11 Realities of Solo Female Travel
A friend asked me to share the good -- and the bad -- of solo female travel. I've written Why I Love Traveling Solo and How To Stay Safe on the Road, but I've never addressed the downsides of traveling alone. Specifically, traveling alone as a female.
I was first inspired to write this blog post when someone posted the following NasDaily video in a Southeast Asia travel Facebook group (click the image to view the video; it won't properly embed). I was surprised by the number of males who argued that traveling alone is the same for everyone - male or female. That men have to worry about getting jumped in Thailand, that females get it too easy because men buy them drinks at backpacker bars, that both sexes have to be aware of their surroundings when in an unfamiliar place.
There are certainly things that are true for solo travelers in general: paying more for accommodation or taxis, feeling lonely or bored at times, figuring out transportation on your own, the possibility of being robbed.
While I can't argue from a male perspective, I will say this: in my experience, there is a difference in how I travel as a solo female backpacker compared to how I travel in a group or with a male companion.
But First, a Disclaimer
These "realities" are from my personal experiences of traveling alone as a female over the past six years through numerous countries. I have met many other solo female travelers who share these same feelings, but everyone's experience is going to differ.
Regardless, these extra precautions have never prevented me from traveling alone (obviously) and traveling alone is actually how I prefer to travel. With that said, here are...
11 Realities of Solo Female Travel
1. You are sometimes limited in what you can do.
This includes everything from exploring at night to drinking at bars to hanging out with locals. When I am with other people, I am less concerned about wandering night markets and walking back to the hostel at 10pm. But if I can't find anyone to go with, I tend to stay back at the hostel. I get uncomfortable walking alone at night, glancing at my phone to make sure I am going in the right direction.
I also rarely drink when I am backpacking, mainly because I'm not a big drinker, anyways. If the bars are 10-20 minutes away from the hostel, that means I have to find my way back alone, either walking or in a taxi, if I decide to head back early. If I am drinking, I prefer to drink at hostels that have bars attached.
And sometimes I feel like I am missing out on experiences with locals when I'm alone. I have turned down offers from locals to have tea at their homes or to be taken around on a tuk-tuk tour because I cannot trust them right off the bat. In Myanmar, I was with two other guys when we got lost exploring the temples in Bagan. A local man offered to show us back to the main road, but he wanted to show us his home first. If I was alone, I would have quickly scootered off. But I was with two other people, and even though we worried it might be a scam, we followed him anyways. We ended up having a wonderful morning drinking coffee with him and his wife in their humble one-room home, learning Burmese words, and getting our faces covered in traditional Burmese thanaka. I would have missed out on this experience had I been alone.
I will admit that while I consider myself adventurous as a solo traveler, I am even more adventurous when I am with other people. There is comfort in numbers.
2. You limit your travel at night, which increases costs and decreases travel options.
I know many female travelers who try their best not to arrive in new places at night. Since an unfortunate taxi ride a few years ago in Nicaragua at 1am (I was fine - just sweating bullets as I sat in a taxi with two men for an hour), I personally choose not to arrive anywhere at night. It's hard for me to orient myself late at night, haggle taxi prices, and generally feel safe in an unfamiliar place.
This means that I often pay a premium price to travel or have to change my travel plans. For example, I want to fly from Vietnam to Bali in two weeks, but the cheapest flight arrives at 1am. I'm not willing to do that. So I will probably pay $50 more to pay for a flight that arrives at 3pm. If I arrive close to sundown, I typically pay more for an airport pick-up that I've arranged with the hostel I've booked.
This is also true for night buses. Most night buses will arrive at 6am or later to their destinations. In Myanmar, however, many buses arrived at 3am. From Yangon to Bagan, I almost took a 10-hour bus ride during the day instead of a night bus to avoid arriving in the dark. I ended up meeting a German and Chilean, and we traveled to Inle Lake together by night bus. I'm glad I didn't do the trip alone because we ended up being bullied at the bus station as we tried to haggle for a taxi, and the taxi ride itself was 15 minutes down a dark, dirt road.
3. You are often judged or pitied by others for traveling alone as a female.
This judgement and pity comes in various forms. Locals, especially in Asia and Central / South America, cannot understand the concept of traveling alone as a female. I have been asked why I'm alone, why I don't have a boyfriend or partner. On a bus in the Philippines, a local woman asked me how I expect to meet anyone when I'm too busy traveling and that I need to find a good, nice man so that I can have children as soon as possible (I'll get right on that, thanks). I remember a couple whispering as I sat alone to eat dinner in Venice six years ago. Little did they know that I enjoyed plenty of gelato as I watched couples float into the sunset in their gondolas.
There is also a common stereotype that as a solo female, you must be running away from heartbreak or unhappiness back at home. I hate this stereotype (thanks, Eat, Pray, Love). When a backpacker in Thailand learned I was traveling alone, he smirked and joked, "So, who's the bloke who broke your heart?" Funny. I wasn't dumped when I decided to quit my job and embark on ten months of solo travel. I did it for myself - for my personal development, for my own enjoyment. Why is it such a novel concept that a female might travel alone solely because she wants to? And for those ladies who do find peace in travel after a heartbreak, that's totally okay, too. Who cares why you're traveling alone! Do you.
