Perspectives on Long-Term Solo Female Travel

by Gray Cargill on June 15, 2010

Today, I’m delighted to bring you an article by guest blogger Jodi Ettenberg of Legal Nomads, a former corporate lawyer-turned-long-term-traveler from Montreal.  Jodi has been eating her way around the world for more than two years and has had many and varied experiences during her time on the road, including having her temporary home neighborhood in Thailand turn into a war zone and being shat upon multiple times by birds of many nationalities. I asked Jodi if she wouldn’t mind sharing with us her thoughts on long-term travel, from the perspective of a woman traveling alone.

jodi atop Buledi in Bagan Burma

Sitting on Buledi Temple in Bagan, Burma

As a solo female traveler who has been on the road for over 2 years, I often get emails from other women asking for reassurance or tips before they too take the plunge and travel alone. When Gray asked me to do a guest post on her site, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to put my thoughts down in one place.

My first solo travel experience was when I went to study in France in 2001. It was my first trip overseas without family, and my first time living so far from home. I remember staying up all night just before I left and worrying myself sick. Would I make any friends? Would I even leave my room? During my first Friday in France, I forced myself to the train station and asked the attendant where the next train was headed. Annecy was the answer – a tiny, picturesque town nestled into surrounding mountains, with a beautiful lake to explore. I inhaled deeply, bought the ticket – and had one of the best weekends of my life. I wandered around town aimlessly, met other backpackers at my hostel and wrote for hours in my journal. I often wonder how my perspective would have differed had that first solo foray gone awry, but luckily for me the damage was done: I was hooked on solo travel.

Fast forward to 2008. I quit my job to pursue my dream of travelling around the world, and started out with a fellow lawyer. After I got sicker than sick and had to go home to recoup, she continued on and in September of 2008 (when I had finally recovered) I took off alone. I’ve been traveling solo since, and it is terrific.

Why Do I Love to Travel Alone?

As someone who tends to obsess over the little quirks that make a place special, I find solo travel a uniquely suitable enterprise for my personality. I am also obsessed with food, and it is an obsession that has grown over the last two years. While most travelers love to try new foods, I tend to plan my days around eating and traveling alone means that I can take the time to savor as many street stalls as possible or travel to tiny towns to try a new food. Being alone also means that there is no fixed schedule, nor anyone to consult with if I want to leave earlier than planned or stay longer in a given place. Of course, it is easy to meet people on the road, and oftentimes many of these activities involve a  new sidekick or two – but it is a tremendous comfort to know that whenever I want to move on, I can.

Do I Ever Get Lonely?

I would be lying if I said I did not have pangs of loneliness on the road, but the reality is that they remain few and far between. Watching a glorious sunset over the ruins of Bagan was great with my newfound friends, but would have been even lovelier to share with someone who knew me even more. And there have been cities or places like Iloilo City in the Philippines, where there was nary a tourist in sight and as dusk fell I found myself wistfully thinking of home. More often than not, however, I am caught up in the whirlwind of a new destination, with its exciting new foods, sights and cities or towns to explore. And let’s not downplay how incredibly easy it is to meet people on the road. All you need to do is put yourself out there and strike up a conversation with someone new – what’s there to lose?  If you two get along, you have a travel companion for the next few hours or days, or a friend for life.

Overlooking Batad The Philippines

Overlooking Batad, The Philippines

What about Getting Sick?

The only time that travelling alone became a scarier proposition is when I got sick. Luckily I have been able to rely on the kindness of strangers – rehydration salts from another hostelgoer in Burma, some charcoal pills from a newfound friend in Cambodia – when travel sickness has set in. Loneliness tends to tighten around you when you are at your weakest, and there is no question that sitting on the floor of the bathroom in a new country can take its toll on your psyche.  As clichéd as it sounds, getting through and past these moments of sickness mixed with solitude have made me feel stronger as a person. I have also made sure to repay the favour with other travellers who have gotten sick on the road. A big hug, cold water and some bananas from a new friend goes a long way when you’re feeling down.

Do I Worry About Safety?

When women write me for advice about solo travel, I always respond the same thing: first and foremost, you need to have confidence in yourself and your instincts, and you need to use common sense. When I was still saving to quit my job and travel, I would think about what it would be like to finally be on the road, and safety certainly figured prominently among any worries I had. As Gray advocated in her recent post, common sense goes a long way toward keeping yourself safe on the road. I don’t drink copious amounts of alcohol, and if I do have a beer or a drink, I never let it leave my side. I tend to pay a little more to stay in more centrally located hostels or hotels, knowing that a walk home after dark might be a problem if I were in a gloomier area.

Those basic tips aside, I also do the following:

I keep a doorstop in my backpack for those hotels where the staff seems a wee bit sketchier than I would like. Shoved between the door’s end and my floor, it gives me some piece of mind when I sleep and some extra noise if someone is trying to get in the room. Yes, this did come in handy once in the Philippines, where people tried to get in my room at 3am (I obviously switched hotels the next day).

