Solo travel for women: is it really safe?
Travel is officially back on post-pandemic, and interest in solo trips is only on the up – particularly for women, who make up the majority of those who are keen to explore the world unaccompanied. It's said that search volume for ‘female solo travel’ has increased by 62% over the past three years, with women wanting to enjoy their freedom more than ever before – but there is one thing holding them back.
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, a survey by online travel agency Tourlane found that nearly half of women considering a solo trip have not done so because of concerns about their safety and security. And in April 2022, Twitter users united in their thousands to support 24-year-old Zainab Oladehinde, who shared her distressing story of sexual assault by a male hotel security guard while enjoying a solo holiday in Zanzibar in 2021.
The discussion around female safety unites women around the world. In the UK and Ireland, the horrifying recent murders of Sabina Nessa, Sarah Everard and Ashling Murphy have prompted many to speak out on the need to stop placing the responsibility of safety on solely women themselves – but sadly, systemic change won't happen overnight.
When travelling alone, it's common sense to make sure you're aware of how and where to get help if you need it, and arm yourself with knowledge about the local area. And for women, sadly, there are often further elements of safety to consider – but as most female travellers will agree, we cannot let it stop us living and enjoying life.
"Travel can be totally safe for women and the majority of solo travellers will have only positive and rewarding experiences," says Helen Wright, travel writer and blogger at passportstamps.uk. “Obviously bad things can happen anywhere, but that shouldn’t put you off exploring and fulfilling your adventurous instincts if you want to see the world.”
So if your adventure mode has truly been activated for 2022, here's everything you need to know so you can safely and fearlessly enjoy solo travel as a woman – because you absolutely should be able to do so. And once you're done, check out our top destinations for solo travel for women, for yet more wanderlust material...
Solo travel for women: top safety tips
1. Do your researchMost of us will have done a little homework on the place we're visiting before actually arriving – but if you're travelling alone, make sure you go the extra mile. “Research your destination in advance. Be aware of any areas that are overly quiet after dark or have a reputation for being more dangerous or notorious for crime,” says Helen. Make sure you're aware of the currency, public transport systems and at least a few useful phrases in the local language, too.
2. Book a tourYou don't have to do it totally alone. If it's your first time, you could consider booking onto a tour, where you'll meet fellow solo travellers who will no doubt have the same sense of adventure. Donna Jeavons, Youth Travel Expert at tour provider Contiki, says: “Over half the people on our trips are solo travellers. We have Trip Managers who work on the ground in each country, and know the ins and outs of every hotel, location, what to look out for and how to keep you safe. You travel with a group of like-minded travellers, meaning you will make traveller friends on the way. Plus there’s safety when travelling in numbers.”
If you've already gone it alone, you could also book a local tour so you can get to know the area better. Helen adds: “Solo travel doesn’t mean you have to be alone all the time. Many cities offer free walking or photography tours where you can explore the key areas of the city with a local guide and get a feel for the place. During the tour, ask the guide for recommendations of safe areas to socialise, or go jogging, trekking or swimming, etc. Local knowledge can be invaluable when looking for areas to sensibly stay safe in a foreign destination.”
3. Know your weaknesses“Know your own capabilities and plan for your weaknesses,” says Donna. “If you’re not great at reading maps for example, make sure you download assisted apps or maps on your phone like Google Maps.”
4. Reach out to other travellers“If you are sharing a hostel room or accommodation with other female travellers, exchange numbers so you can be reached if your roommate gets suspicious of your absence,” says Helen. “Doing this also means you will have a point of contact if you get into a difficult situation.”
5. Don't overpackWhen you're travelling alone, you're going to want to get around easily. “Ideally, you’ll want to move freely and be able to lift your own luggage up staircases and onto public transport,” says Helen. “Being independent when travelling is the safest way to move around without needing to approach people for help or have them insist on carrying your case for you.”
6. Use local transport safelyGenerally, public transport is probably the best way to get around, though Helen advises familiarizing yourself with it first. “Use public transport in destinations where it is deemed safe for visitors to use it,” she says. “Public transport is usually busy and often covered by CCTV. Avoid getting into strangers’ cars or taxis that aren’t government registered or linked to a ride-sharing app. For extra security, you could always take a photo of the registration and send it to a friend or fellow traveller.”
