How to Stay Safe While Solo Traveling
Different people have different tolerance levels to risk, some are more comfortable than others with risk. Then there are those that can walk into a room full of tigers with a steak and not fear, while others see dragons waiting around every corner.
I feel that there are some companies that take advantage of fear, and utilize it to lure customers into using their over priced services. While there are other situations where that fear may be warranted and proper precautions should be taken. It was overly present on the cruise I was just on through South America, and it made my blood boil that people were not more aware that it was happening. The best way to avoid these pitfalls is to become educated.
Traveling solo can be a scary thing for females, but there are a few tried and true methods that I do on a regular basis. I also outline the steps I took when confronted with a scary situation that could have escalated to something more dire very quickly had I not taken these steps.
Please feel free to add your own tips and tricks or standard precautions for safety below. I would like this to become a good resource for our community.
1 - Don't Drink Alcohol While Traveling Solo
We all know how Alcohol blunts the self-preservation side of ourselves, weather it be socially, emotionally or even physically. So why would you drink outside of your hotel/hostel while traveling solo? You could lose a lot more than just your memory of that night. I won't get into the gritty details of all the things that could happen when doing this, but just don't drink if you are traveling solo.
If you really like to have a glass to wind down, then do as many other solo travelers do. BRING IT BACK TO YOUR ACCOMMODATION! All you need to do is ask a local where they would suggest getting your preferred beverage, and bring it back to the hotel/hostel. Unless you have a trusted friend who is willing to trade off on the not so sober nights with you, just don't drink....please.....trust me....it's not worth the risk. Any frequent solo female traveler (and even some male solo travelers) that would say the same thing.
2 - Minimize What You Carry With You
One of the first things that was suggested to me when visiting Santiago, was to minimize what I was carrying with me. The gentleman at Gen Hotel, said to not carry backpacks around in the major parts of the city as it is really easy for someone taller than me (I'm 5'4" or 162.6 cm) to grab the bottom, pull it over my head, throw me off balance and run off with my valuables. I realized after years of travel how much I had been setting myself up for something like that.
He also suggested to not bring my phone or camera with me.....which is what I use to help bring this content to the Culture Trekking Community....that wasn't an option.
The point is, look at what your carrying, think like the criminal - try to think of ways someone could rob you and prepare for it. If you want to bring something with you, then make a conscious decision to risk losing it. So if the worst scenario comes to pass, then at least you can console yourself in knowing it was a risk you were willing to take and won't feel so violated knowing it was a possibility.
3 - Keep a Copy of Your Passport and License
Keep a copy in the safe with your passport, keep a copy at home, give a copy to someone trusted, and keep a copy when your going around the city. If the hotel or accommodation doesn't have a safe or doesn't seem totally secure, then carry the passport with you in a bag or a place that it won't easily be stolen from you.
That is your ticket home, don't risk it, it isn't worth the headache it would cause by not having it.
4 - Give a copy of your hotels/itinerary/cards to a trusted loved one at home
It isn't just a copy of your passport that you should give to a loved one or trusted friend at home, but also a copy of your major credit cards. I know some will consider this a risk in and of itself. Let me try and explain why I do this though; let's say you are in an underdeveloped country and are having a hard time looking up the phone numbers to call the card companies. What if you are in the middle of no where, with just a satellite phone? You can call your friend at home, and ask them to call all credit card companies, and the social security numbers to help protect you; or at the very least give you the correct numbers so that you can call.
5 - Take a Walk in Daylight to Get a Feel of the City
There is a certain vibe to every city that I visit. Some I feel more dangerous than others. I look at where locals congregate, how busy the area is, if there are a lot of homeless people, a lot of beggars, people talking on the phones or looking quiet. I also look to see if there are street patrols in the area. If you spot a cop, you are usually in a safe part of town. If there are no cops, and loads of people approaching you asking you to 'come on the tour', 'I have special price', or 'do you need money exchanged' - then I typically don't consider that area safe.
Being able to 'read the vibe of a city' is something that comes with practice, but I gave you a few tips above that will help you see what I'm talking about on your next trip. If your gut tells you to be paranoid, or you feel nervous about the city AT ALL then make a rule you are back in your sleeping accommodation before dark. If not, just take a reputable taxi or uber to and from your desired destination or to the train station. Your concierge, or host should be able to direct you in how to look for reputable transport.
