Howth Cliff Walk

16 Safety Tips for Solo Travel

There are a lot of women traveling solo right this minute. Go on any social channel, and you’ll find hundreds of them in every corner of the world. Solo travel for women is becoming increasingly common, and we want to help you feel comfortable getting there. The world is much safer than we think that it is, hear that it is, or are told that it is. That being said, it’s important to be smart. Here, Julianne and I offer safety tips for solo travel. We travel differently and have different risk tolerance thresholds; always, use your best discretion.

Safe Solo Travel Starts with Being Prepared

Heather: Every time I leave for a solo trip, I get many “oh my gosh, stay safe!” messages, which are nice and come from a good place. However, being a woman in the world is a daily exercise in “staying safe.” I’ve been keeping myself safe since I was a kid. So being safe on the road isn’t that different than staying safe at home; there are a few things that Julianne and I do, however, to prepare, blend, defend and be smart.

PREPARE

Julianne: I’ve learned the hard way to prep for trips to certain parts of the world so that I arrive with the clothing, gear and plans to optimize my odds for success. 

Some kinds of safety involve the food in your destination, new diseases, insects and other health risks. Some kinds of safety involve political tensions or regular but devastating weather patterns. As a solo female traveler, you can avoid putting yourself or rescue personnel at risk by brushing up on common, well-known challenges. Prepare to travel smarter by checking out our blogs on “The 10 Essentials for Hiking, Plus a Few Pro Tips,” “What’s in My Road Trip Emergency Kit,“Reasons Why You Should Register Your Trip With the State Department,” and “What You Need to Know About Getting Vaccinated Before Traveling.”

When you register with the State Department and enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), you can also read up on the country you’re visiting and learn about which districts are riskier, which types of crimes or scams are perpetrated most often, and how to avoid falling prey. There’s really a wealth of information there! Don’t let it frighten you; consider it empowering. Remember what they said in Schoolhouse Rock: Knowledge is power!

Finally, for more safety tips for solo travel, skim the US Department of State’s article on travel tips specific to women. Jot down the international phone numbers there and keep them not only on your phone, but also with your passport. 

BLEND

Heather: I always look like a tourist, even in my hometown, because I’ve almost always got my camera out, wandering around snapping pics. That’s who I am. But there are things I do when I travel to be less obvious. One of the biggest safety tips for solo travel is blending in, as best you can.

Stay safe when traveling solo by being aware of your surroundings
Solo in Ireland, Kylemore Abbey

Clothes

Heather: You’ll read a lot of conflicting information about how to spot a tourist, from the types of shoes to the clothes you wear. What I try to be most cognizant of is making sure I’m not dressed disrespectfully. Read up on the customs and culture before you travel to see if you should dress drastically differently than at home. Other than that, I typically wear what I do at home. I’m a casual person. I wear Doc Martens, gym shoes or sandals, depending on what I’m doing. When I travel, I walk a lot, so having a pair of good shoes is really important; for me, this is usually a good pair of cross-training gym shoes. On a trip to Paris I noted that residents mostly wore white gym shoes walking around the city. I had packed a white pair and actually fit in! I spiffed up my wardrobe a notch for Paris. There wasn’t any way I wasn’t going to stick out but I tried for a more refined wardrobe. One very helpful website is Travel Fashion Girl and its accompanying Facebook page.

Julianne: I wholeheartedly second reading up on customs and cultures. There are many places where you should cover your shoulders out of respect, for example. (Sometimes you won’t be admitted with certain types of clothing.) Americans seem to wear shorts much more often than people in other countries; unless you’re headed to a beach destination, take skirts or pants. I like to wear black shoes from a place like The Walking Store when in Europe, because locals tend to dress up more there. When I’m in a place where it’s dangerous to carry a bag, I choose pants with lots of pockets that button or zip. 

Jewelry and bags

Heather: Leave your expensive jewelry and handbags behind. It’s just one more thing to think about and can make you a target in certain areas. Speaking of bags, this is my favorite backpack for city wandering. It’s simple, fairly comfortable and holds a ton. I can carry a jacket, Fuji camera and lens, water bottle, snacks and wallet easily. Because it zips to the back, it’s theft-proof when you are wearing it. The straps can dig into your arms a bit when it’s hot, as they are a nylon blend and not padded, but overall, I love it. It’s also easy to pack in my carry-on. I like a small cross-body purse like this one when I’m just heading out to dinner or not carrying my cameras around.