8. Don't travel with expensive jewellery, clothes or bagsThis could make you a potential target for criminals.
9. Look into local customsIs there a dress code? “You don't want to stand out and appear naïve,”
10. Be cautious if using dating appsThere's no reason you can't have fun and date while abroad but prioritise your safety. “When using dating apps, only meet in public places and choose the location where you will be meeting yourself. Always tell a third party who you are meeting and where. Send their dating app profile details, where possible,”
What to pack to stay safe as a female solo travellerThere are a number of things that every female solo traveller should carry with them.
“Those discreet travel wallets that strap to your body are still a great idea after all these years,” says Helen. “Keep some cash inside and a copy of your passport details (if not your actual passport) and an emergency contact number. If you might require medication urgently for any reason, include a note on your condition and prescription). It's also a good idea to keep a back-up bank card – set up a separate account with a bit of cash in – in a different place to the rest of your essentials to rely on if you lose your luggage or get your purse stolen.
“Have a decent, sturdy bag that zips closed. Pickpocketing can be rife in some areas, particularly public transport and busy markets or tourist areas. Look into this in advance, so you can be more aware, but wherever you go, don’t leave yourself open to being a target. Keep expensive items – like your phone or camera – cash or documents inside the bag, not in an external pocket.”
Donna recommends: “Carry a small first aid kit that will fit comfortably in your bag while you’re exploring and a water purifier so you can always keep hydrated. Have a whistle that's light, easy to carry and loud in case you need to raise attention – and add a VPN on your devices so you can get onto the internet and call for help if needed.”
Some women like to keep a personal safety alarm on them, and even personal defence tools that double up as travel essentials – such as mosquito repellent or hairspray. Only to be used when absolutely necessary, of course.
What to do when you arrive in a new place? Send your location to someone who's not travelling with you. “Give them an idea of when you might next be in touch (‘text you tonight, my time’, etc),” says Helen.Save any relevant information you need in your phone. “You'll need the number of your hotel, your Trip Manager (if on a Contiki tour or otherwise) and local police and hospitals,” says Donna. “Have your accommodation location pinned on your phone, too.”“Find a safe place for your passport and information,” adds Helen. “Keep a photocopy of your passport and travel insurance in a separate place, ideally with a small amount of emergency cash. Use lockers where available.”“After checking in, stock up on snacks and bottles of water for your room, so you don’t have to go out looking for a shop late at night,” says Helen.“Have an idea of the places you want to see and explore and try to plan as much in advance, so you can properly research transport options and things you may need – such as proper footwear, ID, towels etc," she adds. “Doing this means you can also share your planned itinerary with someone else, making you easier to locate if necessary.
What NOT to do while solo travelling..Never travel without travel insurance. Get the best cover for your destination and don't be put off spending a little more for it.Don't tell strangers you're travelling solo. Be slow to trust.Don't be so captivated by a destination that you fail to use your common sense. Ask yourself: “Would I do this at home?”Don't carry all your money and things with you at one time. Just take what you need for the day.Go out and have fun, but don't take drugs or drink so much that you can't get yourself home safely. Always keep your drinks visible, so no one is able to put anything into your glass.Don't go too far off the beaten track alone. Stick to public places and carry a map or offline map with you at all times.If you get lost, don’t stand on the street fiddling with your phone and trying to read the map. Go into a local café and get your bearings before you leave.
What to do if you feel vulnerable or unsafe while solo travelling“I always recommend that women rely on their instinct,” says Helen. “If a place feels uncomfortable or unsafe, always leave immediately and do not feel intimidated. Find a safe space, a hotel or somewhere public like a shopping mall or supermarket, and then work out what your next move is. If you feel unsafe on the street, call a taxi on a ride-sharing app. If you feel like the situation you were or are in is potentially dangerous, call the police.
“If in a public place, approach a group of people your age or a family and ask to stay or sit with them until you can safely move on.
"In situations where you need to contact the police, and language is a difficulty, try to find a local who can help – preferably a professional person (maybe a tour guide) who speaks the language fluently. Ask them to come with you or make the call for you. Contact your embassy if you feel ignored or misunderstood.
“You could also look for female support groups in the area or any charities or official information portals that have experience dealing with the authorities.”