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Women Travelling Alone: The Good, The Bad & The Things No-one Tells You


February 12th, 2014Travel, Gap Year, Culture
By Jemma Dicks

Women travelling alone

Image courtesy of Kieran Maartens

As a kid, I used to be obsessed with a Nickelodeon cartoon called The Wild Thornberrys, in which a family travelled all over the world in a mobile home. By the age of 14 I had already decided that I was going to travel as soon as I finished school.

Fast forward four years and, at 18, I was one of the few in my school year group taking a gap year before heading to university.

To my parents’ alarm, I announced that I was planning a solo round-the-world trip starting in Africa. Shortly after, I boarded a flight to Namibia and began my adventure. Since then, the travel bug has never left me.

When reflecting on my travels, people often remark on how brave I was to travel alone as a young, blonde female. In all honesty, bravery had nothing to do with it and pure determination had everything to do with it. I wanted to go travelling and, whilst it would have been nice to travel with somebody, none of my friends had the funds or the time to join me. There was just no way that I was going to let that stop me.

Nevertheless, travelling alone as a female can be a daunting prospect. After reading some of the advice and safety tips out there, you could be put off travelling altogether. All too often this advice has been given by somebody who has never visited the destination they are offering advice on.

The advantage of working for an organisation like Projects Abroad is that you are surrounded by people who have travelled all over the world. I have spoken to a number of female colleagues who have experience of travelling solo to find out what their tips and advice would be. I’ve also added a few of my own tips too.

Trekking to Machu Picchu

Image courtesy of Suzi Lamb

What to pack?

I always make sure I take a small pot of nice skin cream (good for if I get sunburnt!), good walking shoes, and a small fold away raincoat.

A sarong is also great for covering shoulders when necessary, using as a pillow, using as a blanket, covering up a bad hair day and also, in dire emergencies, using as a towel!

I have found that products such as antiperspirant deodorant, sun cream and insect repellent are sometimes unavailable or very expensive in developing countries.

For really extreme trips, I usually take a water bottle with a built in purifier/filter so that I can literally drink from a muddy river if necessary and the water will be automatically purified.

I also carry a spare set of clothing in my hand luggage as my baggage has been mis-placed on many occasions and I have had to go without luggage for the first few days of whichever adventure I was embarking on.

Dry shampoo, head scarf, hand sanitiser and mouth wash are my key items that travel everywhere with me.

A small torch is often useful if staying in a country that has power cuts, I made the mistake of thinking the torch app on my IPhone would do the trick, forgetting that I would be unable to charge the phone without power. The IPhone battery does not last long!

In less-developed countries toiletries can be expensive (as they are considered luxury imported items) or hard to come by. My two essentials to pack would always be sun block and tampons. The latter is not always easy to get hold of in some countries, especially if you go off the beaten track.

Travelling in Ethiopia

Image courtesy of Sarah Bradford

What to wear?

Make the effort to dress appropriately in order to respect the local culture and avoid attracting unwanted attention. This is particularly important in conservative countries, and certainly advice that I followed in Nepal and Egypt.

Buy some clothes from a local market whist travelling. It’s harder to stand out if you’re wearing similar clothes to the locals. An added bonus is that no one back home will have the same outfit!

When visiting certain temples in countries like Thailand and Cambodia, you need to dress conservatively with shoulders and knees covered. Loose, smock style shirts with sleeves just above or below the elbow are really useful for throwing on in these kinds of situations.

Where to stay?

I’ve always slept in mixed dorms in hostels and this has always been fine in terms of safety and feeling comfortable.

When travelling alone, I always opt for shared dorms in hostels. Backpackers tend to look out for each other, so as well as having a perfect opportunity to meet new people and potential travel companions; you also have the security of safety in numbers.

Regardless of whether I’m travelling solo or with a friend, staying in a shared dorm or in a private room, I always like to make sure that there is a secure locker in which I can padlock my valuables.

Solo travel in Australia

Image courtesy of Jemma Dicks

How to behave?

I’m aware that telling women how they should ‘behave’ abroad could be perceived as sexist. In an ideal world, there should be no reason for women to behave in a certain way solely because of their gender. However, whether you like it or not, in many countries women travelling alone receive significantly more attention than male travellers.

As far as I’m concerned, I enjoy travelling and if there are things I could do to make my life a little easier, then I’m all for giving it a go.

This is what our female travellers had to say on the subject:

I don’t think lone females stand out as much as they used to. I do think that for any traveller, female or not, it’s important to enjoy yourself but to be cautious. Try to blend in as much as possible and respect how women behave in different destinations. You would not find a local female walking home alone from a club at 3am in Tanzania, so don’t do it yourself regardless of whether you would back home!

In some countries, you will find that a lot of people stare at you. This is usually because they are not used to seeing females travelling alone. Don’t feel intimidated. Most of the time they are just curious so just smile back and keep walking. In some countries however, smiling at a man can be seen as an invitation so it’s worth doing a little reading up on the country before you arrive.

In some countries, such as India, it is unusual for women to openly drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes in public. Of course it’s up to you whether or not you choose to do this but, by being discreet, you could avoid the disapproving stares.

