How To Stay Safe While Traveling Alone (+ Still Have Fun)

Are you a solo traveler? Are you concerned about staying safe while traveling alone? I've traveled to 36 countries - most of them on my own. Click through for my best solo travel safety tips!

When I tell people how much solo travel I do, I’m usually greeted with one of two reactions:
1) “That’s so fun!”
2) “HOW DO YOU STAY SAFE WHILE TRAVELING ALONE???!!!” (followed by an urban legend of someone who went missing while traveling alone.)

In my five years/twenty countries worth of travel, I have never been robbed, groped or seriously harassed. Mostly, I have been lucky. But I also employ the all-important “Don’t mess with me walk” and follow these tips:

Staying Safe While Traveling Alone Abroad

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

Of course, all the normal rules for personal safety still apply while you’re traveling. When traveling alone, it’s tempting to lose yourself in the architecture and cobblestones and dark-eyed boys of a new place. Don’t get so enthralled that you wander into a dicey neighborhood or find yourself alone, in a cemetery, as the sun is setting.

When you travel, you’ll inevitably visit places you might not frequent at home – crowded street markets, isolated ruins, underground crypts. You still need to hold on to your bag and keep an eye out for gropers even at these tourist attractions.

Leave the Daisy Dukes At Home

Many countries have a much more conservative approach to fashion than those of us who live in the western world. And some of the countries that do embrace the short short and halter top are quite keen to express their approval via wolf whistles and ass-slaps. You’ll be less likely to encounter trouble is you leave the camisoles and mini skirts at home.

Learn Some Choice Phrases

“Leave me alone,” “I have a boyfriend,” “Stop!” and “Help!” are always good to know in any language. But then you can also accomplish a lot with pointed glares and rolled eyes.

I’ve heard urban legends about female travelers who have grabbed the hand of men who groped them, held said hand up in the air and yelled “This man touched me!” Public shaming: huge deterrent.

Know the Scams Before You Get There

Sure, we all know not to buy a “Timex” from a guy selling them out of his coat pocket, but every country has different scams. Check out your Lonely Planet’s “Dangers and Annoyances” section and read a few travel message boards about your destination.

Common sense and confidence will keep you safe 95% of the time. Click To TweetHowever, take all of this information with a grain of salt and don’t let it ruin your trip. Carry a messenger bag in front of you, keep your credit cards, passport and cash in a money belt under your clothes and don’t go home with the hot Peruvian you just met at the bar. You’ll be fine!

Make Friends With the Locals

If you speak the language, chat with your waiter/concierge/guide about which neighborhoods are safe, which bus companies are nice and how much you should expect to pay for different services. They are usually thrilled to share their knowledge and might even hook you up with some amazing, off-the-beaten track experiences.

Take a self-defense class before you leave + maybe buy this key chain

Hopefully, you won’t ever have to know how to break a choke hold or where to punch, kick, and bite. But taking a self-defense class is never a bad idea for anyone – regardless of gender or travel destination. I’ve taken the Krav Maga ‘Stay Away’ self-defense class and found it invaluable.

Also: I love my totally innocuous looking cat-shaped self-defense key chain. And it’s plastic so you can take it through airport security!

Enjoying Solo Travel

I would venture that you will rarely find yourself traveling completely on your own. Yes, you might arrive at the airport all by your lonesome, but faster than you can say “hostel dorm room” you’ll be meeting people left and right. In the event that you really are a solo traveler, here are a few tips to enjoy your time.

Make Friends With the Locals (Seriously)

Not only will the locals clue you into safe neighborhoods and good restaurants, they can explain local customs, teach you slang and maybe even teach you to samba. What’s the point in flying halfway around the world just to hang out with other backpackers, right?
When I was volunteering in Arequipa, Peru, I spent a good part of every day chewing the fat with a guide housed out of my hostel. We talked about Peruvian politics, Peruvian samba vs. Cuban samba and he even taught me how to cook some of the local delicacies. So much fun!

Learn How to Amuse Yourself

If you do find yourself all alone in an unknown city, it’s important that you know how to entertain yourself. And no, playing solitaire on your hotel bed doesn’t count. I like journaling over a cup of tea, taking heaps of photos, trying on ridiculous outfits composed completely of tourist crap and sitting in the park making up stories about all the people I see.

Allow Yourself Some Downtime

Traveling is hard. And traveling on your own is even harder. It’s important that you allow yourself the occasional luxury of sitting in your hostel watching Legally Blonde, hiding out in an internet cafe for hours at a time or eating at the totally overpriced chain restaurant from home.
You can’t be a Professional Traveler every minute of every day, so cut yourself some slack.

How do you stay safe when you travel? And have you ever traveled alone?

