Do You Have to Be Brave to Travel Solo?
When I tell people I'm travelling, usually solo, the stock response is 'Aren't you brave'? I first travelled on my own, to Germany, on the train, when I was 15, so you might say I'm used to it. But, weeks before I make a trip, even now, I'm usually in a total funk, wondering what on earth I'm doing going to remote lands no-one here has ever heard of, on the other side of the world, alone. I get so anxious I pack and repack several times. I start to relax when I'm checked in and when I get there the rush of adrenalin that comes with being somewhere new and exciting overwhelms me and outweighs any concerns about being in unfamiliar territory. I think that's pretty normal.
Assess the Risks Sensibly
Reading articles about attacks made on women travelling solo - there was a hair raising New York Times article circulating recently - can raise anxiety levels. I try to put this sort of thing to one side and assess the possible hazards sensibly. Read the FCO advice and use your common sense. Government advice feels obliged to point out all the risks, even if they are not very great. The articles tend to finish with sentences like ’the vast majority of visits pass without any incident’ which tells you all you need to know. Any country, including England has its risks. Most of the dangers I have encountered (and I’m still here) have had very little to do with travelling solo. I’ve been in more danger from physical danger in small groups – dodgy Land Rovers with slipping clutches and maniac driving up hairpin-bend-mountain tracks in the Karakorum, for example.
In developing countries - especially FCO red zones - I pay for a guide and often a driver too.
You do have to resign yourself to the fact that women travelling alone will attract attention at times. I’ve had a lot of minor aggravation, verbal ‘offers’, polite ‘invitations’ sometimes people are selling stuff, at others their goal is somewhat different. I’ve got blonde hair and I attract attention. Fortunately, I’ve never had any major issues because I was travelling solo. The worst incident was when I had to manhandle my Bhutanese guide away from my bungalow door. Luckily, he went, and hugely embarrassed, didn’t turn up to take me to the airport next morning. Don’t be daunted - just be prepared. There is no obligation to answer others. Often a shy smile is perfectly sufficient.
Take a Phone
Check roaming rates before you go. Sometimes its cheaper to rent a portable modem – some companies will post you one and you drop it off in a post box or at the airport. They’re crucial for navigation (see below), in case of emergency (make sure you look up the local emergency numbers) and for staying in touch with friends and family.
Most accommodation has free Wi-Fi and if they want to charge you can nearly always find Wi-Fi free in a local café or bar. Most airports have free Wi-Fi nowadays too. If they want you to give an email address make one up or you will get a deluge of unwanted spam. I do the same with phone numbers when asked to give mine. I just change one digit
Research the Area
Solo travel safety begins before you leave. Research is important.
- Check health requirements and dangers.
- Find out which areas are deemed safe. Confirm with reception when you arrive as to which areas are safe and at what times of day.
- Download Google Maps before you start and check the directions. A compass app is also useful. Google directions are usually great, but the hardest part is orientating yourself when you emerge at the station or bus stop. There are other great apps available too, for helping with directions and trains or buses. Check on the internet for recommendations. Hyperdia in Japan for example will even tell you which platform your train goes from.
- Check out which scams and cons are operating locally
Stick to the obvious guidelines:
- Arrive in daylight hours when possible and know the route to your hotel
- Don’t go out on your own late at night, stay in public places and avoid quiet streets.
- Walk purposefully.
- Don’t act like a tourist.
- If unsure of your surroundings when you’re waiting sit with local women or families.
- Don't get into a vehicle with a stranger. I never hitch-hike.
- Only take authorised taxis. Sit in the back, behind the driver and let him see you check his ID. Make sure the meter is running or agree a price before you set off.
- Hide your map and memorise your route as far as you can.
- If you are with others agree a plan for what to do if you get lost. Make sure you have the phone numbers of your companions
- Don't tell others where you are staying
- Don’t leave your drink unattended.
- Stay sober
Otherwise, I find the best way is to stay alert and assess each new situation as I go along. Trust your gut instinct and trust others, but only to a certain extent. Ask yourself what is behind the question. Why should a strange guy ask me if I’m travelling alone? Try asking him why he wants to know. It’s certainly not a great idea to say yes without asking for more information. Or avoid the question entirely politician style. ‘Hot today isn’t it?'
Beware Would-be Guides and ‘Friends’
The most common sort of hassle is going to come from people trying to sell you goods or services. Again a smile and polite but firm ‘No’ will go a long way. Don’t make eye contact or you are inviting conversation. Remember that most of these folk are only trying to make a living. And some actually do want to help. Though be wary of would-be guides asking where you are going or what you want to see. And say you prefer to be on your own or are meeting someone if they persist in accompanying you. If all else fails put your headphones on to indicate that you really don't want to talk. Be really firm here or you may well find yourself later being pressurised to pay a guiding tip even though you didn’t agree to the tour. It’s a truism but very little is actually free. Practice makes perfect.
Protect Your Belongings
Many stations have left luggage departments and hotels will nearly always look after your luggage if you arrive early or want to leave after check out. If you’re on a beach families may look after your belongings when you swim.
But if none of these things is going to work, pack light and see if you can manage with just a carry-on or a backpack. If you take a chain, you can always padlock your bag to railings or any big thing like a lamp post, tree or a chair. It’s better than nothing.
Leave your tiara at home and remember that even relatively cheap bling can look expensive and desirable in a developing country. Hide your camera and phone and/or carry your goods in a plastic bag, so it looks as if you just have some supermarket shopping. If it's crowded keep your daypack on your front and check the zip frequently. I know only too well that pickpockets are very good at what they do. European city centres are prime targets.
See Money Matters for looking after your cash.
Watch out for orchestrated street distractions. If a stranger stops to speak to you check your belongings before you stop to reply and take care not to look away from them. That was how I lost my backpack in Costa Rica....
Dress according to local conventions unless you want to draw attention to yourself. Many cultures advocate conservative dress – loose clothing, cover shoulders and no shorts. Check before you go. In Somalia for example even trousers for women are frowned on. Long skirts please, unless you want to upset the local women.