Seven Lessons Learned as A Solo Female Traveler
By Leslie Patrick
Images by Steven Moore
I love traveling, and I’m game for an adventure any time. Trouble is, most of my friends and family are holding down full-time jobs, stuck in that dismal two-weeks-of-holiday-per-year rut. So what’s a girl to do when the hankering to hit the road arises, but no one is free to accompany? Travel solo. We’ve all heard the horror stories of female travelers getting into less than pleasant situations, but what we don’t hear are the millions of stories of women traveling in perfect safety every day–not sensational enough for the newspapers of course. All it takes to successfully travel solo is common sense and a spirit of adventure. I’ve done it many times–in North America, South America and Asia–I’ve lived to tell the tale and I’ve learned a few lessons along the way.
1. Trust People
As a woman, when you tell people you’ll be traveling solo, you hear exclamations like, “Is that safe?” and “Be careful!” Rarely is a “Good for you!” or “How exciting!” uttered, even among the most well-meaning of friends. Of course it’s true that a woman alone in the world must be vigilant and aware of her surroundings, but that is the case whether you’re walking down the block in your own city or on a crowded street in Bangkok. Trouble is, that with all the vigilance going on sometimes we forget that most people are not of the out-to-get-you variety, instead they offer a friendly smile, give you directions, take your photo and don’t steal your bag as you leave your seat to use the restroom on an overnight bus. Definitely be aware, but give people a chance, too.
2. Trust Yourself
Yes, trust others, but first trust yourself. Your instincts are there for a reason and if they say something is sketchy, listen. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself if you think you’re being cheated or taken advantage of. Many women don’t say anything because they don’t want to offend people–myself included–but I am beginning to learn that when alone on the road, you must put yourself first because no one else will.
3. Be Prepared
As a long time Girl Scout, I learned this motto well, and it’s served me into my adult life as a traveler. When you’re on the road alone, you’re it. There’s no one to bounce ideas off of, no one to help you read that unintelligible map and no one to borrow toothpaste or sunscreen from when you’ve forgotten your own. Though it’s nearly impossible to be prepared for ANY situation (after all, you wouldn’t want to carry the kitchen sink around in your backpack for weeks) it’s smart to try. Make lists of must-have items, always have a contingency plan should a hostel be fully booked or you miss your train, and always carry a snack should you find yourself in the middle of nowhere on a broken down bus for five hours.
4. Get Involved
You consider yourself a brave adventurer; after all you did set out on a solo trip, right? No matter what your personality type, when you’re traveling alone for an extended length of time, there are going to be those moments of loneliness where you’d give anything to be transported home for just one night. Don’t let these moments get you down, they will pass. They may not even weasel their way into your consciousness if you are proactive in the first place, by taking that Spanish class, signing up for excursions or hanging out in the common room of your hostel to meet fellow solo vagabonds.
5. Prepare to Splurge
For most of us, budget travel is our MO. And it’s an amazing feeling to see a chunk of the world on a small wad of cash. But when you are traveling solo, even the best budget intentions can evaporate when it’s midnight, the bunks are booked and all that’s left is a private room, or you miss the airport shuttle and have to splurge on a private taxi to make your flight on time. There’s no one to split the bill for these unforeseen expenses when you’re single, so stash a little extra money to shell out should an unexpected yet unavoidable budget buster arise.
It amazes me when I travel to see so many of my fellow travelers walk around with a miserable grimace on their face. You’re on a trip! Exploring the world! Be happy for crying out loud! Not only does smiling possibly make all those less-than-pleasant ticket vendors, immigration officers, waiters and bus drivers slightly more endeared to you, but it may be just the thing that your fellow traveler needs to make their day a little brighter.
7. Get out of your Comfort Zone
I’ve never ridden a horse before in my life, so on a recent solo trip to Argentina, I surprised myself by signing up to go horseback riding in the Andes. Scared was an understatement as I put my foot in the stirrups of what seemed to me a giant beast. But once I made it to the saddle, and began to amble along the trail, my heart rate receded and I was able to look around and enjoy the splendor of the mountains. By opening up and doing something you wouldn’t normally consider, you’ll have surprising new experiences, meet different kinds of people and have that awesome “I did it” rush.
Leslie Patrick is an international freelance journalist focusing on travel, culture and lifestyle. Her work has appeared in Salon, AFAR, Marie Claire, Travel + Leisure, Islands, United Airlines’ Hemispheres Magazine and Monocle among other publications. Visit her website at lesliepatrick.com, or her travel blog, The Chic Adventurer.