Revisiting The Solo Female Travel Experience

solo female travel - sarai sierra
Sarai Sierra

In late 2011, I wrote a post about the solo female travel experience, discussing some of the safety tips and lessons learned in several years of roaming the globe by myself.

In it, I reiterated that the worst experience I’ve had was actually in France, not somewhere exotic, and that while solo female travel is scary to those who have yet to embark on a journey alone, it’s been wonderful experience, allowing me to walk both sides of the cultural line in new countries.

The issue merits revisiting now, however, given the media portrayals and subsequent discussions about a female traveler who was recently murdered in Turkey. Many of the comments note that it isn’t “suitable” for a woman to travel alone. One commenter said he would never let his wife go out the door to travel to any country alone. There are also appallingly xenophobic statements against Muslim countries in the comments about how women might be able to travel alone but “certainly” not to Muslim countries. Focusing on the solo female travel question, or cloaking the issue in a thick layer of xenophobia avoids the bigger, more important concern.

Why are we talking about solo female travel, not violence against women?

While the easy thing is to blame the solo female traveler, the reality is that violence against women, not solo travel, is the issue. And it’s certainly not limited to far-flung places.  There are plenty of case studies of violence against women in the USA and Canada – is it “irresponsible” for someone to walk around alone there too? And let’s not forget about the violence inside our homes. In Canada, on average, every six days a woman is killed by her intimate partner. In 2009, 67 women  in Canada were murdered by a current or former spouse or boyfriend. [1] In the USA, an average of three women are killed by an intimate partner every day. Of all the women murdered in the States, about one-third were killed by an intimate partner.[2]

In contrast, the murder of Sarai Sierra – an awful event – stands out as an outlying situation, not the norm for a woman abroad. Yes, there have been other deaths – both male and female – overseas. (See this article about Australian deaths in Bali, mostly due to alcohol and drug use. Or this piece about deaths in Argentina). But blaming her death on the fact that she was traveling alone in a foreign place is not doing justice to the full situation. As Christine from Almost Fearless notes:

Tourists do die overseas. There are two big killers: drowning and car accidents. Still, those numbers are not abnormally higher than at home, it just goes to show that very few people are being killed overseas. The US Dept of State keeps statistics by country on death rates of Americans abroad. In Turkey, there were two deaths in 2011 (the last full year of statistics). One was a homicide, the other was a vehicle death. In the last 10 years there were just three murders. The woman killed in Turkey was a New Yorker and in 2011 alone NYC had 502 murders. She was statistically less likely to be killed in Turkey than she was if she stayed home in New York.

US citizens die at home and, less frequently, they die in foreign countries. Stating that Sarai was murdered because she was abroad, as many comments have done, detracts from the real concern: that of violence against women worldwide.

What about my last 4+ years of solo female travel?

How I feel travelling as a woman alone depends wholly on where I am geographically; the world is large and thus my view is necessarily nuanced as well. In a good part of the world, I still feel safer travelling than I do at home in North America. I’m going to note here, too, that my feeling safe in a foreign country does not detract from that country’s issues with violence against women. For example, I do feel very safe here in Vietnam, even walking at night. The same for my years in Thailand. However, the countries each do have a history (and a present) of endemic violence against women, as do many others in the region.

solo female travel - jordan
Ajloun, Jordan

The difference is that crimes against women here are often limited to closed socioeconomic groups and not often committed against tourists. While devastating as a whole – just like the above case studies are devastating in the USA and Canada – as it relates to my mental wellbeing, I do feel safe. (This includes Turkey, by the way – I never felt unsafe there.)

The answer changes in some other parts of the world. I wrote about an issue in Marseille in my original solo female travel post, and I’ve had some heart-stopping moments in elsewhere too – being dragged by my scarf into a shop or the earrings yanked off my ears at a stall because I did not want to stop and talk to the shop-owner. Being called all sorts of awful names by a young man in Fes because I did not want a guide for the medina. The thing is: it wasn’t only when I was alone. Often, I was with men, but it did not make a difference. (See also the devastating recent rapes of 6 women from Spain at gunpoint at a resort in Mexico. They were not travelling solo – they were with men – the men were just tied up by the assailants.)

