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

Filed under: featured, Solo Travel