Totally Honest Thoughts on Being a Solo Female Traveler
For this post, I spoke with seven fellow young women (hi, gang!) who’ve traveled alone, especially internationally. Because every woman comes from a different lived experience, I wanted to get a diverse range of opinion on the topic of traveling as a solo female, even though I’ve heard some common sentiments from friends over the years. Having spent many months traveling alone over the past six years, I reflect often on the benefits and challenges of traveling toute seule.
When I tell people where I’m planning to travel, I often hear, “You’re going all alone?” When the answer is yes, I feel simultaneously brave for being open enough to do it, naïve for being willing, and sometimes sad that I won’t share the experience with someone else. I try to never take for granted the privilege to travel, let alone to travel solo. I’m well aware that for millions of people across the world, travel isn’t synonymous with leisure and adventure; it’s displacement and necessity. This only compounds the importance of remembering that any kind of travel purely for the sake of self-development is a privilege. When handled well, it can serve as a critical tool for awareness of the self in the context of humanity. While I have the energy to live nomadically, the desire to experience new places, and the willingness to have just enough money for the next trip, I seize travel opportunities. Or, rather, I make them happen. I’m inspired by all the women who don’t wait until the “perfect” time/friends/destination lines up. They make plans and go.
However, this sometimes means going it alone. And that can be hard. And awesome. And sad. And liberating. It’s a lot of things at once, and you experience them all by your lonesome. After consulting my rockin’ panel of travelers who identify as women, I distinguished five common themes we all articulated about the reality of being a solo female traveler. They are ideas that we feel indicate the highs and lows that aren’t usually understood by our male friends.
Our common themes
1. It can be scary (duh). One of my fellow travelers says, “The thought of traveling to a foreign land is exhilarating, freeing, and daring. However, getting caught up in the glamour of it all can distract you from the nitty-gritty of researching and planning for your travels.” I agree, and it’s at the point of getting into the nitty gritty that reality can suddenly become scary. I’ve had moments of “what have I gotten myself into?” I’ve put chairs behind hotel and apartment doors so that I would be able to hear if someone tried to come into my room at night. I’ve changed plans at the last minute because I didn’t feel totally safe and comfortable. As a young woman in our world, I have fears on a regular basis at home, so being in a foreign country where I literally know no one else can be extremely intimidating. I mean, you try not to think of worst case scenarios, but they can’t be completely shut out.
“Women traveling alone have to be so completely aware of their surroundings all the time just for safety, which men don’t have to really worry about as much. I think guys can much more easily just stay in a random hostel or do couch surfing, but girls investigate the safety of their lodgings much more.” ~O.
2. It means taking extra precautions. Almost all solo female travelers I encounter agree on the biggest downfall of going it alone: “The worst is not having someone there to have your back. You have to be careful…much more so than when you have travel companions.” I’m frequently in a continuous, low-level fight-or-flight kind of mentality just from being hyper-aware of my surroundings for extended periods of time, which is hormonally exhausting. I’m extra vigilant about trying not to stand out or look completely lost, because I know my independence makes me vulnerable. I don’t like being out past dark if I’m walking around alone, especially if I’m in an unfamiliar city. I make sure (to the best of my ability) to choose safe accommodations, which sometimes means spending a bit more money. Sometimes I bring pepper spray with me when plane restrictions aren’t in the picture. This isn’t all necessary, but it’s what I naturally do to feel comfortable. I’ve never heard male travelers say they practice similar precautions to this degree.
“The hardest part is having to have your guard up, all. the. time. It’s not just looking out for pickpockets or weird guys, but making sure you have all of your things, and that you’ve booked the right bus ticket and have the right currency and food so you don’t get hangry, that your phone is charged, and every other little detail that may not matter if you are at home or with a group. There is no mercy when you are traveling alone. It’s all on you.” ~M.
3. Sometimes people are especially nice to you. Because solo female travelers can appear vulnerable or harmless (hellooooo, stereotypes!), some people go out of their way to help. One of my fellow female travelers also says, “If you’re in your little traveling clique, you don’t reach out and talk to others as much as you are forced to do when you travel alone. Once you take that first step in approaching a stranger or foreigner, it becomes much easier to start meeting other people.”
4. Sometimes it’s awesome for the most trivial reasons. I try to relish the little perks of traveling alone. As solo travelers, we can wake up when we want to, eat ice cream for lunch if we want to, spend as long as we want in our favorite museums, and rest when we’re just too tired. One of my fellow travelers says the best part about traveling solo is getting to call your own shots. If you don’t feel you have this freedom in your “normal” life, traveling offers the opportunity to relish temporary independence.
5. It’s liberating and important. Women of past generations had neither the means nor the social acceptance to travel the world solo. For this reason, I think solo women travelers are benefiting from and contributing to feminist progress. It’s empowering to explore new parts of the world as an independent human.
“Just do it. You’ll be glad you did. It’ll change your perpective on yourself; you’ll become more aware of your own strength.” ~K.
“Traveling solo as a female offers the grace and space for reflection. You are able to set the pace. It’s a beautiful opportunity to then translate this pace you’ve set for yourself to your normal way of life once you’re done traveling. There can be a lot of choice involved in traveling as a solo female that we often overlook, but it’s empowering to know you have choice in what you will do and how you will take it all in.” ~T.
In my experience traveling and recounting experiences with men and women, I find that until we women explain what we just described, men sometimes just don’t get it. Their lived experiences have often given them the privilege to not have to get it.
“Our learned nature as women is to normally be inviting, understanding, and compassionate, however, we often have to stifle these while traveling in order to protect ourselves. I believe males have little to no awareness of how, in a sense, we can’t fully be our curious and adventurous selves while traveling alone, whereas males have the ability to be more daring in their surroundings.” ~T.
Yes, in many ways, traveling solo is harder for women. But we deserve to experience the formative, personal effects of traveling abroad even though it can be scary and risky. Et donc, je vous présente my action call: forge ahead, solo female travelers. To everyone: let us support and encourage the women in our lives who take the leap and go when they feel it serves them. Support and encourage in ways big and small. Check in on your traveling friends. Don’t make them feel silly or timid for taking extra safety precautions. Help solo travelers when you have the chance. Continue to create a world in which women are always becoming safer than they were last year. And, importantly, instill in girls and young women the belief that independent exploration is absolutely possible. From my own experience, I know I would never have reached this place without my family and friends cheering me on.