Have self, will travel
October 27, 2013 5:13 PM   Subscribe

Where are some good, safe places for a single woman to travel by herself?

I'd like to travel more now that I have steady income. Ideally, I'd like to go alone, but I'm nervous about doing international travel by myself, especially because I'm a fairly small, young woman.

I've lived in rough areas of several cities and walked in them alone, but international travel seems different. Am I being silly or too cautious? Do you recommend any specific destinations for a beginner solo traveler? Assume I like everything, from beaches to cities to mountains. In cities, I like interesting bars, art films, coffee shops, museums, etc.

Also, any safety tips for the solo female traveler are welcome.

posted by easy, lucky, free to Travel & Transportation (42 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Don't mean to not be helpful here, but assuming you're in the US, most places in the developed world would be completely fine, especially if you've lived in rough areas of several US cities. Most places in developed nations are nicer and have lower crime than US cities in general, let alone marginal areas of US cities. In addition, the tourist areas of international, developed cities are generally the nicest and safest areas.

Where do you want to go?
posted by cnc at 5:23 PM on October 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, most Western countries are as - or more - safe than America. Japan is also, almost jaw-droppingly, safe.

In terms of developing countries, you can really tailor your safety levels by how much you're prepared to spend on group travel packages where you are managed from start to finish etc. Maybe you could qualify this question a little with info like:

1) What places would you *like* to go to?
2) What kind of travel do want to do? (i.e alone, in a group, package holidays, planned/unplanned)
3) How much money are you prepared to spend on travel (low budget only, mid-range, pull the stops out baby)

I would say that, generally, if you have a middling budget you can go virtually anywhere in my experience, except the most obvious dumb places (DRC etc) in relative safety. Relative being the operative word here: Risks we are cognisant of when on the road are often ones we disregard in our home towns and countries. So whilst you are more aware of risk than travelling, you may not be actually taking greater risks. This may spur you to be more careful at home, than relaxed when abroad however!
posted by smoke at 5:30 PM on October 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've travelled a lot alone even within the US - cities, rural areas - and never had a bad incident.
posted by Miko at 5:31 PM on October 27, 2013

Scandinavia is like easy mode for solo international travelers-- everyone speaks lovely English, is terribly helpful, and I felt much safer there than I ever have anywhere in the U.S. Single culture (in other words, young men in bars, clubs and on the streets) is very non-aggressive. Plus, it's beautiful and there are a billion different chances to try new things, see great landscapes, and roll around in big piles of neat history.
posted by WidgetAlley at 5:31 PM on October 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

Agreed that many other cities/countries are as safe or safer than many parts of the US. Do you speak any languages other than English? When I was traveling by myself (around Argentina in 2005, as a fellow small, young woman), that helped me feel more secure and blended in than like I had a giant "tourist here!" sign around my neck. I highly recommend Argentina. In addition to Buenos Aires, there are many other cool parts of the country to see.

In terms of tips, general things you would do while walking alone in the US apply. Displaying common sense (especially with valuables/alcohol) can go far. (Several of my classmates got pickpocketed while they were drunk.)

Can you narrow down places you've already been and have liked (or not liked)?
posted by pitrified at 5:34 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't think you're being silly. I became nervous on a walk in a strange city and realized I was several blocks from any kind of safety and didn't enjoy the whole evenin' much at all.

Tokyo is a cool place to visit and it is absolutely crazy safe. Also Singapore.
posted by ftm at 5:37 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The UK and Ireland are both very safe for women traveling alone (I've done both, among other places), and you can already speak the language! It's a good starting point for a first international trip; you can work up to the rest of Western Europe from there. Once you've navigated a foreign public transit system and figured out how to buy lunch in a foreign city in Dublin or Edinburgh or London, going to Munich or Rome will seem much less intimidating.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:55 PM on October 27, 2013

Response by poster: To answer some questions:

I'd actually like to visit some of the less-developed countries, but assume I should get some travel experience first. My bucket list right now is like Lithuania, Russia, South Africa, the Balkans, and the ABC islands in the Caribbean.

I'm not super keen on the idea of a group travel package, would much rather use my time to do my own thing.

I've been to Mexico (loved it!) and a few places in Canada.

