- The Ultimate Safety Guide for a Solo Female Traveler - April 21, 2021
Whenever I talk about traveling, I’m more often than not met with the same question: “Who do you go with?” You can bet the reactions when I say “It’s just me!” are a mixture of enlarged eyes, raised eyebrows, and surprised expressions concerned for my safety.
People are quick to question the safety of traveling solo as a young female, especially when visiting certain destinations. We see so many articles and news stories about the crime in South Africa, or the missing backpackers in Australia, which instills panic into those who have always wanted to visit.
But, traveling solo doesn’t worry me as I have this ultimate safety guide to help me. These are some lesser-known tips that I never considered when I went on my first trip, in the hopes of helping other travelers stay safe across the world.
I don’t believe in living life in fear of the what-ifs - every country has illegal crime, unsafe areas, and cultural injustices. Which is why safety when traveling is about staying vigilant, rather than staying away. Click To Tweet
1. Try your best to blend in
No one wants to be that middle-aged tourist in Greece with the beige shorts and floral shirt, roaming the streets in flip flops and a string-attached bucket hat with a Canon camera hanging around their neck (you know the one). Would you see a local wearing the glorious aforementioned outfit? Definitely not. You don’t want to stand out in the crowd – that’s when you become an easy target for pickpockets and scammers; especially when you’re wearing enough jewelry to sink a boat.
- Don’t use the back pockets in your jeans. Items in the front pockets are less likely to be stolen from, considering you’re more likely to see someone coming and you’ll definitely feel it easier.
- Ditch the rucksack for a crossbody bag that can be hidden underneath clothes, especially if you’re carrying valuables. A shoulder bag can be easily swiped by a passing cyclist or pedestrian, so steer clear of these.
- Wear your backpack in front of you. When I was younger, I noticed that people would wear their backpacks on their front. I never understood why, and genuinely thought it looked ridiculous. Now, it makes sense to have it in front of you so you can see everything, rather than on your back where it’s easily accessible to pickpockets.
- Make sure to dress appropriately for the culture of your destination. Know when to cover your knees and shoulders, hair, and arms. This is not only to ward off unwanted attention (tourists stick out like a sore thumb when wearing “westernized” clothing) but, also as a sign of respect when visiting religious monuments.
Everyone knows you have to have your shoulders covered when visiting the Pantheon in Rome – don’t be that person (me) who tries to walk in wearing inappropriate attire (yeah Keira, duh).
2. Choose the best method of transportation
- If you have a transfer booked, look for the company logo on t-shirts/boards before leaving with anyone. When arriving at your destination, there will nearly always be people waiting in the arrivals lounge to offer you a lift. Ignore them. If you’re unsure, ring the company and ask for the name and license plate of the driver, if possible.
- Make sure any transport you take is marked and licensed, whether it’s an Uber, Taxi, Lyft, etc. Taxies should always have a logo, roof sign, and/or Driver Display Card showing a number that can be entered online to check the validity. When taking an Uber/Lyft, make sure the license plate and driver photo matches the one shown on the app. If you’re uncertain, walk away.
- Before booking an Uber (or any company, for that matter) make sure to read the reviews previous passengers have left. If they don’t have great feedback, choose a different driver.
- Never let taxi drivers pick up other passengers and know where to sit. The seating choice is an entirely personal preference; the majority of people lean more towards sitting in the back, behind the passenger seat. This allows you to keep an eye out at all times and have an easy escape should anything happen. It also means you’re more hidden from passing pedestrians and other cars. On the other hand, some passengers prefer sitting in the front seat to be able to retaliate easier and to stay alert and aware of their surroundings.
- Always let someone trusted know where you’re heading and what time you are expected to arrive. There are apps you can download that share your location with friends and family, such as Life360 and Glympse. These allow your loved ones to track your journey in real-time, request check-ins, and receive alerts upon arriving at your destination.
3. Immerse yourself in the culture
- When traveling anywhere, be aware of the culture you’ll be immersing yourself into. Doing your research before leaving is crucial in order to minimize any unintentional disrespect or offense to the locals, from etiquette and language to religion and artifacts.
- Learn the very basics of the language such as greetings and manners. Also, learn how to ask where the toilets are and “milk”, and even the various words for public transport. You’ll thank yourself later for putting in the extra effort, and you won’t feel as lost.
There is so much we don’t know about cultures around the world, which is why it’s integral to inform ourselves.
Did you know?
- In Morocco, women aren’t allowed inside cafes
- In parts of Asia, women aren’t permitted to touch the monks
- In India, if you are seen smoking or drinking as a female, expect disapproving stares from the local men
- In the Middle East and North Africa, there are ‘women only’ areas in metros, trains, and restaurants where you are free to sit to feel more comfortable in public.
