Author: Pamela MacNaughtan

Solo Female Travel: Is It Safe?

Every time a solo female is attacked, raped, or killed, traditional media publishes stories about why they think solo female travel is too dangerous. Women are simply not meant to be on the road alone unless they are in, what the media would call, safe destinations. Which is total crap, and creates unnecessary fear.

Traveling as a solo female can be a rich and rewarding experience. It’s a time when you can experiment with the limits of your comfort zone, jumping into the fray, welcoming chaos and uncertainty.

Safety is a concern for everyone

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Safety when traveling is a concern for everyone, solo female travelers do not have the monopoly on this. There are plenty of stories about bad things happening to solo females, as well as couples, and families, and solo men. Everyone is susceptible to danger, at home and abroad.

Shannon O”Donnell, a National Geographic Traveler of the Year (circa 2014), has traveled extensively and safely as a solo female. Shannon wrote a fantastic post on her website about safety and solo female travel in which she shares a couple of experiences.

“…I have been aggressively groped three times in my life. Each time I was disappointed and mad more than anything, and none were to the point that I feared it would go further. And each time it reminded me that the way society sees women has a long way to go in a lot of places in the world, my own country included. Once was in broad daylight during a festival in India and another in Jordan, also during the day. The third was at a bar in Los Angeles and of the three it was the most aggressive, invasive, and left me feeling the worst—and it was in a crowded bar with my friends nearby.

 I have never mentioned these incidences on the site not out of fear, shame, or covering anything up, but rather because they did not define my travel experiences in either of those two countries, nor in LA. And I wasn’t solo for any of them. In fact, in all three instances I had men and friends nearby and it didn’t stop the harassment. Three continents, three entirely different cultures, and yet similar attitudes toward women created that shared experience … more a statement on the way women are treated the world over rather than on travel specifically.” Shannon O’Donnell, A Little Adrift 

It’s not a travel issue, it’s a women’s issue

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I share Shannon’s experiences not because I want to scare you, but to help show that solo female travel is not more dangerous than traveling as a couple or with friends. You do not become more of a target just because you’re a solo female traveler. Women, in general, are treated unfairly, and targeted, around the world.

“Women, in general, are treated unfairly, and targeted, around the world.”

Jodi Ettenburg of Legal Nomads, 2015 Lowell Thomas blogger of the year, wrote a very interesting post on the solo female travel experience after a solo female traveler was killed in Turkey:

That is part of what irks me about this discussion: being “alone” is not the issue.  Travel abroad is not the issue. The issue is treatment of women. And we should be using this media spotlight as a springboard to discussing how we can fix it.” Jodi Ettenburg, Legal Nomads 

If you have never traveled as a solo female, it can be a scary decision to make. Does that mean you should avoid it? Absolutely not. Do not let your fear of the unknown keep you from experiencing the world around you.

Listen to your inner voice

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Traveling as a solo female means listening to your inner voice, paying attention, and being open to changing your plans if at any time you feel unsafe.

When planning a visa run from Thailand to Sri Lanka a few years ago I booked a guesthouse for a couple nights based on online recommendations. When I arrived I discovered I was the only guest, the was one local man, and no women, anywhere. I thought I could do it, but after a scary encounter with a local at a nearby beach (where I was stalked for a few blocks) I packed up my things and went to a name brand hotel for the night. The next day I checked into a large locally owned hotel, and the rest of my stay was lovely.

“Traveling as a solo female means listening to your inner voice, paying attention, and being open to changing your plans if at any time you feel unsafe.”

In sixteen years of solo female travel, it was the only time I felt unsafe, and because I listened to my inner voice and acted, nothing bad happened, and I loved the rest of my time in Colombo.

Of course there may be times when switching hotels is not an option as it may be the middle of the night, or other hotels don’t have room. For this reason many female travelers carry a rubber doorstop which they can wedge under the door to prevent unwanted people from coming into their room at night.

The power of vulnerability

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Solo female travel is not all doom and gloom, there are many instances where female travellers are treated better than male travelers.

During my Mongol Rally attempt my teammate and I (a female photographer from New York) drove through Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. Three countries that many thought would be too dangerous for female travelers. They weren’t.

Upon crossing into Azerbaijan it became very apparent that road signs were now a thing of the past, too spread out to be useful. Relying on a map, and the flow of truck traffic, we slowly made out way towards Baku, which sits along the Caspian Sea. During our drive we remarked on the lack of women. It was something we had noticed in Georgia as well. Men were everywhere, but it was rare to see a woman outside. It was weird. Despite my killer navigational skills, we got lost, a few times, and we did what we would have done at home, we pulled over and tried to ask local men for directions.

We didn’t speak the language, they didn’t speak English. They would try to understand us, and then give up. Then they did something neither of us were expecting. Every single time we had to pull over and ask for help a local man would get in his car, motion for us to follow, drive us to the road we needed and pointed us in the direction we needed to go. Every. Single. Time.

“You can be a strong independent woman and be vulnerable, without being a victim.”

When we arrived in Baku after midnight and got lost, I rolled down the window and asked a car load of guys in their 20s for help. They drove us to where we needed to go, then waited until we got the keys for the place we were staying, before they left to party at a night club.

Yes, an argument can be made that there was two of us, but were still vulnerable and ripe for the picking.

As a solo female traveler you are less of a threat, you’re more open, more vulnerable, and in some ways that can be a good thing. You can be a strong independent woman and be vulnerable, without being a victim.

In 2010 Brené gave a brilliant TED talk about the power of vulnerability, and while it’s not focused on travel, many of her points can be used in the solo female travel space.

“I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability, TEDx Houston

“The best advice I can give solo female travelers is to be open and not let fear control your decisions. “

As a solo female traveler you will be exposed and vulnerable, but there are positive aspects to both. As a solo female traveler you are generally more open to new people and experiences as you don’t have a partner to fall back on, to keep you in your comfort zone. Things will get messy and dirty. You will need to make quick decisions. You’ll make new friends, you’ll get lost, you may even cry.

And you’ll be like every other traveler, whether they are solo, traveling as a couple or as a family.

The best advice I can give solo female travelers is to be open and not let fear control your decisions. Challenge yourself, make a point of giving the locals the benefit of the doubt. If you feel unsafe, change your situation, and most importantly, never stop being yourself.