Julianne: You may want to avoid bringing cheap jewelry that mimics expensive stuff, too. Cubic zirconia are stunning reproductions nowadays, and a thief won’t take the time to determine if it’s real before he or she swipes it from your room or your body. I love a backpack outdoors, but when I’m walking a city, I prefer a crossbody bag, because I like to be able to reach in and grab a credit card, hand sanitizer, sunglasses or whatever without stopping to slide off a backpack. I think I’m just clumsy, but handling a backpack makes me feel distracted at the exact moment when I most need to pay attention to my stuff. I also don’t like that it brands me a tourist, especially in some of the more dangerous cities I’ve visited in Central America. I edit what I carry very carefully; I only bring the minimum, and it goes in certain spots so that I can lay my hands on what I want without digging. I put a carabiner on my favorite Anntrue collapsible water bottle so that when it’s empty, I can hook it onto my crossbody strap.

In some places, I don’t carry any bag. I’ve visited cities where crime is rampant even for locals, let alone a clearly foreign woman. I wear cargo-style pants with buttons and zippers for a credit card, some local currency, some toilet paper in a baggie and my phone. I don’t even let my pockets bulge.

Navigation

Heather: I am navigationally challenged. I will literally turn the wrong way coming out of my hotel room. Every time. So using a digital map is a really important for me. What I DON’T want is to have my phone in front of my face with my maps on, which is a clear indicator that I’m not sure where I am.

The first thing I do is review my maps to get an idea of where I am and where I’m going so that when I’m on the street, I can orient myself. I set up my navigation with my walking directions and then put in one wireless earbud to give me verbal directions. Leaving only one in allows me to hear what is going on around me and behind me, and the earbud isn’t even seen under my hair. This might be my favorite safety tip for solo travel; it works well in most cities. Remember that if you are going to be using a lot of data, you need to make sure you have the right phone plan, which might include buying a local sim card or getting an eSim. Also, make sure you have a good battery pack so you don’t lose power while you are out and about!

Be purposeful. I once had a friend say, “I’ve never seen someone walk so CONFIDENTLY in the wrong direction.” Don’t stop in the middle of the sidewalk to look at your map or assess where you are. Walk with a purpose to the nearest shop or corner where you can tuck out of the way and re-orient or check your map. Nothing screams tourist like someone blocking the sidewalk. People live there and are probably trying to get wherever they need to be. Remember, you can always ask for directions. I am pretty proud of the number of times another tourist asked me for directions when I had zero clue where I was, because I look like I do! 

Quick tip: If you are in a country where you don’t speak the language, your hotel or hostel will probably have a business card at the lobby desk. Grab that so if you need to navigate back and your phone map dies or you’re taking a taxi or Uber, you can hand it to your driver. I did this in China when I had ventured off via taxi and it was so helpful when getting back. I just handed the card to my taxi driver and he knew where to take me — no translation was needed! 

Julianne: Yup, yup, yup. On a solo trip to Milan, I very confidently dragged my suitcase out of the train station and down the street a good four blocks before I realized I was going the wrong way. Because train stations and airports are magnets for scam artists, I casually acted like I was observing something, then strode off in the right direction, but without crossing paths with people who had seen me head off the other way. When I head out to walk in a new city — and I almost always walk everywhere — I make a mental note of landmarks before I leave my hotel, so that I know whether I’m on track. I walk quickly. I skim signs as fast as possible. I keep up with the flow of the locals. It can be mentally taxing to do this all day for days on end, so allow yourself a moment to get a coffee or a beer if you’re feeling a little lost. I’ve been known to buy a scarf just because I needed a minute and a place to reorient. 

Speaking of maps: If you like to have a paper map handy, because cell service might be sketchy where you’re going or you’re worried about draining your battery, tuck it inside of a local magazine and carry it there. You can “read” it inconspicuously. It’s never a bad idea to have a paper backup.

And if you get lost, don’t panic. A shopkeeper is a good resource for directions, which is why you should have the address of your hotel written in the local language. Other safety tips for solo travel: Know a major local landmark near your hotel, in case the shopkeeper is unfamiliar with your lodging. If you have a paper map, ask them to draw directions for you. Learn the words for “right” and “left” in the local language. Above all, stay calm and keep mental breadcrumbs. I’ve been very, very lost in major cities, even at night. On the flip side, I’ve also been asked for directions by people in the local language. It’s always worked out! 

