Staying safe while traveling alone is a big concern for many travelers, and particularly for women. I’ve been circling the globe by myself for the past six years, and I’ve learned that the world is generally a much safer place than we imagine. But when your safety is in your hands, it’s important to take very good care of yourself. Here’s how.
- Visit Travel.state.gov
The first step is to research your destination with the State Department. Visit travel.state.gov and type the country name into the search box. What you read will sound scary at first — the State Department likes to make sure you’re informed of all the potential dangers you might encounter. Learn what the risks are, and avoid traveling to any areas the State Department marks as high-risk, but keep a sense of perspective while you read. Most travelers will never encounter any of the scams or risks described on the site. (If you have anxiety issues, you might ask a friend to read the site and summarize the most important bits for you; the information can be overwhelming).
You’ll find lots of helpful information on the site about visas, local laws, and more. The State Department homepage also has links to general safety information for women, LGBTQ travelers, students, and other specific types of travelers.
- Visit the CDC website
The next step is to learn about health risks by visiting www.cdc.gov and checking out the country you plan to visit. Again, the site is very thorough, so don’t be alarmed by what you read here. You’ll see a list of recommended immunizations, but usually nothing is required by law and the decision to immunize is yours to make, with your doctor’s advice. At the very least you’ll want to make sure your standard immunizations and boosters are up to date, and if you travel often you might consider getting Hepatitis A & B, typhoid, and rabies vaccines, as those are often recommended.
You’ll also find information here about water safety, stray animals, insects, and more.
- Consider registering with STEP
The STEP program lets you register your travel plans with the U.S. Embassy. You’ll receive the same notifications about safety threats as embassy employees, and in case of a national emergency or evacuation, the Embassy would be able to reach you. I don’t do this for every trip, but if you’re traveling to a place where natural disasters or political issues seem dangerous, you might want to register. It’s nice support to have when you’re trying to stay safe while traveling alone.
- Buy travel insurance
Travel insurance is vital, especially for solo travelers who have no one else to help them if they’re sick or injured.
I always bypass the insurance offered by my airline and get full coverage from World Nomads instead. World Nomads covers everything, including trip cancellation, lost luggage, a stolen phone, or medical emergencies. If you need medical care while you’re traveling, you can call a toll-free number and someone who speaks your language will help you get to the nearest hospital, doctor, or clinic. As a solo traveler, that gives me tremendous peace of mind. I’ve had guests who had to cancel their Women’s Adventure Tours with me on short notice, and World Nomads reimbursed them for the entire trip cost. I’ve had nothing but great experiences with them.
(note: I love them so much I’ve become an affiliate; Buying through my World Nomads link will help support this site)
- Use a VPN
While traveling, you’ll be accessing your bank account, social media, and other sensitive sites from your phone or laptop using shared networks at cafés, airports, and hotels. When you do that, you put yourself at high risk of identity theft or fraud. The best solution is a VPN (virtual private network) that secures your data. I find Nord VPN very easy to use — I pay a couple of dollars a month and I can use the app on my laptop, phone, and tablet. I even use it in the US to keep my data safe. As a bonus, sites like Spotify and Hulu that usually block me when I’m overseas let me in while I’m using Nord to connect through a U.S. location.
SUPER PRO TIP: If you use the Rakuten shopping plugin, you can get another 40% off NordVPN. I love the Rakuten app, it gives me at least $100 cash back every year on things I was going to buy anyway.
- Photograph important documents
Use your phone to snap photos of your passport information page, the front and back of each of your credit cards, and any other important documents. If your phone doesn’t automatically back up photos to the cloud, e-mail them to yourself so you’ll be able to access them even if your phone is stolen.
- Load your phone with important numbers
• Look up the nearest U.S. embassy phone number and add it to your contacts
• Add the number to call your travel insurance in case of a health emergency (the World Nomads number for US citizens calling from outside the country is +1-603-328-1329) Store your policy number in the notes field.
• Enter the number and address of your hotel or lodging
• Know the local emergency number (it’s not always 911 – use this link to find it)
• Store any other local contacts you might need
- Know the real dangers
The human mind has a tendency to build its biggest fears around the most dramatic dangers rather than the most probable ones. That’s why travelers worry about statistically improbable threats like human traffickers, horrible viruses, and terrorist attacks. But you can’t stay safe while traveling alone if you don’t have a realistic idea of what the dangers are.
The biggest danger travelers face is road traffic injuries (just like home) with drowning in a very distant second place. The best way to stay safe is to wear seat belts, helmets, and life jackets. Don’t drink too much and then try to walk or drive home. Be careful when you’re crossing the street — especially if the cars are driving on the other side of the road from what you’re used to. Think twice about renting a car in a country where you don’t know the traffic rules. Personally, I prefer to walk most of the time, because I feel safest when I’m moving more slowly through my surroundings and can be away from the road.