The other stereotype I've encountered is that because I have the balls to travel alone, I must be down for anything. A reckless, carefree, anything goes kind of girl. Yeah, no. Locals and backpackers have both mistakenly assumed that I'll go home (back to the dorm?) with them because I'm alone. An English guy tried to hit on me in a Cairns bar by wrapping his arm around me and sloppily whispering in my ear, "So you're probably really independent, huh? Wanna not be alone tonight for once?" No, thanks.
4. You become a liar.
I rarely tell locals that I am traveling alone (not so much backpackers; I meet a lot of backpackers traveling alone). When the taxi or Uber driver asks, I say I am meeting friends. If they keep pushing, I make up some story on how I met said friends and where they are traveling from. I make it clear they are expecting me. I have told locals before that I have a boyfriend or travel partner, but I've never worn a fake wedding ring. I have pretended to talk on my phone when walking down the street if I feel uncomfortable. I have met American females who have lied about their nationality to locals because there are stereotypes about American women due to Hollywood movies (half-naked, drunken girls fighting in a Jell-O pool on a college campus, what?). I don't lie often, but when I do, it's to make myself appear less vulnerable.
5. You dress more modestly because what you wear attracts attention.
I always try to dress according to that country's culture and customs, mostly out of respect but also to avoid unwanted attention. In Myanmar, I wore a long skirt everywhere despite the heat because local women rarely showed their knees. I cover up when I leave the beach and I don't wear revealing clothes on buses or in local areas.
Both men and women backpackers may stand out as foreigners. I've traveled with many guys who have been stopped on the street by locals for a photo because they're tall with blue eyes. But it's women who are often judged for and face assumptions because of what they wear.
And in many countries, dressing appropriately won't stop the cat calling. In Nicaragua, I remember my skin crawling as men cat called me on the streets on Granada, smacking their lips as they said, "Quieres beso, bella?" (this happens in NYC, too). In Belize, I remember passing several men sitting on a curb as I hurried back to my hostel as the sun was setting, hearing them muttering as their eyes roved over me. I've been pestered by men as to why I am sitting alone in a café, why I am taking a taxi alone, why I am arriving at an airport alone, why I am walking down the street alone. Trying to dress as modestly as I can is one way I ward off these comments and looks, but they seem to follow, anyways.
6. You take extra precautions.
I'm usually in touch with my mom so that she has an idea of where I am. I forward her my flight and hostel information. I give her a heads up if I'm traveling somewhere on a motorbike with a guy I met (which she would probably prefer to not know about, but I do it for my own safety). I send her a FB message if I'm traveling alone in a car, like when I took a private car to Malapascua, Philippines for three hours. I leave an electronic trail wherever I go and I do it on purpose.
While I'm used to taking taxis by myself, I will request an Uber if I have the option because my journey is tracked and I have information on the driver.
I buy a SIM card in every country I go to so that I have internet data no matter where I am. A SIM card also gives me the option to make calls over FB or WhatsApp if I don't have wifi. It makes me feel safer that I can contact anyone at anytime.
I always have to know how to get from point A to point B in a safe manner. I take screenshots of hostel directions and locations in case I can't get the confirmation email to download while I'm traveling. If I'm unsure of how to get to the hostel, I email them and ask for a reliable taxi company and a fair quote of how much the taxi ride should cost. For example, a hostel in Nha Trang, Vietnam emailed me back that I should not take a motorbike taxi under any circumstances because they will take tourists down a back alley and rob them. This is information that I have to know.
On overnight buses, I wear a black tank top with two inside pockets underneath my shirt. I keep my cash and credit cards in my tank top, and keep a few bills and a cancelled credit card in my wallet in my purse.
Are some of these precautions necessary? Maybe not all of them. Are they annoying? Yes. But I do it because these actions make me a little bit safer on the road, and that can make a big difference.
7. You size up everyone you meet and hone into your intuition.
I am constantly criticized by family and friends for being too trusting, for being too naïve. They see me on motorbikes with random guys in Asia or in the back of pick-up trucks with strangers in Central America. From the outside, I look careless and reckless.
What my friends and family often don't realize is that I size up every single person I meet, particularly guys, and that it takes me awhile to let my guard down when I'm on the road.
For whatever reason, I end up meeting and traveling with guys more so than girls. Either way, I will not travel with someone I do not feel safe with. Do I always know their middle name or their home address? No. But am I aware of how they carry themselves, the comments they make about women, what they do back home? Yes. There are a lot of backpackers who are looking for their next hook-up and a lot of locals who creep me out, but I don't travel with those people. In the same sense that I don't date dicks back home, I don't travel with dicks, either.
Am I always going to be right about every person I meet? Can I instantly determine if someone has good or bad intentions? No. But I do have the ability to size up someone pretty well. Most importantly, I never ignore my intuition. And if my judgment is ever off, if I ever feel uncomfortable, I get the fuck out.
