#WEGOSOLO: The Issue of Women’s Solo Travel
I know I’m late to the game on weighing in on this issue, but I was reminded of it yesterday when I read the gruesome news that the body of missing Canadian traveler, Elisa Lam, was found in a rooftop water tank of a Los Angeles hotel. She was traveling alone. At the beginning of February, Sarai Sierra, an American traveling by herself was murdered while on vacation in Turkey. In the wake of these recent reports of women traveling on their own, only to be later found dead, the question that arose in the media was: Should women travel solo?
As people weighed in on the Sarai Sierra story, it became clear that their reactions were ignorant, fearful, and xenophobic. Instead of acknowledging the tragedy of another senseless murder, commenters pinned the blame on the victim, on solo female travel, and on Muslim countries–as if these were the causes of her death. Commenters wrote that women shouldn’t travel alone–that it is “irresponsible”, “foolish”, and “reckless”–especially with children and a husband at home to think of. Much of the focus was on Muslim countries: Women are at much greater risk, especially in “countries like that.”
But the rebuttal from the travel community was quick and fierce as well. If you’re on Twitter, and follow travel tweeps (yup, I did just used that term), you probably saw the hashtag #WeGoSolo several times over the last couple weeks. Travel bloggers and other avid travelers united to speak out against these biases, wanting to prove that solo female travel is not the problem. They wrote post after post after post after post about why people have the wrong attitude about solo travel. They pointed out that in fact men are much more likely to be subjected to harm or violence while traveling. That statistically, a woman traveling in a foreign country has a much lower chance of being murdered than while walking the streets of New York City. (The case of Elisa Lam demonstrates that traveling in an American city is not necessarily any less dangerous than traveling in, say, Istanbul.) They noted that the great majority of violent crimes committed against women are by people they know in the their own communities, not strangers in a foreign land. They pointed out that the issue had been turned into a criticism of travel, when in fact the real problem was violence committed against women, globally and systemically.
“Our physical strength is hardly ever enough to defend ourselves against men who want to harm us. So we get beaten up, we get raped, we get assaulted, we get murdered. That is the risk every woman on this planet lives with every day. Some places may have a higher risk of getting harmed, but being a woman is enough to be at risk always and everywhere.”
And as another seasoned female traveler, MaryAnne Oxendale, put it:
“This is not about civilized vs uncivilized countries, domestic vs foreign, us vs them. This is about a lack of respect, globally. It’s not about telling women to not leave their protective cocoons. Women have always had to be extra careful about their safety, not just when travelling, but sadly even in their homes.”
Serai Sierra most likely was not killed because she was a female traveling alone. But in most of the articles and blog responses I read about lauding solo female travel, very rarely did any of the women who wrote about the issue own up to the fact that yes, women do have to be extra careful about their safety. Don’t get me wrong; in no way do I want to discourage solo female travel. In fact I highly recommended it in my last post for fulfilling, eye-opening, challenging, and rewarding travel experiences. But to encourage women to go forth and be adventuresses on their own, without also mentioning that they should be safe felt irresponsible to me. I think we do a disservice when we don’t acknowledge that there are certain risks female travelers face that are inherent to them being women. Anyone who has been cat-called, received uncomfortable glares, been the subject of demeaning and crude comments or touching, etc. knows that your existence in public is fundamentally different than that of your male counterparts. Yes, point the finger away from solo female travel. Point the blame away from Muslim culture. Reframe the discussion so the focus is on violence perpetrated against women, instead of those who bravely and fearlessly travel alone. But as experienced travelers, we should also kindly remind other eager would-be solo travelers that there are dangerous situations and dangerous people out there (though rarely, and not nearly enough to outweigh the benefits of travel). If you can avoid bringing harm onto yourself, know how to do it, and take the proper precautions to be the smartest traveler you can be.
