It’s been a shitty couple of weeks for the solo female travel community. In a short amount of time, we lost two of our wanderlusting sisters who were doing exactly what we love: exploring the world solo. Carla Stefaniak was celebrating her birthday in Costa Rica and Grace Millane was backpacking in New Zealand. Both women were murdered while traveling. As solo female travelers, events like this shake us to our core. It could have been any of us. Neither Costa Rica nor New Zealand are exactly off the beaten path. Nor do either of them carry a reputation as “dangerous.” These are places regularly show up on solo female travelers’ itineraries.
But should this stop us from doing what we love?
Despite what your concerned family and friends believe, I say no. No. Tragedy should not stop our ways of wanderlusting.
I know I am not stopping. I’ve traveled to over 60 countries, the vast majority of them solo. Solo travel is my passion and my lifeblood.
But let’s all real. As women traveling alone, we all need to take precautions. And no, in no way am I saying that what happened to Grace and Carla was their fault. It absolutely was not. They could have taken all the precautions in the world. But Carla and Grace are in the minority, and the vast vast vast majority of solo travelers make it home just fine and ready to start planning their next trip.
I think it’s important to disclose, I’ve been in some dodgy situations myself. We all have. And I will admit that it is a matter of (a lot of) luck that nothing really went further. I was sexually assaulted on a bus in Guatemala. In South Africa, I was abandoned at the infamous Johannesburg bus station for hours, alone. Crossing the border from Zambia into Zimbabwe, a relentless vendor followed me and kept insisting that I pay for his wooden hippo carving with sexual favors. One of my scariest nights ever was at a guesthouse in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where a man repeatedly pounded on my door screaming that I needed to open it. The front desk was very slow to get involved despite repeated phone calls to reception. And those are only a few examples. But for everything shitty that has happened, I have a half million amazing travel stories. So really, the awesome outweighs the sketchy moments when looking at the grand picture.
I’ve been traveling the world solo since I was 15. And now, I am in my early 40s. That is a lot of years of solo country hopping. And yes, I’ve made mistakes. We all have. But I’ve learned a thing or two in my 25+ years of traveling alone as a woman.
Do I drink when I travel alone? Sure. Who doesn’t want to try the local beer in every new country? And then there is the wine in a lot of places I visit (including in the country I am living in, where I am more often than not solo traveling); I do not stay away from the wine. But do I ever get completely shitfaced sloshed when traveling alone? Nope. I make sure I always know exactly where I am, how to get back to where I am staying, and how to call a taxi immediately if need be. Male or female, being completely drunk makes you more of a target, and since that is something I have control over (knowing my limits), I stay alert enough to be able to navigate and get myself back to where I need to be. And if the situation is kind of sketchy, I leave immediately.
Then there is dress. Again, when a woman is sexually assaulted, regardless of what she is wearing, it is never her fault and she is not asking for it. Period. Repeat that over and over if there are any doubts. But there is something to be said for dressing appropriately. Really, it just boils down to a matter of respect for female and male travelers alike. Trotting around certain places in short shorts and a tank top simply is not appropriate. As travelers, it is our responsibility to be respectful guests. Covering up in a more conservative country doesn’t make you a bad feminist, but it makes you a responsible and aware traveler. Plus, blending as much as possible often fends off a good amount of street harassment (not that catcalling and street harassment will ever completely disappear. That is, unfortunately, the world we live in).
You might not consider packing lightly to be a safety tip, but it is. Let me explain why. If you are hauling too much baggage around the world, it does not make you as mobile or as agile. Sometimes it is important to recognize a situation and be able to get out of it immediately, without any hesitation. If you have two big roller bags, a backpack, and a shoulder bag, chances are you will not be able to quickly get away. But with just a backpack and a (very secure) shoulder bag or pouch for your important documents, you can throw the bag on your back and quickly move away. This is something that came later to me as a traveler. I used to be a habitual over packer. These days I prefer carry-on only. It keeps me lightweight and free (and is totally doable, even for multi-month trips with packing cubes).
Some women travel with pepper spray. I do not recommend that, as it could be used as a weapon against you (plus it is illegal in several countries). But there are a few things that you can bring to help stay safe abroad. When I had my terrifying situation in Kuala Lumpur, I wish I had an alarmed door stop on me. I personally don’t have one yet, but I am considering purchasing one for my next big solo adventure. Though it is nice to disconnect, I always carry my phone with some sort of data plan (SIM cards work best for me, but I have an unlocked phone). That way I have access to maps as well as communication with the outside world. If I am in a sketchy situation, I will sometimes send a quick message to a trusted friend just to alert them (and of course, will always keep them updated). On a similar note, I don’t leave home without sharing my travel itinerary with a trusted friend or family member. In the off chance, if I do not show up where I am supposed to, someone back home knows where in the world I am. In countries and cities that are known for street harassment, I sometimes wear a fake (and very cheap) “wedding ring.” While it does not fend off all the unwanted attention, I do sometimes see a difference in the number of catcalls I get when wearing one verses not.
Finally, common sense goes a long way. Couple that with remembering that the vast majority of the world is kind and harmless. Am I saying that solo female travelers need to completely close themselves off and their resting bitch faces 24/7? Nope. I’ve made some wonderful connections with local men and local women alike while traveling. From being invited into locals’ homes to catching a ride with a friendly local family after I missed the last bus back to the airport, traveling is about meeting new people from different parts of the globe. Just always keep your guard up and trust your instinct. Remember, if something just feels wrong about a situation, it probably is.
But bottom line, don’t stop exploring this beautiful planet because of a few horrific events. Don’t let them win and keep you at home.
My name is Karen & travel is not only my passion but also my profession.