In any conversation about women traveling solo, you hear the word “safety” a lot. When I think about traveling alone, though, the first word that jumps to mind is “freedom.” When I land in a foreign country and venture out on my own, I needn’t make compromises with travel companions. My plans won’t be disrupted by a cranky child. I’m more likely to talk to the locals. I don’t have to conform to the expectations of the folks back home. I’m free to go where I want when I want—and be who I want.
Sure, there have been a few scary moments as a solo female traveler—like the time I got lost driving through Ireland at night in the pounding rain, or the time I was hijacked by a pedicab driver in Beijing. Luckily, though, I got home safe…and with stories to tell. In my experience, mastering the challenge of a solo trip leaves you with a sense of accomplishment that lasts long after the trip is over.
Therefore, in honor of International Women’s Day, here’s my advice for staying safe in foreign countries—and for enjoying your freedom to the max:
Pick safe environments for meeting locals.
Sometimes it’s okay to go into a pub and grab a beer with the locals, but sometimes it’s not. When I want to talk to locals, I head for bookshops, university campuses, small boutiques, galleries, and churches. People there tend to be friendly, curious, and relatively interested in a dialogue. If you go to the same breakfast place or the same pub at the same time every day, you start to become a regular, and that leads to conversation too.
Don’t call attention to yourself. If the local women cover their shoulders and most of their legs, you should too. Carry a scarf or shawl so you can cover up quickly in any situation.
Wear a fake wedding ring.
That prevents unwanted attention as well.
Carry a photo of young children.
That too can be fake: If you don’t have children, take a photo of a relative’s or friend’s kids. It can come in handy in threatening situations: People tend to be sympathetic toward people with young children.
Step inside when asking for directions.
Don’t ask for directions on the street; go inside a shop or café or gas station. Don’t pull out a map on the street either; pop indoors for that too.
Carry yourself like you own the place.
Walk briskly and confidently—especially at night or on an empty street. If you need help, enter a nice-looking hotel or restaurant. As you know, I walk into five-star hotel lobbies a lot to get intel from concierges.
Bring little gifts from home for children you meet.
In developing countries, stickers, balloons, pencils, and postcards from home can be well received and, in fact, serve as conversation starters not just with kids, but with their moms. Give a child a postcard of the place where you live and, before you know it, the mom is showing you the place where she lives. A good place to meet kids and moms is in parks on sunny days.
Program local emergency phone numbers into your smartphone.
In remote regions where there is no cellular network, a satellite phone or satellite messaging device can be a lifesaver.
Don’t flout the local rules of etiquette.
Find out what the local customs are—especially for women—since defying them is a surefire way to draw unwanted attention. Note what the local women are doing. Are there places where they go and don’t go? Head for spots where they congregate and skip places they avoid.
Don’t wear flashy jewelry.
Forego conspicuous accessories that might attract a petty thief. I usually hide in my handbag a chic strand of pearls and silk scarf—for donning right before walking into the aforementioned five-star hotels.
Don’t be weighed down by luggage.
I only carry luggage I can run with: Usually everything is packed into one wheeled carry-on and a handbag that straps to my body—so that at least one hand is free at all times.
Don’t place your handbag on the ground.
When sitting in a restaurant—especially at an outdoor café—don’t put your handbag on the ground or hang it over the back of a chair. Hold it in your lap, preferably with one strap attached to you. Carry your cash, credit cards, and passport not in your handbag but on your person, in an interior pocket.
Don’t end up alone on a dark street.
Choose a hotel in a neighborhood that’s relatively lively and lit at night (so you don’t end up walking back to your hotel on dark, deserted streets).
Don’t hail taxis off the street.
Have your hotel put you in a safe cab to your destination. To get back, find a reputable taxi via the doorman of another hotel. Or have the restaurant where you’re dining call for a safe taxi. When arriving at an airport at night, I often arrange for a car from my hotel to pick me up.
Don’t leave your hotel without its business card in your pocket.
That way you have the name and address in the local language so you can show taxi drivers and get back safely. Have your concierge write in the local language the names and addresses of the sights you’re headed out to see.