- Nightlife is always high-risk
Drinking makes you far more vulnerable to everything from crime to accidents. When you’re traveling in a group, you can enjoy a bit more nightlife, but as a solo traveler, I mostly avoid it. I go home after dinner to have a glass of wine, read, watch a movie, and relax.
If I’m staying in a hostel or hotel where I can have a couple of drinks without leaving the building, I might do that — but even one drink slows your reflexes and thought processes and makes you more vulnerable. I have a theory that most muggings, rapes, assaults, and other violent crimes occur in bars or while walking between bars. I don’t know of any studies to back that up, but I am positive that avoiding nightlife is the #1 tip to stay safe while traveling alone.
Men, this advice is for you too. Partying increases your risk of being mugged, having your phone stolen, getting into a fight where you could be stabbed or worse, and more.
If traveling without nightlife wouldn’t be any fun for you at all, then minimize your risk by taking taxis door to door, carrying very little cash, and bringing an old, inexpensive phone and having a second one back in the room just in case (nothing speeds up phone loss or theft as fast as drinking).
You might also want to stay in hostels, so you can party at in-house bars with people you got to know during the day.
- Take responsibility for your own safety
I often hear American tourists say “They wouldn’t let us do it if it wasn’t safe.” That is true inside our litigious society, where businesses will be sued if customers are hurt. In most of the world, there’s more of a “buyer beware” mentality — and in many developing countries, life is a cheap commodity.
If you want to try adventures like zip lines, bungee jumping, or parasailing, never assume that your safety is guaranteed. Google the company name, look for reviews, look for blog posts from past customers, check out the equipment yourself. Ask the locals how long the company has been around and what its reputation is. It’s a lot of work, but your life is at stake.
- Protect your valuables
• Ideally, keep your wallet and keys in zippered pockets (I hired a seamstress to add zippered pockets to some of my travel clothes).
• Check out the Pacsafe; bags at this link; they make purses and daypacks with slash-proof straps and fabrics, locking zippers, and a way to secure the bag to your table leg when you’re sitting in an outdoor cafe. I strongly prefer this over a money belt that forces me to dig around in my pants for cash.
• Some travelers carry a ‘decoy wallet’ with a few bills and an expired credit card to hand over in case of a robbery.
• Don’t carry your phone in your hand; if you’re using navigation, turn the sound up and put in headphones. If you must look at your phone when you’re in the city, step into a doorway first and stay aware of your surroundings.
• Never leave your phone on your restaurant table.
• Consider leaving your new iPhone at home. Ask your carrier if you can transfer your SIM card into an older phone, or consider getting a Google Fi SIM card to use while you’re traveling (it works in more than 100 countries, you can get the card for free, and billing starts at just $20/month plus data).
• Be especially vigilant when you’re entering touristic areas. Make sure your money and valuables are secure and, if you’re carrying a day pack, move it to the front of your body.
- Don’t flash your wealth or beauty
In six years of travel — mostly in countries that would be considered third-world — I’ve never been a victim of any crime besides a phone grab. I think the fact that I live out of a backpack and look like a hobo probably helps me stay safe while traveling alone. My clothes are worn-looking, my hair is in a ponytail, I’m rarely wearing jewelry or much makeup. If you’re traveling with an expensive-looking haircut, wearing a flashy engagement diamond, and outfitted in crisp, new-looking trekking gear, you are sending a strong message about how much money is in your wallet.
Someday we’ll live in a world where beautiful young women are considered people instead of objects of desire — but we’re not there yet. I don’t believe women are ever at fault when they are victims of crime, but a discussion of personal safety wouldn’t be complete without a warning that revealing dress can make you a target. If your goal is safety, dressing conservatively and shoving your hair in a hat is a good strategy.
Americans are socialized to smile a lot and to be very warm and friendly, but in other cultures, a lot of smiling can to stay safe while traveling alone, sexual interest or even stupidity. You might want to check your smiling behaviors unless you’re in very safe surroundings. There’s already a stereotype in much of the world that Western women (particularly Americans) are not very bright and/or are indiscriminately available for sex, so being a little less friendly can only work in your favor.
- Research local customs for women
What advice would you give a woman coming from a jungle in South America, who is usually bare-chested and dressed in a loincloth, if she’s going to visit New York City? Do you think it’s oppressive to suggest that she might want to wear a shirt, no matter how hot the weather?
I often meet women who refuse to honor modesty norms in Muslim countries because they think those norms are “oppressive,” but I suggest visiting with an open mind and participating in the culture. In Muslim countries, I don’t cover my hair or dress like a Muslima — in my experience, the locals find that very weird — but I do follow the norms in terms of covering my skin from elbow to knee and not revealing too much of my figure.
