Solo female travel – right or wrong, dangerous or not?

On August 12th, 2015

I struggled down the narrow aisle of the rattletrap bus to my seat near the back, where the stench of gasoline permeated the air. Concerned that other passengers would not be able to get by, I stuffed my backpack on the floor behind my feet and my suitcase in the aisle next to me. I needn’t have worried. As the bus filled up, both were quickly buried beneath satchels, giant plastic shopping bags, and sacks of potatoes and onions.

A Quichua woman appeared at my side and directed her son to climb over me into the window seat. My delight that his small size would give me more room to move around turned to dismay when the woman also started to climb over me, and I realized that the three-hour trip up the steep Ecuadorian mountain would be made with three people crammed into a seat designed for two. When the young boy drifted off to sleep, I motioned for his mother to lay him down across both our laps, leaving both of us free to dive into plastic containers full of homemade food that other women were popping open and sharing around.

Barbara Weibel, solo female traveler, at Colca Canyon, Peru

Barbara Weibel, solo female traveler, at Colca Canyon, Peru

This is the story I most often relate when people ask me why I travel solo. Had I been traveling with a companion, I would have been focused on that person, rather than tuning into a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience. But while my love for solo travel was once seen as bravery, a couple of years ago people began questioning my decisions.

The furor over whether women should travel solo began in early 2013, soon after a New York woman was killed while traveling alone in Istanbul. A month later, the debate ratcheted up when six Spanish women were raped after attackers broke into their vacation bungalow in Acapulco, Mexico. By the time a young woman on a bus in rural India was raped by a gang of local youths (she later died), the discussion had disintegrated to near hysteria. Husbands said they would never allow their wives to travel alone. Parents were chastised for allowing their daughters to take a gap year of travel between graduation from university and entering the work world. As for me, people began accusing me of being foolish, and occasionally, downright irresponsible.

Had the argument been that no one should travel solo, I might have reacted differently, but the question became whether women should travel alone.

By this time, I’d been traveling full-time with no home base for more than four years, moving from country to country and earning a living through my travel blog, Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel. I’d been to more than 30 countries, including many in the developing world, and had never once had a problem or felt I was in danger. Had the argument been that no one should travel solo, I might have reacted differently, but the question became whether women should travel alone. Having spent my life in corporate America, fighting to get ahead in male dominated industries, this criticism seemed like just another way for men to “keep women in their place.”

It was telling that, whenever the issue of solo female travel was discussed, the word rape inevitably crept into the conversation. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey, an American is sexually assaulted once every 107 seconds in North America. In fact, according to a report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2010, North America ranks among the top three countries in the world for the number of rapes, assaults, and burglaries. By that measure, travelers are much safer in Europe, Australia, or Asia than they would be anywhere in North America.

Barbara Weibel, solo female traveler, at Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand

Barbara Weibel, solo female traveler, at Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand

Of course, bad things can happen, to anyone, anytime, so I take measures to be as safe as possible. I have observed countless situations where travelers do things that make them targets. They wear expensive jewelry, flash a lot of cash, get drunk or high in an unfamiliar environment, tell people where they’re staying, or leave with strangers without telling someone where they are going and when they will be back. In general, they do things they would never dream of doing if they were at home. In addition to refraining from this kind of behavior, I also do the following:

  • Check the windows of my hotel/hostel every night upon returning and before going to bed, to make sure they are still locked
  • Once at my destination, I stash my passport in a safe place and carry a only copy with me
  • Carry a backup debit card with a separate account number, in the event my main card is stolen or compromised
  • Never keep all my cash in one place
  • Carry limited cash and rely instead on ATM’s to get local currency after arriving in a foreign country
  • Scan all important documents (passport, driver’s license, medical insurance card, etc.) and email them to myself at an address where I can access them online (gmail, hotmail, Yahoo)
  • In countries where I don’t speak the language, I pick up a business card for the hotel/hostel, printed in the local language. That way, after a day of sightseeing, I simply hand it to a taxi driver.
  • When traveling on trains and buses, I never lose sight of my luggage, and I put my foot and leg through the strap of my backpack or purse when I set them on the floor (this is also good to do in restaurants – never hang your purse on the back of a chair)

Additionally, I have been known to lie outright about where I am staying, or to tell someone I am traveling with my husband, and that he will be joining me shortly. Perhaps most importantly, I pay attention to my gut. If something doesn’t feel right, I give myself permission to walk away, even if it means being rude. There are no guarantees in life, but by staying aware of what is happening around me at all times and following the rules I’ve developed, I feel just as safe in the countries I visit as I do in the U.S. It goes without saying that I’m not going to stop traveling solo, just because I’m a woman, nor do I think it is irresponsible or foolish to do so.

When Barbara Weibel realized she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside – she walked away from corporate life and set out to see the world. Read first-hand accounts of the places she visits and the people she meets on her blog, Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel. Follow her on Facebook or on Twitter (@holeinthedonut).

Image: David Jubert (flickr)