Safety Advice For Female Travelers
Traveling around the world is such an amazing experience but at the same time it can be very dangerous, especially if you’re a solo female traveler. I’ve been traveling around the world since I graduated from college in 2001. I’ve always been street smart, but I became super-aware when I started traveling, especially since I knew I’d be living alone while I was abroad. Luckily, nothing ever happened to me because I was very careful, but that’s not to say that I haven’t had a close call or two, which is why it’s so important to share with other female travelers some common sense advice, as well as a few of the personal experiences I’ve had, to make sure you stay as safe as you can be.
So, as an independent woman out having fun and keen to meet new people, how do you socialize without putting yourself at unnecessary risk?
1. Don’t get drunk
The thing you need to be careful about, especially if you’re out by yourself or with people you don’t know, is to never drink too much. Always be in control. When I would go out with people for drinks, I knew what my drinks limit was and I stuck to it. I would either meet guys for one drink, feel them out and, if I was enjoying myself, I might have another drink, but that would be it. I never let myself get out of control, or let my guard down through alcohol, with someone I didn’t know.
2. Keep your drink within your sight
There were many times when I lived in London when I was on the Tube, or even just walking down the street, and I’d be approached by guys asking me to go for a drink with them. As much as I wanted to meet people and go out, I had to be smart about it, just as I would be at home. I didn’t mind accepting some invitations if it felt right, but I’d still make sure to head to the bar with them instead of sitting down at a table and waiting for the guy to return with the drinks. Why? Because it’s the easiest thing in the world for someone to slip something into your wine and you’d never know until it was too late.
This might sound cynical and distrusting, but it’s just the world we live in right now and it would be silly not to think of every eventuality. Like anything in life, if you’re prepared for the worst case scenario, or have at least thought about it, then the worst will probably never happen. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security just because you’re in a public place, either. Predators often love to operate in plain sight – if you think about it, it’s the best way to hide what they’re doing. Don’t assume that other people will step in if you find yourself in trouble, because all the guy has to do is act like he knows you and, in the case of a drugged drink, he can easily convince onlookers that you’re his girlfriend and you’ve just had too much to drink. For all the good samaritans out there, people are generally reluctant to get involved in incidents they can easily walk away from. You’ve heard people say it – “it’s just not worth it, it’s nothing to do with me.”
This can happen anywhere – in your hometown, in a public place, but even more so when you’re in a different country because you won’t be as aware of your surroundings as you usually are. Familiarity is everything, and predators are very good at spotting those who are ‘alone’ or ‘just visiting.’ So, back to the bar, always make sure you have your drink in your sight at all times. When I need to use the bathroom, I either make sure my drink is finished (and won’t order another one until I get back,) or I’ll even take it with me. This might sound excessive, but it’s the only way to guarantee that nobody can slip you something naughty. Prevention is your number one defence.
3. Don’t reveal too much personal information
Be careful about how much information you’re giving away, information a guy could use to his advantage. When people hear you’re traveling, it can make them think that they have an upper hand, some leverage they can use to manipulate you into a certain situation. If you’re American, like me, then maybe a guy might try to “take you to a bar that’ll make you feel at home,” or “a great little restaurant that does the best hot dogs in town.” Sure, they can probably tell by my accent without me telling them but, as a general rule, the more personal information you give away, the higher the chance someone could use it against you.
4. Tell people where you are
Always let someone know where you are when traveling. With the internet and cellphones it’s so easy to leave an e-trail. Use Facebook to check into a place, message your friends with your plans for the evening, tell loved ones where you’re going for the night then message them when you get back to let them know you’re OK. Even if you’re staying in a hotel, I always tell the reception or the concierge where I’m headed, just to let ‘someone’ know where I am.
5. Know who you’re with
If you meet someone while you’re out, or someone wants to take you out, don’t be shy about asking to see their ID…and taking a photo of it on your phone. Send the picture to a friend or family member, maybe joke to the guy about your cautiousness but, if he’s genuine, then he won’t have a problem with it. And the guys who do have ulterior motives will quickly realize that you’re not a soft target. I’ve done this many times when traveling solo and in the majority of cases, the guys have actually been impressed by my maturity and sense. They’ve even told me that they’ll suggest the same idea to their sisters and female friends. He could even do the same with you – how’s he to know you’re not a dangerous woman!