I can get by in French and can read enough Russian to find restaurants and stuff.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 6:03 PM on October 27, 2013

There are tours that are heavy on coordinating transit and hotels with ample free time, so don't totally discount the organized tour thing.
posted by thorny at 6:08 PM on October 27, 2013

I'm fairly short and in my mid-twenties. For comparison, I normally live in a very safe suburb of Sydney.

Cities where I've felt safest when travelling alone: Havana, Singapore, Dubai, Montevideo
Cities where I have frequently felt uncomfortable when alone, or where I was harrassed less with a large male companion: Buenos Aires, Phuket

I can't think of anywhere where I felt actually frightened for my safety, though I will say that the catcalling in Buenos Aires is particularly awful, and that many of my friends were pickpocketed there.

Also, any safety tips for the solo female traveler are welcome.

I found that catcalling/creepy-dudes-following-me-down-the-street-on-horseback was drastically reduced by wearing shapeless pants. If your bag has a clasp, hold/wear it so the clasp faces your body (a friend of mine reached down to open her bag outside a bar and found someone else's hand already in it). If you must sleep on long journeys, find a way to strap your bag to your body and sleep on it if possible, which will help prevent someone slashing your bag open. Don't get so drunk that you cannot take care of yourself - the friends you make whilst travelling aren't necessarily going to be attentive to your welfare, especially if they're drunk too. You can avoid a lot of scams by refusing any offers to show you local bars/restaurants etc. If there's a local gay culture, it's often a good scene to go clubbing or barhopping without being harrassed.

For a beginner solo traveller, I would recommend Singapore (which is safe and interesting, and is also close to Malaysia which is a wonderful country). I would also recommend Buenos Aires, which is huge and fascinating. There are some sketchy parts, but if you exercise some common sense you'll have a great time (and be exceptionally well-fed, too).
posted by jaynewould at 6:15 PM on October 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

All the places.

Seriously, there is really nowhere you can't go as a single woman traveling alone.

With a few caveats. I've been warned away from Egypt by people I know who've been, who have said that the men are really persistent in terms of staring, following, trying to chat you up, etc. I don't think it's dangerous, just annoying. So if you're not up to always being "on" in that way, you may want to avoid? But to be honest I haven't been, and I was told the same thing about India and didn't find that sort of thing to be a big deal at all.

Also, it occurs to me that there are parts of the Muslim world where, because unaccompanied women are forbidden from so many things (driving and Saudi Arabia come to mind), there might not be any point in going there as a female tourist on your own. But maybe look into this before just writing off entire world regions. I spent a week alone in Istanbul, and aside from the pervasively male culture of most of the bathhouses, I didn't feel like I missed out on anything. And in that case, I just had to pay more to go to a specific sorta touristy bathhouse. Which, so what?

Frankly, though, the only places I would suggest you not go are places I would suggest men not go. War zones. Places where tourists are often targets for violent crime. Maybe avoid Syria and Afghanistan.
posted by Sara C. at 6:17 PM on October 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

My bucket list right now is like Lithuania, Russia, South Africa, the Balkans, and the ABC islands in the Caribbean.

None of these are particularly dangerous places, with the possible exception of maybe South Africa depending on what you intend to do.
posted by Sara C. at 6:19 PM on October 27, 2013

Oh, and I have a sort of out-of-left-field piece of advice for places where catcalling/mild street harassment is common.

This is based on traveling in India, btw, so YMMV as to whether it's universally useful.

I found that it was much easier to blend in as a woman alone as opposed to traveling in a group of women my age. In a group, we were much more noticeable -- and noticeable as outsiders -- and an obvious target for touts, beggars, and grody harasser dudes. On my own, it was a lot easier to just blend in with the streetscape and not really attract attention. When I was alone, I had a lot of interactions where people seemed to be assuming I was an expat or a student.