4. Navigate unwelcomed attention
- Be aware of the stares. If someone is going to stare at you, it won’t matter whether you’re half-naked or covered from head to toe in twenty layers if you look different from what they’re used to seeing. For example, blonde-haired women are a rarity in the Middle East, so chances are you’ll have an audience simply for breathing.
- Shout “fire!” I hope you never find yourself in a spot of trouble, but if you need back up, people tend to ignore a far away yelling of “help!” Someone will be more likely to come running if they think there’s a fire. Awful, right? I hope I never need to use this in my life, but it’s handy to know as an alternative.
- Have knowledge of basic self-defense. At the very least, know the weakest points to aim your hits: the eyes, nose, groin, ribs, temple, jaw, ears, throat, and a good stomp on the foot. Use the strongest and hardest parts of your body to deliver the blows: elbow, the palm of the hand, knees, and feet, should you ever feel the need to defend yourself. This should be the last option. Always try and run away rather than engaging in any physical contact.
- Walking with purpose in the street. If you look confident – standing tall with your shoulders back and head up – you’ll give off that “don’t mess with me” vibe. If you look unsure, lost, and vulnerable, you’ll come across as a prime and easy target for anyone who’s bored and hanging nearby.
- Minimize your time spent opening a map. Obviously, you won’t exactly know where you’re going if you’re exploring a new destination. You might consider pulling out a map and stopping to get your bearings. Not only will this open you up to passers-by, but you’ll also be much less focused on your surroundings than you should be – like dangling a chicken in front of a panther, loosely speaking, of course.
- Avoid eye contact. In some countries, looking someone in the eyes as you’re passing by may be seen as an invitation to approach you, so make sure you’re walking with your eyes ahead and ignore any calls or hassle from the side of the road.
- Be cautious before telling people you’re traveling alone. Making friends is part and parcel when traveling, but consider telling strangers you’re meeting a friend later, or your boyfriend has gone to the bathroom. These little white lies may help you out in the long run. I’ve even seen women take fake wedding rings to wear at the bar to ward off any advances. Crazy the lengths we have to go to, isn’t it?
- You have absolutely no obligation to be polite or pleasant to someone who is making you feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the word ‘no’ seems to have lost its meaning. No means yes, and yes means yes, so how do you tell someone to back off if they’re bothering you? Simple. Tell them to back off.
- Learn to be assertive and firm. The likelihood of you seeing them again is slim to none, and your safety and comfort are more important than someone’s ego. If it’s a misunderstanding, you can always apologize. If they don’t accept that, who cares? You’re there to enjoy yourself, not to entertain them.
5. No matter your location, make safety a priority
- Always let someone know where you are. I previously mentioned a couple of downloadable apps on both Android and IOS where you can share your location with family and friends. This is incredibly important and will help to ease the worries of your loved ones, as well as your own.
- Before leaving your accommodation, input your destination into Google Maps, turn the volume up, stick in one earphone, and let the soothing sounds of Siri guide you along. This will save you the distraction of glancing at your phone every two seconds. On the other hand, I’ve found that looking at your phone when walking can sometimes help you appear more like a local, as you don’t need to always look where you’re going due to familiarity. Of course, you should always be aware of your surroundings, whether you’re watching the map or listening to the directions. Google Maps is super handy to have in your arsenal – once you’ve sorted your route and set it going, you don’t need WiFi to keep it running.
- Before entering a country, look into the different options for a SIM card. For example, before I left for Namibia, I compared the various carriers available. Vodacom and MTN were the top two so, I chose the one that had the best coverage for where I would spend most of my time. Being in a foreign place with no WiFi and no way of contacting home is not my idea of fun.
- If you’re traveling to an “unsafe” country and you don’t have much of a plan for your arrival, look on TripAdvisor for a reputable tour guide, with five-star reviews. As a solo woman, being accompanied by a local male will make a big difference in your safety and comfort.
- Make sure to choose a known safe destination for solo travelers if it’s your first time and do your research. After deciding on a location, read reviews on hostels/hotels, look into the surrounding area and see if there are any spots to eat nearby, check if there is any public transport, and so on.
- Note down the emergency numbers for the destination(s) you intend to visit. Make sure they’re easily accessible. You never know when you might need to use them.
6. Beware of scams
There are so many different scams around the world and tourists fall into these traps every single time. Get your work-head on and do your research on what to expect where you’re visiting. It’ll feel good to be able to spot a scam and potentially help someone else at the same time.
- Say no to any taxi drivers offering you a tour; they have an ulterior motive with friends waiting around the corner. It’s common for travelers to come across scams in big cities, and I’m sure you’ll have heard of one or two. Thailand is a perfect example where locals love to rip off oblivious tourists in colorful ways.
- Remember to negotiate your tuk-tuk fare before departure, or you’ll wind up with a random number thrown at you that you’ll pay, yet be completely unaware of it being too expensive. In fact, taxi drivers around the world will try and charge you more than necessary, so be observant.