It’s also very easy for us to send the wrong messages if we don’t know the local customs. For instance, In many Muslim countries, women don’t make eye contact with men outside their families. If a strange man says hello to them on the street, he’s being very rude and that woman will scoff and look away. If that’s the local norm, imagine what a man thinks if a woman not only looks right at him but smiles warmly and greets him!
Places that get a lot of tourists are usually pretty tolerant of our strange behavior and dress styles, but it’s still a good idea to know the norms. Typing “customs for women in [country] into Google should get you the information you need to stay safe while traveling alone.
- Carry a lock — or two!
If you worry that other people might have a key to your room or travel apartment, carrying your own travel lock will give you great peace of mind. This Addalock device is lightweight, easy to carry, and will work in almost any kind of door.
If you stay in hostels, you will also want a small padlock to secure your belongings in a locker. This one is my favorite because it has a flexible cable, so it will fit any locker even if the door is slightly bent.
- Don’t talk to people on the street
To stay safe while traveling alone, you have to be serious about “stranger danger.” Of course, you know better than to talk to strangers — but we are socialized to put other peoples feelings ahead of our own safety, and criminals will take advantage of that. Many common scams begin with a person asking if you dropped this ring, or trying to offer you an apartment or a taxi. It’s not necessary to be rude to everyone — you can honor the humanity of vendors and beggars by making eye contact while you shake your head no, or firmly say “No, thank you” or “I’m sorry, not today.”
- Carry a first-aid kit
Most people carry way too many over-the-counter medications in their bags. You don’t need a month’s supply of allergy medication, cold medicine, and anti-diarrheal meds for a one-week trip; a few tablets of each should suffice. But you should have a few band-aids, an antibiotic ointment, and some alcohol pads for wound cleaning.
- Be cautious of taxis
Most frequent travelers have been ripped off by a taxi driver at least once. In a few cases, getting in the wrong taxi can result in worse trouble, like kidnapping. In these cases, the kidnappers typically take you to an ATM, demand cash, and then release you — which is probably less horrible than you’d imagine but still not a good time.
To avoid these problems, don’t flag down taxis on the street unless they are clearly marked and one of the well-known “brands” in the area you’re visiting. If you can’t arrange a ride on arrival with your hotel or Airbnb host, or figure out pubic transport, then google your arrival airport plus the words “taxi information” and see what you can learn before you arrive. Most airports in cities with taxi issues will have an official booth for you to book your taxi when you arrive.
I prefer to use taxi apps when I travel. To find the local taxi apps after you arrive in a place, put a destination into Google Maps and then tap the “flag a taxi” icon. You’ll see one or more local apps at the bottom of your screen, with a link to download it. I’ve trusted Google to recommend apps that are safe to use and so far I’ve had great success with this method. (Google Maps has lots of great features for travelers — visit this link to learn more.)
- Don’t carry a lot of cash
Modern ATM networks make carrying a lot of cash unnecessary. There are a couple of steps you can take to make your cash planning easier. First, make sure your banks know where you’ll be (most bank websites have a place to enter your travel plans). Second, make sure you have more than one card, issued by more than one bank, that you can use to access cash (I have a debit card for my Paypal account that works great as a backup source and also gives me 1% cash back when I use it as a credit card). That way if one bank is hard to access, you can use a different one. Third, make sure you know your PIN numbers before you leave home.
- Keep your tummy safe
The final step to stay safe while traveling alone is to avoid stomach bugs. If you’re told not to drink the tap water, then you should also avoid raw fruits and vegetables that aren’t peeled. That includes salads, salsas, and fresh fruit juices unless they’re made from peeled fruits. Also be cautious of foods that have been held at room temperature all day, especially if they contain meat or cheese. As long as you’re eating at tourist-friendly restaurants with a long history of good reviews, or if the foods you’re eating are either peeled or freshly cooked and still hot, you should be fine.
Pro tip: Put a small bottle of water in your bathroom sink to remind you not to brush your teeth with the tap water.
- Make sure someone knows where you are
The easiest way to track your itinerary — and share it with someone else — is with a free app called TripIt. You can either give the app permission to scan your e-mail for travel plans, or you can forward them manually (just send them to email@example.com from your connected e-mail account). The app effortlessly keeps track of your flights, hotel reservations, and activities. You can easily add as many people as you want so your family or friends will always know exactly where you are, which flight you’re on, and where you can be found.
Once you’ve proven to yourself that you can stay safe when traveling alone, you’ll develop tremendous confidence in your ability to take care of yourself in all situations. That confidence is very freeing — as is learning that most of the world is kind and welcoming, and most people are basically good.
If you’re planning a trip, use my free travel budget calculator to figure out your trip budget.