How dangerous is it for women to travel alone?

By Caitlin Kelly

Travel Guides
Travel Guides (Photo credit: Vanessa (EY))

And, the latest rape in India of a foreign tourist.

Is it safe for a woman to travel alone?

Maybe.

Depending where she is, and if she is aware of her surroundings, sensitive to the local/regional culture, stays sober and alert and exercises good judgment.

There is no defense, ever, for rape.

But this recent American victim — who was hitch-hiking and chose to accept a ride from three men — could probably have made a wiser set of choices.

I would never hitch-hike, alone, nor would I ever accept a ride from three men. Certainly not in India. Not anywhere!

It’s very tempting to simply turn off your brain on vacation.

We’re desperate to relax, to get away, to shed the daily routines of paying attention to everything all the time. We want to be taken care of, to “get away from it all.” Especially if you’re a single woman bored or frustrated by dating, travel alone can offer a chance to flirt, to test out our mojo, far from the tedious local talent or the disapproving stares of people we know.

But we may well do so at our peril.

I recently spent five days alone, traveling by car through Arizona. It included drinking alone in a hotel bar, staying alone in that small hotel and camping alone in a crowded campsite.

Was I scared? Never. Nervous? Only occasionally, late at night, wondering if the slithering sound of my tent tarp was, instead, some stranger who meant to do me harm.

And so, inside my tent, I also had a heavy rock, small enough to fit into my hand and heavy enough to inflict serious damage.

I was also terrified of locking the keys inside my rental car. I did bring a cellphone and charger, had a rudimentary first aid kit, always had water and a cooler full of fresh food. I had multiple flashlights and a headlamp.

I am strong and fit enough to run fast, if necessary, and unafraid to shout or scream if I truly feel threatened. I was also camping mostly around fellow Americans, whose behavior I could fairly safely predict.

Not the same for other places, and I am extra cautious there — i.e. countries where a woman in public is almost always accompanied only by a child, parent, male relative or husband.

But I’m also vigilant enough to try and avoid trouble in the first place. And one of the scary/creepy facts of life is that, as an open-hearted, curious traveler/tourist, observing and taking photos, we, too, may be observed, noticed or worse.

I traveled alone to New Orleans, rural Texas, rural Ohio and a rough town in Massachusetts while reporting my first book, about American women and guns. Some of the people I met were pretty sketchy, many of them male, some of them macho. Sometimes I had to keep my guard up to stay safe.

Being aware of the potential dangers of your surroundings — whether rape or rabies — is simply wise and prudent. Given how much information sits at our fingertips, through the Internet, there’s no excuse for remaining ignorant. Consulates and embassies can also offer plenty of current data before you leave. (I did not realize — ooops! — until I’d bought my airfare to Caracas that there was a Canadian embassy advisory out about how crazy dangerous the city was.)

One of the very best sources of real-time travel intel, in the most granular sense, is The Thorn Tree, part of the Lonely Planet; I used it when I went to Venezuela with a female friend in 1998. Ask its globe-trotters pretty much anything — no matter how unlikely and obscure — and you’ll probably find someone with a helpful, accurate answer.

If you have never ventured out alone, or do not know anyone who has, it can look fairly terrifying.

I’ve traveled alone — young, female, clearly alone, from my early 20s to today — in such far-flung spots as Kenya, Tanzania, Turkey, Mexico, Thailand and many European countries. Plus the United States and Canada. It’s totally do-able, and often highly enjoyable, as long as you don’t zone out.

For example, hotel and motel clerks have been trained now — and if not, yell at them — never to hand you your room key while announcing your room number out loud for others to overhear and note. No one but you should know it.

Don’t let fear keep you at home, or chained to family/friends/tour groups. Traveling alone can be a fantastic way to see the world and grow your self-confidence.

Here’s a recent fun essay about the many joys of solo travel — albeit written by a man:

I love a solo holiday. It tends to refresh the part of oneself that is most depleted by modern life — patience. I once went to Germany on a 10-city expedition…I was actually moving slower than I had when I was back at home. I was taking my time, giving things their due, and the solo holiday had in some way increased my reserves of contentment…My travels in Germany left me quite refreshed with thoughtfulness.