Public transport in Mozambique

Travelling on public transport

If I ever take a sleeper train, I always make sure I sleep on the top bunk. When sleeping on the bottom bunk passengers, often men, occasionally stop and stare at you and sometimes even touch your legs when you are sleeping. On the top bunk you are out of the way.

Personally, I really like having the chance to talk to local people on public transport. For me, in Latin America or francophone Africa it's a great opportunity to practise your French or Spanish skills and actually find out about the people in the country you're travelling through.

I would recommend always trying to learn at least a few words of the local language. Even in countries where I only know two or three phrases, 'hello', 'thank you' and 'how are you?' are enough to build a bond and share laughs at your terrible attempts to pronounce them.

On public transport, especially for long journeys, if possible sit yourself next to another female. This will avoid the unwanted and endless questioning from men about where your husband is!

I will usually take a book, IPod or journal on long journeys. As well as passing the time, it also tends to act as a deterrent to anybody who would otherwise bombard you with questions.

In India, I found that this trick didn’t work quite as well as in other countries, so I resorted to replying to people in Spanish. Even the most persistent soon gave up!

Keeping safe

When walking around I normally take a bag which I can put over my shoulder and on the side – I always get paranoid that things can easily be taken out of a backpack unless it’s padlocked. If it’s over your shoulder then it’s less likely that someone will try and take it. I also tend to keep some cash on my person just in case my bag was to be stolen.

Always make sure you arrive in a new town when it’s still daylight. It makes finding your hostel/hotel/restaurant so much easier and you’ll generally feel a lot safer and more confident.

In terms of safety, in over 15 years of travelling alone for work and pleasure, I’ve never had a bad experience, never had anything stolen or been robbed. Trust your instincts, act confidently and take sensible precautions as you would anywhere.

I’m generally a pretty confident traveller but I’m very distrustful of taxi drivers, though I’ve not had any bad experience to warrant this. Nevertheless, I will never hail a taxi in the street. I will only ever take a taxi that I have ordered through a hostel or hotel.

Don’t keep all of your money in the same place. Keep a spare credit card and some cash in a locked backpack in your hostel. This way, if you are pickpocketed, you will still have immediate access to money.

Check out my previous blog post for tips on what to do if you lose your passport and/or money whilst overseas.

Rock climbing in Thailand

Where to travel and where to avoid?

This is the section in which you would usually expect to find a list of dangerous countries that you should avoid at all costs.

A couple of years back, I spent a few weeks travelling around Colombia, a country with a notorious reputation. Various friends and family members were convinced they would never see me again.

As it happens, I found Colombia to be extremely safe, breathtakingly beautiful and the locals both welcoming and friendly.

Similarly, in the past year India has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons and females are often advised against travelling there alone. I, however, experienced nothing more traumatic than a request to sing the English national anthem.

For every bad experience had in a country, somebody else will have had a good one. For this reason, I am not going to advise against travelling to any country. Travel with an open mind and don’t let other people’s fears worry you. Generally speaking, any destination that is safe for a male traveller should be fine for you provided you use your common sense and listen to the advice of locals.

The FCO provides further travel advice to UK citizens travelling abroad. It’s worth checking this out before heading overseas.

Hanging out with the locals

Advantages of travelling solo

You meet a lot of new people and given that it is more unusual to see women travelling alone, people are more interested to listen to your stories and get to know you. I have also found that people are always happy to stop and help you, give you directions and advice.

As a woman travelling alone, I’ve always found it very easy to meet people to hang out with and people do look out for you. There are always lots of other women on their own to hang out with if this makes you feel safer.

Travelling solo is probably the most sociable thing I’ve ever done. It’s also one of the most liberating and empowering ways to travel.

Travelling solo gives you opportunities to spend time with local people that you may not have otherwise. I’ve been invited to join family meals, attend a traditional Togolese funeral and, during my Central America trip, I ended up living and working with four Mexican biologists on a turtle project on Oaxaca beach for a month. There was only room for one extra person to stay with them. If I’d been with friends there’s no way I’d have ended up having that amazing experience.

Travelling alone in Argentina

Image courtesy of Jemma Dicks

Final words of advice

I’ve always found when travelling as a lone female that there are far more women travelling alone than men. I think we are fast becoming the more intrepid sex! It is no more dangerous out there for women than it is for men, so use common sense and trust your gut instincts – they are normally right!

There are huge parts of the world, where you only need to be alone if you choose to be. Travelling alone in Guatemala for a few weeks, I found that you’d either meet people on the bus, or as soon as you got to the next hostel. It’s one of the most satisfying things to do; walking into the communal area of a hostel, approaching a group of people, and asking if you can join them – the answer has always been a friendly and welcoming ‘yes’.

Trust your instincts, respect customs and enjoy yourself. Be aware of your surroundings, but avoid being over cautious - you can miss out on so much if you assume everyone is out to get you.

Have you travelled solo? If so, do you agree with our tips or have any of your own to add? Are you planning on travelling on your own for the first time? Did you find this blog useful? Leave your comments below.

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