Traveling the world by yourself is the easiest way to rocket outside of your comfort zone, while learning about the person you are and wish to become. So perhaps it's no surprise that hitting the road on one's own is becoming ever more popular. About 25 percent of people plan on taking a solo trip this year — and this figure is on the rise.
Yet for woman in particular, the decision to venture out solo can be a difficult one. As the U.S. Department of State puts it, "Many women travel safely each year without incident," but "the truth is that women face greater obstacles, especially when travelling alone." The fear of loneliness can also be a deterrent from setting out.
Happily, this needn't stop women from enjoying the solo adventure of a lifetime (and in fact, American women rank first when it comes to frequent solo travel). You just need to know a few basic precautions to stay safe while making connections abroad.
Here are some tried-and-true tips I've gleaned from a decade of experience traveling by myself across Southeast Asia, Mexico, Europe and South America.
Research Your Destination Before You Go
Every country is different, and it's important to do your homework on where you're traveling to. A wonderful source to do this is the U.S. Department of State’s official website, Travel.State.Gov, which provides detailed information on every country around the world, including information on safety and security conditions, crime, health and medical considerations, local laws and areas to avoid.
Search "Australia," for instance, and you'll learn things like "Although U.S citizens are not specifically targeted for crime, you should be aware that robberies, burglaries, assault, and auto theft are common in Australia’s larger cities" and "Be careful when visiting bars or clubs in the entertainment areas of major cities, as 'bar brawls' and other assaults sometimes occur. Also, watch out for drink spiking when consuming alcohol with unfamiliar people."
It's also recommended that you know the location of the closest U.S. embassy or consulate in the destination you're venturing to.
Dress Like a Local
For safety and cultural reasons, it's important to understand local clothing customs. That's why the U.S. Department of State recommends that women pack for where they're going.
"Each country that you visit will have different local laws and customs about women’s clothing and appearance," it notes. "For example, what you wear in a mall in Mexico might not be acceptable in a mall in the United Arab Emirates."
I always try to dress in local clothing when I visit a new destination. I also err toward more conservative wear in general, donning long skirts and t-shirts depending on the weather and what's in my suitcase.
It’s also never a bad idea for a woman to have a go-to sarong. Not only is it lightweight and easy to pack, but sites in many countries won’t let a woman enter with exposed shoulders or legs, like the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or Wat Pho in Bangkok. I purchased my travel sarong outside a temple in Bangkok, and it has served me all over the world.
Once you've educated yourself and packed accordingly, you can get to the fun stuff: connecting with other female solo travelers.
On Instagram, you can search hashtags that pertain to the destination you’re about to visit, or those popular among female travelers — like #girlslovetravel, #girlsabroad and #citizenfemme, to name a few. You can also send direct messages to other women you find who are heading to where you’re going.
Facebook, too, can be an ideal place to connect; simply post where you're going on your page to see if there are others who have plans to go there, too. (When I did this before heading to a music festival in Playa del Carmen, I ended up getting a message from an old friend in London I'd met in Malaysia two years prior. The result: We paired up for an epic road trip of Southern Mexico.)
Get on Tinder
No, this is not a joke! Tinder can be a fantastic way to meet locals or other solo travelers...and not just for a romantic rendezvous. The app has the setting to meet men, women or both, and you can be very clear in your profile that all you're looking for is friendship or to connect with someone local.
When I Tindered in Puerto Vallarta, I connected with a Canadian man who'd relocated to the area full-time; while we didn't hang out that time, we stayed in touch, and met up the next time I was in town. (And ok, yes, we also did end up dating for three years.)
Just remember to stay safe by agreeing to meet in a public place in the daytime — solid Tinder advice even if you’re on your home turf.
Speaking of apps, there are several available to help women travelers stay safe while making new friends.
Tourlina, for instance, matches you with other women who are not only traveling in the same place as you at the same time, but who share your interests. An in-house team checks every new user, and only those verified can chat with others.
Another handy option is bSafe, which makes it easy for you to share your location with designated contacts, and to trigger an alarm if you end up in a dangerous situation. There's even GPS tracking so friends or family can track you if you're heading back to your hotel and don't feel safe...an extreme measure, perhaps, but useful in certain circumstances.