That is part of what irks me about this discussion: being “alone” is not the issue.  Travel abroad is not the issue. The issue is treatment of women. And we should be using this media spotlight to as a springboard to discussing how we can fix it.

What about other women who travel?

Some interesting posts have emerged from the negative media coverage of solo female travel. I’ve listed a few below. In addition, I reached out to a fellow female traveller, MaryAnne Oxendale. In her words:

I have been harassed a lot in my 38 years and two decades of travel, both in Canada and abroad. Some of the things that have happened to me make me cringe now that I look back on them from my current perspective. However, at least half of these occurrences happened when traveling with a male companion. It’s not about traveling alone as a woman. I have had a million positive experiences specifically because I was travelling as a solo woman – in Turkey, I was looked after, protected, cared for because of that status. The thing is, it isn’t even about travelling “as” a woman, solo or not. My friends back in Canada also face harassment and sexual violence and abuse from men they know and men they don’t know. This is not about civilized vs uncivilized countries, domestic vs foreign, us vs them. This is about a lack of respect, globally. It’s not about telling women to not leave their protective cocoons. Women have always had to be extra careful about their safety, not just when travelling, but sadly even in their homes.”

So what to do as a woman who wants to travel alone?

I’m uplifted by the many posts encouraging women to travel ((see here, here and here for a few of them), but I don’t want to pretend that there is no danger in solo female travel. The issues of sexual assault and violence against women are what I call checkmate arguments: they are undeniably rational things to fear when travelling alone.  There are, of course, dangers in travel for solo men too – just different ones. Of course, those checkmate worries are also worthy of fear at home.

As Frederike says in her post:

It’s not that Sarai was killed despite Istanbul being a safe city. I think we shouldn’t look at this from the Istanbul perspective, or compare Istanbul statistics to those of other places in the world. We should look at the world as a whole. It’s just not a safe place for women. Our physical strength is hardly ever enough to defend ourselves against men who want to harm us. So we get beaten up, we get raped, we get assaulted, we get murdered. That is the risk every woman on this planet lives with every day. Some places may have a higher risk of getting harmed, but being a woman is enough to be at risk always and everywhere.

Things – bad things, ugly things, evil things – often cannot be mitigated or planned.  I travelled for years and years and never got robbed like I did when I returned to New York for a visit, when when my laptop, hard drives and camera were stolen. I spent a good amount of time in the Middle East and North Africa and Malaysia and Indonesia, and yet the single ugliest act against me came from an afternoon in France.

I’ve long encouraged women to travel solo, and have been doing so myself for close to 5 years. I will continue to encourage women to travel solo. It’s a balance between thinking smart and trying to stay safe, and also not succumbing to the fear. I don’t want to pretend that there’s no basis for the fear – that would be irresponsible. But for me, at least, the fear is there at home and it’s there abroad. It has nothing to do with foreign travel and everything to do with existing as a woman in today’s world.

I don’t brand myself as a solo female traveler because that isn’t the focus of my site or my passions. I travel for the food, for the learning and for the people – but I do so in the body I have been given. That said, in times like these where the national focus seems to be on a red herring – a woman traveling alone – I did not want to stay silent. I understand that people are lashing out and allocating blame for a terrible event, but by structuring the public conversation around solo female travel (or about Muslim countries generally) we are detracting from the very real and valid issue of violence against women worldwide.

Solo travel tips for women and men.

I wanted to end this post with the practical: some safety tips that might be useful for women and men looking to travel alone.