6 - Don't Set Your Bag Down
It doesn't matter if you have a small purse, a large backpack, or a stroller. Don't stop in the middle of a crowded street and set your bag down or take it off your shoulders. This opens it up for anyone that passes by to reach down and grab your items and run off to get lost in the crowd.
Make sure that if you are trying to get into your bag, even in a store that you take your bag to a corner, an alleyway that is still in view of the street but not directly in the line of the crowds and THEN pull out your money. Think of trying to light a match in the wind, that is how you should guard the visual on your money.
Not only does practicing this make it safe from people grabbing your bag and taking off; it also protects where you put the majority of your money back so people watching the tourists don't know which pocket to target when attempting to pick-pocket you.
7 - Learn Some of the Basic Words While Traveling
This has helped me more times than I can count in many different situations. I try and learn the following phrases:
What is your name?
How much does this cost? Can you put it in my phone?
Can you point me to where I'm going?
Do you take Credit Card or Cash?
Where is the Bathroom?
Can I have this?
Do you have water? (or other beverage of choice)
Where do I find? Can you Draw it on a map how to get there?
If I don't have the phrase already in my phone notes, then I will pull out Google Translate and use a little data to get messages across. I also keep a pad of paper on me, and try to draw a picture of what I'm looking for (stick figures are fine if you can't draw well).
8 - Look Up What the Destinations You Want to Visit in the Local Language
This is something I learned when visiting South America. While I do speak Spanish, it was difficult for me to know the EXACT spelling of the museum, destination, or eatery that was recommended in THEIR language. If you punch in the wrong name in the search bar in your navigator, it might lead you to the wrong place or cost an expensive trip to the wrong location.
9 - Carry a Fake Wallet or a Belt Wallet
I use a fake wallet more than I use anything else. For the ladies, a good tip I use is by carrying the larger bills in my menstrual cycle pads. I think even just writing 'menstrual' I lost about half the male readers. There is just something about talking about that stuff that really turns guys into flibbity gibbities when you mention anything about it. Can you imagine if one saw a pad? Doesn't matter the country your in, that is a taboo thing. There is also an unspoken rule with females that you just don't mess with that stuff unless someone asks for it in the stall next to you. Bottom-line, it is a GREAT hiding place. You can also use cardboard tampons as hiding places.
The fake wallet is for bartering in the markets, I will put scope out the shops, and if I see something I like - I put the price I'm willing to pay for it in the fake wallet in an alley. Then I return to the shop and negotiate the appropriate price, unless it is far too expensive.
10 - Stand Away From The Crowd
Street scams are on the rise, from the vendors claiming to give you a good rate on cash exchange. To people advertising good housing for a deposit. Or the unexpected street performance, with the accomplice in the back checking out your unguarded back pockets or purses. It is worth the effort to do a two minute search on 'Scams in ______'.
One instance my parents had while traveling was when my Mom forgot to put her hidden purse inside the front of her shirt. While at a cross-walk in Europe, she was waiting to cross the street with my Father. There were several other people around and a girl with a newspaper kept bumping into her. She thought it was just the way that people did things in this particular area of the world. As they were crossing the street she heard yelling, and a man with his wife ripping the shirt up over the head of one of the girls. There was a lot of cash and passports that fell out. My Mom looked down to find her purse empty, her passport gone, along with the cash that she so recently had 'safely hidden away'. She admitted that she had been tired, and felt safe enough in this particular destination that she didn't think she needed to take such precautions anymore.
The man who caught the two female thieves, came up to my parents and gave them back their passports. If they would have lost those passports, they would have been stuck in that city with no backup and ruining their vacation at the US Embassy trying to find a way back home. (Getting a Passport re-instated, even if temporary can be costly, time consuming and puts people in dire conditions more often than you would think).
Moral of the story, avoid crowds, leave the passport in the safe in the hotel. Don't get comfortable and make a mistake that could cost you more than you can afford.
11 - Carry Your Back Pack in Front
This is a tip a Moroccan local taught me, to always carry your backpack in front of you with your arms tightly around it in the crowded markets or in front of street performers.
If you are seated at a restaurant, don't hang your purse off the edge of a seat/table. Keep it at your feet or string your foot through one of the loops. Who cares if you look paranoid! It is better to be safe than sorry, as I always say.
12 - Get Appropriate Vaccines and Carry Medication for Common Ailments
I took a course in college in Tropical Medicine and Parisitology. There are flies that can bite you and cause itching so bad you have to be sedated. Other larva that can burrow into the nether regions and cause infertility if you aren't careful. Parasites that cause blindness, Malaria, burrow in your lungs etc.. Tropical diseases that will have diarrhea so bad you have to lie in a bed with a hole in it; will cause major heart disease when you are older, burrow into your brain or muscles and many other really fascinating but debilitating diseases.
