WHY IT ROCKS
Hitting the road flanked by your favourite people can be the greatest experience in the world. But flying solo can be just as memorable – for many different reasons.
During my time in Colombia with World Nomads I interviewed a number of badass solo women travellers. Women of all ages from all over the world, choosing to pack their bags and set sail on their own.
These women are inquisitive, adventurous, normal and know how to stay safe. They told me the appeal of going without friends or family was in the true sense of freedom it allowed. They could also be pushed outside their comfort zones and feel a boost in confidence and accomplishment upon their return home.
As a blonde Western woman I know what it’s like to be stared at while travelling. The eyeballing, hustling and haggling in places like the bazaars of Marrakech, the bustling ruins of Rome and the beggar-lined streets along the Ganges in Varanasi can be pretty intense. So much so, that the thought of branching out on these trips alone can seem a little daunting and even crazy.
But the thing about travelling solo is that you're rarely ever actually alone. There's always a spare seat next to you, whether you're on a plane, train or bus. There’s a friend-of-a-friend or a mate’s sister to meet up with. Hostels, hotels and guesthouses are also brimming with other like-minded women.
In 2008 I set off on a trip through the Middle East. No one I knew really wanted to hit that region, or had the time or cash to jet off. So I flew to Cairo on my own and ended up meeting a group of women who are now among my dearest friends. By the time we’d travelled through Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey we had forged a friendship that it still iron-strong today. Even though we had come from different backgrounds, we found that we were quite similar and at some sort of crossroad in our lives – in terms of love, family and career. By the end of the trip we’d been able to help each other in some sort of way. If I had put off that trip until someone would come with me, I would have missed out on seeing incredible places – many of which are now actually no-go zones - and I would never have met these great women.
Miranda Paraskeva is one of them. ‘The importance of solo travel is the very simple reason that there comes a time when you just figure that if you don't travel to places you’ve always dreamed of, time might run out. It was such a momentous time in my life - being newly single, having finally finished my exams and feeling like travelling by myself was not only such an independent thing to do, but it also gave me the opportunity to be the person I wanted to be without the constraints of people who knew me or had any expectations.’
I also met Rachel Watts on the epic Middle East adventure. ‘To take on the world and all its unknown, head-on in a solo way, can be pretty exhilarating. The lack of expectation is subtle but huge. And even before the amazing new friendships develop you have the advantage of really immersing yourself in the culture and scenery because you aren't phaffing about being who you're expected to be - or anticipating and expecting certain things from a well-known companion. Of course there is the advantage of complete selfish choice too. Every day, every excursion, meal, bedtime is what YOU want - even the choice to NOT do things the guide book insists you must. Real life is drowning in 'shoulds', so it's nice to rebel!!’
Nicole Johnston is an Australian foreign correspondent. She spends a lot of solo time on the road in some pretty far flung places for work and play. For Nicole, travelling alone has added to her experiences.
‘One of the beauties of travelling as a woman in Pakistan and Afghanistan, for either work or fun, is you fall into the "Third Sex" category. You are the "Foreign Woman". You can visit the closed-off "female" parts of the house in conservative Pashtun communities. And you can also sit with the men, treated as an honored guest. A guy could not move between both parts of the house and meet the men and women in the family. It's a unique position to be in and one that makes me feel very lucky!’
Skye Gilkeson A.K.A. The Fit Traveller says travelling alone builds resilience. ‘As a solo female traveller, the world can either be a terrifying or enriching place. Many times, the way you approach your destination shapes your journey. Back when I was a 22-year-old moving to Spain solo, I was fearless. The night I arrived in Barcelona I had a few bags, a narrow knowledge of the language and a great deal of enthusiasm. At midnight, I knocked on the door to the hostel and they told me they couldn’t find my booking but could put me in one of the men’s dorms. So I spent my first night in Barcelona, sharing a room with about 30 half-naked men from around the world. It wasn’t an intimidating experience. In fact, it was quite liberating. If I could hold my own in that environment, I would be okay building a life in a foreign city by myself.’