I’ve had solo pints of Guinness in the pubs of County Kerry and County Cork. I’ve walked across the sage- and juniper-scented maquis of Corsica on a spring day, where you can still find the world of Napoleon’s childhood. More than once I went to the Isle of Iona in the Scottish Hebrides, the burial ground of the early Scottish kings, and watched darkness descend on the Sound of Iona while evensong came from the old monastery. I wasn’t on these travels for visions or transformation, but simply to feel the force of the world, for a day, for a night, as it operates outside the chatter of commerce or media or mass psychology.

Some of my very happiest travel memories, like O’Hagan’s here, are from solo journeys:

— five days traveling through Corsica in July by mo-ped, (including a date with a local mason with a very large boars’ head mounted on his living room wall.) Here’s The Wall Street Journal story I wrote about it.

— dinner on the beach by moonlight in Ko Phi Phi

— picking strawberries in a Scottish field the summer I was 12

— jouncing for 12+ hours a day along rutted, dusty roads in Kenya and Tanzania, the dust so thick on my forearms by day’s end I could carve a furrow in it

Here’s a link to one of my earlier posts about traveling solo and female, with specific tips.

And another.

Have you traveled alone as a woman?

How did it turn out?

64 thoughts on “How dangerous is it for women to travel alone?

  1. It’s not really safe to sit at home as a woman either, but we forget about the dangers we face everyday for the simple reason that they are always there. It is probably no more dangerous to travel than it is to stay home–depending on where you live and how cautious you are when you travel and what the conditions are where you are going–but we pay more attention to what happens to tourists abroad more than to what’s going on at home.

    That said, when I spent two months alone in Delhi in my 20s, I was always tucked up safe in my hotel room by 8 pm. And my friend’s parents in Pune (which is much safer than Delhi) worry if I’m out alone after dark. But I walked home alone near midnight though my not particularly safe neighborhood.

    I am usually more cautious anywhere else but home just because I know I don’t exactly what the dangers are, or what precautions to take. And I probably look a little out of place and vulnerable.

    1. I feel much more confident now that I have a new hip and can run when necessary. One reason I felt the hip replacement was really needed was when Jose pointed out that I would not be able to run if we ever had another 9/11 to flee. That was scary.

      I also like to hike and bike and horseback ride on vacation, not just sit still, so that was another. I would never teeter about on high heels alone…anything that makes you physically vulnerable is just stupid.

      1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I guess when I’m tottering around with bad or no hips, I will start booking those ridiculous package bus tours.

  2. I’ve traveled all over the world alone – six continents. I’ve been approached on numerous occasions by men hoping for some action, but I’ve never had anything truly terrible happen. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I do try to be cautious. If an area feels dicey, I avoid it at night. Often, once the sun is down, I avoid going out at all on my own. I loved St. Petersburg because it was light until 10:00 p.m. in September when I visited, so I felt like I could stay out and enjoy myself longer. But again, it depends on the place. I feel perfectly comfortable walking around in most areas alone in, say, London or Paris, but I wouldn’t do that in many places.

      1. I actually stayed out after dark in Istanbul just a couple of years ago, but I didn’t do a great deal of wandering at night. I had to take a tram from the city center to its final destination and get a taxi from there to my hotel each night, but I never felt unsafe.

  3. I read your link, Caitlin, and all of the suggestions were right on. If I am alone I try to be right out in the open where people can see me and I can see them. Even in parking lots it is so necessary to be aware – is it someone approaching you for evil reasons or just someone going from one aisle to another? You really need eyes in the back of your head in parking lots. I have traveled alone on business and up to Canada to see my family – I stayed on the main highway and stopped at rest stops on the thruway. I do not think I could do what you did – camp alone – but being surrounded by other Americans would be comforting.