Tips for Being a Safe and Smart Traveler
With that in mind, I wanted to end this post with some practical advice, rather than just adding to the online chatter about female solo travel. Although this post focuses on solo female travel, these tips are also good for men traveling alone, as well as people traveling with others. All travelers can benefit from these easy, good practices for being safe and smart while away from home.
– Spend the extra money to stay in a part of town that is busier, well-lit, and has more commotion and people on the streets. At night, opt to take a taxi, rather than walking alone. You can’t put a price tag on your safety. (Note also though that when you get in a cab, you’re not automatically safe. Be aware of where your driver is taking you, and the route he takes. If it seems strange, speak up.)
– Always watch your drink, and don’t set it down out of your sight. Be aware of how much you drink as well, and avoid getting too drunk so as to lose control of yourself, where you go, and what you do. (Umm… I’mma be real witchu and admit that I’ve been guilty of doing this while traveling. But! Stay with people you trust, and don’t be as stupid or unsafe as I was.) Many crimes, violent or petty, are committed when alcohol is involved.
– Don’t openly flash expensive jewelry, electronics, or other valuables in public. I made the stupid mistake of walking around in Buenos Aires with my iPhone in hand, listening to music with headphones in, blissfully unaware of my surroundings or the other people on the street–and then was robbed at gunpoint. I never even saw or sensed the guy approaching. It can never hurt to be hyper aware while walking alone.
– Don’t readily assume that your hotel or hostel room is completely safe. Things are often stolen if you leave valuables lying around. Use the safes or lockers provided for important documents and other valuable items. I’ve read this tip from other female travel bloggers: Pack a rubber door stop with you to wedge under the door when you sleep, just as extra protection against anyone that may try to barge in.
– Don’t blab to everyone that you’re traveling alone, and don’t readily tell people where you’re staying (or at least be vague about the exact location). I know it can be a badge of pride to say you’ve quit your job, taken the plunge, and are traveling solo wahoo! But use common sense. If you get a strange feeling about someone, be careful about the information you share with them. Making friends is a large part of traveling alone too, and it’s fine to share info once you’ve gotten to know a fellow traveler or trust them enough to travel with them.
– Respect the local culture and dress appropriately. You can avoid unwanted attention by trying to blend in as much as you can with the way you act and dress. If women are covered from head to toe, don’t prance around in skimpy, revealing clothing. Again, using common sense here goes a long way.
– Ask your hotel concierge/front desk to show you on a map areas to avoid, or areas that may be less safe. Also, do your homework. Read up on a location and familiarize yourself with the neighborhoods and unsafe areas in any guidebook or online guide before arriving, and while you are there.
– Perhaps most importantly, follow your gut. Never underestimate your own intuition; your basic human instincts are almost always right. If you sense that something isn’t safe or is not right, or if you meet someone who just rubs you the wrong way, don’t write off these instinctual feelings. Listen to your body and your mind’s discomfort–whether it’s about a hotel you’re staying in, or a street you decided to walk down, or the guy who gave you a strange look at the bus station–and immediately exit the situation. Don’t worry about being brusque or rude; you don’t owe anyone anything but you do owe it to yourself to make the most of your travel experience by keeping yourself safe. In the end, even if there was no threat or danger, you won’t ever have to find yourself in a bad situation and regret not having followed your instincts.
So should women travel solo? Most unequivocally, YES! Don’t let fear of the unknown keep you from discovering what’s out there. I wouldn’t trade anything for the things I have learned and gained from traveling alone. It is liberating and life-changing, and leads to incredible experiences you can not experience from your couches or computer screens. Do it–really, it’ll be one of the greatest favors you ever did for yourself. But, my advice to you is: know how to be smart about traveling, and keep yourself out of harm’s way. If you’re traveling somewhere unfamiliar, be really cognizant of potential dangers, take steps to protect yourself, and be super aware. In general, use common sense, and don’t be paranoid. Most of the people in this world are genuinely kind and friendly, and you may learn some amazing things and make some incredible memories if you keep your heart and mind open to them.