Girls taking on the world—alone!Solo Travel — By Lost Girls on May 23, 2011 at 6:00 am
By Isabel B
Special to The Lost Girls
Traveling by yourself can be a bit of a daunting experience. While there are certainly countries where solo female travel is dangerous—if not life threatening—there are plenty of places where this isn’t the case. In fact, if you venture out with common sense, traveling alone as a woman can be an incredibly enriching experience.
Making the decision
Pulling the trigger on deciding to travel alone can be intimidating for some young women. To others, it will come naturally. It all depends on a variety of factors, including your previous travel experiences, how independent you feel, where you are going, for how long, etc. So what is it that gets fellow girls on the road?
In her early 20s, Martha Retallick toured the entire 50 states by bicycle and subsequently wrote an e-book on her adventures. When asked about what motivated her to go alone, she replies quite simply, “I couldn’t find anyone else to go bicycle touring with me.”
Lacking a travel companion appears to be a common scenario. Rease Kirchner, Travelated.com, who moved to Argentina by herself at 23, explains: “I fell in love with traveling and realized that not everyone can make saving and setting aside a priority. I was sick of waiting on a travel partner.”
However, the reasons for traveling alone can transcend the mere lack of someone to travel with. After all, there are even online forums, such as TravBuddy, to help find a travel companion before you go. Traveling solo can stem from a deeper desire to explore the world—and one’s own place in it.
When I embarked on my post-college gap year to work and travel all over the world, I had no doubts about going alone. But, especially at the beginning, people would continually ask “why?” Most of all, they didn’t think it was safe for a young blonde girl to trek across South America. But to me, that was exactly the point: I wanted to go alone.
Looking back, it was the most enriching experience for precisely this reason. Traveling alone allows you to look within, and at the same time, branch out. It is a journey of personal discovery. And because mine was such a success, I hope to inspire other girls to get on the road, too.
When traveling alone, most people find they’re more open, not only to themselves, but also to others. Kissairis M. Munoz, 24, has traveled alone multiple times, and believes that it is really interesting to learn how to be by yourself. “Removing the crutch of having someone else around that you’re already familiar with forces you to interact a lot more with local people than you probably would otherwise,” she explains. You aren’t “glued” to who—and what—you know.
Rachel Trager first started traveling when she was 18. Now 24, she is the co-founder of Pink Pangea, a community that aims to make every continent accessible to women. Reflecting back on her first solo travels, Trager says, “I decided to solo travel because there were specific places that I wanted to see, and I felt like I was prepared to traverse those countries on my own. After taking Russian language courses in college, I traveled to the Ukraine and later, Belarus alone. It was empowering to decide where I wanted to go and then to buy a ticket and go. Once abroad, I discovered a level of self-reliance and independence that I had never experienced at home.”
Feeling empowered and gaining independence are just a few of the benefits. “There are so many highlights!” Munoz says. “The most obvious is that you get to do what you want to do. It sounds so simple, but if you stumble across a museum you really love, you don’t have to cut your time short because you promised someone else you’d see a monument that day. The only time you have to worry about is your own.”
Kirchner, who doesn’t like most museums and finds guided tours unbearable, skips them altogether. “You never have to worry about pleasing anyone but yourself.” For Retallick, the biker, this meant that she didn’t have to race to keep up with a faster rider. Whether it is museums or biking tours, traveling alone means having a lot of freedom when it comes to setting start and stop times.
“The highlight was the feeling of complete independence and adventure,” explains Liz Longacre. She traveled abroad alone at age 31 to scout out volunteer organizations for her travel company for animal lovers, Your Time Travels. Her experiences, however, hold true for all ages. “It’s an exhilarating feeling. For me it was also fulfilling to challenge myself to be more outgoing. I tend to fall on the shy side so traveling alone was really good for me. I had to step out of my comfort zone. I grew a lot emotionally from that experience.”
But with the highlights also come some harsh times. “I’ve become addicted to traveling by myself but it definitely has its downsides sometimes,” says Munoz.
A simple fact is that, as Kirchner explains, “you have no one to talk to during layovers, long bus rides, etc.” But the difficulties of solo travel involve more than just lacking a conversation partner. “It’s also harder to enjoy nightlife because going to a bar by yourself can be boring or perhaps irritating or dangerous because of all the attention you attract from men.”
