As female travelers, it’s important to look at the complexities of safety and what it really means to be “safe.” We often talk about safe destinations—where the best places are to go (as a gal) and what places are ideal to explore alone.
But, things can get tricky once you are actually there.
It is critical to understand that safety is not the same as comfort. Just because a place is “safe,” doesn’t mean you won’t encounter different cultural norms that make you uncomfortable. It also doesn’t mean that crime doesn’t happen.
These ideas often get misconstrued and, while getting out of your comfort zone can be a really good thing, it can also be uncomfortable.
Too often, I hear people talk about letting their guard down because they’ve heard a destination is “safe,” and then they are frustrated when they realize that things can still go wrong…especially when they encounter cultural norms much different from their own.
The truth of the matter is you can be unsafe anywhere at any time.
But, this doesn’t mean you should stop traveling or avoid going solo as a woman. What it does mean is that we need to come together for an open and honest conversation about travel safety.
So, let’s dive in!
What Does Safety Mean to You?
What does it mean to feel safe? Does it mean that you’re 100% comfortable in your environment? Does it mean you’re not getting cat-called or harassed? Does it mean you don’t feel like you have to be on alert? Does it mean the city or country has a low violent crime rate?
What is “safe” to you?
Safety can be defined in so many different ways and your own cultural “norms” are going to play a major role in that.
When you’re traveling somewhere new, it’s essential to be prepared to get outside of your comfort zone no matter how “safe” you’ve heard it is. The farther you are from home, the more likely you are to run into surprises.
Lingering looks or being approached on the street can definitely be unsettling while being talked to in a certain way might make you uncomfortable.
One thing to note is that when you’re traveling abroad, oftentimes, there are serious differences in cultural customs—and those have the potential to lead us to feel unsafe.
Identify what makes you feel unsafe so you can properly assess the threat level. Could it be culture shock or are you actually in a bad situation that you want to avoid?
“Safety” Giving a False Impression of a Destination
One of my main goals with The Blonde Abroad is to give everyone insight and access to my personal travels—helping you plan your trip ahead of time and giving you the tools necessary to aid you in your adventure.
Recently, I’ve been noticing some conversations online where individuals felt they got a false impression of a destination being “safe” (through social media) because they experienced catcalling and harassment by local men.
Again, this brings to the conversation of “what is safe” and “what is uncomfortable.”
The big takeaway is that you are never guaranteed the same experience as someone else. What feels “safe” to me, might feel a bit dodgy to you. We have to take accountability for our own safety and experiences.
So, it’s important to seek advice from trusted resources and to also always stay vigilant, regardless of how “safe” you hear a destination is.
I Got Robbed in the “Safest Country on Earth.”
I wanted to share a story about how I gained my personal perspective on travel safety.
Iceland is ranked as “the safest country in the world” by the Global Peace Index. With political stability and a relatively low crime rate, it’s an ideal destination for all types of travelers.
Because Iceland feels so safe, my mindset was very laidback and I got lazy with taking notice of my surroundings.
We were camping and I went in to use the public showers. Believing and feeling how safe it was, I, unfortunately, left my valuables (phone and camera) on top of my towel just outside the shower stall.
Guess what? Easy target.
It could have been a hardened criminal preying on tourists. Or, it could’ve been a teenager who was taking advantage of an easy situation. While it obviously sucks, I would still consider Iceland an amazing and safe destination to travel. However, it’s the only time I’ve ever been the “victim” of a crime in all of my travels.
The fact is, crime happens everywhere in the world and you become an easier target…if you make it easy.
To reverse the example, I’ve been living in South Africa for nearly 3 years.
I’ve never had so many people shocked and bothered that I was living in such an “unsafe” destination. And, I get it. To give perspective, Iceland is ranked 1/163 on the GPI while South Africa is ranked 126/163.
Almost at the bottom.
Pretty much every one of my friends from here has experienced some form of petty crime in their lifetimes. I’ve learned through my travels that where there is desperation, people will do desperate things. And there is a lot of poverty in the country.
Knowing that, my body language, my mindset, and my overall vigilance are 110% different to when I travel to places like Iceland.
I lock my car doors as soon as I get in. I check my Uber driver’s license plate number before getting in. I don’t walk alone at night. I keep my purse on my lap when I dine out. I read my surroundings and people’s energy and steer clear of anything that seems off.
For me, these are not experience-altering measures. Just a normal way of operating here.
I still think South Africa is “safe” to explore, you just should stay alert. Check out this article on safety in South Africa from a local’s perspective!
Based on my own experiences, I would argue that we should have the same heightened awareness no matter where we are traveling and no matter how palpable the “safety” is—especially when traveling solo.
Dressing for the Environment + Culture
Dressing in a culturally appropriate way is both respectful and a key element of avoiding unwanted attention.
When I traveled to Morocco last year with a girlfriend, I found the catcalling and unwanted attention quite overwhelming. But, dressing very conservatively and wearing a scarf over my hair helped to divert some of those lingering eyes. While changing the way I dressed didn’t, and won’t, completely negate that attention, it will help you to blend in more.
I’ve shared before on what to pack for a trip to a conservative country, but it’s always a good reminder to take a look at!
