Safe Solo Travel

by Gray Cargill on July 27, 2008

If you’ve been hesitant to travel solo because of fear for your safety in a strange place, read on.

It’s perfectly normal to feel some anxiety when traveling to a new place, particularly alone. With solo travel, your best defense is to do your research ahead of time and know what you’re getting yourself into. If you are from the U.S. and you’re traveling to another country, this can be especially important. What is the culture like where you’re going? Do women have the same freedoms there as here? Will you have to dress differently than you’re used to? What are the laws there? You do not want to inadvertently break the law and wind up in some foreign prison and become the topic of a Lifetime Movie-of-the-Week, do you? Future solo traveler, let me introduce you to your new best friend, the Internet.

Seriously, the best way to calm your fears is to find out the facts about where you’re going and what it’s really like there from other solo travelers who have been there. There are tons of online message boards (TripAdvisor, Fodors, Frommers, Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Travel Forum, TravelBlog, etc.) where you can read about other travelers’ experiences and post your own questions while you’re planning your trip.

But some safety tips are pretty universal no matter where you’re going. Below are 20 of my favorite tips for safe solo travels.

1. While you’re still in the planning stages, check the State Department website for travel warnings and travel alerts for the country you plan to visit, if it’s not your own. The political situation in some countries can change very rapidly from safe to unsafe, especially for tourists.

2. Know before you go where the safe and unsafe neighborhoods are and stay in the safe ones. Stay in well-lit, well-traveled areas. I know that a lot of people prefer to be “travelers” instead of “tourists,” meaning they’d rather stay away from tourist areas and hang with the locals to get a better feel for how the locals really live. That’s great, I admire that, but if you’re going to do it, do your research ahead of time because you still need to know where it’s safe for you to go and where it isn’t.

3. Be alert to your surroundings at all times. Don’t zone out and don’t walk around in a strange place listening to your mp3 player instead of listening for the sound of footsteps following you or people trying to warn you you’re about to get hit by a car.

4. Don’t bring valuables with you (including expensive jewelry and watches) when you travel. It’s like painting a bullseye on your back. Keep your wallet/cash/credit cards/id in a front pocket (an inside pocket is preferable) where it’s more difficult for someone to grab them. A money belt or moneyholder that you wear around your neck and tuck inside your shirt isn’t a bad idea. If you’re a woman, the old “stash it in the bra” trick works just fine for cash, too. If you’re carrying a purse, keep it tight to your body at all times with your hand over the opening. Bring 2 forms of ID with you and 2 credit cards (if you can) and keep them in separate, safe places (one on you and one in your hotel safe, for instance) so if one gets stolen, you still have the other. If you’re staying in a hotel where there is an in-room safe or safety deposit box at the front desk, use them. Also limit who sees the inside of your wallet. Don’t open it in front of the panhandler on the street corner to see if you’ve got any bills small enough to give him.

5. Avoid places and people that don’t feel “right” to you. Listen to your instincts. If the hair on the back of your neck is standing up, you’re in danger. Get out of the area or situation immediately. You may not consciously know why, and you may even feel silly or embarrassed about it, but your subconscious is obviously aware of something you’re not. Listen to it. It could save your life.

6. Try to blend in and look as though you’ve been there a million times before. Walk with purpose to wherever you are going. Try not to look too much like a tourist (ditch the fanny pack!). Check the map before you get out on the street (where checking a map will immediately peg you as a tourist). As an avid photographer, it’s often hard for me not to look like a tourist as I’m running around taking pictures of everything, but I can at least look like someone who knows my way around because I’ve been there before.

7. Keep your hotel room door locked at all times, whether you’re in the room or not. If the door does not have a deadbolt, you might consider jamming a chair in front of the door at night while you sleep. If you get to your room and the lock doesn’t work, don’t accept the room.

8. Never stay in ground floor rooms; it’s too easy for someone to enter via the window. Be sure you know exactly how many doors away from yours the exit to the stairs is, in case of a fire. I like to carry a small flashlight with me, so if I need to find my way out of the hotel in the dark (during a fire or blackout), I can.

9. Don’t overindulge in alcohol while traveling solo. Your judgment becomes impaired, you become vulnerable, and you don’t have anyone watching your back. It’s a perfect storm for crime. No matter what you are drinking in public, always keep an eye on it or a hand over it so no one else has the opportunity to slip something unfriendly into it.

