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TripNut Travel Reporter

The truth about travelling alone as a woman

Tips for Women

Author : Shannon O'Donnell

Posted On : Jul 11, 2014

TRAVEL writer Shannon O'Donnell, 29, left her home in Florida five years ago to explore the world. 
Much of that time has been spent alone: she has visited more than 40 countries, and about 25 of those solo. Shannon, author of the book The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook and travel website reveals the ups and downs of solo travel as a woman, along with her safety tips.

"Concerns about my safety on the road plagued those who love and care about me when I first announced my plan to travel solo around the world. Most of my friends had never heard of someone taking a round-the-world trip, and add the media portrayals of non-Western countries and you might think most places are fraught with peril at every corner.

I haven't found this to be the case on the road these past years, but in my early days of planning, their fears became my fears and the entire situation caused the only anxiety attacks I've ever had.

As a young solo female, I'm pretty much lowest on the totem pole in terms of the types of travellers. Couples have safety in numbers and male solo travellers have an easier go of it in terms of worldwide gender inequality issues.

If we boil down the core fear for solo women, it's rape. It's my fear and the fear of every person who has raised an eyebrow when I announce that I travel solo.

My best friend's mother heartily disapproves of my travels, while my dad puts a lot of trust in my judgment because he seldom mentions the core dangers. He emails me travel warnings and keeps me updated on conflicts in areas nearby my travel route - so I know he's concerned - but he trusts me treat my own life with care, and that's the main advice I usually tell other travels: respect your own life. I take precautions and steps to mitigate the chances of ending up in a bad situation; I choose hostels in safe areas, I stay sober, and I stay aware. But I can't stop random acts of violence on the road any more than I can at home.

I've been asked several times if I've ever feared for my safety on the road. I'm tempted to say that I'm lucky nothing terrible has happened to me, but that statement just annoys me because it shouldn't come down to luck. As a woman, I shouldn't have to hope and pray that a man doesn't decide to harm me, but it's the state of the world right now; a female traveller was raped and killed in Turkey a few months ago.

I have been aggressively groped three times in my life. Each time I was disappointed and mad more than anything, and none were to the point that I feared it would go further. Once was in broad daylight during a festival in India and another in Jordan, also during the day. The third was at a bar in Los Angeles and of the three it was the most aggressive and invasive - and it was in a crowded bar with my friends nearby.

But these incidents did not define my travel experiences in these countries, and I wasn't solo for any of them. In fact, in all three instances I had men and friends nearby and it didn't stop the harassment. Three continents, three entirely different cultures, and yet similar attitudes toward women created that shared experience …

Each time it reminded me that the way society sees women has a long way to go in a lot of places in the world, my own country included.

I can't say that nothing will befall female travellers, but I can say that it's not the norm. Truly. Kindness the world over has been the baseline of my experiences all over the world, but it's hard to combat that when the random acts of violence against women are highlighted more prominently in global media. I know that if something happens to me - and there is that chance - that it will likely be random, and it will be poor timing: wrong place, wrong time. And it could just as likely happen in the months I spend at home as in the places I visit.

I can't live from a place of fear and so I travel with self-defined policies, agreements I have made with myself to lessen the chances that I put myself in risky situations.


Life, and travel, is about constantly assessing a situation, making predictions, observations, and acting based on those assessments. Sometimes the assessments are off and I make a bad choice. But travelling has greatly increased my ability to size up a situation and a person and make an accurate judgment.

When I was in Belize I had a decision to make and I erred on the side of caution because it made me intensely uncomfortable to do something that some other travellers easily think is okay. I was at the Blue Hole, a very popular dive site off the coast of Belize, and I had planned, dreamt, of diving there for years. Once I arrived though, I didn't like the attitudes of the dive companies - many take down very novice divers even though it's a difficult dive.

The thought of diving that deep made me nervous, and I just didn't think seeing the caves 43 metres below the water was worth the risk - I realised I didn't care enough about the experience to put myself on what I perceive was a risky dive. So I didn't. I wouldn't have stayed calm, and that could prove fatal in diving that deep, when there is no margin for error.

