There has been a lot of discussion on social media lately about women traveling on their own. In large part, what prompted these discussions was the murder of a woman from NYC named Sarai Sierra, who was traveling in Istanbul by herself, working on her photography hobby. Sierra was murdered by a blow to the head, and police are searching for the man they think is responsible.
The narrative that has emerged from this story is disturbing in the way it treats solo female travel. In this article’s comments and other discussions of the tragedy, many say “women just shouldn’t be traveling alone” because it’s “too dangerous”. Some even go so far as to say, “A woman has no business traveling alone.” There is the occasional attempt to qualify such a statement with, “It’s just not safe anywhere these days”, but for the most part, the overall tone of the discussions focuses on Sierra’s decision to travel alone, not the murderer’s decision to kill her.
Details are still emerging about why Sierra was in Istanbul (some people say she may have been having an affair), so I don’t want to make speculations about whether her activities played a part in her death. All I know is that instead of discussing the problem of violence against women, people continue to discuss how Sierra shouldn’t have been traveling alone.
People, myself included, have weighed in on the topic from a theoretical standpoint, wondering, for instance, whether the narrative would be different if a man had been murdered. I believe these conversations are important if we want to have a stronger community of female travelers. However, I also feel the need, especially here at Go Girl, to support and promote pragmatic safe traveling for women.
There are risks unique to traveling alone, but in reality you aren’t at much more of a risk than you are traveling with others. In fact, a traveler often lets her guard down if she is with other people because she assumes she’s safer. I’ve learned a few hard-and-fast rules you can follow to help keep yourself safe if you’re on your own in an unfamiliar place:
1. Be confident.
If you look vulnerable, confused, or out-of-sorts, you become an easier target. If you get lost, go into a shop or restaurant and ask directions instead of spending large amounts of time studying your map on the street. If you look uncomfortably confused, people will pick up on that. If they’re already looking to exploit or hurt someone, a woman who looks vulnerable runs a higher risk of being victimized.
2. Bring a rubber doorstop.
Stick it under your hotel door at night. A rubber doorstop will prevent someone from opening the door, even if they are able to break any locks, and it can’t shatter like a wooden doorstop might.
3. Dress appropriately.
In some countries, this means covering your shoulders, legs, or head. In addition to the fact that it’s respectful to do if you’re in a more conservative place, it will also keep you from sticking out like a sore thumb and attracting unnecessary and possibly negative attention, which could make you an easier target.
4. Be vague about where you’re staying and that you’re traveling alone.
It’s fine to reveal your travel status to people you’ve gotten to know or to people you’ll be hanging out with consistently, but don’t casually mention it to those who approach you at restaurants and the like. Solo travelers simply make for easier targets for theft and/or violence, and it may be tempting to dish with new friends about your lodgings, but keep it general (“Oh, I’m staying at a hotel off Oxford Street.”) instead of giving away details.
5. Communicate with people back home.
Let them know your itinerary if it’s set in stone, and if not, promise to communicate every x number of days. If they don’t hear from you, they’ll know they may need to check into it. Disappearing for days or weeks may seem like a good idea, but smart travel typically requires that we give loved ones at least a general idea of where we’ll be and when.
6. Make copies of your travel documents.
Put them in hidden places in your room so you have them in case any of your things are stolen from your purse or from your room while you’re out. You don’t want to end up in an unknown place without proof of your identity, citizenship, or a way to get home.
7. Watch your drinks, and don’t drink too much.
As someone who’s drank too much and woken up in my hotel not sure how I got there, it’s scary and can be dangerous. You want to have a clear head at all times, so be careful about how much you drink if you’re out alone or chatting up new people at a bar. You don’t want to compromise your safety by being slipped something or becoming too intoxicated and being unable to help yourself if you end up in an unsavory situation.
8. Pick your lodging carefully.
Make sure it’s not in a bad part of town, it’s well-lit in the evenings, and when you arrive, make sure the doors and windows lock properly. You don’t want to traipse through unsafe neighborhoods to get to your hotel, as that may increase the likelihood of something bad happening.
9. Don’t assume women are safe.
We tend to think of men as the ones who can hurt us, but there are plenty of women out there who can be dangerous and/or are trying to rip us off. Think of being smart in terms of people, not gender.
10. Use common sense and trust your gut.
In other words, don’t put yourself in objectively stupid situations, and trust yourself if you feel someone or something is making you uncomfortable. Too often we blow off our intuitions, but they exists for a reason, and in my experience women have pretty strong ones.
For more stories about female solo travel, check out the #WeGoSolo movement on Twitter.
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Keeping copies of your travel documents is a big deal. I got stranded once in Cambodia without any form of ID or even a cell phone to call for help. It was not a pleasant experience.
When some people sleep, a thud can’t wake them up unless they’ve had a satisfactory sleep. For such persons, a doorstop is indispensable.