 For more practical travel tips and advice, please see my World Travel Resources page — it has sections for solo travel but also for safe eating abroad, packing, budget, and more.
  • Carry a rubber doorstop (I’ve been doing this for years), to wedge from the inside of your room at night.
  • Carry a safety whistle (also keeps the monkeys at bay – trust me).
  • Pay a bit more to stay at a central hostel or guesthouse in a well-lit area of town, with a 24 hour front desk.
  • Watch your drink and certainly not getting drunk, especially if you’re alone.
  • Err on the side of dressing conservatively. I don’t want to get into a “but it’s an issue of men’s perceptions of women” debate because the reality remains that when you’re traveling, you do need to err on the side of dressing conservatively. I bought a longyi in Myanmar, I covered my head in parts of Indonesia, I wore long sleeves and long dresses and scarves throughout the Middle East and parts of Morocco. In the end, I still stood out, but in respecting the local dress, I definitely felt and saw a difference in the way I was treated.
  • Be vague about your hostel/guesthouse. Sometimes a casual conversation will lead to a question about what hostel you are at, or where you are headed next. It’s wise to stay purposefully vague, or have a (faux) backup hostel or guesthouse in mind for those situations. I’m always wary of giving too much information about my whereabouts when traveling alone. This applies, of course, to men as well.
  • Be aware that eye contact in some countries can invite aggressive behaviour. Again, it’s not the message I’d like to put out (as in, I wish this wasn’t something we had to worry about) but it can be the case. I am mindful of this fact, especially as a Montrealer – a city that has proudly declared its love of eye contact.
  • If you are travelling in a country for more than a few days, register with your local embassy. I’ve done so here for Canada in Vietnam, as have my American and Australian friends in town. Most consular services do include registration for citizens abroad, and it is very helpful in the event of emergency (or even natural disasters).

Hopefully the posts above (and this one) can help reframe the discussion to one of violence against women generally, not about the pitfalls of solo female travel. I acknowledge that there are risks, just as there are risks for anything you do in life.

I will continue to travel the world alone and encourage others to the same. It’s been one of the more rewarding things I have ever done.

-Jodi

82 thoughts on “Revisiting The Solo Female Travel Experience”

  1. As a solo male American traveler and I have never had a problem (yet). However, it can be extremely difficult to balance adventure-seeking with caution. I once had an in-depth conversation about this very idea with a fellow traveler in Thailand. We want to be open to new and exciting experiences, as well as being open with our hearts to the people that we meet along our journeys, but this can come with a price – a compromising of our safety. The woman in Thailand (in Koh Chiang, she was originally from Slovakia) was telling me about how she went clubbing with some guy that picked her up on his motorcycle (off the street after just meeting her), in Ibiza I believe. And I basically said that that was crazy. Solo female, unknown male, speeding you off to who knows where? Thankfully nothing happened to her, but I still had problems with it. Not because she was a woman, but because you are putting yourself into a compromising position with an unknown outcome.

    So to Jodi and my fellow travelers, how do we balance risk-taking/adventure-seeking, with safety and caution? Perhaps jumping on the back of the motorcycle could be life changing, but for the better or the worse is sort of up in the air. I don’t want neutral or boring traveling experiences, i.e, overcautious/paranoia, I want the “real deal,” so does my traveling really come down to cost/benefit analyses day in and day out?

    To sum up: vigilance comes with a price, but so does ignorance/naivete when traveling. So I suppose the best road, as usual, is the middle one.

  2. Great post – thank you! People are obsessed with talking about the dangers out there for solo female travellers – as if this is some kind of women-only phenomena and not scare-mongering media hype! This is exactly the kind of thing that makes women feel as though they can’t or shouldn’t travel alone. I’M SO GLAD I STOPPED LISTENING AND BOUGHT THAT ONE-WAY TICKET, and would recommend it to anyone.

    :-)

  3. Thank you for reframing this issue – I feel like it’s a constant struggle we have to engage in on the topic of general rape, too – “she shouldn’t have dressed like that”/”she shouldn’t have been running in Central Park at night.” HELLO – HE SHOULDN’T HAVE RAPED HER. And, as you mentioned, the majority of rapes occur by acquaintances anyway.

    I consider this such a frustrating and important issue, and I was really grateful to read your piece, which was clearly and beautifully written.

  4. I love solo travel – even as a female. I’ve traveled to both India and Morocco which I found challenging, but extremely rewarding! Thanks for this post :)

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  6. Katherine Nesbitt

    I have been reading your website with interest as I am planning mt own RTW for next year! I am not sure I will return in my alloted time span of a year but that’s why I am visiting sites like your’s for inspiration and information. Food will unfortunately rule my plans as well. I have already travelled the Tran-Siberian railway from London through to Moscow, Siberia, Mongolia and Beijing all by train. This took a month and I had no issues, no one be innapropriate, no propositions, no challenging male behaviour despite, at times, sharing a train cabin with local Russian men (who shared their food) or three boys from Denmark.

