Whether you're traveling solo, or with family and friends, safety should always be a priority. I love going on my adventures, but I’m also fairly cautious because a lot of my travels have me going to new places as a solo female traveler. With that said, travel shouldn’t be scary, it should be fun, and a way to expand your view of the world and personal experience. Luckily, I’ve never had a really serious safety issue happen, but there have been a few close calls that I’ve learned from. I always like to share my experiences in the hope that they'll help with your own travel plans as well, so here's a list of the lessons I've learned over the years, and the tricks I've adopted, both traveling with a group and on my own, that will hopefully come in handy should the need arise.
1) Trust Your Gut:
This one goes without saying...Even if all is well and there’s nothing to worry about, if something doesn’t feel right, or if those little hairs on the back of your neck stick up, then something may not be right. Whether it’s a particular route, taxi driver, or even a helpful stranger, if something feels off, it may be. When moments like that happen, it’s important to trust your gut, play it safe, and more importantly try to exit the situation. This is also very context dependent. For example, I once checked into a hotel room by myself for a work trip. The hotel was a fairly well-known chain but it was very isolated with only 1 or 2 others guests who were staying there. When I got into the elevator there were quite a few strange looking men who wouldn’t stop staring at me, but it was the way in which they were doing this that made me uncomfortable. I could have stayed in the room feeling uncomfortable, but again, why risk it? I went downstairs and just calmly told the front desk I had an emergency and needed to leave. That’s it, I didn’t explain anything or give away too much information, I just said I needed to go and promptly exited and checked in at a more centrally located hotel that had more people milling around.
2) Act Confident:
This one is also important in my opinion. Whether you’re a well-seasoned traveler or experiencing a new place for the first time, confidence is key when it comes to safety. Now I don’t mean to say you should be overconfident and act like nothing bad will happen, but when you’re out and about it’s important to look like you know what you’re doing. Many times, pickpockets or ‘travel predators’ will target folks who look completely out of their element, which is where confidence comes in and a ‘fake it til you make’ approach helps. For example, when traveling alone (especially as a woman), there are many times random men will come up to me or 'cat call' me from across the street. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes part of life, but it's something that really makes me uncomfortable when I’m in a foreign country. In this case, I give a confident and somewhat forceful ‘no’ when I’m propositioned with something I don’t want. It also helps to accompany that no with an unwavering ‘leave me alone’, don't mess with me expression. Again even if you’re uneasy, fake it til you make it, and pretend you’re confident in where you’re going and what you’re doing, it will make you seem like much less of a target.
3) Be Prepared and Know Where You're Going:
This previous point brings me to my next point. Having flexibility when you’re traveling is a great thing. We can’t always structure our itinerary 100%; however, with that said, it’s always best to try to prepare yourself by getting the 'lay of the land' and researching your destination beforehand. For me, that means studying a map of a city I’m going to, to try to get a general layout in my mind of where I’m staying and the direction of the major sites I’ll be traveling to. If this isn’t your cup of tea and you’re terrible with directions, then make sure you have the right kind of technology that can support you. Whether that’s with GPS or Google Maps, always have a way of finding out where you are and where you’re going. You can also do some pre-trip research by looking up the crime rates, natural disasters, and political instability of your destination on The U.S. State Department website.
4) Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Help:
If all else fails don’t be afraid to ask for help. We’re all pretty busy and going about our daily lives, and I do think people are generally good and want to help each other. This can range from helping with directions, like the time I went to Japan and needed help navigating the subways and trains. Japan is one of the friendliest (and most courteous) countries I’ve ever been to and everyone I asked for help was more than willing to show me, or physically take me to the stop I was looking for. Help can also come in other forms, like when you’re feeling unsafe. This happened to me once when I was traveling by night train back from Venice in Italy. Unfortunately, I did end up missing my stop and didn’t get off where I was supposed to. I then decided to get off at the next stop and figured I would circle back around and go in the other direction. What I didn’t realize was that because it was a night train, there were no more direct lines at that time of night and I really panicked.
My phone was dying and I found myself in the middle of nowhere, at night, by myself. Of the few people who were still at the station, there were a group of guys who were staring at me from across the platform with looks I’d love to forget… I tried leaving the train station to take a taxi all the way back to where I needed to go but even those had finished running for the night. Not knowing what to do, I suddenly saw a young girl pull up to the station in her car. I calmly went over to her and said something to the extent of “Hi, I’m alone and a little scared, I missed my train and don’t know what to do because I don’t think there are any more.” This was a little risky in and of itself, but when in doubt ladies, find another female or family to connect with. She was absolutely wonderful, her name was Danielle (I’ll never forget her), and she was there to pick up a friend. When she heard I was in a bind, she got out of her car and was able to help me look up an alternative route (since she was Italian, and a native that understood the train routes) that would eventually get me closer to the town I needed to go to. She was a complete stranger, but really came through for me and I’ll never forget her help.
