“You’re so brave!”
“Weren’t you scared at all?”
“Didn’t you get lonely?”
Bravery, fear and loneliness are not words that describe my experiences of solo travel, yet these comments are ones I’ve received from many over the years. To me, referencing solo travel as brave diminishes the meaning of bravery, and what the term stands for. Me, swanning off on my holidays, isn’t brave.
So, why do people say that to me, and to many other women who travel solo?
Particularly when a study in 2016 suggested that two-thirds of solo travellers are women, more women are travelling alone than ever before, and more than men.
There is a common misconception that solo travel – for women – is dangerous, risky, and unsafe. How can the travel experiences of millions of women across the globe be undefined by those three words or other terms that have similar connotations?
Teenage me remembers when Lucie Blackman went missing and the news of her subsequent death. It painted an early picture that solo travel for a young woman was risking oneself to rape and/or death. Not helped by movies such as Taken, either. Naturally, only ever hearing of the horror stories, travel was just not something I considered that I would ever want to do.
This wasn’t to last forever, and by the time I reached my late twenties, I became a solo-travel convert, realising that the idea of solo female travel was unsafe, as ridiculous. Frankly, anything we do in life, no matter our gender or where we go, has an element of risk involved.
I’ve been taking flights between London and Istanbul unaccompanied for years, even as a teenager. Is that considered solo travel? To some degree, yes, but I would say my first proper taste of solo travel and experiencing new cultures was when I went on a two-week organised tour around Italy. I thought that if I absolutely hated it or something went wrong, I was a short flight away from home.
Those two weeks were life-changing for me. The experience opened my eyes to the art of possible, of all the things in my life that had been holding me back from exploring the world. Many of my own preconceptions about travel and travelling with strangers diminished. I loved making new friends, and I am still in touch with many of them to this day.
I’m sure you’re thinking, that’s all well and good, but it’s not real solo travel. You’re with people, you have a tour guide, and you’re carted from one location to the next. And yes, you’d be right, but that form of solo travel shouldn’t be dismissed nevertheless. The most important thing about safe solo female travel is to do what makes you feel comfortable. And the term safety could encompass many things, and not just in regards to physical violence.
I was so nervous and scared before that first Italy trip. Every tour group I’ve subsequently been on, I’m always thinking, will I have a nice roommate? Will I make friends? Will I get sick from the food hygiene standards?
Three years after my first solo tour, after being made redundant from my job, I decided I wanted to explore what the world had to offer, and go backpacking. I remember that excited feeling, those butterflies in my stomach, as I made that decision and told family and friends that I had planned to visit South East Asia and Australia for three months. To say that my parents weren’t happy was an understatement, and although still not having children myself, I could see why they had misgivings and were worried about me.
My parents, like me, had only seen negativity about solo travel in the media. But to ease my nerves and to help calm theirs, I thought, South East Asia was and still is a British backpacker hotspot, with thousands of tourists returning home after having the time of their lives. Surely, I wouldn’t be any different? Yet, at the back of my mind I was thinking, how can I make the experience safe.
I got planning. I decided the route I was going to take, researching the ways I could travel in between each place, and bookmarking the different hostels in each area. Being able to get in contact with people was important to me, so I also noted how I could get a phone SIM card with internet access from each country I visited.
This made me feel comfortable and confident, and also gave my loved ones some reassurance.
Naturally, I had so many apprehensions. Particularly having never stayed in a hostel before. I wasn’t concerned about my safety, but more so my belongings. I had read many stories online of belongings being stolen and passports going missing. Yes, this may be the case for some, in my experience, it couldn’t have been any further from the truth. Everyone was like me. They were in the same boat, with the same concerns. It’s about being sensible; having common sense and keeping your wits about you.
I took a variety of padlocks with me, familiarised myself with the local currency and downloaded maps of the area to my phone along with a translation app.
This isn’t just about solo female travellers being safe, it’s about everyone being – and feeling – safe. The situations that concerned me aren’t unique to women, yet the dangers of solo travel seem to be perpetuated towards women. Do men get told, “you’re so brave!” when sharing tales of their adventures abroad? I really doubt it.
I speak with 10 years of experience of solo travel, with a confidence that I appreciate some may not have. So, if you’re looking to dip your toe in the water and do solo travel for the first time, here are my dos and don’ts to what I would’ve told my younger self.
Do check the UK Government website before travelling, as they provide advice for every country.
Do your research on the currency of the country you’re visiting and familiarise yourself with the notes and coins. This is so you’re not shuffling around money for ages in public and potentially drawing attention to yourself. There are free currency converter apps available, which is handy to see how much something costs compared to currency back home.
Do your accommodation research before you leave the UK, even if you’re planning on booking as you go along, saving your preferred hostels or hotels as bookmarks. I used a hostel booking app to save my favourites, which I also shared with my family.
Do figure out how you’re going to get from the airport to your accommodation. I have found the website Rome2Rio really helpful to plan this.
Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do back home. Don’t get too drunk, if you’re going out to bars and clubs, know how you’re going to get back to where you’re staying.
Do download maps to your phone. I use maps.me, which was recommended to me by a fellow traveller I met in Cambodia.
Do use a currency card. I’ve had one for years, and use it to withdraw cash, meaning I never have too much money on me. But do take some cash with you from home, and spare debit or credit cards, just in case.
Do eat street food. I read article upon article about how street food shouldn’t be eaten. Like with any food establishment, suss it out. Look at their standards of hygiene and food preparation. Most days I ate delicious vegetable noodle stir-fries for $1.
Don’t let street sellers put bracelets on you, or give you roses. Just politely decline and keep walking away. They say it’s a gift and free, but the moment you take the item they try charging you. Once in a city (although I can’t remember where), someone came running up to me and put birdseed in my hand. I ignored them, stretched out my hand to let the seed fall, and kept on walking.
Let’s face it, all travel comes with certain risks, and even having gone away by myself several times, I’ve continued to use tour groups in countries that I find slightly inaccessible due to the culture and language, such as Cuba and Egypt. On those tours, there were quite a few solo male travellers too.
There is an elephant in the room here: women’s rights. I don’t feel like I’m qualified to talk about the topic other than from my own experiences of being a woman, but it’s something that I’m mindful about. There are some countries that I wouldn’t visit due to their record of how they treat women, and perhaps that is where men do have an unfair advantage?
The shift needs to be made to consider that all elements of travel may have challenges, and some challenges aren’t limited to women. Solo travel can’t be only exciting and adventurous for men, but dangerous and risky for women. It’s just not the case.
We can all help with the shift that needs to be made. Don’t be afraid to do something you’ve always wanted to do. If you have a friend or meet someone who has done solo female travel, please stop with the unnecessary praise that they’re brave. We don’t want to hear it, and personally, it makes me cringe. The ongoing narrative and belief that travel is something to fear, is part of the problem.
The world isn’t as scary as you might think.