    I would definitly agree with clothing though, I didn’t wear make-up as there was no need but didn’t set out to appear in anyway attractive. As a consequence perhaps I went undetected despite the massive rucksack I carried. Lol!

    I am planning a more extensive, varied and challenging selection of countries next which includes some Muslim countries. I am almost salivating at the thought of what delicacies that await me, the vegetarian!

    Thank you for the site, for making it free and so enjoyable!

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  8. Thank you for this; I’ve traveled widely, mainly on my own, always while being a woman, and I agree that focusing on the gender of the traveler and blanket notions about the destination is misguided. My own experiences as a woman traveling alone have been irreplaceable, if not always perfect, and would have been different experiences if I’d been traveling with others. Intelligence, research and sensitivity are what I rely on to keep me as safe as possible, and are what I suggest to younger women travelers who are planning their routes.

  9. I have been traveling solo for the last ten months and couldn’t agree more with your thoughtful post. The fear I have when I’m alone has little to do with where I am on Earth. It’s everywhere. But I travel in spite of it and for the most part love it.
    Thanks for writing this.

  10. I completely agree and applaud you for encouraging women to travel solo! I traveled alone for a year through Southeast Asia in 2011 and had the time of my life! Seeing and experiencing new things without the influence of those we love is truly an eye-opening adventure. Women have incredible intuitive sense – we just have to learn to tap into it and trust it, which you’ll definitely learn the longer you travel solo. In the meantime, use your common sense: don’t walk down dark alleys at night, don’t accept anything from people with weird vibes, dress respectfully, try to avoid arriving in new cities at night, definitely don’t get wasted when you’re out alone and you’ll be fine! I met and traveled with so many great people along the way, ate & learned how to cook so many delicious foods and saw some spectacular things. I have to admit, solo travel does get lonely at times and from my and other travelers’ accounts, 6 months might be a more reasonable limit for solo travel, but overall the benefits of solo travel definitely outweigh the risk. Thanks for the post!

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  12. I was happy to read your post. I too have traveled alone. It was excellent. I met more local people and learned much more than when I traveled with others. Plus I did not have to compromise. Your advice is excellent. Dress and act appropriately for the culture. I taught for a time in the 60’s in Tunis. Once I met some female tourists who thought it was fine to wear shorts. I wonder if they would have thought it would be fine for someone to walk down the streets in their home town in a bikini. I often wonder how they fared. I know that Tunisians would have been disgusted with their behavior.

    btw Muslim countries are not more dangerous than other countries. How safe countries are does not have much to do with religion. Safety is more related to poverty and political conditions. Some Muslim communities have very rigid restrictions on women’s freedom of movement. There are areas where women are not seen in the streets, such as Gilgit in Pakistan. Here women need a tour I think.

    It is up to the traveler to adjust to the local culture. In the 60’s it was hard for a woman alone to travel to Italy. Men did not approve of a woman alone in the streets at night. In the 70’s we lived in Rome and it was still hard. I wanted to go to the opera. I would go either alone or with a friend, a single lady who was a retired teacher. We did not want to pay for a taxi so we would take the bus and walk to the Opera. Men would harass us. They were punishing us for bucking the rule that women belong indoors or with a male escort after dark. Nevertheless, we persevered. Italy has changed a great deal since then. Women have the right to divorce, to work outside the home, and to go out unchaperoned.

    I am now in my 70’s and I would still travel alone taking precautions to be in safe areas and to know what the local customs are. Stay away from war and disaster areas. Any place unsafe for the locals is unsafe for the traveler.

    Your blog is wonderful, Jodi. Keep up the great work.

  13. Thanks for writing this. Being a woman is a dangerous occupation, and hiding is no protection. Let’s all get out there and live the fullest lives we can.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become invisible to many men. For some women this is a problem, but I love it.

  14. I’m curious. One of the things that ‘scares’ me the most…. is HOW do you KNOW whether the guesthouse or hotel or hostel is a safe one in a good and well lit area of town? (especially if you don’t have a lot of money). Does anyone know any resources for this sort of thing? I want to travel. And I have a lot of obstacles against me right now. ONE of them, is the fear of being somewhere alone and not having a clue where to go, what to do, and where the safe parts are of where I am going, etc. If anyone knows of any resources to which one could, for example, find feedback on good (and inexpensive!!) hostels, motels, etc, in relatively safe areas of whichever city/country we are travelling in that would be invaluable to someone like me. thank you!!! PS. your tip about the rubber doorstop is great. I will definitely remember that one.