8. You pay attention to the details.
I met an Irish guy in Vietnam who I ended up traveling with for a few days. I put him in charge of booking a dorm room in Hue. He sent me the link and I quickly scanned the reviews.
"It has low ratings for location… it's in a dark alleyway off from the main road," I said. "So? You'll be walking with me, it's not a big deal," he responded. So we booked it.
And the hostel was, in fact, down an unlit alleyway. Would I have booked it if I had been traveling alone? No. The same was true for a hostel I booked in Koh Tao. It was a ten minute walk from the main road. I had to use my iPhone flashlight each night. After two nights, I booked a hostel on the main road.
As a solo female traveler, I pay attention to these things. I want to know where a hostel is located, if it's in a popular area, if it's on a well-lit street. I simply don't like walking in the dark alone.
I am also constantly aware of my surroundings. I keep a tight grip on my purse and keep an eye out for any shady characters. In Venice, I was followed by a man near the main plaza. I thought it was just in my head, but when I ducked into a store and left a few minutes later, I was alarmed to see him still waiting on the corner for me. I paid for a taxi right then and there.
9. You acknowledge the fear and possibility of sexual assault or rape.
Yes, this is a big one. I think this is what my friends and family fear whenever I embark on another solo adventure. Do I think about it often? Not usually. I try not to let this fear paralyze me and I remind myself that my solo travels have taught me that the world is full of kind and helpful people from all walks of life.
I think much of a woman's fear centers around being kidnapped in a taxi or being followed and then raped by a local. But there is a pervasive party and hook-up culture within the backpacker community, and when alcohol is involved (or not), that cute, international boy who seemed to have good intentions a few hours ago may develop very different intentions as the night goes on. I am also aware that in a foreign country, I am under a different legal system and may not have access to the same kind of medical treatment I would expect at home.
I know that I am very vulnerable as a solo female traveler. I don't carry pepper spray on me, or a personal alarm, or a weapon of any kind (which is virtually impossible when traveling abroad). I don't know personal defense moves. The most important assets I have to keep me safe are my common sense, my intuition and sense of fear, and the choices I can make on a daily basis, like not walking alone at night or drinking too much.
And the honest truth? I do all these things at home. I don't walk alone late at night, I watch my drink like a hawk at bars, I get Ubers when going home, I get in my car immediately in dark parking lots, I check to see if anyone is following me when I open the door to my apartment. I do all of these things on a daily basis, whether I'm at home in Indianapolis or a million miles away in Thailand.
[Edit: The morning after I hit publish on this piece, a female backpacker alleged that a male backpacker raped her in a dorm room after a night of partying in the hostel I was staying at. I was eating breakfast when a Vietnamese policeman - who spoke no English - showed up to question those involved. I share this not to alarm anyone or to imply that this is a common reality of traveling abroad (it's not), but to be transparent and stress that you must always be aware of your surroundings and who you are with. ❤️]
10. You will get exhausted.
Many times I don't feel unsafe or uncomfortable traveling alone as a female. I just feel tired from having to constantly be so aware, so on all the time. I think this feeling of exhaustion contributed to my being burnt out. I feel like I constantly have my guard up because I know that I alone am responsible for my safety and well-being. It can be hard to relax -- my mind is constantly running through everything I listed above, and I do it in nanoseconds as a second nature.
While I love the freedom and independence that solo travel gives me, I sometimes don't mind traveling with a companion because it's one more person to check directions with, one more person to haggle a taxi with, one more person to wander at night with. Traveling with others is a good way to catch a (small) break.
But The Most Important Reality?
11. You will find your solo travel experience to be worth it.
My first solo trip was six years ago. I was beyond nervous, barely talked to anyone the whole time, and booked every hostel and train ticket in advance. But by the end of the whole journey, I loved it. That trip taught me that I could travel alone and that I had the guts to do it. Since then, the lessons and challenges I've faced on the road have shaped who I am as a person. I can (usually) navigate any city, connect with locals, pick up phrases of a new language, adapt to changes, power through travel burn out, start up conversations with strangers, and be happy with my own company. I am far more resourceful, independent, and fearless because I've traveled alone.
The fact of the matter is this: I would not have had all of these experiences in all these beautiful countries with all these amazing people if I had just kept sitting around waiting for someone to come with me. So I went alone! And it's always been worth it.
Do you think there is a difference in how men and women travel alone? Ladies, do you take any of these precautions? What has been your experience traveling alone? If you haven't traveled alone before, what are your anxieties about it?
(from fellow solo female backpackers)
Why All Women Should Travel Solo - The Blonde Abroad
31 Safety Tips for Solo Female Travelers from the Experts - Be My Travel Muse (and she has a whole section on solo female travel)
Why Travel Safety is Different for Women - an excellent piece by Adventurous Kate arguing why solo female travel is different from men traveling alone
Why Iceland is Perfect for First-Time Solo Female Travelers - another great suggestion by Adventurous Kate
Solo Female Adventure Travel is On the Rise - a 2017 article by Conde Nast Traveler shows the increase in women traveling alone