P.S. 7 travel tools I will not shut up about till you try + 5 travel splurges that are worth it (even if you’re broke)

photos by mike wilson and Ashim D’Silva // cc

14 Comments

Edith

I travel alone a lot also (although to not nearly as exotic of places).

I 100% agree with the “don’t mess with me” walk. I really like to wander and never have much idea of where I’m going, but dammit, I go looking like I have a purpose!

Also, I like to find out what bits of town are not good places to visit so I don’t accidentally end up there.

I don’t like pulling out maps often either – especially not in the really horrible, busting out the entire six foot wide map touristy sort of way. I like keeping them discreetly folded and focused on the area I’m in.

And if you’ve ever seen Taken – DON’T DO ANYTHING THOSE DUMB GIRLS DID.

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Anisha

I travelled alone not as much as I’d have liked but I went and lived in London for half a year on my own, got thrown into a completely new working environment and had to figure out how to work a job decently and still do household chores all in a week’s time (I still live at Hotel Mamma, you have to know).

I knew enough about London beforehand and I knew some people and found everyone I was working with quite friendly and helpful but it was still… weird.

The only thing that has ever really, really helped me was to be really organised and have everything planned ahead of time. I’d allways calculate at least half an hour more of time for transportation and memories directions. I never once got lost!

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loveolla

great advice! i travelled alone in europe a few years ago and one thing that helped me at least *feel* secure is sticking close to families, children and women. when i walked alone, i would walk by them. also, try to have a coffee shop or breakfast place that you go most days. you’ll see familiar faces and they’ll expect to seeing you in the morning.

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amanda

Great advice, but hearing stories from a friend who spent 6 months alone in India, some things — like being harassed — are inevitable, especially if you’re a single white woman.
My friend was harassed on the daily, and while it wasn’t always of the sexual variety, it was always unwelcome. It had a lot to do with the “novelty” of her blonde hair (which she refused to wear down while living in Delhi) and paler skin. She would be photographed constantly by locals and followed by men. Another friend actually had a woman drop her baby into my friend’s lap! I don’t know what the mother expected her to do with the kid, but there it was, sitting in her lap.
While neither of my friends were robbed or groped, they definitely received some unwanted attention. After a while, being shouted at and having people come up and touch them became par for the course. For the most part, they weren’t in mortal danger, so it’s not as though the person writing in should fear for her life, but she should be aware that even the nicest parts of town harbour rude men.

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Young Werther

“…find yourself alone, in a cemetery, as the sun is setting.” Yea gotta watch out for those Edward-Cullen-looking-vampires 🙂

Seriously, all great tips Sarah!

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sskatherine

Are there any volunteer programs you like more than others? I’ve always been interested in volunteering internationally but am never really sure which organizations are legitimate.

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Sarah Von Bargen

sskatherine,

I haven’t really stuck with one certain volunteer organization, just gone with what was available in the cities/countries where I was. I usually stick with organizations that provide testaments from previous volunteers or provide contact information for former volunteers so you can talk to them myself. Hope that helps!

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The Sequin Cat

Super post.

I travelled through China by myself for four weeks and now am travelling solo in France for the rest of the year. I’m a pretty conservative traveller: I don’t take many risks. I’d prefer to be safe!

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Anne (in Reno)

I have never had problems traveling but I usually end up going places that are freezing cold (off-season means cheap!) so you can barely tell if I am white or black or blue or even male or female under all the layers 😉

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Randy LeGrant

2 quick comments:

1. I'm the Executive Director of the volunteer travel organization, GeoVisions, and the "Don't Mess With Me Walk" tips provided here are some of the best I've ever seen. 80% of volunteers who travel abroad are female. Most travel alone TO the project and FROM the project and many times locally. Follow these tips and you'll stay safe and enjoy yourself so much more.

2. Don't minimize the effects of "Culture Shock" either. Normally culture shock is not long-lasting but it can present you with some very interesting challenges.

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Hannah

I know this is an older post but my sister linked me to it this afternoon and just thought I'd commend you on the advice! I know it's mostly common sense but it doesn't hurt to read it. I did try to follow the link about the don't mess with me walk but unfortunately it leads nowhere 🙁

I'm travelling long-term solo for the first time from September this year so it's lovely to read that it doesn't have to be so scary!

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Anonymous

I'm late to this party, but thought I'd add my essential tips.
1) Do not assume everyone at the hostel is your friend. I've met so many people who've been robbed by other backpackers. It'd be great to think we're all in this together, but there are, of course, scuzzy people everywhere. Example: I usually bring my passport and cash into the shower with me.
2) Maybe people don't use travel guides anymore, but if you do, make a cover for it. You won't stand out so obviously.
3) If you're on your own, consider giving up the nightlife. Seriously, a bar is a bar is a bar. Have dinner, head back to the hostel to enjoy a shower without lineups, and get an early start to the day. It's often amazing what's going on at 6 or 7 in the morning.

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