I opened a second bank account and put in a few hundred dollars. On the whole, Asia is remarkably safe compared with some other destinations but for my travels through South America and South Africa I made sure to open a 2nd bank account and deposit a few hundred dollars of cash in the account. The reason for this is the ‘express kidnapping’, whereby tourists have been kidnapped and forced to withdraw the daily maximum from their bank accounts each day, until they drain their bank account entirely and are set free. No, this is not a common occurrence. But setting up a 2nd account took 10 minutes of my time and gives me the piece of mind to travel knowing I (hopefully) have a way out without losing all of my savings.

In parts of the world, I carry a mugger’s wallet. Again, this depends on your destination but it came in handy for me when I was mugged at knife point in Brazil. I don’t tend to carry one when I am in Asia, but having a second wallet with a few fake cards and a small bit of cash can save you a lot of hassle if you are asked to turn over your valuables. Yes, use of the mugger’s wallet is contingent upon keeping a cool head and being robbed by someone who doesn’t give you a thorough pat-down. But when it does work out – what a relief!

There is no guaranteed way to keep yourself absolutely safe, and horror stories involving women can happen on the road or at home. I try not to become too complacent in a familiar place, and keep a watchful eye wherever I go.

Jodi Headshot

Would I do It Again?

Overall, I’ve found solo travel to be a rewarding, engaging experience. I’ve made friends with locals who strike up conversations on buses and boats and trains, I’ve pushed my comfort levels by hiking up mountains alone and I’ve grown tremendously as a person over these last two years.  While I can see the benefits of traveling with a friend, I would encourage everyone to try traveling alone at least once in their lives.

Interested in long-term solo travel, but not sure where to start? You can now buy The Art of Solo Travel: A Girl’s Guide by Stephanie Lee, which contains all the basic information you need to get started on your long-term solo journey. Read my review of the book here.

Sheri March 12, 2012 at 12:32 am

Thanks for the great travel tips Jodi! I am going to buy a door stop and make a mugger’s wallet tomorrow!!! I love your blog!!!

Solo Bird February 9, 2011 at 5:40 am

I took a trip to London on my own for the first time in 2009. It was the most liberating experience I’ve had yet. I met a wonderful Australian woman who was also on her first solo trip.

I agree with traveling solo but for someone timid and introverted I’d probably stick to the more touristy areas of the world and a little less off the beaten path. Or, sign up with Women Welcome Women Worldwide and meet a friend that is a local that I can conceivably travel safely with in a more rural area.

http://www.womenwelcomewomen.org.uk/

~Cheers~

Rire00 August 30, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Awesome post. 99% of my travels have been solo. The 1% that weren’t were a mixed bag of missed opportunities because friends didn’t share interest and lack of having space to take it all in.

It’s really daunting, however, to think of the things you’ve been through. I’ve never experienced such things (except a NEAR mugging in Italy- ironically, when I was with someone else) but I’ve also never ventured outside of Asia, Europe, and North America. This year I plan on heading to not-women-friendly countries in the Middle East and part of me feels confident in my abilities given my previous experiences, however, another part of me wishes I could find someone that would accompany me for peace of mind. Sometimes that’s not an option and I refuse to put my life on hold because others don’t share in my passions.

Reading this gives me some certainty…I’ll definitely take all of the practical advices here. Everything in life comes with risk. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Ayngelina July 18, 2010 at 3:56 am

Great post, I love traveling solo and while it has its low points I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Janice July 12, 2010 at 8:58 pm

I too, have been to Cambodia, in Sihanoukville (http://www.sihanoukville.info/) to be precise. And I was amazed at how friendly the people there were. Such amazing folks that are very helpful and hospitable.

Jodi Ettenberg June 25, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Thanks Akila! Sorry we didn't get to meet up again on the road but a happy belated birthday and thought your 'why I quit to travel' post was terrific.

Jodi Ettenberg June 25, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Thanks, Emily! As Gray said, sometimes the situations that start out daunting turn out to be the ones we learn from and appreciate the most in retrospect. Best of luck to you in your travels.

SoloFriendly June 23, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Thanks, Emily. Sorry to hear that your one solo experience came about the way it did, but sometimes, we are forced into situations that are good for us. It's amazing what we can learn about ourselves when we're forced out of our comfort zones.

Emily June 23, 2010 at 8:10 pm

This is a wonderful post! It gives me a lot of inspiration. To someone who isn't experienced, traveling solo as a woman sounds really scary! My one experience with it wasn't so hot because it wasn't supposed to be solo (a friend had to back out at the last minute but it was too late for me to cancel). But it was exhilarating and I learned a lot about myself from that experience, so I really do want to try it again. Thanks to both you and Jodi for the inspiration!

Akila June 19, 2010 at 4:33 am

Great post Jodi! I haven't really traveled alone much cause Patrick and I have been together since I was 18 but, I think many of these tips are useful for women traveling with a spouse, too. Neither of us drink too much either because a decent majority of stories happens when people get drunk and aren't aware of their surroundings. We pay a little bit more to stay closer to better areas because the few extra dollars is worth the piece of mind.