This makes me think it actually might be easier to travel as a woman alone, independently, as opposed to as part of a tour group. Almost everywhere I've traveled, you can spot tour groups a mile away whereas one or two independent travelers could be anyone, really.
posted by Sara C. at 6:27 PM on October 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

as another small female considering solo travel, I was just looking at wikipedia's list of intentional homicide rates by country. interesting in a generalized safety estimation sense -- and also strangely comforting, considering I've traveled extensively (just not solo) in 4 of the top 10 murdery countries (El Salvador, Honduras, Belize & Guatemala). I don't think you're silly, but the odds are we'll both be absolutely fine. although I do intend to backpack with a couple items like this door stop alarm, which screams deafeningly if somebody tries to open your hostel/hostel door. peace of mind goes a long way.

also on preview, & upon reflection, I second Sarah C.. I've received more attention with my girlfriends than anytime I was walking alone, at least in Latin America & Eastern Europe. ymmv.
posted by changeling at 6:31 PM on October 27, 2013


I am literally five foot nothing, and have been traveling as a solo young woman since I was 17. I've been all over - including exploring places many western tourists say are dangerous for anyone. Africa, Asia, Central and South America - plenty of places off the beaten track.

What is the secret? I'm always aware of my surroundings. I walk purposefully - I'm never lost (or at least, never seem to be). I engage with the local community, making friends as I travel on the road (for the most part, these are not other travelers). And I'm never conspicuous about flashing expensive items. I do travel with a laptop, but I keep it in its bag for the most part in public. Oh, and I try to be reasonable and avoid clearly dangerous isolated areas that you'd avoid in any event. If I really want to go to those isolated places - I go with a big group.

I have never, ever had issues with this - I think there is a prevalent myth that prevents women from adventuring as much as they could. I'd say go for it!
posted by arnicae at 6:33 PM on October 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'll second Havana and throw in Vietnam. Say what you will about the revolution - from my perspective it has made great strides in gender and class equality compared to other Caribbean, Central- and South American nations. The machismo is still there, but it doesn't seem to be as publicly expressed. The overwhelming police presence is problematic but also goes a long way to making tourists feel very, very safe.

Vietnam is peaceful, sexually and socially modest, open to travellers and seemingly devoid of the sort of sexual/gender aggression you see in so many places. I meant many solo female traveller's while there and they all mentioned how comfortable they felt there.

Both are simply amazing places to visit.
posted by centerweight at 6:37 PM on October 27, 2013

Response by poster: None of these are particularly dangerous places, with the possible exception of maybe South Africa depending on what you intend to do.

That's kind of what I thought, so I wanted these places to be my early solo experiences, with the intention of doing some more "daring" travel later.

For further reference, I lived in a rough area of Los Angeles county and used to walk alone in Philly all the time. Rereading my question, I think I sound a little naive, but my intention was to seek out advice about travel in some of the less-commonly visited places. Like, of course I could go to Paris or London, but I'm looking for hidden gems that are also good for lone female travelers.

My dad lives in Frankfurt so that may end up being my first trip.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 6:44 PM on October 27, 2013

I was just looking at wikipedia's list of intentional homicide rates by country. interesting in a generalized safety estimation sense -- and also strangely comforting, considering I've traveled extensively (just not solo) in 4 of the top 10 murdery countries (El Salvador, Honduras, Belize & Guatemala).

Keep in mind that you're far more likely to be murdered by a male partner in your own home than you are to be murdered while traveling abroad.

I'm not saying you shouldn't be careful, but you really should be more thinking of "how to reduce the risk of being pickpocketed" type strategies than how to avoid violent crime. It's just vanishingly unlikely that you will be the target of something like homicide, kidnapping, rape, etc.

Again, not saying "sure, feel free to wander dark alleys alone at night" or anything, but just try to keep some perspective.

I would say that any country where it's actually recommended to use things like a doorstop alarm is probably a country that no tourist should be visiting.

(Also, hostels are your friend, as a solo traveler. Think seriously about whether you would even likely be in a situation where you could use a doorstop alarm in the first place.)
posted by Sara C. at 6:45 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I took public buses in Costa Rica alone without any problems. There were usually a few other Americans around but not that many. I'm a small woman and was in my mid 20s at the time.
posted by sweetkid at 6:48 PM on October 27, 2013

Also, yea hostels. Also when traveling alone I attached myself often to other groups of people also traveling, usually groups of women or mixed groups, but I also took a boat with some French dudes once.
posted by sweetkid at 6:49 PM on October 27, 2013

I do not have an exact answer to this, but my friend/former college roommate has been solo-traveling the world for three or four years. She's engaged now, so not really solo-female traveling now, but she did for quite a while!

Her blog is Adventurous Kate, and on her Best of Blog page there is an entire section about solo female traveling. If you were considering going somewhere she doesn't specifically address, I'm sure she would be happy to answer a question about it!