10. Ladies, I know they look great on you, but if you’re alone, don’t wear tight little miniskirts and high heels you can’t run in. I’d avoid showing too much cleavage as well, to keep from sending the wrong signals to the wrong men.

11. Guard your personal space. If someone starts invading your personal space, move away from them. Pickpockets often try to take advantage of crowded conditions to get in close enough to lift your wallet. If you can’t avoid being in a crush (like on a subway train or at a popular tourist attraction), keep your hands on your money so no one else can get theirs on it. (And anyone who invades your personal space when it’s not crowded is just creepy.)

12. Do NOT tell people that you’re traveling alone. Go ahead and get 2 room keys at the front desk as if someone is sharing your room with you. Even if you’re certain the person you’re talking to is “safe”–the front desk clerk at your hotel, the kindly elderly gentleman you bumped into at the restaurant, etc.–you never know who else might be listening. (Okay, I admit, I break this rule on occasion because I’m pathetically honest, but that’s me. Plenty of  women traveling solo lie and say their “boyfriend is taking a nap in the room” or whatever, and some even wear fake wedding bands to keep men from hitting on them. Whatever works.) In her article, Top Safety Tips for Solo Travel, Evelyn Kanter offers this great advice for preventing people from knowing you’re alone in your room: Don’t use the doorknob room service hanger to order breakfast, as it announces to anyone walking past your room that you’re alone! Good advice.

13. If you don’t feel comfortable being alone in an elevator with someone, either don’t get in, or get out immediately, even if you’re not on your floor. If you feel like someone is following you down the hallway to your room, turn around and go back to the elevator or another public area. I know someone who was mugged in his hotel room once because someone followed him back there and accosted him as soon as he got the door open. Don’t ever stay in a situation that feels uncomfortable for you.

14. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it. If you are staying in a hotel with security and you don’t feel comfortable walking alone to your room at night, ask security to escort you to your door. You should also feel comfortable asking security for an escort to your car in the darkened hotel parking garage if you don’t feel comfortable going there alone.

15. Leave your hotel room light on at night when you’re out so when you get back, you walk into a well-lit room, where you can see everything. I know some people also leave their TVs on when they’re not in the room, so people passing by will assume someone is in there. (Just be sure not to leave it on too loud; your next-door neighbor may want to sleep.)

16. Carry the number of your hotel and a taxi company with you, as well as a cell phone. If you’re traveling outside the U.S., have the number of the U.S. Embassy on you at all times and know how to call the police in case you need them.

17. Make sure someone back home has all your contact information, where you’re staying, flights you’re on, your cell phone number, etc. Make arrangements to check in with them periodically to let them know you’re okay. This may seem silly to independent types, but if, God forbid, something happened to you and you were unable to get help for yourself, wouldn’t you want to know that someone would miss you within a day, not a week?

18. Try to avoid heated confrontations–road rage, sidewalk rage, and pretty much any other kind of rage can turn into an ugly situation very quickly. Try to shrug off idiotic behavior by others. Not only will that keep you safe from violent harm, but it’ll keep you healthy. Stress kills.

19. If you’re traveling to a country where they speak another language, try to learn a few basic phrases before you get there so you can communicate if you find yourself in trouble and need help.

20. Never, ever, ever go off in a car or to a private place with a stranger or strangers, no matter how nice or safe they may seem. Hang out with them in public places instead. Especially do not invite new friends to your hotel room. I know, people break this rule every day of the week for obvious reasons, but it’s stupid. Sure, it may seem like a good idea to have a little vacation fling with that hottie you met on the dance floor, until you wake up in the morning with your wallet or a kidney missing. All joking aside, robbery is sometimes the least of your worries when you bring someone you just met back to your room. Play it safe out there.

Reading the above tips may leave you thinking that a) I’m paranoid; or b) the world is full of big bad wolves waiting to eat Little Red Riding Hood. Both are probably a little true. Most people you encounter during solo travel are regular people, just like you. It’s the few predators you have to look out for. By being prepared, you distinguish yourself from less savvy travelers and tourists, which in turn, puts you in a safer position than others. Most criminals and predators do not want to place themselves in any danger, so they go for easy targets. As long as you show them you’re not an easy target, they’ll move on to someone else and leave you alone.

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