Trager, who journeyed alone to the Ukraine and Belarus, says “while solo traveling, I was aware that I had to be extra conscious of my surroundings because no one else was looking out for me.” In Minsk, she decided to be in her hotel by 9 p.m. every night. Similarly, after receiving conflicting advice from locals about whether it was safe for a woman to ride overnight trains alone in the Ukraine, she “decided to play it safe and stay in Kiev with day trips to surrounding cities.” Better safe than sorry is certainly a word of advice that holds true for traveling alone as a woman.
When asked about loneliness, most solo travelers reply with a simple “it happens.” For some good ways to overcome loneliness on the road, you can read my recent feature on Vagabondish.
Words of advice
There are plenty of ways to make solo travel safe and more fun. Lisa Xia, now 25, has been traveling solo since age 19. Reflecting on her journeys, she affirms that “there is an amazing quality to experiencing the world solo, and I strongly encourage it with adequate precaution.”
Munoz advises travelers to be friendly and flexible, above all. “It’s easy to get frustrated if things don’t go your way and you’re alone,” she says. “But this is where being female is an advantage! People are almost always willing to help or point you to someone who can.“
With an adequate dose of common sense, you can play your femininity to your advantage. Retallick’s words of guidance are simple: “Get out there and ride.” Whether or not you do it on bike appears to be secondary. Ultimately, as Trager concludes, “the very act of going where you want to go—without waiting for others to come along—will make you feel alive.”
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Alexia Nestora from World Nomads has kindly shared her A-to-Zs of traveling alone as a woman:
• Pack as lightly as possible. As a lone woman, you’ll be less vulnerable and more independent if you’re not weighed down by heavy luggage.
• Rather than residential details, put an office address (without the company name) on your luggage tags.
• Before traveling, find out the general dress code for the country. Once you arrive, take note of what local women wear to get an idea of appropriate attire.
While on your flight:
• Talk to female flight attendants who are either from or know the country to obtain advice on areas to avoid.
• Do not announce your final destination or length of stay to fellow passengers, as the information may be overheard.
• Stay in a hotel or guesthouse on a residential street that has a number of restaurants and late-night stores located on it. This is far safer than staying in a corporate area that will be quiet at night and therefore less secure.
• When checking in, use only your initials and surname; avoid titles such as Ms. or Mrs.
• Inquire about staff services that escort guests to their room late at night.
• If the door to your room is open or unlocked when you return, do not enter. Rather go back to the front desk and ask a member of staff to accompany you to the room.
• Never let on that you are traveling alone; inform inquisitive strangers that you are expecting your friend or meeting your partner.
• If you feel a car is following you when you are walking, do a quick turn and walk in the opposite direction.
• If you are traveling alone and don’t want any company, there are certain measures that can be put into practice. If on a coach or train, sit on the outside seat, placing your handbag, coat, and jacket on the window seat. If in a bar or restaurant, place your coat on the back of the seat opposite you to make it look as if you have company.
Handling unwanted attention:
• Remain calm and remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible. You might also wish to approach the nearest police officer or security guard.
• In the event of verbal harassment, particularly by male bystanders, it is recommended that you pretend you cannot understand what they are saying. You might also ignore them or speak in a foreign language they are not likely to understand.
• Wear a wedding ring. Avoiding eye contact with men is a good way to prevent any problems or hassles; wearing dark glasses can help with this and can give you a confidence boost as well.
• Act confidently. Know where you are going and what you are doing, and walk with assurance. Confidence can be a major deterrent of criminal activities, such as petty theft and harassment.
• In terms of garnering further tips en route, Xia also follows the strategy of staying at hostels instead of hotels. Here, you can chat with “other solo travelers (male or female), as well as the hostel staff.” Munoz also connects with people through couchsurfing.org: “You don’t necessarily have to stay with them—most people are really friendly and love showing off where they live.” Another tip is to carry a book, as Kirchner advises. This way, “I always have something to do during downtime or when I’m alone in public.”
Photo credits: http://www.flickr.com/photos/94079179@N00/4980859475/, bored-now; http://www.flickr.com/photos/44373968@N00/203433676/, moriza; http://www.flickr.com/photos/26121794@N07/4095525292/, Josh Liba; http://www.flickr.com/photos/tunachilli/3033609619/sizes/l/in/photostream/, tunachilli