For this post, Uncontained Life is very pleased to welcome long-term expat and solo traveler, Ellie Thometz. We hope that you enjoy her tips for solo female travel!
A Beginner’s Guide to Solo Female Travel Abroad
Since moving to Germany about four years ago, I have done what I can to travel as much as possible. There is an ever growing list of places that I want to go (because the more I travel, the more I want it to continue); but, here’s the thing—I am single and often my friends’ schedules do not match up with mine, so I have done more solo travel than buddy or group travel in my time over here.
Especially as a woman from the USA, I get a lot of comments from friends and family (many of whom don’t hold a passport) who have genuine, albeit slightly exaggerated concerns about my well being when I’m traveling solo. Although people looking out for my safety is never a bad thing, it makes me laugh a bit because their perspective on the danger involved in being a solo female traveler abroad is clearly skewed.
Compared to most (if not all) first world countries, the United States is—depending on which internet list you look at—one of the more dangerous countries in the world! That being said, I know that a lot of women don’t feel 100% confident about traveling alone internationally, so I’m excited to be able to share some of my tips for solo female travel abroad with Uncontained Life’s readers!
Practice the Art Of Blending In
The easiest way to put yourself into a potentially risky situation while traveling solo is to stand out in a crowd. When someone with nefarious intentions can easily see that you are “not from around these parts,” you have just put a target on your back. Obviously, sometimes there is only so much that you can do (like if you are a six-foot tall red-head traveling to China), but you can still minimize the risk of making yourself a potential mark:
Use the Tools at Your Disposal
Little things like using a smartphone for navigation on rather than fumbling with a giant paper map, learning currency and temperature conversions (or having the right apps at the ready) or studying up on public transit timetables ahead of time makes travel easier and solo female travelers less conspicuous.
Dress Like a Local
You don’t need to completely change your wardrobe just to travel, but clothes can play a much bigger role in the travel experience than a lot of people think. Two of my favorite travel games to play are “spot the American”* and “guess the country of origin.” In my experience, playing these games is not just a way of spotting the differences between cultures, it’s also a way to see how an individual’s dress can shape their interactions with locals (probably not a big surprise: in most cases, those who look like they fit in are treated like they belong).
*While I’m on the subject of clothing and blending in, I feel I ought to speak, briefly, about something I see as an epidemic in US American culture. In all of my travels, I have not seen a single other culture that will wear workout clothes when not working out, doing an outdoor activity, or lounging at home. I can “spot the American” hands down every time when I see this. Please, women, for your safety and in a silent effort to combat some negative stereotypes that are out there (FYI, not everyone likes Americans), please, please, please avoid this. There are plenty of fashionable and practical alternatives to be had.
It’s also important to respect religious beliefs when thinking about attire. In Muslim cultures, it is often inappropriate for women to have their hair or neck exposed. In much of Europe, going into a church with a tank top (and sometimes even shorts) is very much frowned upon, to the point where some churches will even have paper shawls at the main entrance that you need to put on. Knowing this, it’s wise to pack a scarf in your bag to take around with you, even in the heat of summer.
What’s the best way for the solo female traveler to blend in? Confidence. Act like you’re supposed to be there and fewer people will question that you aren’t. In my experience, women outwardly express when they are feeling unsure or intimidated by a situation more than men. Try to combat this tendency whenever possible. Keep your head high, and if the going gets tough, don’t give up—instead, embrace the opportunity to show yourself how fearless you can be!
Learn Local Customs and Language
Researching ahead of time about what the locals do or asking people who have gone to the same place previously will allow you to navigate everyday situations more easily and enjoy your travels more:
Walk the Walk
As with knowing how it is (or isn’t) appropriate to dress in a given place or situation, doing some pre-trip research on other aspects of daily life can also be beneficial. Little things like knowing how to pay for a meal (i.e. in Germany you have to call the waiter over and ask to pay, while in Italy you get up and go to the register at the end of the meal) and always carrying some cash (cash is accepted everywhere but plastic is not) will make you a bit less obtrusive to other cultures. This can often result in a more pleasant experience with local people.
