The longer I blog and the further I travel, the more I get involved in the digital communities that support weirdos travelers like me. It’s a great way to share tips and have travel discussions with like-minded people. I’ve always felt a good amount of camaraderie in my communities there – until two discussions happened back-to-back where I was in the minority opinion. That alone didn’t bother me, but both topics were about the same thing, safety, and I was the one who was trumpeting the ‘unsafe’ opinion. Which surprised even me! As I read the other travelers’ comments, I started to second guess myself. Am I reckless when I travel? Do I take unnecessary risks? Should I be scared to travel?
After some time thinking about it, I decided no, just because I had a different opinion than the majority didn’t mean I was stupid. The choices we make when traveling to feel safe vary from person to person, and that is totally fine. Safety is paramount to everything. But I’m sticking to my opinions and I’m not changing anything about the way I travel.
I’m not afraid to tell people I’m traveling solo as a woman.
In the Girls vs Globe Facebook group, a woman posted a question about solo female travel. She said she was in Malaysia and the bartenders had been asking her if she was traveling alone. She wanted to know what the other members of the group did when they were traveling alone and were asked about it. Did they make up a man? Or tell it straight?
I was the first person to respond. My answer started, “Girl, own it! (Unless it’s like a creepy situation. Then have an imaginary travel buddy.) Solo female travel is still sort of a novelty in many parts of the world, so they’re probably just curious and not trying to creep.”
Um, then came twenty other girls saying no way would they say they were traveling alone. They say their boyfriend or husband is chilling in the hotel room.
I don’t think I’ve ever lied about having a man back at the hotel. Especially not to a bartender, who is slightly responsible for chatting with guests. The guy outside the bar who tries to talk to me as I’m leaving? Um, yeah, I’m telling him nothing.
A natural conversation starter when people see a foreign woman by herself is to ask if she’s alone. Is it a creepy question to ask? Yes. Men, listen, solo female travelers get weirded out if one of your first questions is, “Are you traveling alone?” so just don’t do it. It makes us feel vulnerable because we do have separate safety issues than you. You can figure it out without asking.
As the Facebook discussion developed, many girls said they had an especially difficult time in Malaysia with harassment. And it is all about knowing the culture you’re traveling in. I did say in my response that if her gut told her she was getting creeped on, she should have a fake friend or man. But I would never make that as blanket statement. I don’t come from a place assuming that people are trying to harass or scam me. Traveling solo in Serbia has been a great conversation and led to a lot of great experiences and friendships.
It’s all about judging very situation individually. If having a ‘travel buddy’ on the ready makes you feel more comfortable, then that’s what’s right for you. But to me the worrying thing was that so many women seemed to automatically be in a place of fear when traveling. I want to be safe. I don’t want to cultivate a mindset of paranoia.
I’m not afraid to tell people I’m an American.
Taylor, a fellow English teacher and world traveller, published a Letter to Americans Pretending to be Canadians when they Travel on her blog Taylor’s Tracks. Her message was a simple one – there’s a negative stereotype of Americans in some places, but when you travel you have the chance to change that. Not everyone can travel to the States and you might be the only American a person meets. Why not use that opportunity for genuine cultural exchange and to reinforce a positive image of Americans?
I thought her blog post was well-articulated and left a positive comment on it. I’ve never lied about being an American while traveling, though to be honest here in Serbia is the first time I’ve been even mildly tempted to. I didn’t think anything of it until a Serbian friend said his Irish friends were hassled a bit by Serbians who thought they were Americans. It’s true, the US has made their relationship with Serbia difficult. But I decided to be honest about where I’m from. The Serbian people are seriously the friendliest people I’ve ever met and I’ve never felt unsafe.
But I was curious the reactions other travelers would have to the article, so I stopped by a few days later. I was shocked by how other readers got defensive.
It’s true that sometimes people treat you like crap if you say you’re from the States (though I’ve experienced more hassle from other travelers who like to make fun of Americans than locals who treat me poorly). But that’s not a safety issue. And if someone treats you horribly and you respond respectfully and politely, you have the chance to change someone’s mind about negative stereotypes, than I say it’s worth it.
I do have an unfair advantage in this game. I get to say I’m from New York. The glitz and glamor of those two words supersedes even my nationality.
Place I was most worried about my safety: Oslo.
I’m not saying there are no problems and you should be totally transparent with every rando you meet. No. If there’s ever a situation where you feel unsafe or threatened, do what you need to to keep yourself safe. There are plenty of dangerous people out there. I make decisions to keep myself out of sketchy situations, familiarize myself with typical scams before I travel, and stay hyper alert.
Here are a few ways I stay safe when traveling and reject fear:
- I don’t wear headphones when walking around.
- I don’t let people know where I’m staying.
- I don’t flash my electronics or expensive jewelry.
- I walk confidently.
- I read reviews extensively when using the sharing economy.
- I ask different people the same questions to see if there’s a consensus about safety.
- I don’t walk around at night in places I’m not familiar with.
- I connect with other solo travelers on Facebook in case we need each other.
- I make sure multiple people have my accommodation information.
- I straight up walk away if ever I’m uncomfortable in a situation.
- I don’t connect with people I don’t know on Facebook.
- I don’t have crazy nights out.
- I don’t take back streets at night, even if they’re familiar to me.
- If I feel uncomfortable with someone walking behind me, I stop or duck into a store until they pass.
- If someone on the street starts talking to me, I get super aware of my belongings and anyone else who comes close to me.
- All my bags have zippers and some also have flaps to prevent pickpockets.
- When someone on the street starts talking to me, I only slow down, not stop, at least at first.
- I carry a knife.
As a solo female traveler, I am constantly aware of the people around me and the situations I’m in. But I don’t live in a constant state of paranoia where I’m scared to travel.
So I was just shocked to see how many travelers seem genuinely be scared to travel.
What do you guys think? Am I too flippant about safety when traveling? What do you do to stay safe when traveling? Share your tips in the comments below!