Dressing to blend in goes a long way. Like it or not, many conservative countries have not-so-great stereotypes about Western women and showing skin—even when it’s scorching hot—won’t do you any favors.
Differences in Cultural Norms
When someone is making you uncomfortable, it is crucial to keep in mind that it doesn’t always come from a place of malice.
During my first trip to China, I traveled to a more remote area of the country and was in total shock at how many people wanted to take my picture. It can make you feel uneasy to be constantly stared at, but some people there had never seen a person who is not of Chinese ancestry, so I might have seemed “unusual and different.”
Similarly, as a solo female in Morocco, I felt like I was constantly being pestered…but at the same time, I never felt physically unsafe.
No matter what, I always mentally prepare myself before traveling to Middle Eastern/Islamic countries; I think that Western women might feel a bit intimidated before traveling to these places (based on media and the representation of this part of the world). I personally have had such lovely experiences with locals.
But, there are key cultural differences and I know that as a woman in these countries, I might not be treated with the same regard and respect that I would expect back home.
Women and men share different roles in different parts of the world—that can be as simple as a man refusing to speak directly to you and have to talk with you through another man, and while that’s a matter of a cultural difference it might feel disrespectful to you.
As a Western woman, that is frustrating to me, but I have to realize it’s a cultural difference and not a matter of safety.
So while women might not be viewed as second class citizens, it may feel like that for others that are used to a different culture. It really comes down to men and women play very different roles.
If you know what to expect before you go, it’s not so scary and you can better gauge what is alarming versus normal behavior. You can also get destination-specific advice on how to manage and mitigate these situations.
When You’re Traveling Solo vs. With a Partner
I am a firm believer that solo travel is one of the best experiences anyone can ever have. It does, however, come with extra responsibility.
When you travel with a male partner, a girlfriend, or in a group, you have a buffer around you from the outside world. When you are on your own, people are much more likely to approach you and, if you’re not used to this, I can definitely understand how the attention would feel overwhelming.
Before you set off on your first solo trip, be sure to read about the ten most common mistakes made by solo female travelers.
Preventative Measures You Can Take
No matter where you are, it is crucial to stay alert. This doesn’t mean being scared all the time. It means being smart. Whether you are in England or Bali, there are certain precautions you should always take.
First of all, you should let someone know where you are at all times—this can include hotel/hostel staff! When I am solo, I often check-in with them to share my plans.
It’s also helpful to talk to locals about different neighborhoods. Familiarize yourself with places to avoid and know your route. Avoid dark alleys and anywhere else that makes you feel uneasy.
Before you go, give some thought to what you’re carrying—avoid flashy jewelry and other expensive items. Keep valuables tucked away (as in a camera) in your bag as much as possible.
Before you walk out the door, ALWAYS have your phone charged and bring a battery bank.
If possible, I’d also advise picking up a local SIM card wherever you are so you don’t always have to find places with WiFi to check-in or get directions. I travel with a mobile WiFi hotspot device for work purposes, but also for safety.
Wadi Rum Desert, Jordan
Nervous About Visiting a Destination?
If you’re nervous about visiting a destination, the first thing I would suggest is research, research, research!
Egypt occupied a top spot on my bucket list for ages; however, I had been hesitant to travel there because of stories I’d heard of women having negative experiences there.
While I wholeheartedly believe that other people’s travel experiences don’t predict your own, it did give me an insight into what I might experience.
I ended up having a wonderful time exploring Egypt and met so many friendly locals—a total stranger literally handed me her baby! But I do know it can be nervewracking when you’re thinking about traveling to a place that doesn’t always get the best reputation for solo travel (like Jordan or Egypt).
While I traveled to Egypt solo, I decided to hire a guide for that particular trip, so that I had a local with me during the day and could prevent any unwanted attention. And guess what?! I loved it!
I still got to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. But, I did what I felt would enhance my experience and make me feel comfortable.
So, if you want to travel to somewhere but going solo isn’t the route you want to take—no worries! There are tons of options like joining a group tour, you could hire a private tour guide, or you could stay at a high-rated hostel that offers tours and group activities!
First Time Traveling Solo
If it’s your first time traveling solo—this post is not meant to scare you—but just to make you aware and be a smart traveler! I think being prepared, doing your research, and having realistic expectations are the best things you can do for yourself when heading out on any excursion, whether it’s solo or not.
I’d suggest checking out these posts to prepare yourself!
- The Ultimate Guide to Solo Female Travel
- 10 Tips for Taking Your First Solo Trip
- Ten Mistakes Made by Solo Female Travelers
- 10 Safest Destinations for Solo Female Travelers
- Top 10 Experiences for Solo Female Travelers
- How to Meet People as a Solo Traveler
- How to Talk to Worried Parents About Traveling Solo
While harassment can happen anywhere, no matter what country or culture—and we shouldn’t have to deal with it—the truth of the matter is if we remain quiet or paint picture-perfect images of places or situations, nothing will ever change.
That doesn’t mean stop traveling and that doesn’t mean you should live in fear. You will meet good people along the way, you will encounter different things, and you will have experiences that shape you. It’s just better to be prepared and to not gloss over the “not so nice” things that happen.
So, ladies, let’s share tips and stories! I am eager to open up the discussion below and hopefully, we can all gain some insight.