Happy adventuring!
posted by kellygrape at 6:50 PM on October 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

As a small and young-acting woman (and a screaming introvert to boot), I look back on my solo travel experience as a really valuable time that helped me realize how much more capable I am than I realized beforehand, thinking of myself in those categories. If you do end up going to Frankfurt, may I recommend taking a train east? Prague, Budapest and Vienna are all easily reachable, destinations within themselves, generally safe and good gateways into the Balkans which are BEAUTIFUL GO NOW GO NOW! Even if you don't venture that far on your first trip, you'll have a wonderful time and then be able to find your way around the next time you're coming through on the way to Serbia/Macedonia/what have you.

Have wonderful travels, wherever you end up!
posted by theweasel at 8:07 PM on October 27, 2013

Taiwan's another good choice. I lived there for eight years and traveled a bit while there. It always felt quite safe to me. I felt very comfortable walking around Taibei at 3am, for example.
posted by jiawen at 8:22 PM on October 27, 2013

You can pretty much go anywhere, except, as others have mentioned, places no one should travel to. I'm in month 7 of my travels, mostly in developing countries, as a (small) solo female and nothing bad has happened to me. I'm also from the United States and the only places I've ever been threatened, mugged, or assaulted are large east-coast cities in the good ol' USA (just sayin!)

I second the advice that you're sometimes better off alone than in a group - in addition to attracting less attention, I find that being alone makes me less complacent about my safety. I know that I only have myself to rely on and I stay more alert. Being in hostels is a great plan too. You'll meet many people (including other solo women to hang out with) and you can round up a group to go out to bars at night, etc. You'll also get up-to-date info from other travelers about security in nearby cities or countries that you're heading to, which will likely be much more relevant and accurate than whatever you could research online or by guidebook.

Places I loved as a solo traveler: Colombia (really safe! but if USian friends and family are nervous about you being alone they might get extra stressed about Colombia, because it does have a bad reputation from media 15-20 years ago), Chile, Argentina, anywhere in Southeast Asia.

Happy travels!
posted by horizons at 8:23 PM on October 27, 2013

Response by poster: My dad's wife is actually from Croatia so they go to the Balkans a lot. I'd love to visit but probably wouldn't be alone just because her family is there.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 8:54 PM on October 27, 2013

To kind of elaborate on the Scandinavia thing, an anecdote:

I was out in Oslo with some friends and we were bar crawling. We decided to go to this one place, but one of my friends pulled me aside and told me to be careful, it was in "a very dangerous part of town." I asked him "how dangerous is it?" because I'm from New Orleans (routinely highest murder rate in the country) and I'd lived in Durham, NC previously (which had the highest violent crime rate per capita in the country or something like that when I lived there) so I wanted to be prepared. He says to me, in a very serious voice, "Oh, it's very bad, a guy got stabbed there three years ago and it was all over the news." And he just didn't understand why I couldn't stop laughing.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:06 PM on October 27, 2013 [8 favorites]

Your own threshold for unsafe interactions is what should determine whether or not you could comfortably enjoy a trip to specific regions where single women are often targets for theft, assault, and harassment. Are you going to be okay if you are followed somewhere because you are a visual novelty? This happened to my best friend when she went to Morocco and even some parts of Europe because she is rather tall and very white. She could not go anywhere in the city without being followed, and many people asked her if they could take pictures with her and were offended when she said no. This is not to say that you should think of yourself as a potential victim, but rather that there are certain responses that you might elicit from locals that may really stress you out and impede your ability to enjoy a relaxing vacation. Obviously if you go to places where you look like a local things will be different, but it's advice that nearly all my single female friends have given me now that they've done a bit of traveling.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:56 PM on October 27, 2013

Okay. My first trip overseas alone was South Africa. I lived there for a while, and have been back twice to visit. It was absolutely safe within certain parameters - Cape Town was my favourite and most safe place in the country, although I felt fine in Durban, Pietermaritzberg, and almost everywhere on the garden route.

The first time I went, I was 20, small, blonde, and pretty naive. And I did fine. It has become the most important period of my entire life and taught me a lot about being alone, being observant, taking risks within limits, and meeting people.

Just go. I've written about going to ZA a lot on the green, so feel free to look back through my history to read everything else I've written previously about it.