6. Never get in his car
If someone asks you out, don’t get in a car with him or even share a taxi, especially if you’ve just met him. For example, as I mentioned before I would have men on the streets of London come up to me and ask me out on the spot. I wanted to explore the city and sometimes I liked to have company when I went to a bar or restaurant, so I accepted a few invitations. But one time, after heading back to my flat after work, this man came up to me and started conversation. He told me about a famous members-only club, somewhere I’d actually heard of and had always wanted to go to. He said he could get us in, so I said I would go for one drink. He flagged down a taxi for us but I didn’t feel safe getting in a cab with him so I said I’d travel separately and meet him there. I was surprised, then, when he gave me a £20 note to pay for the fare. I didn’t expect this, but it was a nice gesture and, true to my word, I did have just the one drink and then came home, which he was fine with. We both enjoyed the company, but I’d made it very clear from the start that I wasn’t interested in hooking up, just in meeting new people.
7. Know the country you’re in
Different countries have different cultures and different rules. It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree with the way other people live, you’re not going to change thousands of years of culture in one flying visit on your holidays. I went to Morocco with my aunt once. I would never go there by myself as I knew it wouldn’t be totally safe but even with another person it was still intimidating because that other person was also a female. We weren’t hassled as much as I would have been on my own, but we still got quite a lot of negative, uneasy attention. At night, especially, it’s frowned upon for women to go out, because women ‘shouldn’t’ be on the streets after dark. The first night out, we were harassed by some kids, so for the rest of our holiday we hired a chaperone to meet us at our riad or the restaurant, and walk us to our taxi.
8. Always be aware of your surroundings
Knowing where you are and where the nearest ‘exit’ is, is essential when you’re traveling alone. If you’re going out to a place you haven’t been to before, know how you’re getting home. There are people out there trying to prey upon innocent women travelers. Be aware of where you’re walking, don’t go exploring “cute” deserted streets. The age-old saying might encourage us to “choose the path less-traveled” but, as a solo female traveler, just stick to the same paths everybody is walking, it’s safer. Also, be aware of who and what’s around you. I’m good at checking out people around me and if someone makes me feel uncomfortable, I’ll walk into a store to make sure they aren’t following me. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, you never can be too careful.
A cautionary tale
Now for a true story. First of all, I’m more than 99% certain that I would have been raped and/or murdered if I hadn’t made the right choice in the situation I’m about to share with you. That, in itself, is a massive warning.
I was working and living in London and the nature of my job meant that I always got a three-day weekend – great for being able to go off and expore new places without having to rush back. So this time I decided to visit Portugal. I flew into Faro, on the south coast; a gorgeous region of sandy, white beaches, lush green golf courses and a picturesque town center. But I wanted to see more of the historical side of the country so I decided to take a last-minute bus to the Portuguese capital, Lisbon.
I had a very limited budget and was traveling smart by trying to spend only $20 a day on food and tourist stuff etc (quite a reasonable amount back in 2001,) so when I got off the bus in the middle of Lisbon, I found a map of the city and, because Lisbon is very walkable, I strolled from the bus station to the main fortress, Castelo de Sao Jorge – around a ten-minute walk. I was used to London, remember, where I could walk for miles and miles between places, so this was just a short hop for me. At the Castelo, I had a great time exploring and aterwards I spent a bit of time in the gift shop and coffee shop outside of the walls. It was very touristy so I felt safe enough but, as I’ve mentioned, I never feel 100% safe anywhere.
So in the gift shop I was looking at postcards to send to family and friends. I didn’t really use the internet and neither did they, so we were staying in touch the old-fashioned way. Plus, I loved writing postcards as it gave me something to do while eating or having coffee.While I was browsing, this tall, dark, handsome guy came up to me and said how much he loved my outfit, how it brightened up what was actually a cloudy, gray, cold day. Strangely, I remember exactly what I was wearing; camel bootleg pants, red boots, beautiful red jacket down to my knees, reddish long-sleeve shirt that had a line pattern on it, camel scarf that matched my pants and red gloves to match. I was looking very stylish and definitely stood out compared to everyone else who were wearing dark colors. So the guy complemented me and I was flattered, but didn’t pay that much attention as I wasn’t looking to meet anyone. He said a few more things I can’t remember now, then asked if I wanted to join him for coffee in the cafe next to the gift shop. I thought about it and, because I felt safe enough, I said yes. As I mentioned, I do love meeting new people as you get to know more about their culture and that’s part of traveling for me, along with trying out the food and seeing the sights.