Share Your Itinerary
Getting off the grid is liberating, and definitely something every woman should try at least once. But just because you’re on a soul-searching adventure, or disconnecting from social media, does not mean that you should disappear.
Sharing your itinerary, flight information and hotels with someone back home is a savvy way to cover your bases should anything happen. And age shouldn't be a factor in this; I'm 31, and still send important info to my mom before I hit the road.
You can also post to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or another social network daily throughout your trip. This alerts people to your safety — and is a nice way for loved ones to feel like they can take part in your adventure with you.
At the same time, as the U.S. Department of State notes, it's important to be cautious about sharing your itinerary with strangers you meet while traveling.
Stay Someplace Social
Traveling like a local does not mean you need to stay “off the beaten path." There is no shame in staying in the tourist areas, which are often popular for a reason — namely, because they're packed with things to do and are relatively safe.
Moreover, these destinations are social. By staying in a lively neighborhood, like 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen or Bairro Alto in Lisbon, you will be right in the heart of the action and easily able to meet other travelers.
There are also basic precautions you can take in your hotel or hostel, like checking that the locks work immediately upon arriving, and being careful about announcing your room number to those you don't know.
Book a Retreat
Retreats are not only for yogis who want to drink green juice (though they can be, and there’s nothing wrong with that!). There are retreats for surfers, language immersion, aspiring bloggers, experiential travel and so much more — all designed exclusively for women.
These getaways provide an ideal way to meet people with similar interests in a safe setting. Curious? Check out this comprehensive list of women-exclusive retreats around the world, focused on everything from spirituality to nature exploration to “reconnecting with the sacred feminine.”
Be a Barfly
Dining alone is an activity that remains unfortunately stigmatized and fraught with anxiety. An easy way to get over this fear is by eating at the bar, which will help you see that eating alone is not a big deal.
Plus, at the bar, you’ll always have someone to talk to (the bartender), and you’re likely to meet other people who are there by themselves as well. Case in point: During a London stopover en route to Germany, I struck up such a friendly conversation with the bartender that we went to her favorite pizza place after her shift was over. The food, company and nighttime view of the Thames ended up being a highlight of the trip.
Allow Room for Spontaneity
A journey should be just that — a journey. And not all journeys go according to plan. While it’s a smart idea to do research and pre-plan, you also want to leave space for the spontaneous. If you stumble upon a place you love...stay there. If you decide you’re not interested in going somewhere on your itinerary...don’t go.
I once had an entire backpacking route planned for Mexico that, halfway through, I eschewed when I discovered the sleepy surf spot of Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca. I fell so in love with the town that I decided to stay there instead.
Just know that if you do make last-minute adjustments, you should tell someone back home so they know where you are.
Embrace Your Inner ‘Joiner’
If you’re considering the idea of solo travel, it’s likely because the idea of group travel makes you cringe. But tours can be a great way to meet other solo travelers, especially if the tour is recommended in a guidebook or organized through your hostel.
When I took a tour bus to visit Uxmal, one of Mexico’s more impressive ancient Mayan cities, I ended up meeting a lovely French woman who I not only explored the ruins with, but kept meeting up with in nearby Merida. Together, we had a grand time enjoying breakfast, sharing drinks and taking day trips to the nearby beaches.
The takeaway: Go in with an open mind and a willingness to meet others, and you might just make a lifelong new friend. (Plus, group travel tends to be cheaper than transiting on your own.)
Listen to Your Gut
Above all else, remember this: You know what feels right. And if something doesn’t feel safe, you’re probably correct to listen to that.
If you sense that you’re maybe one too many drinks in, make your next beverage a glass of water. If a street seems too deserted and unlit, avoid it. If someone is creeping you out, don't hang out with them anymore. (As the U.S. Department of State says, "While it may seem rude to be unfriendly to a stranger, creating boundaries to protect yourself is important. Use facial expressions, body language, and a firm voice to fend off any unwanted attention.")
Take risks, of course...but ones that challenge your comfort zone, not your safety.