    1. Parking lots are crazy dangerous if you are not paying attention, esp. carrying a lot of stuff and not having your hands free.

      I must be missing something….camping alone simply did not strike me as dangerous…there were people, literally, no more than 20 feet on either side of me and across the road. Many of them were families, not gangs of men drinking. I was very aware of who they were!

      Plus, I have strong lungs and I had my rock. Come to think of it, a whistle would be a good choice for next time.

  4. I travelled alone in India when I was about 25.
    My cousin, who was a man, was traveling with me but ran out of money and had to go home. Leading up to this he was demanding that when he had to go home, I was going home with him but as we travelled he saw I could handle myself, and thought it was safe enough for me to stay on alone.

    It worked out fine for me. I stayed sober the whole time except for in goa. I could have made some wiser choices then. I met male friends, some of whom I am still friends with today. Maybe I was lucky, or maybe I have good instinct. However I would warn not to be too over confident with your instincts. They can fail you.

    I never got scared. I made sure I come across as very strong willed and experienced in travel. For example I would only pay a price I was happy with for rickshaw rides, I would never succumb and pay the higher price for sake of ease. It showed that I was serious and experienced, not a pushover.

    I cherish the memories of India. I am a lot more careful these days than in my 20s but I’m so glad i did it.

    1. I also always stayed where other people could see me.

      I also went camping alone once. I stayed in a lockable campervan though. And no one was ard. I think it safer to stay in an unlock able tent with families ard than a lockable van with no one. I wouldn’t do it again.

      1. I would not camp anywhere alone. I wish I could say I would == and maybe, if it were free of other people. But I know of women murdered while out hiking and camping and it scares me.

      2. Yeah, it’s not a good idea. It’s strange coz it was school holidays so I don’t understand why people weren’t ard. It was one of our national parks. Very popular place.

      1. That’s very true about projecting confidence. Last year, I attended a lecture by a psychiatrist who conducted research on psychopathy. He made videos (with their consent) of several different women walking down the street, some of whom had been attacked or raped in the past and some of whom had not. He then played the videos for the serial killers, and they had an uncanny ability to pick out the women who had been attacked. Afterward, when questioned, even they didn’t know how they were able to do it. Pretty spooky.

      2. Meaning the women who has been attacked looked cowed and scared….i.e. worth attacking? Or they now projected fearlessness?

        When I lived in Paris at 25, I had to take the RER, a train that could take 10 minutes between stations underground. I did it late at night, and was often almost alone in the cars. Not great fun. But I always projected an air of “don’t messs with me.” And no one ever did, thank heaven.

      3. They asked the serial killers which of the women looked like the easiest targets, and they inevitably chose the women who had previously been attacked or raped. For some reason, they looked more vulnerable, but not necessarily obviously so.

  5. Yes, for the last 40 years, and it’s always been great, despite some foolishness in the beginning. I learned though, about the antenna and a few simple precautions. I must admit though – it’s a lot simpler now I’m a bit older. It’s no longer a matter of running, or defending yourself. People look at you differently when you’re older. 🙂

  6. I traveled alone for the first time last summer when I was 20 and I think it was one of the most important things I’ve done in my life so far. Things are so different when you travel alone–you learn so much more about yourself and others it’s incredible! But you’re absolutely right, it’s so important to take precautions and be aware of your surroundings.

    I literally just wrote a post about this topic yesterday after I heard about that woman who was raped in India. Such a timely subject! Thanks for your insight, I didn’t know about the Thorn Tree Forum until now, but will certainly make use of it!

  7. i’ve traveled with a female friend, with mixed results depending on where we found ourselves. i’ve traveled back and forth to australia, via different stop off points a few times. i’m about to embark on another trip there next week to visit family. while i won’t be alone while there, the journey itself as a single woman seems to always end up an adventure in and of itself. i’ve learned to not take risks, trust my instincts, use my wits, and err on the side of caution when i feel i’m in a potentially precarious situation.

    1. One of the toughest parts of solo travel — not just for women — is having to remember EVERY thing! It gets exhausting…finding cabs/buses/subways; remembering where the tickets/passports are, etc.

