid that pity scene. It’s a lot easier to simply say your husband had to go ahead of you yesterday and that you’ll be meeting him shortly. And – I met plenty of women doing the same. So, from personal experience, fake wedding bands are not a myth.

Nor is the American with the Canadian flag, by the way. As a Canadian, I often walked up to other backpackers flying the maple leaf. Half the time, they were Canadians, and a great time was had by all. The other half, however… take a guess. 🙂

03 May 2011

Great post – one I’ll be forwarding on to my mom! I also dislike the “I’m from Canada” cop-out. How can US travelers change stereotypes if they are hiding behind a pseudo-nationality?