How to stay safe when you travel alone

 

Kathmandu ambassadors Alesha and Jarryd are professional photographers, writers and founders of adventure travel blog NOMADasaurus. They’ve been exploring the world together since 2008, searching for culture and adventure in off-the-beaten-path destinations.


 

While both men and women should follow the below tips and be aware of their surroundings when they travel, women's experiences when abroad are often quite different to those of men, who often don't have to even consider some things that women do when travelling. In an interview with the New York Times, executive director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, said that they had clear evidence that women "face risks that men don’t face in public spaces, at home, wherever they may be." 

The surge of solo travel's popularity for women in particular is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Here are a few statistics that highlight how travel patterns are fundamentally shifting for women:

1. Google searches for ‘solo women travel’ increased by 32% in 2017, 59% in 2018 and 230% in 2019.

2. A booking.com survey of female travellers found that "...a third say they actually prefer to be alone when traveling and almost 20% say they want to take a solo backpacking trip or gap year." 

3. In 2018, 70% of passengers on Intrepid Travel’s US trips travelled on their own.

4. A 2018 global survey by British Airways of 9,000 women found that more than 50 percent had taken a solo vacation.

What is driving this huge shift? Lower airfares, the influence of social media, supporting blogs and websites, shifts in societal norms back at home, an increased emphasis on travel in younger generations compared to previous decades...the list goes on. The Solo Travel Society conducted a Facebook survey of its female members, with 46% saying "freedom, independence and the chance to do what they want when they want" drove solo travel. 

While there are more statistics than you could ever need documenting attitudes and behaviours for women when they travel, there is very little collated or accessible information about how safe women are when they are overseas, as many countries do not have systems for tracking violence against female travellers, but there is no reason why you should be dissuaded from travelling alone as a man or a woman. Preparation and awareness are the best things an individual traveller can practice to stay safe. Adopting some of the below tips can help you keep that balance between spontaneity and freedom in your travel and remaining safe and confident throughout your trip.

Arrive during daylight hours

Whether it's a plane, bus or train, it's generally safer to arrive at a new destination during the day when there are more people around.

Of course, there is something great about arriving at a place at night and waking up to a new destination. Do your homework before you arrive, learn some phrases that will help you get to your accommodation and be prepared to ask for help. Staff at restaurants, bars, and cafes will be helpful and you may even find yourself dragged in for a celebratory drink before you head off again on your journey to the hostel.

If you want to arrive at night or have no choice, set aside enough money in your budget to get a taxi from the station/airport to your accommodation. Ask someone behind a desk, such as a ticket counter or hire-care service, about where exactly to get a taxi and what they should look like. It is very common in many stations and airports for there to be unlicensed drivers, who often make up fares or judge travellers to see how much they can charge. While you shouldn't inherently distrust everyone you meet, a few questions to people behind a desk can save you a headache later on.

Check accommodation reviews

If you want to be sure your accommodation is safe, make sure its reviews are consistently strong. For staying with companies like AirBnB, look for hosts that have achieved certain certification and be aware of how clear they are in their guest directions when you book. Some women may feel inclined to book only with female hosts. 

Jot down in-country emergency numbers

Make a quick note of the local emergency number in your phone. This is particularly important if you plan on driving any vehicles (including scooters) hiking, camping, or accessing more remote locations. 

Download a map to your phone.

Getting lost is part of the fun, but solo travellers should have a little backup. Maps.me is a free app that allows you to download and access detailed maps for most regions across the world. You'll only need Wifi for the initial country download, but from there you won't need any data.

Google Maps also allows you to download maps for offline use for many countries and cities (but not all). With this tool, you can often travel without any data by simply relying on wifi. Your blue dot on Google Maps remains updated, even when offline, which is handy in a place like the old Medina in Marrakesh. 

Woman sitting on boat and taking a photographWoman sitting on boat and taking a photograph
Woman climbing stairs in ColumbiaWoman climbing stairs in Columbia

Research your destination

This is the most important point and frees you up to remain spontaneous in your travels by being aware of the cultures and practices of various destinations. Be aware of any local scams and any areas that are considered 'high risk'. This may impact where you choose to stay and how you get around. Government websites are a good place to start for up-to-date information, but spend a few hours reading firsthand travel advice from fellow solo travellers and/or expats in your current destination. If you're staying in a hostel, strike up a conversation with other guests to find out what to be aware of, areas to stick clear of, or to even team up with people to explore. 

Write down your address

Before you arrive somewhere new, write down the name and address of your accommodation and keep it on you at all times. It's key information for your customs declaration card, the cab driver taking you to your destination, or if you just forget (easy to do when you're always on the move!).

Research women's groups and companies

An amazing result of a growth in solo travel has been the growth of communities, organisations and companies that support travel for women. Of course, this only suits people who are looking for a group to travel with, but it can be a good way of breaking up solo travel. 

Use information-sharing apps

If you can think of it, there is an app for it. Many travel apps aim to connect you with like-minded travellers, which is fine unless you want to continue to travel solo. The main things you should look for is an app that helps you easily communicate with authorities and family/friends as well as apps that provide information about locations (i.e. where to stay, great places to eat as a solo traveller etc.) Of course, definitely download Flush, a global toilet finder. Or maybe don't. Everyone should have a story of trying to find a toilet while travelling, and it usually ends memorably.

There isn't a clear leader in terms of any apps that provide reviews and tips by actual travellers, so remember that nothing beats asking locals at your destination, as the conversations you have with people will form some of the strongest memories and connections from your trips.

Stay connected

Bring an unlocked mobile phone on your travels so you can touch base with friends, family, and other travellers you meet along the way. Sim cards are usually easy to acquire and data/SMS plans can be very affordable overseas. Some plans offer unlimited access to social apps like Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, so you can still leave digital breadcrumbs for your whereabouts.

Let someone know of your movements

If you want to rely on the Wifi (or just want to spend less time on your phone) register your plans with someone back home. If you already know your travel itinerary, send your list of dates and/or countries to a family member and/or register your travel plans online in case of emergencies.

Know where your embassy is located

Your local embassy is one of your most important resources in case of anything going wrong with your travels. They often carry a lot of diplomatic weight with local authorities and can have your concerns escalated where they may otherwise have been delayed or ignored. 

Organise important travel documents before you go

For peace of mind, make copies of your important travel documents like your passport, travel insurance and flight details. You should print physical copies for yourself, upload the digital copies to the cloud, and pass them on to someone you trust back home. In the unlikely event your bag is stolen, damaged or lost, you'll always have the information you need.


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