Travelling to a foreign country alone can be daunting, but it is probably one of the most valuable things you will ever do. It is scary, exciting, takes guts and is unforgettable. Travel always changes you, travelling alone changes you even more. It may be by choice or by circumstance, but either way, it is an experience of a lifetime. Below is a simple guide of travelling solo as a woman – especially if you intend on travelling to a country that is off the beaten track!
We live in a scary world. Before venturing out, find out risks involved with travelling to a particular country alone. While no country is completely safe, some are riskier than others. You may want to go with some friends if you find out that the country you have in mind is generally known to be dangerous for women alone. Always factor in language barriers when choosing a destination, this could make or break it for you. Spend some time looking through blogs and travel websites and research wisely. Better yet, ask around on Facebook if anyone has recently travelled to this country. Trust people you know over randoms on the internet.
Once you’ve picked a destination, start planning your logistics. I’m talking visas, I’m talking flights, I’m talking accommodation. While it is definitely adventurous to arrive at a place without knowing where you’re going to stay, if you’re alone – this is dumb. Book at least one or two nights in advance. You can move once you get familiar with the place (or stay if you absolutely love it). Choose something “touristy” to begin with. You will only know how much you can “rough it out” once you arrive. No amount of research can prepare you for the reality of a place.
A question I always get asked is hostel v hotel v AirBnb v couch surfing. I advise against couch surfing as a matter of safety and hostels as a matter of privacy (and general cleanliness). As for AirBnb, I use it often but only in places where it is established and is a thing. Always check out the neighborhoods – I’ve stayed at great apartments but in less than ideal areas (either not safe or very far from public transport).
Remember two things when picking a place to stay:
- If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is
- You know what you can handle – don’t be fussed about what others have done/said. If an above average hotel is the only way for you – go forth.
And always budget for an emergency accommodation situation in case you need to move out because the neighborhood is dangerous or your room is infested with roaches.
From the airport:
If you’re arriving during the daytime, it’s easier as public transport may be an option and generally the more people around, the better. If however, you are arriving at night, start planning how you will get to your hotel/hostel/Airbnb. If your destination has Uber/Lyft it’s less complicated. If not, you don’t want to be a foreign woman alone haggling for a taxi at an airport in the wee hours of the morning.
What to do:
Everyone likes to travel differently. Some have long lists of main attractions they absolutely must see, others want to avoid the tourist trap completely. Personally, I like to do the in between so I do the following:
Spend one or two days following guidebooks – this means being ripped off, standing in long queues and seeing the “lite” version of a city/country.
One of the main reasons I like doing this kind of thing at the beginning of a trip is because there is a big chance you will meet other travellers with whom to spend the next few days exploring. Just because you’re doing a solo trip doesn’t mean you need to be alone all the time.
You could meet other solo travellers and interesting people which is great because, trust me, eating alone day in and day out gets boring very quickly.
Once you’ve seen what the masses have seen – explore a bit more. Go beyond the “Top 10” lists. At first this can be daunting, so I’ll break it down into simple phases:
Baby steps – this is the phase where you create your “own” tour instead of going with a group. It could also be the phase where you choose the lesser known option when given a few.
For example: a city is famous for its hot springs – instead of going to the one rated the highest on TripAdvisor, choose an alternate one instead. I’m not saying choose some underground place – I’m just saying don’t go for the most popular choice.
This is the phase where you are comfortable going to places and doing things where it is not guaranteed that people will speak English. It’s trying actual local cuisine, hanging out with other young people, finding out more about the politics and culture of a place.
This is when you are ready to go where no foreigner has gone before. It basically means befriending locals. If you speak the language and make friends easily – it’s a piece of cake. If not, you will have to put in more work and if you’re only staying for a couple of days it may be impossible. It may take many trips and many trials to get to Phase 3 – so don’t expect it to happen immediately.
But how do I even find these places?
- AskingTalk to people who have travelled to this place or know someone who has. People are your biggest resource – ask, ask, ask.