Language

Heather: Learn at least simple phrases. If I’m out walking and someone greets me with a hello in their language, I want to answer them properly. This makes me less likely to be taken advantage of. If I’m in a restaurant, I want to greet my waiter in their native language. This lets them know that either I took the time to learn, which garners a little respect, or I’ve been there a while, which usually means better service. I use Duolingo to prepare for upcoming trips.

Julianne: All of the above! Know how to get a coffee or water in the local language. Knowing the native words for some basic directions is useful. Numbers and phrases for shopping are helpful too, so that you’re not conspicuously touristy if buying from a street cart or shopping at an outdoor market, where there are lots of passersby. 

Body Language

Heather: Watch and mimic what you see the residents doing. When I was in Ireland riding the bus, I noticed residents would thank the driver upon exiting. I followed suit. Being very cognizant of your body language and the amount of space you take up means a lot. Are you walking around with a backpack? Not a big deal, you see that a lot; but when you are riding on public transport, how are you managing that? Are you holding on for dear life like it will be ripped from your arms? Or are you being casually careful? Also, your bag does not get a seat if the bus/restaurant is busy. Your bag is not a person; get it off a customer’s potential space. If you are in a crowded space, move it to your front side as a safety precaution and keep from bumping into people with your bag.

Julianne: This goes for things like crossing the street — pay attention and walk with the group. In a restaurant or cafe, or a store, notice how others wait in line or get the attention of wait staff or clerks. You can read about such things in the preparation stage: how to ask for the check, for example. Above all, project humble confidence. 

DEFEND

Heather: I want to be very clear here: We do not recommend physical engagement. In this case, defending means being proactive. 

Lodging

Heather: I’ve never had an issue with where I stay, but this handy little portable door lock can give you additional peace of mind, especially when staying somewhere like a shared-space Airbnb. It works on most doors that open into the room (most hotel/room doors). However, if you use something like this and there is an emergency, it would also inhibit emergency personnel from getting to you quickly.

Julianne: Try to get a room off of the first floor so that it’s less easy to break in via a window. And even if you’re in a high room, be aware of adjoining balconies where someone could crawl in — don’t sleep with that door open. Other safety tips for solo travel in a hotel or Airbnb: Check that windows are locked, and if you’re staying in a home, make sure that they open, too, in case of a fire. If there’s a patio slider, make sure that there’s a physical barrier, such as a wooden stick blocking it from opening all the way. Pay attention to the alternative exits — know where the stairs are. If you use a hotel app that also serves as a room key, take advantage of the setting to hide your room number.

Gear

Heather:I carry this tactical flashlight, and I’ll give you several reasons why. For years I was traveling for work and often ended up parking in a city garage after dark and walking a block or two to my hotel. I liked having this handy flashlight on me. I like this one because you can slip the lanyard over your wrist and hold the flashlight with your thumb on the power button. If someone comes upon you, you can click the button and flash the high beam of intense light right into their eyes. It will slow someone down for a second when they can’t see, allowing you to move quickly in another direction. The edges of this one are also just sharp enough that with a good swing, it could cause some pain. Think of it as a tiny little weapon in your hand. It’s also just handy to have a flashlight. Yes, our phones all have flashlights now, but having a real one during a widespread power outage is important. This one also has a red and green light, which is handy if you are staying in a busy place like a hostel and need to see but not wake everyone up. 

Julianne: We’ve talked a lot about safe solo travel in cities, but there’s a whole host of gear that makes me feel really safe when I’m hiking solo or exploring a national park on my own. Two that are handy to have not just on the trail but also in my car are a satellite phone and bear spray. Bear spray is pretty handy for scary humans, too. 

Money and ID

Heather: Split up your money and your credit cards. We cover this in our travel preparation checklist post too. I keep one credit card on me at all times in my phone case (along with my state-issued ID), one in my backpack, and one in my purse. I usually carry one bag when I’m out and about, and everything else is back at my accommodations. 

Julianne: Your passport is often the most helpful piece of identification when you’re out and about in a foreign country, but it’s also the most essential piece of ID to get you home. Unless you need to visit a bank during your day’s excursions, leave it in your room, somewhere inconspicuous and safe. Think in a small pocket under your dirty laundry bag inside of your suitcase. Take a photo of your passport and keep it on your phone. Send a copy to friends or family before you leave. And make a few photocopies to stash in other places; one in your day bag, for example, in case you lose your phone or you don’t have battery life or service.

