Women traveling alone face a very different set of issues than men do. Male solo travelers can generally choose their destinations based on their physical and financial ability, and overall safety. Women, however, are much more affected by issues such as sexism, religion, gender equality, security, and even hygiene products.
I was interested in knowing more, because I have a lot of female friends with hugely different ideas about solo travel. I found these are some of the main things women can do when they’re choosing where to travel solo.
- Look at the role of women and family in your destination: some places are best avoided
- Seek out and speak with women who have travelled solo: find a mentor
- Book accommodations ahead of time, at least partially: don’t “wing it” yet
- Learn to walk with confidence, and to blend in: stand tall, don’t be agreeable
- Plan your essential wardrobe, gear, and personal items: just the basics, but definitely be sure to consider hygiene products
- Ignore selectively: your worried mom, gossipy coworkers, mansplaining…make your own choice
Look at the Role of Women and Family in Your Destination
Countries where family is central are often very protective of solo women travelers. This can be a real advantage, and open up doors into the culture for women.
I found this difference most interesting when I was living in Cambodia.
As a single white American male of about 30, it felt everyone wanted to sell me something: a driver, illicit substances, female companionship. Making friends with locals was really hard. No, guy on street corner at 9:30 a.m., I do not want “sexy lady”! I guess I looked like just another white man in search of debauchery, like many other white male visitors to Cambodia.
I wasn’t. I had my new master’s in development studies and I was trying to find an NGO job and do good work to improve society.
But my white female American coworker at the UN agency, and of about the same age, had SUCH a different experience. Family is central in Cambodian society, and the local woman constantly invited her to their homes, took her places, shared their feelings and culture. The men were often like older brothers to her – making sure she always had what she needed. I confess, I was jealous.
Family values and protection of women are strong in Cambodia and in many other Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and the Philippines. The same is true in Latin American countries like Belize and Peru. Ditto African countries like Kenya and Tanzania. This can make them good destinations for solo women travelers.
Other countries like Saudi Arabia and most Middle Eastern countries, India, Pakistan, and Somalia are probably just best avoided. If you really want to go there, I hope you know someone trustworthy and have a very good plan. Thomson Reuters Foundation put out a great article on this not too long ago. The inclusion of the US is quite telling!
This is less of an issue in developed and generally more gender-balanced countries, such as most Western countries. And while Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China, may have a ways to go until women are paid and treated fairly, the countries generally provide good public safety and protections for women.
Women can have a very special experience in countries where they are especially respected and valued, even if at the personal level rather than in great society.
Seek out and speak with women who have traveled solo
I knew a young Japanese woman who I’ll call Hiroko. Hiroko was awesome! Why? Because she’d traveled solo to something like 20 countries by the time she was in her late-20s. She worked a normal office job and didn’t come from a rich family. I don’t think she was a college graduate. Even more amazing was that her English was shockingly bad. She could only piece a few words together. Usually the Japanese women who travel solo speak good English and are quite well educated. She was no bohemian, or beach bum, or party girl. Hiroko just loved to go places and meet people.
What made Hiroko so different? I pin it on a combination of confidence, curiosity, and a low level of general anxiety about the world. She was aware of dangers, but they didn’t much bother her. She just avoided them. She also blended in quite well. She was a plain-looking, slender young woman. She wasn’t loud, didn’t get too drunk. She planned well.
And yet, for every Hiroko, I’ve met 10, even 100, Japanese women who wouldn’t dream of traveling solo unless it was on a group tour. Preferably to somewhere like Paris, Los Angeles (Disney!), or Hawaii. The typical responses to my Hiroko story are: “She is very brave!” or “She should be more careful!” and/or “I could never do that.” And these were women who spoke English and were physically and financially able.
Find your Hiroko and speak with her. Ask friends, friends of friends, and if you can’t find a Hiroko, hop on YouTube. Don’t bother with airbrushed, super-positive Kardashian wannabes. Here’s a wonderful, huge list. I’m sure you’ll find a kindred spirit.
Book accommodation and plan your airport transport ahead of time
I’d give this advice to most any traveler going to a new destination, but I think it’s especially important for women.
- DON’T rock up to Lagos airport and expect to figure it out.
- DON’T get into Manila at 1 a.m. and think you’ll find an information desk and just grab a taxi.