Once inside, we sat down and he got up to get us some coffee, but I quickly joined him as I wanted to make sure my drink was safe. I knew I was only going to stay for one coffee as my bus back to Faro was leaving soon. We chatted and I remember him telling me almost straight away that I could feel very safe with him as he was gay, so he wasn’t a sexual threat at all. I thought this was a very strange thing to say and it got my warning bells ringing immediately. Why? Because if he really was gay, he’d be looking to chat with other guys, to flatter and complement them, not me. So my guard went up immediately although I tried to stay friendly and civil while finishing my coffee as quickly as possible.
So he kept talking, telling me he was a photographer and that I was beautiful and should model, which was another red flag, an obvious way to make girls feel comfortable, because what girl doesn’t want to be a model? Well, that’s the way he was thinking. I was wise to it, but many, many other girls will fall for that line. I didn’t want to model at the time and I didn’t care. I kept drinking my coffee to hurry up (I wasn’t going to waste the coffee!,) and he began showing me photographs he said he’d taken of other girls, as though to prove he was a genuine photographer. The pictures were negatives (they didn’t have smartphones back then) but even an amateur like me could see that the pictrues weren’t that great.
We didn’t sit long as I needed to get out of there to catch my bus (and because I just wanted to get the hell away from this guy.) So I finished my coffee and politely excused myself. As I did, he asked me if I wanted a ride in his car to the bus station. I never (and I mean never) get in a car with someone I don’t know – that’s what taxis are for and that’s why I walk so much. I politely declined his offer and we continued to walk out the door. I said goodbye, said it was nice to meet him and thanks for the coffee etc, but that I really had to go. He asked me again, would I like a ride? Again, I said no. Very persistent for a gay guy, right?
As he walked away to get in his car, I stayed behind at the gift shop, which was outside on the street. I wanted to kill time and to make sure that he’d gone. He drove up in a small car, this big, tall guy looking stupid, like a comedy clown sitting in a toy car. He stopped at the gift store and asked me again if I was sure I didn’t want a ride “as it’s a long walk [to the bus station].” I remember looking back at the gate to the Fortress, where I’d exited about an hour before. There was a guard there who was looking at me. I looked around just left about an hour ago and there was a guard standing there looking at me with a look that I can only describe as “wary”, like he was trying to tell me telepathically “I hope you don’t get in that guy’s car.” Of course, I had no intention of getting in the car, but I’ll never forget that guard’s look, it was weird, like he was giving me a premonition of what might happen if I went with this guy. We both locked eyes for a second. Then I looked around the area to check out my surroundings and I said no again…but the guy still didn’t get the message! It was like he thought he could just wear me down until I said yes!
After refusing for the hundredth time, I quickly turned away and walked back into the gift shop. I waited awhile before I walked back to the bus station, which was on a busy street, but the whole time I walked back I was constantly looking around for that stupid clown car. I know for a fact, whether it was instinct or that guard’s telepathic look or just my general, well-tuned self-awareness for these things, that something bad would have happened to me if I’d gone with that guy. The signs were all there; I was a single girl traveling in another country and he knew that he could probably get away with it and no-one would know where to find me. There were no iPhones, like now. When I was traveling, there was no instant way for me to keep family and friends up to date on where I was or what my plans were that particular day, so it would have been easy for me to get lost.
It was very scary, to say the least, and something I will always remember. I was always very careful (which probably saved me in the first place) but now I am super-super-vigilant. As a traveler, you have to be so careful as people are looking to take advantage of you and prey upon you.
Hopefully, this story and the other advice I’ve given will help you feel more confident when you’re traveling solo. Even if you’re traveling with others, you can never be too vigilant. Sometimes groups of people are just as at risk as solo travelers because you tend to let your guard down around people you’re comfortable with, giving others the chance to pounce. What’s important is that you have a great trip and a naughty good time, without something happening to you. You can only be ‘so’ safe, there are no guarantees, but you can do a lot to maximize your safety, so why not do what you can? Bon voyage!