Of course, there are risks with travelling alone. You do need to do your homework and play it smart.
I’ve done some pretty dumb things in my time. I remember coming down to breakfast dressed for a day of exploring in Damascus, wearing a singlet and the shortest pair of shorts. Our Syrian guide took one look at me and said, ‘Stephanie, you can not wear that.’ I was taken aback and a little defiant, but when I think about it now, I really had failed to understand the requirements of my surroundings. (Walking around on my own in a very dodgy part of Istanbul is also on my list of mistakes.)
Dr Megan English has spent years travelling Asia - often alone - in her work studying elephants. Interesting stuff! The Australian has had to navigate a number of delicate cultures and customs along the way.
‘No doubt there are situations where I have had to be cautious travelling alone. I've been propositioned on public transport in Sri Lanka and India. I've been asked by men in India to give up my seat, to which I would politely just say, 'No, sorry' which the men would accept, eventually. But having said that, western women are often propositioned without even leaving their home town of Sydney or Melbourne.’
‘The common impression that it is more difficult for women to travel alone compared to men is exaggerated. Very often the difficulty women (and men) may have is related to their lack of understanding of local forms of communication, culture, and behaviour. Dressing in hot pants when you're travelling in a conservative country is going to draw attention, and not in a good way. You aren't being leered at because you are a solo female traveller. You are being treated this way, at least in part, because you have shown disrespect for the local culture.’
THE TOP SAFETY TIPS
Because Liam Neeson won’t always be looking out for you!
So what are best ways to stay safe as a solo woman traveler? Another interview I did with World Nomads in Colombia was with the crime boss of Bogota’s most dangerous barrio. The type of area that the police and locals stop you from entering because it’s almost certain that you’ll be robbed. Or, worse.
There are two especially important things the crime boss told me: Firstly, if you have your goods on show and you’re walking alone at night around the sketchy parts of town (like his barrio) his guys are going to rob you. And secondly, if you are robbed, hand your things over – it’s not worth trying to fight back and risk your safety for the sake of an iPhone. Sad, but true.
What other tips are there?
You have to prep like a boss. Research where you’re going, know where you’re staying and talk with people who’ve been there. Can they give you a contact of a friend or relative living locally?
Learn a few phrases. Knowing some basic language goes a long way.
Pack lightly. Cramming in too many things not only weighs you down but it slows you down. The fewer things you bring the easier it is to move yourself out of a tricky situation.
Make sure someone knows where you plan to be. Email your itinerary and copies of your travel documents to your family and best mate.
DON’T BE A TARGET
When I moved to London my cousin taught me how to walk like a ‘Londoner’. He gave me the best street safety advice – to basically strut my stuff and ooze confidence and not appear intimidated or as an easy target. (I also quickly learnt the look of dismissal and also the death stare if I was receiving unwanted attention.) Don’t look like a lost tourist. Don’t stand in the middle of the path looking at your map.
In Colombia they have a saying – ‘no dar papaya’ which basically means don’t leave yourself exposed. As the crime boss of Bogota told us, if you walk around flashing your handbag, camera, iPhone and diamond ring, there is a pretty good chance you’ll be robbed.
It may sound obvious but don’t hang on your own in a dark alley. ‘When I'm alone I stick to commuting in the day and try to avoid overnight trains and buses. I usually sit next to other women at bus/train stops and ask/research about dodgy areas. And I always try to keep my phone charged just in case of an emergency,’ says frequent solo traveller Carmel Green.
Always take a legit taxi or use Uber. Ask your hostel/accommodation for help.
Cover up. The feminist in me hates the fact that women need to be careful about their clothing choices when travelling. But, if you’re in a country where showing bare shoulders or upper thigh is considered disrespectful, (like my outfit in Damascus) then it saves hassle and headaches by dressing appropriately.
Have a back-up plan for your back-up plan. Know where you’re staying and have some extra cash or cards stashed away.
Don’t get blind drunk on your own. Always know you can get yourself home or organise to share a taxi with someone from your hostel.