GRRRLTRAVELER June 18, 2010 at 5:07 am

Thanks so much for the inspiring story! I still have bouts doubting my solo journeys- my safety, whether I'll enjoy myself (sometimes I want to do a bit of the glamorous nightlife scene), etc… – but the freedom to explore places with my camera or collect wonderful personal experiences is the one thing I am often glad to not have traded in. Thanks also for the safety tips. I've not tried the muggers wallet yet!

camorose June 17, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Loved this piece! As a young woman who is just starting her adventure with solo travel, it's great to see someone who has been able to sustain this lifestyle. Definitely keeping the second bank account/muggers wallet advice in mind for when I head to more dangerous destinations!

ottsworld June 17, 2010 at 4:01 am

Great article! I'm taking the doorstop idea!
Thanks for sharing!

Candice Walsh June 16, 2010 at 4:08 pm

You're definitely a lady to be admired, Jodi! Love what you do. Also, I NEVER would have thought about the door stop idea, thanks for the tip!

Legal Nomads June 16, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Thanks so much for posting, Gray. There are more and more women who seem to be travelling alone, and it is great to try and encourage people to do so. I've also been fortunate to meet some strong, bright and fascinating solo female travelers along the way, who I count as friends for life. It really is the best of both worlds, and despite bouts of loneliness or times where I am scared, I wouldn't change a thing!

For those with more specific questions, I'm happy to answer them via email – contact info is on my blog.

Jodi

Legal Nomads June 16, 2010 at 2:53 pm

Thanks Kevin, much appreciated. It was a crazy few months, but I am glad to have experienced the beginnings of the protests and then stayed through what happened at the end. Glad it was helpful.

Legal Nomads June 16, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Hi Lilly, I tend to carry a notebook around with me and write down whatever words I can. There's a post on my blog about the most important phrase I learn, which is how to say 'no worries' – indispensible! Moving from country to country, it's impossible to learn all the languages, but a few choice words definitely makes it easier. Thanks for reading!

Legal Nomads June 16, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Thanks Hannah! Glad you enjoyed. Feel free to email me via my blog too if you have more questions. It's daunting at first, but ultimately very rewarding.

-Jodi

acerlilly June 16, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Thanks for the good messages about traveling solo. Especially for women. I've been going solo since 1994, relying on Rick Steves advice. How did you learn the various languages? Traveling solo in the States is hard and very expensive without an auto, but in Europe its easy. Once you try it you won't want a travel partner. AND you'll never be alone.

HannahCB June 16, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Thanks for an inspiring post! I've always dreamed of travelling but batted the thought away with the idea that it's too dangerous as a solo woman. This has definitely given me food for thought in the future. I've just found your blog and it looks really interesting. Looking forward to hearing more about your experiences!

megan June 16, 2010 at 10:47 am

Such an inspiring post. Am only just starting out on my own trip, but am already feeling/experiencing some of these things. These tips will definitely come in handy once I start getting further off the beaten track.

Leyla June 16, 2010 at 5:11 am

What you say resonates so much! I too was on the road (a total of three years) solo and yes, I did get lonely, and I did get sick, and yes, I'd do it again in a minute. As a fellow foodie, I laughed at planning days around meals – how very familiar! And how fun that Annecy was your first weekend solo – I live just outside Annecy! Glad to have discovered a fellow nomad (thanks Gray for tracking such interesting people down!)

kevinhamel June 16, 2010 at 4:41 am

Ms Ettenberg, I came upon your tweets during the conflict in Thailand and was riveted. Thanks so much for the point of view which was available no where else. Best of luck to you!

Jack, Aye and Emma June 16, 2010 at 4:02 am

Excellent tips Jodi. Though I don't travel alone as much anymore, when the time comes, I can certainly use these tips for my daughter…Yeah I am planning ahead! :-)

Steph June 15, 2010 at 11:04 pm

As a solo female traveler planning to head out soon myself I find Jodi so inspiring! She is one cool and confident lady!

Lauren Quinn June 15, 2010 at 9:33 pm

Great tips, but above all, it really is about having the confidence and going out there and doing it. Ladies like you make me proud to be a solo female traveler!

travelingsavage June 15, 2010 at 5:12 pm

This is fantastic advice for anyone traveling alone, male or female. I second Lisa: great safety tips!

Kelly June 15, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Great article and tips! From one fellow solo Montrealer traveller to another, Bon Voyage!

Stephanie Figueroa June 15, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Great post. I feel all the more encouraged to go and plan my next big travel adventure already (solo, as mentioned, or otherwise…). ü Thanks for sharing.

JJ (RVing Toadless) June 15, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Wow, good tip on second bank account. Good insight into issues from traveling alone. My mantra: “If you need it, it will be there.” I rely on that!

Lisa at Wanderlust Women June 15, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Brava Jodi. We see and hear and experience life on the road the same way. Thanks for the great tips on the 2nd bank account and the muggers wallet. Fortunately, I've only been ripped off once so far on a London bus. Continued happy travels.

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