Vaccines have a lot of controversy around them due to a study that was falsified and is no longer recognized as fact by the medical community. So be careful in refusing to get these vaccines for Typhoid, Yellow Fever, or the medication for Malaria. Be sure you visit the Center for Disease Control, or other government organization within your country to find out what is recommended for you. Each country has their own recommendations based off the diseases that their citizens have already been vaccinated for, or are known to be susceptible to based on their geographical location or ethnicity.
A good rule of thumb I make for myself when eating in other countries is that if I can't peel it, cook it, or it isn't fresh meat and the bathrooms aren't clean. I choose to not eat there and keep a granola bar in my purse if my stomach starts to eat itself in hunger.
13 - Carry a Back-up Charger for Your Phone, Don't Keep it in Your Back Pocket
I NEVER keep my phone in my back pocket while traveling. I rely on the navigation in my phone so much when traveling I would be a sitting duck if I didn't have it with me. This is why I keep it attached to my stabilizer, or I keep it in a deep pocket somewhere in a bag or in my bra (ladies will know what I mean).
Carrying a backup charger is essential for me when traveling, because of how much I use my phone for video, navigation, taking voice memos, and posting IG stories when I find a good Wifi to let people know I'm safe at home. It also helps me create a digital footprint, so should I go missing, or have something happen to me- someone will always know where the last place I was.
For those with high profile Instagram or Facebook accounts, you may want to create a private one that just updates family. The reason is, because I have had some of my friends say that they had people start to follow them on their vacation and make them nervous. So just keep that in mind.
14 - Blend in With Your Outfits
Don't wear an 'I'm from Harvard' in Europe, don't wear a Rolex with a Gucci bag in South America. Didn't everyone learn from when Kim Kardashian was robbed from flashing her bling around online? It is the same idea when you are traveling. If you go around in bright red or yellow flowy dresses, or leave your camera out on a tripod unattended...you are screaming to everyone there 'ROB ME'! Be smart, or agree to the risks beforehand and take precautions.
Traveling Solo can be hard to take those enviable photos, and I am working on an article for the community on how to take those photos safely. Just ask another tourist to take the photo (if you can spot them, then the locals can spot them as well). If they are snapping selfies, rest assured they probably are tourists as well. You have to pick the oriental tourists though, they are MASTERS when it comes to taking the good photos (well the girls are anyway). I had one lady I asked take my photo and it turned into a full on photo shoot! Some people just really love helping others, and making your memory as good as you would have done it yourself. Asking other tourists is a good way to meet people you can collab with on touring the city with as well, and get discounts.
15 - Be Vigilant and Defensive When It Comes To Crossing Streets in Developing Countries
Some 25,000 foreign tourists died in road accidents in 2009, don't become a statistic. Stay at the back of the crowd crossing the street, always wait an extra 3 seconds to make sure no cars are running the red light. Follow the locals, observe how traffic patterns are functioning. Again, get travel insurance...it will save you should tragedy strike.
16 - RESPECT Your Surroundings
Victoria Falls death, Bell tower death, agitating animals for photos, touching wildlife while diving.
How many times as a kid did you see the sign, "Don't feed the bears" or any other animals. In Utah there is a constant reminder from the friendly Smoky the Bear encouraging kids from young age, 'Only YOU can prevent forest fires'. Yet there are still those people that have not grown up, and try to push the boundaries with the thought that, 'I'll be fine, I'm not like them, I know what I'm doing'. Even I have fell prey to this during the wild flower festival in Alta Utah. While there were no ropes per se, there were clear paths. I decided to stray into a pretty wild flower patch to take some photos. I was then approached by the park ranger educating me on how I was ruining the experience for future generations. Apparently when you walk on the dirt where the wild flowers are, the ground gets packed down, preventing the wildflowers from growing. He said that it can take up to a decade for the natural (not artificial) growth of the wild flowers to come back because they need the certain type of soil to grow in.
So just because you think it is ok to cross that line, veer off the path, carve the name in the tree, hang off that rope or balcony, get closer to the edge for the best picture doesn't always mean that it is the safest, nor the right thing to do.
