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Staying Safe on Travel 5 Tips for Women Traveling Solo: A past tragic murder of two young Argentinian women in an Ecuadorian coastal town raised more questions of women’s safety in traveling abroad in pairs or solo. Having visited 68+ countries and all 50 US states, I have consistently traveled alone around the world since my college days. I have navigated low-grade civil wars, arrived abroad in the midst of serious local quarantines and an unexpected cholera epidemic as well as narrowly escaped being dinner for leering crocodiles in the Zambezi River. My worst mishap to date was being robbed in broad daylight in western Europe by an enterprising gang.
Prior to leaving for India, I thought back on how I have been able to be safe in the past and how I can continue to be safe as a woman traveling solo now. Admittedly, I prefer planning ahead which doesn’t make spontaneity possible. A good compromise? I try to work in free days along with those that are “scheduled” so that once I have arrived and checked out the area I can better decide what to add.
Staying Safe on Travel 5 Tips for Women Traveling Solo:
Some thoughts I have from my past travels:
1. Don’t view events and cultures abroad solely through the lens of your home country. It’s easy to assume that everything that works at home will be the same abroad. Just as I find it can take me the whole trip to learn to turn lights on and open locks the opposite way from home, there are many more subtle differences that if missed can lead to difficult circumstances or unknowingly appearing to disrespect local customs. The consequences will vary depending upon how serious the offense is perceived.
For example, in the US, a woman’s having a friendly chat with a cab driver is not a problem while in the Middle East, that can cause the wrong impression. When I traveled in that region solo, I quickly saw even in the daytime, women were not generally seen alone in coffee shops and restaurants but in pairs. As a result, I made a point of selecting a table right next to other women hoping to signal that I wasn’t looking to find a potential date.
2. Listen to your intuition. Jetlag and unfamiliarity can make it easy to miss warning signs. On my first trip abroad as a camp counselor in the West Indies, I had the opportunity to go with a couple in the middle of the night to a somewhat suspect cultural event. The three of us were supposed to slip away as I was told without letting anyone know that we were going. Always interested in an adventure and learning about authentic local cultures, I initially said I would go. Luckily,I decided not to at the last minutes as it had all the makings of a very unhappy ending.
3. Pay up for safety. Like all solo travelers, controlling costs is important to me while trying to keep quality high. As a result, I have flown Economy on the then-longest non-stop flight in the world from New York to Johannesburg and other long flights from Washington to both Australia and China. I take the savings from the cheaper flights and use it to upgrade where I stay and pay extra for local transportation I can trust. My first priority in picking lodging is finding a hotel or bed and breakfast in a centrally located safe area where there is good transportation and a restaurant onsite and others nearby. Having wandered in the dark side streets of Buenos Aires, getting stuck with no option to eat where you are staying can be the prelude to a perfect storm. I do like the variety of trying local spots but especially if you arrive really late the first night finding out there is nothing to eat can lead anyone to making bad choices foraging around aimlessly.
It is important, if possible, to arrive in daytime and depending on the destination/time of day to have a pickup at the airport arranged. I recommend emailing the place where you are staying to get their recommendations. I found in the 1990’s in South Africa and in HCMC/Saigon, Vietnam in 2015, that only specific cab companies were recommended as safe. Although I use Uber and Lyft at home, I would want to check out such ridesharing ahead of time before jumping in with both feet.
Don’t overlook your return. In arriving home from Moscow in the middle of the night, I had arranged an airport shuttle at Washington’s Dulles International airport, Dulles. To my surprise, when my flight was late, the shuttle left without me, and there was no taxi or other transportation at that that hour. There was a lone man with an unmarked Town Car who said it was a car service. I have no idea if he was a licensed provider or merely a stranger with a car. My only other option was in the pre-Uber/Lyft days to try calling taxis in the middle of the night or sitting in the airport and seeing if a shuttle would run before sunrise. The moral of the story? If you are returning from abroad in the middle of the night, be sure you can get home safely from the airport without “relying on the kindness of strangers”. (My apologies to Tennessee Williams!)
4. Let friends or family know where you are going, and check-in with them daily, if possible, from abroad via email/text or phone. With improved functionality of smartphones and free Wi-Fi, it is easier than ever to stay connected. Especially if you are roaming freely as an independent solo traveler, it’s a good practice to have frequent contact with friends or family who would be aware if you unexpectedly fell off the grid. Fortunately, “missing persons” cases can have a happy ending. On a student exchange program in Europe, a friend and I took a weekend’s jaunt to visit a family friend. My German-language message was apparently so inscrutable that my family was informed by telephone that we had disappeared. My family still refers to that as when I was “missing in Europe”. So do be sure your messages can be deciphered to avoid creating consternation if not panic on both sides of the ocean.
5. Know who to call or contact locally in an emergency in-country. Whether or not you are traveling as I have frequently in a country during a “low-grade civil war”, do surf the Net before leaving home and see what the issues are. In some cases, it may be recommended that you register with your local embassy or consulate on arrival. In one such instance, I rejected that recommendation as unnecessary. One evening in an especially remote region of the country, I looked out and saw a long torchlight protest demonstration making its way through the street and suddenly realized that things are a little dicier than I expected.
In case of an accident or sudden serious illness, it is important to know if your domestic health insurance or travel insurance has a local or regional contact. This may not be as easy as it sounds. When I signed up for an international tour group’s offering in China during the swine flu epidemic, initially inbound plane passengers could be quarantined for days if anyone seated nearby had a slightly elevated temperature. In my case, if quarantined, I didn’t know how to find my tour group if they had already left Beijing. The US tour office could only provide me with an 800 number to call 12 time zones away. Since most US 800 numbers don’t work from abroad, the bottom line was that there really was no local resource for me unless I found it myself. The lesson learned? Always have your own Plan B.
Staying Safe on Travel 5 Tips for Women Traveling Solo:
Please join us for upcoming posts on solo travel safety focusing on recogizing and avoiding dangers and what to do if confronted with an emergency.