Talk the Talk
Even in high tourist areas where English is often spoken, stumbling through a few key phrases in the local language in a store, restaurant, or hotel will, if nothing else, give you some, “aww, she tried so hard” credit (even if you completely mess up). You do not need to be fluent, but between those key phrases and hand gestures, you’ll usually get the help or answer that you need. (Carrying a small pocket dictionary or having a good translation app like iTranslate isn’t a bad idea either.) Additionally, learning how to understand and speak in terms of 24 hour time (for example, saying “17:00” instead of “5 PM”) helps a lot when traveling abroad.
Make Some Friends
One of the greatest beauties of travel by yourself is that you’re not tied down to a specific person or group of people. That’s why I like to encourage my fellow solo female travelers to make new friends on the road!
How and Where to Meet People
Choosing to stay in a hostel (even if you can afford a hotel) can be a great way to meet new people: even if you book a private room, you can make connections in the common areas and/or by signing up for group trips and activities organized by the hostel. You can also plan to take a cooking class or a cultural tour as part of your travels. Don’t be afraid to talk to someone new, even if the conversation requires a lot of hand gestures.
Balancing Risk and Caution
Most of the friends you make the road will be wonderful, genuine people. That being said, it’s important to retain a certain degree of caution with new acquaintances—especially if they’re the ones who sought you out. Don’t guard yourself to the point of losing out on an adventure, but don’t hand over your passport or credit card to them either.
Many of the tips I’ve already hit on will not only help make your travels easier but also safer. Below are a few more detailed points:
Secure Your Stuff
When deciding on the kind of bag to carry your stuff in while sightseeing, I strongly suggest that anything of value is placed in something with a zipper to close it. Obviously, wearing a backpack will identify you a bit more as a tourist (though you’ll see plenty of local students wearing them as well), but they can be very practical—plus, there is the added benefit of being able to add a small lock on your backpack zipper. If you are carrying a purse, do not carry anything of value in any outer pockets (cell phone, passport, money, etc.) and make sure that the zipper of the main compartment is always shut and the strap slung over your opposite shoulder across your body. Most places tourists travel are not known so much for their violent crimes but, rather, for their petty ones, so take a couple simple steps to avoid losing a lot.
Editor’s note: you can check out the extra secure purse that Hillary carries when traveling HERE.
Know About Crime
It’s always a good idea to do some research about local crime rates wherever you are going. There are several resources out there that you can use to find this info. (just do a quick google search: your destination, plus words like “crime,” “theft” and “safety.”) You can also go to the U.S. Department of State’s website to find out about official travel warnings and alerts in various countries. (That site also offers other resources for travel abroad that can be very helpful.)
Don’t become so wrapped up in whatever it is you are doing (eating, texting, taking photos) that you become oblivious to your surroundings. You may not always be on guard, and that’s fine, but make it a point to scan your environment at regular intervals for some of the less noticeable things that may be happening around you. This kind of “situational awareness” will not only help you to avoid a negative situation, but will also let you catch some fun, funny and otherwise interesting sights that tourists whose eyes are always glued to the main attractions will probably miss!
Trust Your Gut
Last but not least, when it comes to your safety, follow your gut. If your instinct is telling you something is off about a person or situation, listen. You may miss a fun opportunity in some instances, but I’m a fan of erring on the side of caution. You may never know if you did in fact avoid a potential incident, but that “not knowing” is by far the lesser evil.
My final tips for solo female travel are actually pretty universal for all travelers:
Roll With the Punches
When setting out on your adventures, I do recommend having some sort of plan…but keep it loose. You may have wanted to go visit X wonderful place because you’ve heard such great things about it, but then you get there and find out that your hotel is inland on an island and you didn’t pre-rent a car (I’ve only had that happen once…but you get what I’m driving at). In other words, you may need (or want) to change your plan, or adapt it on the fly—this can be stressful, but it can also be fun if you have the right attitude!
Prep Your Tech
Hillary and Justin have written an article covering the subject of traveling with technology in detail, but here’s a highlights reel: unless you just love spending mass quantities of money, don’t hop on a plane to a foreign country without having figured out a plan for your calling, texting and data while abroad. Some providers (like T-Moble) offer great international rates, but others…not so much. If your provider’s rates are high, you can look into getting an international SIM card or use apps like WhatsApp which will let you call and text using wifi (which can be found for free in cafes and other public spaces all around the world).
Hopefully this short guide has given you some take away points that will help you on your own solo travel adventures. Enjoy the world, ladies! It’s there for your indulgence.