A lot of people are impressed by the fact that I often travel alone. When I was in Hawaii, I was treated like a mystical unicorn. People were awed. “You’re travelling alone?!” they’d inquire, mouths slack in incomprehensive. “Isn’t it dangerous?!” I never really understood that. I mean, I do a lot of things alone. I grocery shop alone, I pay my bills alone, I walk to the gym alone. I sleep alone (#ForeverAlone). Travel is pretty much as natural as all those things.
But I get it. It’s intimidating. Even if you’re not a woman, being on your own in a foreign country can be scary. And I’d be lying if I said I were totally comfortable doing it all the time. But then again, being heckled by men on the streets in Berlin has never really felt any different than being heckled by men on the streets in St. John’s (Canada).
I’d also be lying if I said I always enjoyed it. Mostly I travel alone because I don’t have much of a choice. I love people; most experiences I prefer to be shared. If I didn’t travel alone, I’d simply never travel. And that’s not an option.
I’m no expert. No one ever is. So I’ll tell you about solo female travel from my own personal experiences. (Full disclosure: I didn’t travel until I was 21, I grew up in a town of 1000 people, I have extreme anxiety, and I lack any common sense. If I can do this, you absolutely can do this.)
BOOKING FLIGHTS AND TRANSPORTATION
All I can tell you about booking flights or bus/train journeys is that it’s wise to schedule your arrival time for early in the morning or afternoon. I made this mistake in Athens. It was my first real long-term solo mission, and I showed up dizzy and disoriented at 11 PM. I got into a taxi and not knowing a word of Greek, handed a note to the driver with the address written down…in English. We got lost. I was convinced he was going to murder me. I was in a strange city, alone, at night, with absolutely no way to contact anyone.
The driver actually ended up turning off the meter and helping me find my hostel, carried my bags, and shook my hand when he left. First lesson: most people are GOOD people.
But it was a poor move on my behalf. If it were daylight, I’d have a better sense about where we were going. I could have taken the public transit, but it was shut down after such a late hour.
Conversely, sometimes the MUCH cheaper flights or travel options have late arrival times. Marked taxis are your friends, in this case. Never ever get in an unmarked taxi.
This differs per location too. A quick Google search will tell you what the local taxi companies are like. Typically, taxis at airports are legit. Most airports are strict about that sort of thing. But just in case, do a little research.
I’ve also used Uber countless times. I find it always safe and reliable, and the convenience of booking a cab through the app is just priceless. If you haven’t used Uber before, you can travel with my promo code (candicew96) and use it to get your first ride worth CA$20 for free.
KNOWING THE LANGUAGE
You don’t need to know a lot to get around. If you’re reading this, you likely speak English anyway, and most places in the world embrace English these days (a sad but convenient reality). But you should never take this for granted, and it’s certainly a matter of respect.
Most guidebook companies have small pocketbook language guides. But if you’re travelling light, a smartphone app is the way to go. Google Translate is excellent, but not available offline. There’s not a particular app that I use per destination I travel to, but a quick search for “French English dictionary” or “Spanish English dictionary” (etc.) will give you a ton of options, and most of them are free. Make sure it includes words and phrases for greetings, emergency help, and directions.
There are very few accommodations I’ve stayed in where I didn’t feel safe and secure. Reading reviews is your friend! That’s where you’ll find the most honest feedback. Major third-party booking sites like Booking.com and TripAdvisor.com will always offer reviews.
Hotels, obviously, are most secure (when they’re actually decent hotels). Staying in motels gives me the heebie geebies, so I just don’t do that. But hotels aren’t a great option for when you’re travelling alone and looking to meet people, so I highly recommend hostels. Even if sharing a dorm isn’t your thing, you can often book privates for quite cheap. Some quick research about the hotel will tell you whether or not it’s a big party hostel – party hostels always tend to be less secure than quieter ones.
I almost always book accommodations near the centre of town. Sometimes this is much more expensive, but I like knowing I’m close to a lot of activity and can easily get out and find help if I have to (I never have).
So what about other hosting sites like Airbnb and Couchsurfing? These are great options if you’ve outgrown hostels but still want to socialize. Unfortunately there’s no real way to guarantee your safety there. But I’ve used both services many times (and others, like Flipkey) and have never had any problems whatsoever. I’ve had so many good experiences with my hosts, like having my Greek “mother” in Chios take me around the island and treat me to frappe, and partying with some Galway boys while Couchsurfing.
My rule of thumb: Book accommodations with at LEAST five reviews. Read those reviews. I might aim for a higher number of reviews if it’s Couchsurfing. Chatting with your host will give you a really great idea of who is behind the computer screen as well (although not always, so don’t depend on this). Ask lots of questions.
Sites like Airbnb and Couchsurfing do a LOT to ensure the safety of their guests. And if you sign up to Airbnb with this link, you’ll get a discount off your next booking.
I haven’t done any volunteer programs other than WWOOF, so I’m not much of an authority there.
WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) was an excellent experience in Greece. Farms that partner with WWOOF have to go through a screening process, and guests are allowed to write reviews. I haven’t used HelpX yet, but I plan on doing so in the near future. I’ve already begun filtering through reviews. And believe me, people are honest when it comes to shitty experiences.
BOOKING GROUP TOURS
I’ve done many small group tours now over the years. If you’re hesitant to get started on your own, group tours are the very best way to get accustomed to a place. You’ll have a knowledgeable guide lead you by the hand, and you’ll be surrounded by lovely people (hopefully).
Tours I love:
- Contiki tours (use code use promo code PPCCWALSH, you’ll get $100 off any Contiki trip 7 days or longer.)
- Med Experience tours
- The Yacht Week
- Trek America
Just bloody do it. That’s all.
Bring a book or magazine if you feel weird about it. I guarantee no one cares.
These apply to everyone.
- Give your parents (or loved ones) the contact info of everywhere you’ll be staying
- Be aware of cultural differences (it doesn’t help to stand out in a crowd)
- Get rid of those headphones – stay alert
- Keep some emergency contact numbers in your phone (911 isn’t the same overseas!)
- Photocopy your passport info
- Carry a whistle attached to a keychain
COUNTRIES I FELT SAFE IN
All of them, basically.
The other countries listed on my Places page are all also extremely safe (but I didn’t do them alone). The only times I felt a little wary (due to cat calling) were in El Salvador and Guatemala. But I met solo female travellers in those places as well, and they fared fine.
OTHER SOLO FEMALE TRAVEL INSPIRATIONS
There are many of us! We form a wide posse of well-travelled women who don’t let misconceptions hold us back. Some of my favourites:
- Legal Nomads
- A Little Adrift
- A Dangerous Business
- Jessie on a Journey
- Twenty-Something Travel
- Breathe Dream Go
- Seattle’s Travels
- Young Adventuress
- Girl vs Globe
If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Fear should never be a factor in holding you back.