What to Do in an Uncomfortable Situation or in an Emergency
1- Know the Telephone Numbers for an Emergency Personell
This is something I forget to do all the time before visiting a country. What if something did happen though? What if you were hit by a car and couldn't get up? What if your friend falls down a ravine while hiking, or off a waterfall onto a rocky outcrop and you couldn't get to them? Who would you call? How would you tell the services that you needed help?
This is where knowing the numbers for Police, Ambulance, and Rescue teams
With terrorist attacks, accidents, and those Culture Trekkers who love adventure like I do....it is vital for not just you, but for those you leave at home that care about you that you know these numbers.
2- Know How to Ask for Help and How to Describe Your Location
This conicides with number one. If you are in a new country, are not completely fluent in the language - I suggest knowing at least the basics of how not just to call for help, but describe what is going on.
Know how to say, 'I'm hurt and need help. I don't speak the language. I'm located here. Do you speak English, German, Spanish, French or whatever your native language
3- Learn How to Say 'Stop' Your Making Me Uncomfortable, and How to Say NO.
I had a man on a train get very close and personal with me in a very uncomfortable way. I tried to shove him off and look for help from fellow passengers, but because I didn't speak the language - he was able to play it off that we were a couple just having an argument.
This is why learning how to say STOP, your making me uncomfortable in whatever language the country your visiting speaks is vital. Also being able to ask the fellow passengers, 'Can you point me to the direction of help, to make this person stop harassing me would be'.
4- Go to a Museum
Sometimes even asking for help, or saying 'STOP' to the harasser will not dissuade them from following you. If this is the case, or you meet someone on the street, or someone is following you and your gut tells you it might be dangerous....LISTEN TO YOUR INSTINCTS!! It is better to be safe than sorry.
The man mentioned in item three, changed his plans, tried to follow me through the city. Attempted to pull me into an alley, and I knew that twisting my hand towards his thumb forcefully would break his grasp. I continued to twist, turn, cross streets to distract him; it was very early in the morning and there was no one on the streets I could ask for help.
I decided to go into a museum, and that is when he became desperate. He grabbed my coat, asked me to not go, I twisted, and ran the rest of the way into the building. Talking to the Musuem guard/police, I asked them to keep an eye out for this person (who I snapped a photo of, just in case something happened). They made sure the coast was clear, and I took a different route on a main road to the next destination.
It put me on edge for the rest of the trip, but now know that entering a place where artifacts, art, or any other major tourist attraction is --- will always have guards somewhere that you can ask to help you. They would probably welcome the distraction and help.
I know this mostly applies to females, as men would likely just punch him til he left them alone. Females who choose to travel solo, it is always good to have a plan, so if your instincts are screaming at you to run or be afraid - I can't stress it enough....listen to them.
5- Get Travel Insurance
I have never considered getting travel insurance in the past, until this last year when I attended a travel conference. This is when I was able to sit down with Allianz Travel, and World Nomads Travel Insurance and ask them what they cover versus my Blue Cross Blue Shield Federal Insurance I have.
So I called Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS), and with my medical background, having worked in both the Intensive Care Unit and in the Operating Room - I know what worst case scenarios look like and how much that can cost.
For the most part, BCBS covers most of what they would cover for an 'out-of-network' provider, should I need to have a visit to the Emergency Room, or end up in the hospital for whatever reason.
What they don't cover is repatriation, or bringing your body back, should you suffer a deadly accident (or get caught up in a disease outbreak
If your saying, 'well I will be dead, so who cares'; here is the other thing that Travel Insurance covers though: stolen cameras, computers, emergency evacuations,
Now I don't travel without it, it is better to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Many of my fellow
6- Call the Embassy
If you are feeling extremely threatened and fear for your safety due to riots or unstable local situations, get incarcerated by a 'dirty cop' or for doing something stupid, lose or have your passport stolen. These are all examples of situations that you would need to call the Embassy for your country for. Be sure you know where they are located, and the best way to get there should the local situation become unstable.
As Always...Happy Travels, Happy Tales, and I'll See YOU on the Flip Side.
Welcome to Culture Trekking!
My name is Janiel, I specialize in solo female travel, cultural connections, sustainable adventures, food and history to help make your travel experiences fun, meaningful, and delicious. My experience in travel, and my personal story have allowed me to get published in Fodor's Travel, Atlas Obscura, Metro.co.uk, Trip Advisor, and multiple Podcast interviews. You can find me on pretty much every social media channel YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok. To read more about me and my story click here. If you are a brand and would like to work with me, click here.