Technology

Heather: One of my favorite safety tips for solo travel is: Carry a backup phone. This seems like overkill, but twice when I was on vacation, my phone was stolen. Both times I was in the States, and both times because I was being DUMB and careless. (Sidebar: if you are 40+ and a really hot 20-something is making a bold move in a dance club, that move is most likely to rob you, not take you home.) Because I was stateside, I could go to a phone store and replace my phone. However, I lost a lot of time. The last time I got a new phone, I kept my old one instead of trading it in. You can get on wifi and use most apps that you would need to reach out to family or make arrangements to get service. Additionally, if you are overseas you can usually find a store with sim cards, pop in a sim card and go about your business. You can only do this if you have an unlocked phone; in this case, a phone that was already paid off and didn’t have service on it with any carrier. All of my contacts and other info were stored in the phone, so I was up and running once I popped in a sim and activated it.

Julianne: Read Hard-Won Lessons for Backing Up Your Travel Photos for my embarrassing and frustrating phone story. I’m going to take Heather’s advice and save this phone as a backup, if I ever can afford to get a new one. Other tips? Make sure you have a reliable power pack for your phone. If it serves as your navigation, your ID, your room key, etc., then you don’t want it to die midday. Carry a charging cord for your phone and for your power pack, too — places with poor signals will drain both quickly. Carry an adapter for your charger as well; most countries have different plugs. I have a pouch that fits into my crossbody bag that holds all of these things, so that I can just grab it and know that I’m set.

BE SMART

Beer and Beans in Lisbon
A beer by the water in Lisbon

Drinking

Heather: I love wine, cocktails and craft beers. When I am traveling one of my very favorite things to do is seek out those three things in nice little hole-in-the-wall places. Most often I sit at the bar, which allows me to chat with the bartender and also watch my drink be poured. Sometimes I’m seated at a table in a restaurant and I’ll still order a drink. What I won’t do is accept a drink from a stranger or, more importantly, leave my drink on the bar and go to the restroom. The number of times I see women leaving drinks on their tables or at the bar while traveling alone is frightening to me. It’s a real pain if you need to use the restroom! 

I usually limit my drinks to two if I have to navigate back to my accommodations. I’ve broken this rule a few times. I trust my gut and the space I’m in or the people I’m choosing to spend time with if I have met some locals. If you are not traveling with a buddy, it’s just smart to limit the alcohol and perhaps enjoy a nightcap back wherever you are staying. 

Julianne: I’d only add a few things to this: Ordering a drink that comes in a bottle or can and opening it yourself not only prevents tampering, but also lessens the risk of ice or mixers that will make you sick. (Wipe the outside before you put your mouth on it; it may have been floating in a cooler with contaminated ice.) Purchasing a few local beers or a bottle of local wine or spirits at a liquor store or grocery and sipping a beverage in your room at night while you edit photos, chat with family or binge on TV from your hotel bed is a cheap and safe way to sample the local goods. And if you’re a ridiculous lightweight like me, maybe just stick to one. Or one less than your normal limit, whatever that is. It’s really easy to get caught up in a fabulous setting and let your guard slip without realizing it. A drink in the afternoon can be a little less risky than a drink in the evening, for the reasons that we’re going to discuss next. 

Nighttime

Heather: In December of 2021 I met up with a friend in Lisbon and oh, how glorious it felt to walk the streets at night! Alleys and side streets and all of the places that as a single female I might not feel comfortable going. There are a lot of places where you can exist as a solo female, even at night. But you really do need to know the area. I usually ask at my accommodations if the area I’m going to is safe to walk alone at night. But it is always going to be a bigger risk. 

Julianne: I’m a night owl at home, but when I travel, I go to bed early because I try to always be back at my hotel by dusk. The few times I’ve ventured out after dark to get a bite to eat in a foreign city, I tell my hotel concierge where I’m going and when I expect to be back. I walk with my phone at the ready. I’m hyper-vigilant about alleys, cars and people walking too closely. If I don’t like the way someone is walking behind me, I’ll find a store and duck in. (This is true even in the States — I learned these tips from living in Chicago.) I might hit a restaurant after dark if it’s a block away from my hotel, or hang out in the hotel lobby. It sometimes sucks, because I love nighttime, and certain things can only be experienced then. And I’m usually traveling in the winter, because fares are cheaper, so dusk sometimes hits at 5:30. But I consider it a tradeoff because I’m awake and out the door earlier. 

Uber/Lyft/Rideshares

Heather: I’ve taken hundreds of rides and never had a problem, but you do hear stories! Most apps have expanded their safety features. Keep the app open. Make sure your driver is the one who is picking you up. They should announce your name as soon as you open the door. Make sure the vehicle matches your app. Stay alert; I always sit in the back. 

