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

Rolf Potts

Dear Rolf,

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?

—Sandrine, U.K.

Dear Sandrine,

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.

Stephanie’s book has plenty of tips and travel suggestions for the woman wanderer. Here are five female-travel tips from my own book, Vagabonding:

* 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.


Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


11 Comments for As a Woman, Can I Really Travel Without Much Fear for my Safety?

Ashley Higson 06.30.08 | 5:12 PM ET

Hi, Rolf!

I’m going to Mexico in about 4 weeks, and it’ll be my first time out of the country so I’m excited, but I also have jitters a little!  What advice would you give for “traveling newbies” like myself?

-Ashley, Georgia

pam 06.30.08 | 11:55 PM ET

Here I was all ready to be like this: “What does HE know?” and yet, I am like this: THIS is all excellent advice. Well done.

Two things I’d add:
1. If you’re stuck (lost, somewhere funky, whatever) ask other women for advice. It’s not a surefire guarantee of saftey, but hey, stack the odds in your favor.

2. For the love of the patron saints of travelers WEAR GOOD SHOES. If you have to make a run for it (worst case scenario) you don’t want to be in absurd footwear. I *think* it was the writer Annie Lamott who I heard say “Men don’t wear shoes they can’t run in, why do women.”

boldlygosolo 07.01.08 | 2:42 PM ET

This may sound corny, but here it is: people are basically good.
My niece was apprehensive about going to London for a semester because she’d read in the paper that terrorists live there and they hate Americans. Sheesh, I said to her. Do you think they’re waiting for you, specifically, to get off the plane so they can harm you?
For the most part, people on the streets are going about their business. They’re shopping for dinner, tending to their families, worrying about their jobs, whatever.
There will be bad guys wherever you are, whether in Kansas or Katmandu. It’s not a good enough reason to stay home.
Follow the excellent advice above and then try to chill. Anxiety usually stems from not knowing a place. Fear often gets blown out of proportion. Trip and fall in some faraway, exotic country and I’d be willing to guarantee you will have strangers running to help you. People are basically good. Really.
PS - I got mugged in Boston but never while traveling abroad. The times I got groped in Italy and Greece I was with a girlfriend and a boyfriend respectively. It didn’t save me the annoyance.
PPS - My niece had a great time and she wasn’t approached by a single terrorist…

Scribetrotter 07.03.08 | 5:54 AM ET

I’ve been backpacking solo since my teens and every single one of these tips resonates… I would also add:
- don’t act as though you’re alone - I usually wear a wedding band and tell people my ‘husband’ is over there in the next street/village/town
- ignore untoward comments - the best encouragement you can give men is to say no or to ask them to leave - in many cultures this is actually seen as encouragement
- don’t accept medicine or drugs from strangers, and always keep your eye on your drink
- keep your valuables in a money belt, not in a backpack (I learned this one the hard way)
- above all, be alertand know your environment - the best safety net is to do your research properly before you travel and find out as much as you can about the culture’s attitudes in general, and towards women in particular

Journeywoman 07.08.08 | 4:20 PM ET

Hi Rolf,
I’m loving all these tips. They are great. I invite all of your readers to pop by http://www.journeywoman.com. Our mandate since 1994 is to inspire women to travel safely and well. We promise you 100’s of tips to make your journey easier and safer. And remember, appropriate clothing for women is so very important when it comes to staying safe. Check out, ‘What Should I Wear, Where’ written by women travellers for women travellers. It’s easy to find that section at our website. Safe journeys, everybody!

france 07.11.08 | 7:14 AM ET

Are there vagabonding clubs or groups that travel together?

leonie wells 07.12.08 | 5:05 AM ET

AFTER JUST READING EAT PRAY LOVE I WAS VERY INTERESTED IN YOUR COMMENTS FROM A MALE PERSPECTIVE I ENJOYED THEM AS MUCH AS THE BOOK AND YES THERE ARE DOUBLE STANDARDS BUT HAS THERE EVER BEEN A TIME WITHOUT MEN HAVING DOUBLE STANDARDS…..UNFORTUNATELY NOW WOMEN NEED TO EMPLOY THE SAME STANDARDS AS WE’RE ALL IN THE SAME BOAT…..NOT VERY NICE BUT WHO MADE THE RULES.

Wendy Perrin 07.12.08 | 10:29 AM ET

Two more tips for women traveling in conservative cultures, based on my experiences exploring the Middle East back when I was single:
(1) Wear a wedding ring.
Just buy a cheap fake gold band to wear. This serves as a signal of your acceptability and can open doors that otherwise won’t open for you.
(2) Carry photos of children.
Even if you’re childless, carry a picture of your young nieces and nephews or other small relatives. Again, a big door opener with the locals you’ll meet.

Serendipity Traveler 07.28.08 | 9:14 PM ET

Women travelers will find the old saying
wherever you go there you are applies
when traveling. If you are outgoing,
friendly and curious at home,you will be the same in far flung places.
Confidence and a smile will help you
everywhere.  http://www.serendipitytraveler.com offers inspired travel for women who do not wish to travel alone and want the shared camaraderie of a small independent group. Whether embarking on your own or with other women if you bring and keep positive energy with you all shall be well!

Lara_Dunston 08.15.08 | 5:03 AM ET

A couple more tips for women travelling in the Middle East (where I’m based):
* seek out local women first, and through befriending them and their families and friends, you can communicate with men more ‘respectably’
* on buses and trains where you can freely choose where to sit, always sit next to a woman; by the same token, if a man attempts to sit next to you, him discourage him. By either sitting next to a man or encouraging him to sit next to you, you’re being seen to encourage attention

Ashley - you’ll be perfectly safe in Mexico. I’ve travelled solo in Mexico, Central and South America and never had any problems.

Susan 11.12.08 | 3:51 PM ET

Join like-minded travelers and keep your wits about you. Sometimes I think traveling alone as a woman keeps me safer, I’m always aware of my surroundings.

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