The answer is – it depends? OK, what does it depend on?
Mainly it depends on where you travel, although there will be other elements that come into play to make you feel more comfortable with taking the leap.
When I mention to people where I have traveled alone, so often the immediate response is “but that is so dangerous.” Fair enough, everyone is entitled to have their opinion. But then I turn the tables and ask them “have you ever traveled there?”. Of course the answer is always no. The point is that a lot of us are living our lives with so many preconceptions, we clutter up our brains with things that we really don’t know anything about.
Granted, I have not reached every region of the planet, or even come close to it. My own direct experience is limited to North America, SE Asia, Central America/Caribbean, and Western Europe. And I can say I have never felt unsafe in any of those places. I was happy to be traveling with friends some of the time and there are upsides to that. Yet when I have been out and about on my own I have never felt unsafe.
Hustling and marriage proposals do not mean unsafe
SE Asia has a lot of hustling and even when I would sit in the back of a restaurant, kids would come in and try to hustle me. It honestly got tiring, but it happens whether or not you are alone and it’s not threatening.
A woman traveling alone in Latin American can expect about 47 (maybe more) marriage proposals a day. That too gets tiring, but I found a blank stare and a “no comprendo” (I don’t understand) to be enough to move past the situation.
A Caucasian, American woman traveling alone in Western Europe is unlikely to suffer undesired hustling or romantic proposals. Since I am of European descent, I look like everyone else, even if I don’t speak the language. And it simply is not part of the culture to be hustling tourists and making marriage proposals to everyone who walks by.
The world is filled with friendly people
Belize is filled with some of the friendliest people I have encountered (but I say that about most places I visit). As a culture, they take pride in being tolerant of different races and ethnicities. I found people would bend over backwards to make sure I felt welcome. Whether that was an invitation to join them on their fishing boat for the day, or directions to a village with authentic Mayan food, or an introduction to their friends – I always felt at home there. Yet, every day someone would tell me to watch out because it was very dangerous place. I was not sure who I was supposed to watch out for? The friendly fisherman, or the generous hotel manager, or the caring herbalist? Even the Belizeans’ perception was simply inaccurate.
I spent a couple weeks in Zihuatenejo, Mexico, a fishing village (middle sized town) on the Pacific Coast. Zihuatenejo is considered unsafe by some, because of drug cartels. I sat next to a woman on the plane who was staying at Ixtapa (the resort town five miles north) who was a travel agent. She was freaked out that I was going there alone and spent much of the plane trip talking at me, mainly about her own fears that she projected as mine. I cannot say that the town is 100% safe, 100% of the time. But I can say that I didn’t hesitate to walk alone at night through the humblest Mexican neighborhoods. Although my Spanish is limited, I found people very willing to attempt to have conversation with me, and always with a warm smile.
It doesn’t hurt to be cautious
I personally am not chomping at the bit to get to Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan alone. Firstly, I don’t personally feel that safe embarking on such a trip with significant political turmoil, alone or with a friend. And, even if I were not alone, it’s just not that high up on my list of places to visit, with so many countries in the world I have yet to experience. So yes, civil unrest can be a reason for not traveling to a particular country, but it should not be confused with being wary of a new or different culture.
If you are someone who could never feel comfortable traveling alone, then please follow your instincts and don’t.
Maybe you are leaning toward traveling alone, but want to hedge your bets, you can stay at hostels and connect with like-minded folks and travel together for some portion of your trip.
If you feel like you could enjoy the experience of traveling alone, but you are unsure of where to begin, let me make a couple of suggestions:
Travel with a friend
Travel to another country with a friend who is a more seasoned traveler. Ask him or her to show you the ropes and ask questions. Most importantly, pay attention! Discuss the new culture and the different scenarios that you come across. You can go from naïve to confident in just a couple weeks.
Travel within your country
Travel to a different state or region of your country. Preferably somewhere you get to via plane, just for practice of what it takes to make a pleasant air travel experience. Get a Lonely Planet Guide and have fun for a week or so. You won’t be faced with a language barrier and it will help to build your confidence.
Travel to an English speaking country
When you do travel abroad alone, consider going to an English speaking country first. I was sure glad I did my first solo trip to Belize. It just so happened my body arrived in Belize City and my baggage was in Houston. I needed to shuffle plans to get back to the airport the next day to retrieve my bags. And I sure was happy I could sort out this mess in English. It may honestly have been too much for me to handle if I was attempting to do so in broken Spanish.
I did all of these things, in this order. Before I knew it, I was daydreaming about what non-English speaking country to visit alone. I built my confidence and you can do the same. And let’s not forget. Where ever we go we will be meeting people. Single people, couples, friends traveling together, both travelers and natives. That is one of the joys of traveling!
Is it safe for a woman to travel alone?
Not only is it safe for women to travel alone, it is empowering. If it is not your cup of tea, then don’t do it. But if you are the least bit intrigued, then go for it. It’s easier than you think. And you will be forever thankful that you followed your instincts and took the plunge.