- Don’t fall for the photo opps. Throughout Europe, you’ll find locals with exciting and exotic animals in the street, luring you in with a photo opportunity. For example, along Charles Bridge in Prague, you’ll find brightly colored domesticated doves, all fluffy and cute, wandering along the arms of a couple of men. Or, maybe around the corner, you’ll come face to face with a giant yellow python wrapped around someone’s arm. These people will try and force these poor animals onto you to take a photo, then suddenly ask for you to pay for the act. They’ll often get pushy and aggressive should you refuse, so it’s best to steer clear of these should you see one. Not only for this reason, but also because animal tourism sucks, and shouldn’t be condoned.
7. Protect your valuables
- Don’t keep valuables on show. If someone approaches you and tries to take your belongings, or if they threaten and try to mug you, don’t fight back. Throw it away from you and run the other way. They’ll likely go after the purse/phone and ignore you running. Material possessions can be replaced; your life can’t.
- Never carry too much cash on you. Keep emergency money in extra safe spaces: rolled up into an empty lip balm/makeup case, secret pockets/compartments in your clothes/bags, and always keep some locked away in your accommodation, just in case it gets nabbed from your person. Don’t let your guard down and know where all your valuables are at all times.
- Be careful with ATMs and try to take cash out from those attached to banks when you can. The “Lebanese Loop” is known across the world where scammers tamper with ATMs and attach a pocket on the inside to catch your card, stealing it when you walk away. Make sure to always check the machine before using it; wiggle the card slot, if it’s loose, find another one. Google maps show the nearest ATMs, but try to steer clear of those in convenience stores; stick to shopping malls or banks.
- Always make sure to take padlocks to lock up any bags you’re leaving in your accommodation, even if you’re staying in a private room. Hide your valuables well and know exactly how much cash you have on you, and in your room. Personally, I like to keep my valuables (passport, phone, cash, cards, etc) on my person at all times, where I’ll frequently and subconsciously check throughout the day that they’re where I left them. Some people prefer leaving these in their hotel/hostel where they think it’s safest, but I’d rather have mine in my sight at all times.
- Always have a copy of your documents kept safe in a plastic wallet, just in case you lose your passport, or need a reference to your travel insurance.
8. Choose the accommodation that’s right for you
- When traveling on a budget, hostels are generally the popular choice. A lot of people feel safer booking all-female dorms, which can sometimes be slightly more expensive than a mixed dorm, but if you sleep better at night then it’s a no-brainer.
- If you’ve booked a mixed dorm and change your mind when you get there, talk to reception about it. It’s definitely personal preference; I’ve stayed in mixed dorms solo and never had a problem. Yet in others, I’ve felt extremely uncomfortable. Tell them you don’t feel safe and they’ll be more than happy to put you in a different room.
- Airbnb is also a great choice for solo travelers, be sure to check reviews. Booking with a super host is a great idea. Check out AirBnb Tips for Guests: Survival Tips You Need to Know Before You Book! for tips for your first stay and Airbnb Questions to Ask Your Host Before Booking Your Stay to make sure you’re asking all the right questions before booking.
- Try and have an idea of the “bad areas” around where you’re staying. Not all places will have them, but some might, so it’s better to do some research. Rather be safe than sorry!
Pro-tip: If you’re staying in a hotel or a private room in a hostel and you feel unsafe, take a doorstop with you to wedge underneath the door when you’ve locked it at night. This will prevent anyone from entering your room and will give you a heads up to find an escape.
If nothing else, remember the basics
- Always have a power pack on you to prevent a dead battery. My phone is my life jacket when traveling, and I don’t know how I’d cope without it so I travel with two to three portable chargers. You can never have too many!
- Travel insurance isn’t taken seriously enough. If you’ve landed yourself in hospital, lost your luggage, or have been mugged, you’ll wish you had it. You wouldn’t overlook health or car insurance, so why ignore travel insurance? It’s there to protect you in case anything goes wrong, and you’ll be more than thankful if you ever need it.
- Trust your gut and instincts. If you feel uncomfortable in a situation, or if you don’t feel safe or happy, remove yourself from the equation. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and always stay observant. It’s about being aware of your surroundings and staying street smart and assertive.
Once you’ve armed yourself with all these safety tips, get out there! It’s a scary world out there, but there are kind strangers, natural phenomenons and magical landscapes to be seen. There are mountains to be scaled, trails to be hiked, and alpine lakes to swim in. There are vibrant sunrises over deserts to be witnessed and sunsets over glistening seas to be seen. There are wonderful locals to be met, magnificent food to be tasted and bustling markets to be explored.
Pick up any safety tips to take with you on your next trip? Have any to add? Drop a comment below!