Again: go. You won't regret it.
posted by guster4lovers at 9:58 PM on October 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

One really friendly international place to visit for the first time is Iceland. Most people there speak English, and it's an extremely safe country. There are good restaurants, museums, etc. in Reykjavik, and lots of good outdoor activities elsewhere.

Plus, it can be surprisingly inexpensive overall. While hotels and food there can be on the expensive side if you want a standard room and sit-down dinners, getting there can be really cheap. Icelandair runs lots of specials and flights are non-stop from several different cities. If you're not opposed to braving the winter (4-5 hours of sunlight, 20-30 degrees all day and all night), it's even better to visit Reykjavik then, since the city is less expensive, the bars and restaurants are still hopping, it's not nearly as touristy, and all of the museums and cultural centers are open (most of them shut down during the summer).

Bonus: Google Maps just added street view in Reykjavik and in the southwest corner of the island, so you can cruise around and get a feel for what the city is like during the summer. The main shopping/restaurant/tourist district is a street called Laugavegur. Or you could see the outdoors and adventure outside the city... lots of great places to camp.
posted by Old Man McKay at 10:02 PM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

She could not go anywhere in the city without being followed, and many people asked her if they could take pictures with her and were offended when she said no.

My strongest piece of advice for any woman thinking of traveling solo in the developing world is to remember that things like this are not crimes women are victims of. I'm not saying that type of behavior is entirely OK, and it can definitely be frustrating. But a big part of the way women are dissuaded from traveling is through people lumping together unwanted attention with crime.

If you don't feel like you're up for unwanted attention on the road -- either because of your gender or for any of a million other reasons this happens to travelers -- you're welcome to not go, or to stick to destinations where you won't stick out as much. (Though as I said, traveling in a group or on a tour can actually make this sort of thing much worse.)

But don't conflate overblown fears of violent crime with annoyances like people staring at you because you look different. Because doing so will prevent you from having some pretty amazing experiences.
posted by Sara C. at 10:08 PM on October 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also, FWIW, I was warned not to visit Turkey for fear of harassment/unwanted attention from men due to being an exotic white girl abroad, and not only was that not the case at all, but everyone assumed I was Turkish. If anything I had problems with blending in too well. Nobody gave a single shit where I was from or what I looked like.

I'm not saying never listen to people who warn you of sticking out or being a target for harassment, but I absolutely don't think it's a blanket reason to cross a place off your list. If anything I'd say it's more of a "how to deal with this if it comes up" sort of thing rather than a strict dealbreaker.

(BTW memail me if you ever want strategies on how to handle unwanted attention from local men while traveling. But I don't think it'll be a problem for any country you've mentioned wanting to visit.)
posted by Sara C. at 10:19 PM on October 27, 2013

I want to echo many of the other commenters that, as an American woman, I've usually felt safer in foreign countries than I have in many American cities. Some of the places I felt the safest: Laos, Nepal, Thailand (didn't go to Phuket). The places I've felt unsafe were in parts of India, Honduras and Mexico.

That said, it's all about having the best time you can - so you might as well start out somewhere you feel safe, and thus confident. So if I were in your position, I'd figure out where you're really interested in going, and then do some research on safety in those areas.

I think getting out there and doing some travel on you own will make a big difference. I consider myself so lucky that I wound up traveling in Thailand by myself "by accident" (long story) when I was 21. This was great for two reasons: 1. I learned that I really like traveling alone and 2. I saw and talked to so many other women traveling alone and realized it was no big deal. Once you get out there and see so many people (men and women) traveling alone and having a great time, it seems so much more do-able.

Oh, one other tip: even if you can afford to stay in nice hotels, it can be better to do hostels/guesthouses/couchsurfing/airbnb because it's easier to meet people, either locals or other travelers - and then you're not alone!
posted by lunasol at 10:56 PM on October 27, 2013

FWIW, while travelling alone, I've dealt with street harassment in Rome; Mexico City; Madrid; Tangier and Marrakech; and Athens and various Greek islands of a totally different kind than in the US, Canada, the UK and Ireland. It was more aggressive but yet somehow less threatening.

On your list, I would go to Lithuania without hesitation, and would not go to South Africa at all. I live in Ireland and I would point out that if you're looking to get your feet wet, you can fly transatlantic to here and grab a cheap direct flight on Aer Lingus to Vilnius!