      A trip to Oz is wearying enough — for me it was 20 hours in the air. Have fun!

      I agree with all your principles, too.

  8. I do travel alone because of my job, but I also went to India, alone. I’ve always been very cautious in that case, picking crowded public transports, a safe hotel and always reminded I’m a foreigner, coming from a rich country.
    You are right, all the guides for traveling are very useful and should be carefully read before visiting a country. In India, I remembered mine saying if you’re a woman traveling alone and arriving late in the country, it’s best to sleep in the airport and wait until the morning to travel in the country.

    1. I have not yet been to India and have mixed feeling about it. I know that some people adore it, and I know I would love elements of it. But I am really fed up and disgusted by the behavior of Indian men who rape and mangle and mutilate women, domestic and foreign, and the corrupt “authorities” who let them off the hook.

      I would never sleep in an airport. I’d rather pay $$$ in credit card debt and get to a hotel with a locked door and a place to stow my luggage safely.

      I also learned the chair beneath the doorknob trick — most hotel rooms have a chair. Jam it beneath the doorknob so no one can break in without awakening you in the process. (My mom taught me that one after she traveled Latin America alone through her 40s.)

      1. For India, long before the media attention around the recent rapes, the country has always been dangerous for women. If you read forums on India, there are a lot of warnings, especially about people following you in the streets. That is said, once you are there, you will find a lot of tourists, and I never felt alone because of them. Unfortunately, I was very cautious with locals there. The only one I bonded with was a film maker going back to Delhi, but living in NY.

      2. Much as I caution against zoning out on holiday, I also don’t want to waste a lot of my time and energy having to remain hyper-vigilant about my personal safety. It’s really no fun at all.

        I traveled alone in Thailand, including sleeping on an overnight train, and only once felt scared — in the train station at midnight just before it left. But otherwise, never.

  9. While I’ve never traveled abroad by myself, I did spend some time in Greece with only another female. Both of us are small and young, so this was definitely not the wisest decision, and we had a few run-ins with local men in broad daylight that have definitely scared me away from the idea of traveling by myself. It’s comforting to hear that it’s possible though, and that so many women have been able to travel safely and independently!

    1. Yeah, Greece has remained low on my list for that exact reason. I was hassled badly enough in Spain and Portugal as it is. Even in Paris.

      I used to use a very large newspaper (and read it sometimes) when eating alone so no man could ever make unwanted eye contact with me. A lot of it is what *they* decide (sexist assholes) is an invitation when it is nothing of the sort.

      1. If you’re concerned about Greece, just wait until you’re older. As a woman over 40, I wasn’t bothered at all when I was there a couple of years ago. In the past when I was younger, I had all sorts of issues with men while traveling. It may be one of the only perks of growing older.

  10. I have travelled alone to over 80 countries so far.
    In all that time, there were only a handful of times where I was in danger.
    Before I boarded my first plane solo in my early 20s (in the mid 1980s), I read Thomas Thompson’s book, Serpentine, a true crime book about serial killer Charles Sobrahj, and it was probably the best thing that I could have done.
    Charles Sobrahj preyed on travellers, including a couple from Canada, using charm to get money and then killing them. It was a very sobering read and it made me very aware of the dangers of travel.
    I think that one thing that people tend to do is let their guard down when they meet somebody who speaks English. You become trusting even though they can be dangerous. I ask myself, do I automatically trust people I meet in my city just because they speak English? Of course not.
    I took an 8 week self defense course for women a few years ago and yet, when I was getting mugged in Guatemala in broad daylight by two young men, I promptly forgot everything that I had been taught. I had been pushed to the ground and had a knife pulled on me. I screamed (nobody was around) and was so shocked that I peed my pants. To all of those people who are cocky about how they’d be able to defend yourself-you never know how you will react to an assault. I was extremely lucky because as soon as I screamed, they got back in their car and ran away.
    Despite incidents like these, I still travel solo. I just continue to be very cautious.

