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Irene Galea is a business reporter at The Globe and Mail
On the first night I ever travelled solo, I accidentally woke up a sleeping woman by sitting on her. My excuse: She was in my bed.
I had spent my first full day alone in Europe giddily exploring the historic streets of Milan, and around 11:00 p.m. had crept back into my four-person hostel room, where I had earlier claimed a bottom bunk. The room was nearly pitch black as I tiptoed in. I felt my way to my bed and … sat directly onto a stranger.
We both yelped and I shot back up. She scolded me in some language – Italian? – then turned over. I spun around, my eyes adjusting. All the other bunks were full too – and everyone was now awake, and looking at me.
Hence began my two-month, post-graduation romp through Europe in 2019. What this taught me: to be prepared for unexpected challenges.
(It turned out the hostel had double booked my bed. Luckily, they found me somewhere else to sleep that night and I sat on no other unsuspecting travellers in the six countries that followed.)
Now that pandemic restrictions have eased in most places around the world, travel has returned in full force, and for me, this has meant a return to solo travel.
Over the years, I have travelled alone in nearly a dozen countries. In the north of Italy, I spent two days exploring lakeside fishing towns nestled between the Alps. In Austria, I clambered over castle ruins in the forest. And I rode a rental bike for 75 kilometres across the Belgian border with the Netherlands.
Solo travellers usually have the same reasons for why they love it: the freedom to explore on one’s own time and budget, without having to make accommodations for a travel partner. Travelling alone means you are forced to meet new people if you want to socialize (like my now good friends Anna and Gabby, whom I met while on an archeological dig in Zorita de los Canes, Spain) – and being alone actually makes you more approachable in the right setting, like a youth hostel.
While I encourage all my friends to go off unaccompanied, they should also know a few hard truths. Travelling alone can be, well, lonely – especially at night, if you don’t have pre-set plans. And when it comes to accommodations, having to foot the entire bill, rather than split it, can be costly.
As female solo travellers, we have an even greater consideration: safety. The unfortunate reality is that, in many places, travelling alone as a woman can be more dangerous as a result of cultural considerations. Moreover, the dangers that every traveller faces – like scams and theft – can feel even more frightening to women travelling alone. And even in places considered “safe,” women are vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment, just as they are at home.
I’ve dealt with uncomfortable situations myself. This spring, while travelling in England, I stayed at a hotel (booked online in a hurry) ahead of my early morning flight the next morning.
When I arrived, I found that the hotel was dingy and smelled like cigarettes, the staff was unfriendly and the lobby was full of gruff men who had watched me check in alone. The safe in my room didn’t work, and the employee who came up to help let himself in using his own key card without even a knock. Around midnight, someone tried the door handle to my room.
Although I felt unsafe, I decided to barricade myself and tough it out. I barely slept.
I’m lucky that this situation was merely uncomfortable and didn’t turn into something worse. But it did teach me to be more careful when booking hotels. And with that, here are a few more tips on safe female solo travel that I have learned over the years:
- Thoroughly research accommodations on more than one platform. Google the address, scan the area on Google Maps. Hostelworld is a great resource.
- Send yourself an email with an encrypted document with digital copies of your travel documents as well as passwords to important accounts.
- If staying in hostels, consider a “female only” room. Bring a padlock, as many hostels only provide a large metal cage for your suitcase that rolls under the bed but does not lock itself.
- Pack lightly, and keep phones and valuable items in an interior zippered pocket. Never lose sight of your credit card, and beware of skimmers on card machines. Consider Googling “popular scams” in the city you are visiting ahead of time.
- Download a map of the city you are visiting in advance, so you can access it offline. Similarly, turn on Google’s location tracking for a trusted contact back home so they can keep tabs on your movements.
- If you are going out with a stranger alone, let a friend back home know. As always, stick to public locations, and watch your drink.
- Make plans with other travellers to go out together in the evening. It’s a good idea to opt for accommodations that have bars or restaurants on site so you have a built-in social zone close to home.
- You may want to research local customs when it comes to clothing and dress modestly in places where cultural or religious conventions differ.
- Walk confidently, even if you are lost. Try to avoid looking like a tourist, this makes you a target for pickpockets in some cities.
- Be willing to splurge when it comes to safety. Instead of a taxi, grab an Uber, which tracks you and the driver and takes payment automatically.
- Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to speak up if something feels wrong. If you are receiving unwanted attention from someone, call them out on it. Seek help from the staff at your accommodation or another woman nearby.
What else we’re thinking about:
Over the last few months, I’ve sat through some long flights – which for me means downloading about three dozen podcasts in preparation. While my daily consumption tends to revolve around news and business, in my free time I turn to shows that explore history and the built environment. Three of my favourites are 99% Invisible, a show about the unnoticed design that shapes our world, HistoryExtra Podcast, where friendly hosts interview historians about their most recent publications and ask all the questions you want answered, and Sidedoor, a podcast hosted from the Smithsonian covering art, history, archeology and more.
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