PS: I would recommend the travel forums at Boots n All for indie travel.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:31 AM on October 28, 2013

To kind of elaborate on the Scandinavia thing,

And to add to observation EVERYWHERE, I grew up in Philadelphia (before it was the friendly, safe place it is today) and thought my street smarts qualified me to go pretty much anywhere in the world - which by and large has been true.

And then I got mugged (well, they tried anyway) in Stockholm, because I assumed it was so safe and I let my guard down and I was walking alone in a place at 3AM which was obviously unsafe and even though my spider sense was screaming at me, I ignored it because hey, this is supposed to be a safe city.

I think most people are probably safer traveling in places they expect to be unsafe.
posted by three blind mice at 3:18 AM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have never traveled with anyone; I always go alone.

If you walked around alone in Philly and you lived in Los Angeles - you're fine. Because - you know that instinct you had then, that sixth sense that if you got the sense that something was about to go down somewhere and you maybe should stay away? That's still going to work in other countries. So you've got a leg up on just about everyone.

Other practical advice: avoid dressing like the Stereotypical American Tourist. You know - shorts and tank tops, clunky sneakers, t-shirts....not that you have to dress like a nun or anything, mind you; just get an image in your head of what "tacky American tourist" looks like, and try to avoid looking like that. That kind of advertises "I'm a tourist". I was in Italy this May and I did mostly jeans with knit tops.

And don't worry about the language necessarily - English and French are both Well Known enough throughout the world that you can probably find SOMEONE to stumble through a conversation in one or both with you, enough to ask directions or whereever. If not, do not underestimate the power of Single Words And Gesturing. I know practically no Italian - maybe one or two words like "street", "where", "Excuse me" and "thank you" - but I was still able to do things like ask what street I was on or ask a shopkeeper about the chocolate pasta I saw at a market stall. I even had a somewhat sophisticated conversation about the seasonal nature of the hot chocolate they sold at her cafe solely through both of us using pantomime and the occasional Italian word.

And speaking of shopkeepers - I often prefer to ask shopkeepers or clerks or policemen or hotel receptionists or people like that for directions rather than asking random people on the street. It feels a bit safer because you're not out on the street asking directions, which advertises the fact that "I Am Not From Here And Do Not Know Where I Am Going"; and you're also talking to someone who's at least moderately decent (I figure if they have a business, they've got a decent level of personal integrity).

(Oh, a tangential tip - the nautical look ROCKS for travel, because you can get an acceptable looking core wardrobe together really easily, it's polished enough for just about everywhere, and you DON'T look like the tacky American; and it's possible to go for a week on a carryon because pretty much everything goes with everything.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:40 AM on October 28, 2013

The best thing I did as a solo woman traveller was to sign up for couchsurfing and stay with and meet residents of my destinations (originally only women and then men too as I got more comfortable with it). They can orient you to the city and help give you something to do my alone in the evenings, which was the most challenging thing for me. I also made some great, treasured friends.
posted by Salamandrous at 6:43 AM on October 28, 2013

avoid dressing like the Stereotypical American Tourist. You know - shorts and tank tops, clunky sneakers, t-shirts....not that you have to dress like a nun or anything, mind you; just get an image in your head of what "tacky American tourist" looks like, and try to avoid looking like that.

I've found that the trick for this is, unless you're heading out on safari or something, just wear mostly what you would wear at home. All those Traveling Clothes that companies try to sell you on when you're in the market for Traveling Things? They will make you look like a dumb tourist. Thinking about buying special walking shoes? You're going to look like a dumb tourist. Special technical day pack? Dumb tourist. If you're going to be in cities and places with climate vaguely like anything you're familiar with, just wear the same clothes you wear at home for the same weather and you'll be fine.
posted by Sara C. at 8:20 AM on October 28, 2013

For somewhat more challenging locations... I traveled solo a bunch in West and East and Central Africa and felt pretty safe, but I did speak the language for the most part and was very cautious after dark. Ditto for India. I traveled solo in Argentina (spoke the language) and found it a great place to travel as as young woman, though again, I was cautious after dark (as I would be in the US). I traveled with a friend in Southeast Asia and I felt very safe there as well. A little less safe in the USVI and Mexico, actually.