    1. How on earth did you get to 80 countries??? Lucky you!

      I agree, it’s very easy to let down one’s guard. You do get lonely, especially in the evenings. I have never felt lonelier than in the orange-blossom-scented fragrance of a Seville spring evening.

      Another truly terrifying book — set in Venice, which I read alone in Venice — is Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers. Holy shit.

      Your mugging sounds horrific and I’m glad you were not seriously hurt. I’m glad it did not put you off the solo travel thing…people who live/love to travel can’t always find others with whom to go to the same places, in the same way, on the same budget in the same time frame. It’s often so much easier, and fun, to go by yourself and make it up as you go.

  11. You make me fear travel.

    But, being a man, and having been through some pretty bad stuff, I will ask one simple question:

    What is your price for your freedom? As long as you are willing to pay that price, you can do anything you want up to that point.

    However, a ‘rock?’ I think a .357 revolver loaded with .38’s would do you much better service in the USA traveling alone and camping alone. I have seen more rattlesnakes while camping, than I have had occasions to deal with being accosted ….

    1. That’s sad. Not at all my goal, in fact the very opposite!

      The rock was really meant to hold down my tent, not more seriously as a weapon, although useful to have something handy.

      A handgun is one option, certainly. If I really decided to do a lot of solo travel through isolated areas, maybe. But I am also deeply aware — having written a book about women and gun use — and having done both a lot of research and weapons training — that firing a handgun is not as simple a solution as it may appear. For a rattlesnake, maybe. At a human being? Ugh.

      1. As I said before, I’ve traveled on six continents, often alone, and never thought much of it. But I do think it’s important for men to realize that their experience is NOT the same as a woman’s. We are harassed on a regular basis and often threateningly. I haven’t had to travel for that to happen, but I have been in areas where women are marginalized much more than in the U.S. While men can certainly be threatened, they don’t have to contend with the same issues by a long shot.

      2. I suspect that men have to be drunk, high or provocative (dress, jewelry, demeanor) to be seriously harassed in most places. Women just have to show up.

        When I traveled alone in rural Portugal I didn’t even look up from the pavement most of the time because I knew that catching a man’s eye, even, could be misconstrued as some sort of come-on or invitation. I hated it, but those were their rules. In Istanbul, I wore a black dress to the knee, opaque black stockings, flat shoes and a “wedding ring.” Plus I did not look men in the eye.

      3. Caitlin, when were you in Istanbul? I was just there a couple of years ago and didn’t find it necessary to avoid men to that degree. A friend of mine goes there all the time and doesn’t have a problem. I asked directions of someone in the market, and he took the time to walk me to the proper exit and give me detailed instructions. I talked with another man at one of the mosques. Women don’t even cover their heads in the mosques anymore. The biggest issue was men trying to sell me rugs.

      4. A LONG time ago…in the 1980s.

        I had my worst-ever (terrifying) allergy attack there one night alone after spending the day looking at rugs — and inhaling dust and mold (to which I am allergic but had forgotten) all day. Thought I would die!

      5. The allergy attack sounds awful! But you wouldn’t feel the need to dress differently or avert your eyes if you were there now. Much has been made of the disappearance of that woman there recently, but that could happen anywhere. I’d be more concerned about the protests happening there now than anything else.

      6. It was terrifying — but instructive.

        Good to know Istanbul is so different…I just reconnected this week with an old friend now in Geneva whose wife and 16 yr old daughter had to flee the riots and tear gas.

      7. 2,000,000 times each year, the appearance of having a gun is used to defend someone.

        The attackers are almost always defeated, by a prepared defender. The unprepared are the ones who get in trouble.

        Ghost.
        Congrats on the book, those are work.

      8. That statistic is one I won’t debate although I am very familiar with the work and arguments of John Lott on that issue.

        If you are interested in guns and gun use, you should read Blown Away!

  12. Caitlin, You wrote above that men do not have to deal with the same issues as do women.

    I will agree with that on some level.