If you’re really sick of being hit on, think about pretending you’re married. ‘I always wear a ring on my wedding finger and tell men who ask where my husband is (taxi drivers, hotel workers etc) that my husband is coming after he finishes work that day. Works a treat,’ says solo world traveller Imogen Brennan.
FIND GOOD PEOPLE
There’s a very good chance you’re going to make some great friends – so get talking!
‘When I’m travelling alone I always stay at hostels. I've stayed in both dorms and private rooms (depending on budget). Staying there helps me meet people. Hostels usually set up loads of group activities so I've found I rarely ever actually go out alone. I’m often chatting with a fellow traveller and discover they usually want to explore the same areas as me. And hostels have security ratings and reviews on websites like Hostel World which I definitely factor in when choosing accommodation,’ says Carmel.
Briony Sowden is another fan of cruising on her own. She recently explored India and Egypt solo. ‘I’m always talking to everyone. I look to join groups and make an extra effort to meet people. I always check with the the hotel staff about safe and unsafe areas and am happy to spend money hiring a driver for the day.’
GO WITH YOUR GUT
Meet new people and make new friends – but if something feels a little off – it’s ok to leave.
Skye’s biggest tip, trust your gut. ‘If it doesn’t feel right don’t do it. There’s a big difference between stepping outside of your comfort zone and stepping into the danger zone. If you wouldn’t do it at home, don’t do it on holiday.’
BE OPEN AND HAVE FUN
Remember that this is your journey. Have fun and enjoy every step! Meet new people and don’t be afraid to go out at night.
Do not postpone what's important to you simply because others don't share your priorities. There is nothing quite as empowering as doing something totally on your own. Life is good!
The benefits of your solo travels will be felt over and over again in your every day life once you arrive home. You’ll have a healthy dose of confidence and self-reliance that will last you a life time.
‘No dark alleys at night, no strange isolated places but you can't be too careful, you'll miss all the fun’ says Miranda.
‘Life has this habit of tying you down, making other things a priority, be that work, family or other responsibilities. It can somehow erase or at least suspend the dreams you had of spending months with a backpack, seeing continents and jungles, new cities and new people. If you don't take the opportunity when it’s there you might miss it.’
AND… PACK LIKE A PRO.
CLASSY FLIGHT TIPS FROM SOLO FEMALE TRAVELLERS
I don’t go anywhere without a big wrap or scarf. Perfect to keep you warm on the plane or to use as an eye mask for sleeping. (Also good for covering bare shoulders when entering a church or mosque.)
I always get on the plane with a good book, good earphones, notepad, socks, some healthy snacks and probiotics for the tummy. Travelling can really knock your tum around.
I fly without makeup and once I hit the airport I head straight for the super expensive face cream testers in the Duty Free shopping.
‘I pack rice crackers, nuts, popcorn and muesli bars and I always take a huge scarf everywhere. I was in Oman and inappropriately dressed and thankfully had a scarf to put on after I was told off. I also take a dry bag with me now if I know I'm going near or on the water to put my phone and things in. I never travel without tweezers and small wax strips! I also carry loose change and small notes as well as food if kids come up to me. I never leave the hotel without a business card because I've been lost trying to find my hotel by myself! Nightmare situation.’ Briony Banks
‘When flying I bring moisturising oil (a tiny tube feels like it lasts forever), face wipes, toothbrush and I always smell good walking onto the plane thanks to the duty free perfume samples.’ Carmel Green
‘I always take my own food on the plane - fresh fruit, kale chips, seeds, veggie sticks. The shitty plane food and jet lag play havoc with my digestion.’ Imogen Brennan
‘I don’t go anywhere without rehydration salts and tummy tablets.’ Melanie Ruiz
‘When travelling alone I love to take a good book related to the country I’m going to.’ Kathie Hunt
‘I make up my own first aid kit. It’s full of Nurofen, hand sanitizer, tampons, Band Aids, insect repellent, face wipes and hairbands/bobby pins.’ Madeleine Hunt