This is all to say, get your travel groove on somewhere easy (Europe/Australia/NZ/Canada), then read up on wherever you want to go and employ sensible precautions once you are there. I covered up quite a lot in sub-saharan Africa, India, Egypt, Mexico... less so in other places, but my general goal for attire has always been to be respectful of the local people when possible - I would not wear shorts, for example, in most of those places, or tanktops. Trust your gut, don't drink too much if at all, take smart precautions as you would in Philly or LA, and you can go to a lot of places solo.
posted by semacd at 8:51 AM on October 28, 2013

I have traveled extensively, and speak very candidly when asked this often asked question:

Lithuania (recommend)
Russia (not recommend)
South Africa (absolutely not recommend)
Balkan (not recommend unless family hosts)
ABC islands in the Caribbean (not recommend)

Primary reason for not recommending: ineffective police/weak laws and abundance of culture that narrows in on western travelers, particularly women.

In other parts of the world, the lands are extremely safe (Dubai, Malaysia examples) but your own behavior could put you in jeopardy with your hosts (morality violations). It's a different kind of risk. Risks are never "equal" across countries, therefore a traveler should take this carefully into account. This should never deter one from traveling, but rather help them choose their first destinations better.

I lived in a rough area of Los Angeles county and used to walk alone in Philly all the time.

This is good but foreign travel is much different because of complete culture changes.
posted by Kruger5 at 9:09 AM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've actually found that the Big City Street Smarts go a long way. Not so much to alleviate crime (though knowing basic things like don't leave your bags unattended certainly helps) or to prevent sexual harassment, but to avoid unwanted attention and especially touts/street hawkers/beggars. It's all about bitchy resting face and feeling comfortable just not engaging with someone if you don't want to.

I don't know where in LA County you lived, but you know when you're getting off the freeway and there's a panhandler? And you're stuck at the light? And your window is rolled down because it's a hot day and your car's AC doesn't work? You know how you just have to put on bitchy resting face and not engage with the panhandler no matter what? Same deal when it's some guy standing in your path asking if you want a personal tour of Topkapi Palace or a hotel room or some black tar heroin.

Bitchy resting face. Do not engage. That's like 90% of what you need to know, cultural differences be damned.
posted by Sara C. at 9:39 AM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Try not to be alone in public when you find yourself very tired or emotionally low - both of these things are distractions that can dampen your natural radar for sketchy situations. Most of my lapses in judgment where I found myself in bad situations could be directly traced back to those internal distractions.

Related to the first, always have plans B and C if you're in transit. For example, if you show up at this train station after a twelve hour trip and the guest house you're staying with doesn't come get you, do you know what you will do? A backup number or knowing the reliable second option is a good idea, I also try to look at maps before I arrive somewhere and memorize key details about an area's layout (ex. visible landmarks in relation to each other).

Don't just rely on information from your hotel/hostel/guest house about local safety -- in my experience they may downplay the situation in order to ensure guests keep coming rather than fixing an unsafe situation, particularly in less regulated countries.

Keep an eye on whether you see women around where you are, areas full of local women going about their business are areas that are more than likely areas you can explore, and you should question if you end up in an area and find local women appear to avoid it - take that into consideration.

There's sort of a safety versus harassment discussion above. I think safety is a pick-your-own comfort thing and agree with three blind mice. I really liked Bangkok as a solo lady traveler, there was a lot to explore and I distinctly recall not feeling hassled and left to my own devices. I found near constant attention in Cuba stifling (as in, sitting on a balcony in Havana dudes would call up three stories from the street until getting my attention - it did not matter what I was wearing or how unkempt I became) but I know of other lady friends that go there all the time without the same problem so I think it varies person to person/place to place.

(Six continents, SWF)
posted by skermunkil at 12:19 PM on October 28, 2013

While spending time in South Africa, I regularly traveled on "black taxis", essentially shared minivan rides often hours at a time crammed between strangers. Other tourists (and some locals) were visibly horrified that I (petite caucasian female) regularly rode them. Frankly, I thought they were some of the safest, most entertaining rides I'd had in a while. I rode with a gaggle of women and once we got over eyeing each other suspiciously (about 15 seconds) we spent the remainder of the hours long journey relaxing and chatting.

Public transit is where its at. Be aware, be alert, and be open to having the time of your life.
posted by arnicae at 6:22 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

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