    1. Hi Rachel, I usually look at sites that review and index hotels — Hostelworld or Hostelbookers, or sometimes on forums like Travelfish.org’s great Southeast Asia forums, or Bootsnall.com’s forums. Searching online does help, in terms of specific places. For the areas, though, I do some research about safety in a particular town, and then I rarely book my full stay in advance. Just a night or two, so I can check it out and if I’m not into the area, I can pick somewhere else to stay when I’m more familiar.

  15. I’ve been solo-ing it on and off for years – mostly because I love the freedom to get up and go when I want to go where I want to go on my budget and at my pace! Traveling with others means compromise, but it can bring a richness to an experience you can’t get alone as well as someone to wax nostalgic with in the future… if it works out! Conflicts and cat fights can bring you down, but they do add to the whole life experience and I think it’s definitely worth it to mix it up and enjoy the company of others. Solo can balance you out, give time for reflection, and that certain wild card that will draw you in to meeting others (sometimes traveling with others scares others away or the partner gets all exclusive and you don’t get to meet new folk) HOWEVER I have to say there is safety in numbers! Once, when I fell ill with typhoid on a remote island a friend would have been such a big help in getting me to medical help quickly, and helped with the odds and ends that you can’t accomplish for yourself when you’re down for the count. Watching your stuff when your getting tickets or when it’s on your person and being in the room when your not also gives assurances for your stuff. AND you have someone to bare witness when something unfortunate goes down like a rabid hostile stewardess or a corrupt cop, which might help to deter, end, or support you during/after the incident. I think both traveling solo and with others is the best way!

  16. For some people, women are always to blame, no matter what. It’s either the clothes they wear, the make up, the beers they drank, the way the behave, or because they travel solo.

    I’ve been traveling solo for 16 years now, never encountered any problems, till one day I was actually harassed while I was inside my hotel room. I had a guy masturbating outside my bedroom door and one under my window while looking at me.

    Now, was I to blame because I was inside my room? Believe it or not, some guys did accused me of being “cheap”, and because I was not staying at an expensive hotel, I should have expected this to happen.

  17. I’m a guy, but I tend to read travel books and blogs mainly by women because I simply enjoy them more. I’m sorry to inject a plug here, but the book by Rosemary Mahoney, “Down the Nile, Alone in a Fishermans Skiff” deals with the subject of safety and the perception of threat in a masterful way. You’ve probably read it, but I wanted to mention it because it opened my eyes so much. I’m not well traveled, I get culture shock going across the state line, but I just love armchair travel.
    Thank you and Matt Karsten for the wonderful blogs.

  18. Great post! I am planning a solo travel trip for spring break and found this article to have some good feedback…I liked your perspective on female solo travel since I’m going to be expeditioning myself abroad solo.

  19. Old post, but I just stumbled across it. Well said! I was also disappointed to see the response to this incident when it happened. I’ve been travelling solo since the age of 18, and my gender has rarely been an issue. After 15+ years of travel, the worst things that have happened to me all took place when I was with a man or in a group.

    Obviously, one needs to use their common sense when they are away from home. However, that applies to everyone, regardless of gender.

  20. I’ve recently come back from a year of solo travel and have seen that a considerable amount of females are doing this. I frequently hear individuals say how fortunate and bold we are to travel yet the fact of the matter arrives is no fortunes included, just determination and an eagerness to see that the world is brimming with excellence and not as unnerving as we’re persuaded. Continue voyaging women, I’m a full backer of solo travel!

  21. Well written! In my country (Turkey) traveling is something newly developed in the past 2 years. I quit my job and started traveling three years ago. On my first trip I was traveling with my boyfriend. And I remember there were lots of friends and family members who were giving me speech about why I shouldn’t travel as a woman. Even the fact that they have never traveled before they had so many fears and tabus. After 11 months, I broke up my boyfriend and travelled solo for a month. It was an amazing experience and for the record I had less problem when I was with my bf. I guess the key is to be avare of what is going on in any circumstances.

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