    But, with 18% of our male soldiers being sexually assaulted, I would think that at least on some levels, men survive predators at at least half the rate women do. So, I would predict there are many more men able to understand than you would think of at first.

    I just blogged about the problem in the Military: http://thewordpressghost.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/do-gays-join-the-military-to-attack-men/

    Ghost.

    1. That was me who said that, not Caitlin. Yes, I know that there are many men who have been assaulted or sexually abused as kids, but I wasn’t necessarily referring just to sexual assault. I was talking about a frequent onslaught of threat and harassment. The men I’ve spoken with just don’t seem to get it, so that leads me to believe that they don’t deal with this on a daily basis like women do. A male friend of mine complained that he couldn’t get the women on his college campus to respond to his random “hellos” as he walked by. He said they were “stuck up.” So, I told him a story about how after I moved to L.A., I thought perhaps I didn’t have to be as cautious as I had been in New York. After a man said “good morning” to me on the street, I said, “good morning” back. The next words out of his mouth were, “Give me some p****.” This is what women deal with every day. I was followed around by a guy in Peru, bumped into by a guy in London who asked to “take company” with me, have had to peel men off of me at various times in my life, etc., etc.

      1. Hell, yes. There is NO reason anyone should demand our response or reaction to them at all. I’m living my life, leave me alone! But many men take it as their “due” that we will smile, flirt, speak to them because….they want us to. And we can be met with verbal and/or physical attack (even rape) if we don’t instantly and gratefully comply.

        It’s obscene and exhausting. It certainly has kept me away from visiting a few countries.

        The fantasy that women are “unfriendly” or “stuck up” for not responding in this fashion is pure narcissistic aggression, in my book. Try that shit on a few men and see what happens!

      2. Sorry about the mix up.

        It was not that bad 50 years ago …. I live part time in Ukraine.

        The women there are not ‘afraid’ of men, yet. For all the promise of what feminism would do for women; for all the promise of empowerment; it is sad to see things get worse instead of better for our women.

        😦

        Ghost.

  13. I think that the point you made at first about knowing your surroundings is a very important one. Even without recent coverages of rapes in India, I believe it is crucial for one to be conscious and aware of the mentality and the patriarchal structures of that culture, especially as a woman. I have traveled for a year in South America, alone, and looking back, I understand and know why most people have told me I am crazy to have done it. I was couch surfing, scuba diving, studying, I even hitch hiked (but with others, never alone). I know I was advantaged because I spoke Spanish and most people simply though I was from another Latin-American country. I knew that the mentality was different than my own, and I also knew that “machismo” was a way of thinking still very present in alot of the countries. I believe that things happen and its a matter of the decisions you make (like accepting a ride from 3 men in a country where women are not respected in the western sense) and also about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. A recent example of this is the 22 year old Canadian girl who died in Ecuador hiking the Cotopaxi volcano. A bloc of ice hit her, and not any of the other 7 people on the trek with her, this is such a sad story. It could have happened to anybody. I believe that life is too short and there are too many things to discover and see to be afraid of going out there and taking them in and seeing them with your own eyes. I love traveling on my own, I have had amazing experiences doing so, and encourage women to do it because you discover another side of yourself. But I encourage that if you decide to do so, that you are well informed about where you are going and keep your guards up and take the necessary precautions on the road-just avoid dark alleys and nightly adventures. Most of all, have fun and do not stay within your own house or city because you are afraid. If you do not do it alone, just do it with someone!

    1. I highly recommend it, too, but only for those women who can really handle it. I know people with very little common sense or ability to assess their surroundings. For people like that, or who struggle to find their way around, it would be best to travel in groups.

  14. Good discussion. Something else to consider that I just learned about is to consider hiring a personal tour guide when traveling alone or with a small group, I wrote about it on my blog, http://bit.ly/11MAkVX, and included a resource where you can find local guides from all over the globe too. A local guide can keep you out of the rough places and fill you in on customs and taboes. Thanks for the info.

  15. Pingback: Are you scared to be alone? | Broadside

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