5) Don't Bring Attention to Yourself:
This one is self explanatory right? Again, it depends on the context and group setting you find yourself in, but when I travel, and especially internationally, I do not bring attention to myself. It’s about safety, but it’s also about respecting other cultures and representing my own in a respectful way. I mean who wants to be the loud, annoying or even rude out of towner? Not me…I try to blend in for a number of reasons, but also act like I belong in the city I find myself in so that I'm not a tourist target.
6) Dress Appropriately:
This one is probably more relevant for the ladies on here, but it goes without saying that dressing appropriately is really important when it comes to traveling (especially solo). It's also an act of respect in some places too. For example, I'd never visit a cathedral or mosque without covering my shoulders or hair, and I'd never step foot in a temple in Asia without taking off my shoes, in fact they probably wouldn't let me anyway. Side note: if you've read any of my blog posts from my time in Japan, you'll find that one thing to pack is nice socks because you'll frequently be asked to take your shoes off in many places like hotels and even restaurants. You don't want to be caught out with dirty socks full of holes that you'd be embarrassed to show others. So always look up the locations you're traveling to and dress appropriately, not only for weather, but also out of respect, and adding to the point above that you don't want to draw any more unnecessary attention to yourself than you need to.
7) Always Tell Someone Where You'll Be:
This is probably one of my top safe travel practices. I always, always, always tell someone (usually my parents and sister) where I'm going to be by creating a google doc and sharing it with them. I include the flight information, hotel information and a tentative itinerary. Even if things change I can always go into the doc and change them along the way. It's really important to me that someone knows where I am (in general), especially when traveling solo. This doesn't have to mean nailing down every single detail, but some type of itinerary does help as well as ALSO making copies of everything including your ID and passport and giving copies to family or friends at home in case of an emergency.
8) When in Doubt or Feeling Afraid, Lie with Confidence:
This is a subtle tip I've learned over the years. Even the smartest, most travel savvy folks get nervous at times. It's natural because you just never know what might pop up. In these cases, I've learned it's really best to act unafraid and walk with confidence when I'm feeling nervous or uneasy. This also speaks to the 'acting confident and not bringing attention to yourself' points I mentioned above as well. I've definitely had moments where I've found myself walking around a random city square, in a brand new city, in a brand new country looking for some site or destination. I never want to look like a tourist who's lost or looking around, and I never want to walk around like I'm confused or scared, so I always try to look like I know where I am and where I'm going. I can't tell you how many times I've seen pickpockets target unsuspecting tourists because they look completely oblivious and lost. I also can't tell you how many times I've been left alone by these types of people because I tend to walk with a confident, "don't mess with me, I know where I'm going" look on my face. Trust me, it matters when it comes to safety and not getting targeted.
9) Avoid Substances When Traveling Solo:
When traveling alone (especially in unfamiliar places), it's really best to avoid indulging in drinks or substances. This one also goes without saying, especially if you're female or traveling solo. We all know alcohol or other substances leaves you with an increased sense of confidence, and can lead to you making risky decisions you otherwise wouldn't. If you're with friends, in a group, and walking around together OK, but if you're solo I would just avoid it. I broke this rule once in Venice and regretted it. I was having such a lovely time, enjoying my dinner at a cafe, watching the people in Carnival costumes go by that I just kept ordering wine. I wasn't drunk, but the guys definitely swarmed me because I was tipsy. I had to make a super conscious effort to be careful, which wasn't the easiest thing in the world to do, especially when you're in that "I'm in a new city, this is so exciting!" travel bliss state of mind. I also ended up missing my train exits and panicked at how I would get back to my hotel which was in a different city. Everything turned out OK, and I didn't get into trouble, but I was just lucky in this case. I would definitely recommend avoiding this, especially if you're in the middle of traveling from place to place.
10) Use Common Sense and Have Fun:
This last one is a no-brainer, just have common sense. When the hairs on the back of your neck stick up believe them. When someone looks suspicious, you don't need to engage or be rude, but you can also walk the other way. Don't walk alone, and especially not in a dark alley at night. Traveling should be fun and will be one of the most amazing experiences of your life, but using common sense when it comes to safety is one of the things that will help you create those lifelong memories. I mean who wants to look back at their European adventure and remember that you got pickpocketed or hustled in some way?
I hope these tips are helpful to you. Again, I don't like to live life in fear, but I'm also not naive and realize things do happen. By having a better sense of how the world works and planning for multiple outcomes, you're much more likely to have a great time and make those amazing memories.
I'd love to hear about any other tips and tricks you've learned in your travels over the years also!
Happy (and safe) travels!