- DON’T think it’s going to be like in Dallas, Melbourne, or London.
You may like to “wing it,” and you can, and you shall. Winging it is great! But at least, find an Airbnb with positive reviews by other solo women travelers, a decent and secure hotel (ideally with airport pick up service), or a reliable hostel. Read online reviews. Ask friends.
Airport taxis can also be a very rude, and even frightening, welcome to new countries. Airport touts prey on travel-weary people, and those who are alone are the best targets. Women alone also need to take special care with long male drivers, as most are. If possible, arrange transport either through the accommodation or an app like Uber or Southeast Asia’s wonderful Grab. Those will let you see your driver beforehand, and you and others can track your journey via your phone’s GPS.
And on that note, have a SIM card ready, or read up on where you’ll get one.
Prioritize advice from women over men (other than me, I’m your big bro and I wouldn’t do you wrong, sis).
Learn to walk with confidence, not be overly approachable, and blend in
Women who walk with purpose and intent are less likely to be targeted by touts, scammers, and other lowlifes. And while it may be the polite thing to smile at strangers in your hometown, it can be an unexpected and unwanted invitation in a place like Morocco, Mexico, or Brazil.
I was trying to find you a good resource, and I came across this blog post on French women’s confidence. The bit about getting “gussied up” probably isn’t advisable for travelers, but the parts about standing tall and walking with purpose are golden. This is good blog! Strange that it doesn’t seem to have many readers.
Martial arts are also great for this sort of thing, and you’ll learn to kick a** (karate, taekwondo), throw a** (judo, aikido), or just plain beat the crap out of people (krav maga). Great for your confidence and posture. If fighting arts aren’t your thing, then pilates, yoga, and weight training also improve posture, focus, and core strength.
Blending in is a matter of looking like a local, or at last just not standing out. Now, of course, if you’re a 6-foot-tall blonde Sydneysider, there’s not much you can do to seamlessly blend in most of Asia and Africa. I’ll touch on clothing in the next section. In this case, it means looking at how local women move, talk, buy something in the 7-Eleven, board a bus.
If you’re like me, you love watching this stuff and you’ll pick it up quickly. You’ll see how to hold your bag, what to bring with you, what you need to say to certain people, if anything. Learn to emulate it.
I also find women in many countries can strike up a casual chat with other women quite easily. As a guy, this sometimes feels risky to me. The other dude my think I’m trying to scam him, or he may be cold or drunk, or he may even think I’m trying to pick him up.
If you’re in a social, chattier sort of region or country, chat up some women around your age or older. I suspect it’s often very rewarding. I welcome women’s input on this.
Plan your essential wardrobe, gear, and personal items
Plain Western clothing like simple t-shirts, loose jeans, flip-flops – these are becoming more and more globally standard.
Western women have an edge here, because most Western styles for women, other than those in high society or going to a formal event, are leaning casual. Japanese and Korean women have toned it down a lot in the last decade, but I still see them heading off to Chiang Mai or Cebu in high heels and Vuitton bags. NOT a good idea.
Just take the basics, and in most countries, you’ll be able to pick up what you need unless sizing is a problem. You’ll also be able to complement your wardrobe with some local essentials, like head-covering in some Muslim countries, and a sari or other wrap for visiting spiritual sites in Bali or Thailand.
Finally, and I have little knowledge in this area, but I do know from girlfriends, friends, and my own research that feminine hygiene products and menstruation pose some of the greatest challenges for women travelers. Here in Japan, tampons are uncommon; most women use pads. Some countries may have low-quality or oddly sized products. I’ll leave it at this. This article looks like a superb resource.
Also, look at some of the great theft-proof travel gear such as slash-proof bags and purses, as well as a few sturdy locks for various situations.
Ignore those who tell you not to (unless they’re really smart and experienced)
This last one applies for men and women, but especially for women. Your mom or grandma will tell you it’s not proper or safe for women to travel alone. Your older brother will tell you horror stories. Your coworkers will say how scary it is, while referring to a singular crime some years ago in your destination. People will imply you’re weird, a loner, will never meet a good man, will turn into Amanda Knox.
Ignore the naysayers and judge for yourself. Be smart, savvy, and independent.
You go, girl.