Don’t expect to figure out a place all on your own. Facebook is a great place for recommendations – usually you know someone who knows someone…
- Speaking to locals/expatsIf you are put in touch with locals or long-term expats, you will no doubt get unique insight into the best things to do, best places to eat and what to experience.
- InstagramIt’s not just a place for selfies! Search for photos hashtagged with your destination and look at the locations mentioned at the top. Once you have some names you can research further. Honestly, this is a free and super up to date resource, plus the photos can often tell you if it’s your vibe or not.
Travel with all the things you need in case you get your period. You’ll be surprised at how hard it can be to find what you are looking for if you are somewhere new and you don’t speak the language. Note too that some places have such weird taboos on women getting their period so people (read: men) will be shifty and uncomfortable. So be prepared. And remember that travel can make you get your period at odd times and pain could also be different – so carry your magnesium or ibuprofen with you.
A word on toilets: if you are going to a place where flat toilets are the norm, overcome your fear and just use them. In my experience the flat toilets are usually cleaner than that one lone high/Western toilet that hardly ever gets cleaned because no one uses it.
Check in with someone:
If you’re very active on social media this may be redundant, but it is always a good idea to check in with someone every so often. Just let them know you’re okay and inform them of your movements. Make sure someone reliable knows which city you are in at any given time.
Local breakfast: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve lived for hotel breakfasts, but if you’re staying at a hotel make sure to skip it at least one day and have local breakfast. It could be coffee and a pastry, tea and something savory – but being out very early and grabbing a quick breakfast is a great way to start your day and enjoy the local flavors.
Read: Every place has its literary hero – poet, playwright, novelist. I like to read novels set in a place before arriving because nothing brings the nuances of a city to life like the words of its designated narrator. Be it Orhan Pamuk for Istanbul or Bret Easton Elis for Los Angeles, you will uncover hidden gems in these writings. As a bonus, it’s a great conversation starter – people are usually impressed when you’ve taken a genuine interest in their culture.
Phrases: Of course we’re not all polyglots, but we can all learn a phrase or two of the local language. Do it – it will humble you and it is helpful.
Write: It may be old fashioned, but write down what you want to do and make notes once when you’ve done them. They needn’t be for anyone but you. Trust me, you won’t regret this.
From Marrakech to Manhattan, every place you go to has pervy men. It is a sad and brutal reality, so make sure you have some idea of emergency numbers should you be in danger. I have not yet visited a city where there was no catcalling, staring and the like – so don’t judge an entire country based on gross men. Always remember that as a solo female traveller, you will inevitably attract attention. This means you have to be extra cautious when walking alone at night etc. Ask locals about areas before venturing out there by yourself. If you feel someone is following you, go into a shop or restaurant immediately. Don’t be manipulated by men saying things like “I just want to talk” or “Why are you scared?”
If you feel uncomfortable – get out of there. This brings me to my next point:
Trust your gut!
If something feels dodgy, chances are it is. If you feel something isn’t right – it isn’t.
I’m a big advocate of taking advice from seasoned travellers and locals, but even if you have been assured that a certain place/activity is safe for you, if you arrive and feel differently – go with that.
I simply cannot stress this point enough. You have intuition – use it.
Travel Kit Essentials:
These are the 5 things I never travel without:
Comfortable walking shoes: Shoes that you can wear anywhere, everywhere and in any weather. Invest in good shoes – so basic, but so crucial.
Lavender oil: used for burns, as insect repellent, for breakouts or if you have a headache.
Leather jacket: any climate, any place.
Pashmina: used to pray on, as a neck scarf, a shawl if it gets cold or just to make an outfit look prettier.
Battery bank: your phone is your camera, GPS, translator, note-taker so having a dead phone is not an option.
Travelling solo above all else, gives you a chance to explore your own limits, likes and dislikes and forces you to go beyond any preconceived notion of yourself that you may have had. You will learn invaluable lessons and by virtue of being alone, your immersion into the wonders of a new place will be that much more rich. There is, however, a downside – once you’ve done it, you will want to do it again and again…