Travelling is highly personal and what one person does, enjoys, or finds interesting another won't - and the same goes with risk. Find the travel experience that you think fits you personally and that makes you excited to travel and go do that! Travel should excite you and push just at the edge of your comfort. That's how we grow and change, not by doing outright risky things, but by confronting the small fears that are boxing us in and not allowing us to live the life we want.


The basic fact is that if something serious happens to me on the road it will likely be a transportation based injury - just like at home. Traffic accidents are far more common the world over than tragedies from these other fears according to the US State Department, and fatal traffic accidents far outweigh death from terrorism, plane crashes, or infectious disease.

Some bus drivers in Central America are on duty for 24 hours while driving decades-old buses on pothole strewed roads. The rickety buses in India speed over high mountain passes in the dark and careen around curves protected by guard rails held on with scotch-tape and wishful thinking. Rampant corruption in Mexico (and Bali, and India, etc) means no matter your traffic infraction you can likely buy your way out of the ticket for less than $100.

And a 'Thai tattoo' in Thailand doesn't refer to getting some ink while tipsy … it's the scabs, scars, and road rash mottling the skin of travellers who've crashed their motorbikes. Something that happens often enough that it has a nickname (in Bali it's called the Bali Kiss). In 2011, I got in a traffic accident in Laos and I have several gnarly 'Laos tattoos' that I will carry with me forever. 


The map of the world according to mainstream media would have me think a broad swath of the world is untravellable … that the people in these countries I visit cultivate hate and will actively harm me. That's not true. More than 95 per cent of the world may not like the politics of the west, they may not like my religion, but they are not seeking out ways to harm me. Or you. Granted, there are regions I approach with caution because of the gender inequality issues, but the danger map of the world is far different in actuality than you might think.

So have enough fear to keep you present each moment of your travels, enough to keep you cautious, but not enough to stop you from travelling. Male or female, there is a basis for fear or we wouldn't discuss this issue. Bad things can happen.

Safety and risks come down to time and place as much as anything. Each region, country, or moment of life comes with its own issues, risks, and fears … I take the steps to accurately understand the risks of a place, and I act with my own safety in mind. Then I release the rest to chance - risk is a part of life.

I have also found more true kindness, friendship, and generosity in each corner of the world, in the mostly unlikely of people.


1. Understand the cultural norms

Read about your upcoming destination, email local expats or locals who blog; figure out the geopolitics and religions and these will inform your travels as well as your behaviours. In some places you should cover your hair (Iran) while others it's best to cover shoulders and legs but belly is okay (India). The interactions between women and men differ and you cannot travel and assume your home culture will follow you. Direct eye contact, touching, and even the way you address others is up for adjustments as you travel.

2. Involve others in your safety

Find ways to involve the people in this new place in your safety - usually just telling them you are alone is enough, they will then look out for you. This applies to bartenders, hotel clerks, and anyplace you might be sitting around waiting. Tell your hotel you're travelling alone and they will likely make certain you know any risky areas in the city and go out of their way to make sure you arrive home each evening. Sometimes at bus stations I'll ask other groups if I can sit near them (or I'll just do it).

3. Carry a doorstop and safety whistle

Though I carry only the whistle, I know several solo females who feel a lot safer with both.

4. Stay aware

One of the reasons I sleep for a week straight when I go home is likely because my brain is taxed after months of maintaining awareness of everything around me. When I'm walking down the street, there's only one brain mapping the city to make sure I can get back to my guesthouse. On buses, if I'm solo then I'm likely not asleep.

5. Stay sober

This is a personal choice, and dovetails with staying aware. While I love a good beer, and while enjoying drinks in dive-bars around the world seems like a backpacker's rite of passage, I don't ever get sloshed when I'm solo.

6. Carry travel insurance

Since we've honestly looked at the safety issues, the biggest threat is actual bodily harm from traffic accidents. I carry travel insurance every time I leave the country. And though I've never used it, I feel safer knowing I can.

7. Pay for your safety

Take a cab when lost or unsure where to go. Spring for the closer hotel. Plan so you're not in risky areas after dark.