As a Woman, Can I Really Travel Without Much Fear for my Safety?
Ask Rolf: Vagabonding traveler Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel
06.30.08 | 2:29 PM ET
I want to go backpacking for a year around the world, but as a woman, I’m always wondering how safe it is. Can I realistically jump on a plane now without too much fear for my safety?
Traveling the world as a female shouldn’t be a problem. These days, women travelers go to the same places and do the same things on the road as their male counterparts. Not only is there a wide body of literature to prove this, but a cursory visit to any travel scene in the world will reveal similar numbers of male and female vagabonders. Despite this seeming equality, however, women do have a few unique challenges to confront as they travel from place to place.
For example, most foreign streets are as safe or safer than the streets at home, but—as with home—you must be wary of where you wander. Use your guidebook and word of mouth to know which areas to avoid, and never walk alone at night. Always be alert and aware of your surroundings, especially at night. If you ever feel uncomfortable on your own in some part of the world, there’s always safety in numbers. Even as a solo traveler, it’s always easy to find temporary company in other travelers (male and female alike) should you feel the need. Just go to a local backpacker guesthouse and strike up a conversation. Odds are, you’ll find plenty of people headed in the same direction as you.
Writer and world traveler Stephanie Elizondo Griest, whose recent book 100 Places Every Woman Should Go gives tips and inspiration for female travelers, asserts that women have distinct advantages as travelers. “I would argue that you are actually safer as a lone woman on the road than any man or group,” she told me in an email. “The reason: Women get looked after.”
Stephanie goes on to say this:
I discovered this on my very first solo expedition in 1996. I caught a bus from Prague to the medieval town of Cesky Krumlov and arrived in the middle of a thunderstorm, without a hotel reservation. As I made my way toward the town square, I met dozens of soggy backpackers trekking back to the bus station because they couldn’t find a room for the night. The town was celebrating its famous “Festival of the Five Petal Rose” and every bed was booked.
The rain soon became a downpour, and I darted into a pension for cover. The clerk looked up and barked “No rooms.” I asked for permission to stand there until the storm passed and she told me to go to my hotel. When I said that I didn’t have one, she told me to join my friends. When I said that I didn’t have any of those either, she muttered something in Czech and grabbed the phone. After a few calls, she scribbled an address on a sheet of paper and handed it to me. “I found you a room. Now hurry up and change out of those wet clothes!”
As women, we are constantly becoming someone’s daughter, mother or grandmother. We elicit the empathy—and curiosity—of the people of the planet. There is always extra shelter or food for us.
* Look and act confident, even when you aren’t. Don’t act lost (even when you are), and don’t stand in the street with your map out, since potential criminals and hustlers will take this as an invitation to “help” you.
* When traveling alone, be cautious toward offers of hospitality, especially if the hospitality separates you from safe public areas. When in your hotel, make a habit of keeping your door locked at all times, and be suspicious if someone knocks on your door late at night.
* The best way to avoid getting harassed in conservative cultures is to abide by the local dress code. Additionally, it never hurts to tone down your everyday courtesies on the road, since there are times when a friendly smile or a reflexive “thank you” will give men the wrong idea. If a man makes an unwanted pass at you, shoot him down firmly and unambiguously. If he persists or becomes aggressive (and especially if he tries to grope you), a loud, angry “NO!” will shame him by drawing public attention to his actions. Often, you can get rid of unwanted attention by mentioning that your big, strapping boyfriend is due to return any minute. Even if no such boyfriend exists, your harasser usually won’t stick around to meet him.
* Most traveler scenes (and beach hangouts in particular) have plenty of local Casanovas who are ready and eager to sweep you off your feet with declarations of love. If you’re looking for a fling, fine. Just don’t let yourself get charmed and flattered into an uncomfortable situation. Tourist hustlers have their schemes down, so hang on to your wallet as well as your heart.
* Most men in cultures around the world are honorable and respectful toward female travelers—but the few obnoxious exceptions will always stand out. Sooner or later, you will get harassed, so be ready to deflect the harassment with a no-nonsense attitude—and never let it get to you emotionally.