Back in March, two young Argentinian women were murdered during a backpacking trip across South America. According to some reports, they had agreed to stay with two men they didn’t know after their cash was stolen at a youth hostel. Some family members have argued that this version of events was a lie, manufactured by the Ecuadorian government to cover up an instance of sex trafficking.
I happened to hear the news while on a solo trip myself in Mexico City. It really struck me that this could’ve just as easily been me.
People quickly expressed condolences to the women and their families. While some people were quick to say that women should never travel alone and that the girls were partially at fault for their fate, others came to the victims’ defense, rightfully calling out this attitude as victim-blaming.
However, some used the situation to start a conversation about safety tips for young women who wish to travel – and this instantly caused an uproar. Some people decried the safety advice itself as victim blaming, asserting that these young women had the right to travel however they pleased, and that society and rape culture that were to blame for their fate.
Is that true? Absolutely. But should we pretend that traveling as a woman doesn’t carry additional risk? I don’t think so.
While this kind of idealism would be nice to portray as reality, it’s not. I’ve been traveling alone as a young women on and off for the past five years. I firmly believe that women should travel, and that they have the same right to the globe as their male peers. I think that, in fact, arming them with safety advice is empowering, not a reinforcement of rape culture. Empowering a woman with knowledge about how to protect herself while she sees the world puts her at a great advantage over non-traveled peers, teaches her life skills, allows her to grow spiritually and culturally, and arms her with street smarts that will carry over into day-to-day life (obviously, men experience the same benefits when they travel).
Given my experience traveling alone, I thought I’d share the obligatory solo female travel safety tips. So far, sticking to these rules has kept me safe and sound. Obviously, not all tragedies are preventable, and in no way do women’s actions excuse the violence that happens to them all too often – but by following these tips, I’ve very rarely ever felt unsafe in any foreign country. That’s all I know, so that’s what I’ll share.
No. 1: Keep A Cash Reserve on Your Person
This sounds basic, but think about it: If your wallet is stolen or you lose your purse, you’re going to be in a very vulnerable position in which you may have to depend on others – others you may not know or trust. Having your purse or wallet stolen isn’t unheard of, especially at hostels where you’re sharing a room with 20+ other travelers.
When I’m in a place like this, I always keep some of my cash in a passport bag that my Grandpa gave me before my trip to Europe in 2009. It’s just a boring, unassuming black bag with a shoulder strap, but it keeps my cash and ID safe – I wear it under my shirt and tuck it into my pants so that it remains unseen to the public.
This way, if someone mugs me or takes my purse or whatnot, I still have cash reserves to depend on. If I’m in a tight spot, I can use that cash to get a cab, buy a bed at a hostel, or get to an American embassy.
No. 2: Don’t Get Super Drunk or Take Drugs with People You Don’t Know
When I was in Germany, I met a girl – I’ll call her Jane – at my hostel in Munich. Jane was really cool, and we instantly clicked. We spent a day shopping and exploring the city, and then went out to enjoy some of Munich’s nightlife later that evening.
Jane got really, really drunk. Like, multiple body shots on the bar followed by beer followed by more shots drunk. By the time our group was ready to move on to a new location, she was holed up in the bathroom, practically passed out an unable to move.
Ladies, do. not. do. this. I’m by no means a teetotaller, and believe me, some of my greatest travel memories involve partying. But getting messed up to the point that you don’t know what’s going on is not a good thing to do when you’re traveling – it leaves you vulnerable to rape, assault, getting robbed, or worse. Is it wrong that women have to watch themselves more than men do? Yeah, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’d prefer not to be harmed. So don’t do it. Have fun, but know your limits (if you don’t know them yet, you probably shouldn’t be traveling alone yet anyway).
No. 3: Develop Confidence in Saying No
When I was younger, I had a hard time rejecting people, especially boys. Thankfully for me, none of those boys were particularly pushy, but nonetheless – I’m glad I grew out of this. Having the confidence to say no comes with age, and when you’re really young (like 18-20) sometimes you haven’t developed the skill yet.
I’m not just talking about turning down romantic or sexual invites. I’m also talking about other things – offers for taxi rides, free tickets to shows, a drink at the bar, someone to accompany you on the train, etc. If someone offers to help you with something, you are in no way obligated to accept. Learn how to say no, and say it loudly and with conviction. When you’re traveling alone as a woman, you have to learn to speak up for yourself, and you need to make sure that you don’t get into positions where you need to accept help (see no. 1).
No. 4: Go Out in Groups
Sometimes when I’m traveling alone, I enjoy going to a pub and having a beer by myself. I’m actually kind of an introvert, and sometimes the serenity of sitting in a quiet bar with a cold beer just appeals to me. However, I usually do this before 9 p.m., and only have one or two beers before going home.
If you want to go out and party, go with a group. Traveling alone is actually not as lonely as people might think – if you stay in a hostel and you’re friendly, I guarantee you will make friends. Hostels often organize meet-ups, bar crawls, excursions and other activities, and these are a great way to meet other like-minded travelers in their 20s and early 30s.
Going out in groups is important because you and your friends can watch out for each other. My advice from no. 1 remains – you still shouldn’t go crazy, you don’t know these people super well – but at least when you’re in a group, you won’t be a walking target.
On my last night in New Zealand, I went out with a group of friends I’d met at work. A particularly pushy guy (not in our group, just some rando at the bar) kept touching me unsolicitedly. When I told my guy friends, they were quick to stand up for me, and the dude finally left me alone. I’m glad I had people around to help me out when I felt uncomfortable.
No. 5: (This One is Lame) Dress Modestly Until You Know Your Surroundings
I hate that women are forced to wear certain things to avoid violent behavior. It’s not fair – our bodies do not dictate the actions of others, period. But to keep yourself safe, I do think it’s smart to bring along modest clothing when you’re going to a new country. At least until you understand the local culture.
There are countries – particularly in the Middle East and India – where immodest dress is considered offensive, and unfortunately, wearing such clothing could put you at risk of violence. Even outside of those areas, being an obvious female tourist dressed like you’re going to a nightclub can make you a target for unsavory people.
When I go somewhere new, I bring along my going-out clothes, for sure! But I usually don’t change into them until I know that my outfit is in line with what other women around me are wearing. Until I know that information, I stick to jeans and a baggy t-shirt.
In closing, I do think it’s important not to be paranoid – again, I’ve traveled quite a bit by myself, and have never once felt truly at risk. People are generally good. I firmly believe that. And many, many people are willing to help you if you need it. I think the key, though, is trying to avoid needing it. Be the one in control, know your surroundings, stay alert and have fun. Be empowered! Doing so will help ensure that your travel experience is a pleasant one and that you will feel comfortable and confident traveling alone in the future.