Julianne: Make sure you know where you’re going, and have a sense of whether they’re taking you in the right direction. Don’t count on getting in drunk and getting home safely — see our drinking section above. Hang on to your things (especially your phone), because it’s easy to fumble around when you’re hopping out and forget something. And don’t accept the bottled water that some drivers offer; it may be a kind gesture, but it may be a used bottle that someone refilled with unsafe tap water or laced with something. Be ready to walk confidently where you need to go when you hop out of your ride. And whatever you do, keep your camera or phone away from the windows of the vehicle. Not only do you risk getting your gear snatched, but you also put a target on your car. Carjackings happen to local drivers, too; don’t put yours in harm’s way.

Dating

Heather: I follow a lot of female travel groups, and the number of hook-ups is astounding! I’m not talking just about the young kids under 40 either! For 90 percent of my trips, it’s just not on my radar; but in 2021 when I was back in Ireland I opened my Bumble app, made a match and had a lovely date. I did exceed my two-drink minimum, and he walked me back to my rented room and left me with a rather chaste kiss. Not for one minute did I feel uncomfortable. I also had a wild night in Galway, but that’s Galway for you (and a story for another time). Use your wits, and pack condoms. Safety first!

Scams

Heather: There are as many travel scams as there are destinations. I always Google “popular scams in…” with the destination. Here are some universally popular ones:

  • Taxis: If they don’t have a meter or license, don’t get in.
  • People selling items: Don’t let someone approach you and put anything in your hands or on you. This is a really popular way to force you to buy things, and they can make a scene. Say NO firmly and walk away. 
  • Posing for photos with people, animals or characters: Prepare to pay for this. This is a common way to make money. They might even ask for payment for you to pet their animals. Major tourist areas are attractive to all kinds of people looking to capitalize on those dollars.

Julianne: A few other things to consider:

  • While someone is offering you a free sample or asking you for directions, another person may be picking your pocket. Pretend like you didn’t hear them and keep moving.
  • If someone offers to take your photo with your phone, they may ask for money afterward. Or they may take off with your phone. Get a little Xenovo Shutterbug instead; it’s inconspicuous and takes awesome photos without the burden of a selfie stick. 
  • Wear a hat. This may sound like a really stupid safety tip (aside from smart sun safety), but if you have bright gray/blonde hair like I do, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb in many parts of the world. A simple black baseball cap can allow you to be less conspicuous. 
  • If you carry a crossbody bag, keep the bag part in front of you, so that someone can’t reach in from behind. Don’t wear it too tightly; if someone tries to snatch it, you’d rather have them get your bag than choke or drag you. 

A Few Final Solo Travel Safety Tips

While we approach things differently, we both agree that you should explore wisely and adjust to your own comfort level. When traveling with a friend you shouldn’t throw out all of these safety measures, but it does give you more comfort and freedom. For women who love to travel solo, however, keeping these safety tips for solo travel in mind can greatly reduce your risks.

Julianne: As I write this, I’m struck by all the ways in which I sound like I’m afraid of my own shadow. Except that most people who know me think that I have a screw loose because I’ll do things like fly to Idaho Springs, rent a car, drive to Craters of the Moon and explore that isolated park alone one day, then drive over a mountain pass and hike in the Tetons alone the next day. Or book a trip to Milan alone and add on a day trip to Lake Como and its little villages. People chide me for hiking in my home state by myself! 

I think that what allows me to do these things so readily is everything you read above — especially the preparation. And I didn’t do all of these things right from the start; I learned them along the way. Note all of the blogs that I’ve written explaining what to do, because I didn’t know what to do when I started. Often, I was lucky, and people were kind. Honestly? Traveling solo is one of my favorite ways to travel. I absolutely encourage you to do so often. 

Heather: I often come across as cavalier, but I’ve mostly traveled to historically “safe” spaces. Anyone who knows me will tell you I have an astronomical amount of bravado for someone who is 5’2″. As I continue to travel more and expand my experiences, I know I will employ more of these tips. Because at the end of the day, I want to come home and tell the stories. I want to see my kids and my friends when I’m done. I also still generally believe in the kindness of humans. I follow a lot of solo female travelers who are doing amazingly brave things like biking across whole continents, climbing mountains, surviving in the wild and exploring the far reaches of the earth solo. The world is a much safer place than we think it is; once you get out in it, you’ll realize how kind the world generally can be. But being smart will help you avoid the people who aren’t. 

*exclusions apply, as always. 


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