Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Taking the Plunge: How women can be safe while traveling solo

This was a piece I commisioned for an online travel mag. Sadly, it took awhile for things to get running and now the mag is no more. So I figured, why let a perfectly good article go to waste:

Say you’ve always wanted to backpack around Spain but no one wants to come with you. Not a problem, you like challenges and the independence, you’ll travel alone. You’ve met other people who have done the same and they’ve said it’s nothing short of being the most rewarding thing they have ever done for themselves.

You’ve checked out where you want to go, decided against an organized tour and plotted out your transportation. You have your visas (if needed) and have packed your bags. You’re ready to take the plunge. But before you step on that plane, ask yourself this: do you know how to keep you and your belongings safe while traveling? If the answer’s no, you need to listen up.

While men travel solo all the time without many difficulties, women have to take extra precautions. It’s a dangerous world out there, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. You don’t walk by yourself in bad neighborhoods at night, do you? Don’t assume it’s going to be any safer out there, no matter where you go.

Always check out a hotel before you stay in it

This may not be the most convenient method, especially if you need to make reservations ahead of time. If that is the case, make sure to ask the manager how secure the hotel or hostel is. Is there a key to your room? Sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many hostels don’t have locks on the doors. Make sure you aren’t on the ground floor. The ground floor is the easiest way to break into the hotel. If you want to be extra cautious, you can request that you be put down as a male occupant. Another great idea is getting a portable door alarm, which you can get from any travel store. Sort of an electronic version of cans behind the door.

Before I travel, I like to look up my hotel/hostel picks on the Internet. On sites such as and, each accommodation has personal reviews from travelers and is rated accordingly. These are a great help when it comes to gauging the quality and security in each place.

Read up

Look at any recent travel books, magazine articles or government issued warnings that may pertain to your local of interest. The Net is a great place to search for current issues of your destination’s newspapers, and most sites have online translators. If there is a rapist prowling the streets around your future hotel, you need to know this! For up to date warnings issued for each country, check out the government’s website:

Personally, I like to take people’s opinions with a grain of salt. If a government has issued a warning about a certain city, then by all means you should heed that warning. However, I would take some caution when listening to your grandmother tell you that the Russian Mafia is going to kidnap you while on a ferry to Tallin, Estonia. Everyone’s perceptions of danger and security are different. If you really want to visit a place you have been warned about, keep your wits about you and don’t let other people’s opinions colour the way you view the world. Keep an open mind, and most of the time you’ll be pleasantly relieved.

Be prepared for any unwanted attention

Foreign women are very attractive to certain men in all parts of the world. The stereotype is Italy, of course, but you can find yourself subject to catcalls, whistles and harassment in so-called “safe” places such as Berlin, Helsinki, even London. Some women find that their light skin or hair can cause such problems. If you are heading to a place such as the Middle East, Turkey and even parts of South America, it may be wise to color your hair darker. Then again, harassment from men doesn’t always happen to pale, blonde women. When you travel, it’s usually obvious you are a tourist. Covering up skin helps tremendously, as does wearing less make-up and dressing as the local women do. Another trick is to wear a fake wedding band. This comes in handy in predominantly Catholic regions, where marriage is considered sacred. If all else fails, just ignore them. Don’t answer back or get mad. This just fuels the fire. Of course if the problem escalates, yelling “fire” or “police” in the local language should do the trick.

I have been “harassed” on many levels, from being picked up by a Tunisian man outside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, to being followed by pesky eight-year-old children outside the Moulin Rouge. Trust your instincts. I knew the children were not much of threat, no matter how unnerving the experience was. However, when you are confronted with a man that just won’t take no for an answer, no matter how many times you tell him that you are waiting for your “husband,” keep safe and get out. Even if climbing the towers of the Notre Dame is your only means of escape.

Keep your stuff safe

Many hotels and hostels have safes or lockers. I highly recommend using them, even if there is a fee involved. Money belts and leg wallets are extremely helpful and I wouldn’t travel without one. In the event that you are robbed or pick-pocketed, you’ll know that your passport and important documents are safe. When you aren’t using your passport, keeping in a safe is a good idea, as long as you trust the person who operates it. When it comes to theft from your luggage, locks on your bags can stop sticky fingers from going through your personal belongings, though they won’t stop a determined thief from getting through. There are new locks out there that airport officials are able to open, if this is a concern. When traveling it’s recommended that you carry a long chain or cable lock, so that you can secure your bags to your seat or bed. Some people feel safest if they sleep with their bags, though there may not always be room. And of course, never leave your bag unattended and never ask someone to watch it. It may be the last time you see it.

Theft doesn’t just stop at your luggage and other important items. It’s the little things that get nicked too, and usually those are the ones that annoy you the most. I’ve put laundry out to dry on a clothes wire, only to have my favorite shirt gone when I got back. I’ve had low-fat and low-taste cheese stolen out of a hostel’s communal fridge. I think the thief probably regretted that one. The point here is, keep an eye on all of your stuff, all the time. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Listen to your mother

Don’t carry around an expensive-looking bag. Don’t wear precious jewelry or carry a shiny new camera around your neck. Don’t flash money, passports and credit cards around. Always let someone know where you are going. Make sure you write down all the correct addresses and dates. Double-check and reconfirm everything. When in doubt, trust your instincts. And remember, you don’t have to lose your common sense in order to have the trip of your life.

4 said they wanna go too:

Anonymous MaryBeth wanderlusted...

Ha! I remember traveling in India by myself. I hired a cycle rickshaw driver to take me through the old markets in Delhi. When we got to the spice market, we had to ditch the rickshaw and go by foot. Before we set out, my driver made sure that all of my belongings were as secure as possible - camera around my neck and tucked discreetly under my arm, nothing in my pockets (most of my cash was in my leg pouch, spending money in an inside zippered pants pocket). We had a fascinating walk through the spice stalls, down some strange alleys that I never would have found on my own. When we emerged an hour later, everything was intact....though I discovered that my (not expensive) sunglasses were missing. Nicked right off the top of my head!

7:26 PM  
Blogger Georgie said wanderlusted...

I know I'm so excited about FNM! It's going to be amazing... they are doing a few concerts all over Europe, and even in the UK but my friends and me thought it was a good idea to travel abroad for the weekend.
Are they not doing any US concerts? That seems so strange. I love mike patton also, I went to the all tomorrows parties fantomas festival before christmas. He was amazing as always.

3:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous wanderlusted...

awesome article

9:35 AM  
Blogger Alice wanderlusted...

i didn't know this blog was back up and running! i had checked on it occasionally back when i first started reading your other blog, but hey look! it's all regularly-posted-on again!

although, it's going to make me INSANE reading about awesome places that i'm not currently going to every day.... ;-)

12:16 PM  

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