4 tips for staying safe while traveling alone

A traumatic incident in a hostel in 2005 forever changed my assessment of the risks I was willing to take to explore, adventure and create. These are the four things I’ve done since to keep myself safe.

Photo by María Victoria Heredia Reyes on Unsplash

Let me start by saying this — I take a lot of risks and I’m pretty cavalier about my personal safety.

One of my favorite examples is the day I stood in the middle of two rival neighborhood gangs and did my “white lady dance” to settle things down.

I was working as a community mental health counselor and I had kids (aka clients) on both sides. I didn’t know what else to do. And, the white lady dance had gotten me out of a lot of precarious situations already — from being held hostage by a violent teen to breaking up a knife fight between a mother and her two daughters.

At the time of the standoff, asking why the hell these children had guns and/or fearing that they would use them wasn’t as important as keeping “my kids” out of jail. Over a stupid turf war. And, gossip. Of course.

Maybe this was dumb. It certainly factored into my exit from the mental health field. But, it worked — that day, at least. No one got hurt. Everyone went separate ways, shaking their heads and making fun of the “white lady”.

You know, if the universe wanted me to be more cautious, you’d think it would give me less opportunities to positively reinforce my impulsive nature.
Photo by Shianne Morales on Unsplash

Here’s the thing — I’m insatiably curious. I value adventure and learning. I’ve come to greatly appreciate the person I am — much of which was cultivated through failure, bad decisions and scary situations. If I hadn’t said yes or done that crazy, ill-advised thing, I wouldn’t have learned an important lesson or uncovered the things that really matter to me. I wouldn’t be living my values, right here, right now.

That being said, an incident in a hostel in Ireland forever changed my perspective on safety and altered my relationship with risk while traveling. I don’t like that this trauma affects my decision-making thirteen years later, but it does. And, in terms of keeping myself alive and well (mentally, physically and emotionally), it’s a good thing it happened.

From that night forward, I made a promise to myself that I would never put myself in that kind of situation again.

Here are the four things I’ve done since to stay safe traveling alone.

# 1 — Research. Read the reviews. All of them.

This is exhausting and it takes a lot of time, but it will prepare you for the best and the worst. Also, studies show that planning for a trip is as pleasurable if not more so than actually taking the trip.

If you know what to expect, you can plan accordingly. For example: the cheapest option in Marrakesh was also the place where on page 5 and 6 of the 100+ reviews, two separate females wrote that it was a bit remote and felt unsafe at night. Nothing happened to these women; they both stated that they had a lovely time.

Now, I tend to believe that others are more cautious than me and like the rest of humanity, think bad things will never happen to me. Unfortunately, they have and they do. I don’t take reviews as fact and I don’t use them as my only assessment measure.

But, if someone goes out of their way to write a review indicating that they felt unsafe, they are doing so for a reason.

In this case it didn’t change my decision to stay there — frugality winning out over potential risk — but I made sure I was going to arrive during daylight hours. I could have also requested a pick up from the airport. Either way, doing my research helped me prepare and make calculated decisions about risk.

#2 — Go out during the day

Sometimes I feel I am missing out on the nightlife or meeting someone that could change my life — maybe make it so I didn’t travel alone — but, I no longer go out alone at night unless I am meeting a group of people that I already know. I just don’t. If I want to connect and relax, I have a beer at a local pub while the sun is still shining.

As much as I dislike limiting my exposure to new experiences, this one is a non-negotiable for me. I don’t go on dates while traveling. I don’t meet up with a man later that night — if asked, I offer an alternative — meeting for coffee or to watch a soccer game during the day. If they don’t take it, I’m probably better off anyway.

I also never meet up with one other single woman at night. This is probably a bit of overkill, but I had a very bad experience in Paris when I was only 17 and I didn’t want to make that mistake twice.

#3 — Make friends with older folks.

You’ll meet them when you go out during the day. They are usually willing to chat, eager to share and happy for the company. I cannot list the number of amazing experiences I’ve had as a result of talking to older people. Home and abroad. From invitations for a home cooked meal to private tours to experiences you couldn’t buy if you tried — it’s truly been the highlight of my entire life. I’m always grateful I took the time to ask about their lives.

A few from the Portugal #pensioner crew, 2018.

#4 — Join a group. Tag along. Be the third wheel. Let go of all your awkward social expectations and dislike for group activities.

I am not one for group tours or pre-packaged expeditions. I prefer to see where my curiousity takes me. I’ve also had enough experience with group tours to know that I’m going to spend less money and learn more/see more/experience more if I wait for the right opportunity to evolve. However, I have never regretted joining ranks with other travelers.

One of the best travel experiences of my almost 20 years of wandering was directly after the incident in Ireland. I quickly booked a flight to a place more familiar to me at the time — Holland. Once there, I met a young man named Liam. He was traveling to Poland to meet up with his brother and some other friends. I had nothing better to do and was thinking about calling it quits altogether, so I journeyed along.

Adventures with Liam, 2006.

Not only did that trip provide me with more laughter, music and adventure than I would have ever found on my own, but it also helped me to continue traveling despite what had just happened.

The Aussies! I have no idea where this was, somewhere in Poland I think, 2006.

You’ll notice that this group of Aussies was all men. Not one of them ever hit on me, tried to sleep with me or was in any way untoward. It was a godsend to meet good men at that time. I visited places I would have never gone alone and found my courage to continue on traveling alone once again.

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Thanks for reading! A couple of claps never hurt anyone either.