The Woman, The Traveller – learning from past mistakes

If you’re anything like me, having time to yourself is the best. That sun-drenched moment with a book? Bliss. A gentle cup of tea in the evenings to help you ponder? Perfect! An afternoon spent rambling through parks and streets? Is this Heaven we’re describing?? Being alone is an easy way to soothe the soul, but the idea of travelling alone can be quite daunting. Most of the advice out there will tell you to “get out of your comfort zone”, “take risks” and “see where the road takes you”. But there is often an unspoken part to this advice; be a man. The unfortunate reality is that women have to be more conscious of safety while travelling, not because it *should* be our responsibility, but because societies across the globe aren’t holding men accountable for their actions.

When I was younger, I never thought to differentiate between the travel advice given by and for women and men; as a result, my adventures were a mixture of incredible and disastrous. I’ve worked out how to travel alone by trial and error, and while I have some weird and funny stories, a lot of these are only funny with distance. Luckily, my travelling woes are now your wins – I’ve put together a list of my top tips for solo travel as a woman, to help you succeed where I failed, renew your sense of adventure, and give you back the magic that is a holiday to yourself!

1. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

One of the biggest pitfalls of the solo adventurer is the romantic notion of “getting lost in a new city”. It’s an oft-told story of dreamy streets, cute cafes, hidden gems, friendly locals and beautiful scenery. In reality, being lost is most likely going to involve walking for hours in the wrong direction, all the shops and restaurants being closed, being mobbed by feral pigeons, and then scammed out of your week’s food budget by an illegal taxi (all of which happened to me on the same day). Wandering in a dodgy part of town might seem like a thrilling adventure for a guy, but it’s far less fun when you’re a woman, being followed by some greasy little toad, as well as being hopelessly lost.

The best way to make use of the precious time you have, is with a daily itinerary. Just having a pocket city guide is not really enough – large distances between attractions can take a big chunk of your money and time if you don’t check your route beforehand, so mark your map and have a plan. The best thing about travelling solo is doing all the things you want to do, and not wasting your time on things which don’t interest you. Always research how to get around the city, and choose the safest transport your budget will allow. Having a physical map, even just a printout, is a godsend when your phone isn’t an option. Pro tip: always have a trusted taxi number, in ink, for those times you do become hopelessly lost. If you have a helpline on hand, you can choose whether you want you explore the city or safely head to your next stop.

2. Reviews are Important

You can tell a lot about your accommodation from the reviews left behind. As a former travel agent, I can tell you it’s a big indicator of whether the staff will be helpful, the rooms clean, and your stay pleasant. Don’t just look at the overall review score, but check the most recent reviews as well – sometimes recent changes in management can make all the difference! It is also vital to take note of decent, cheap accommodation alternatives nearby. As a teen, I once arrived at what was supposed to be a good hostel, only to find my “female only” dorm was actually a room of 5 men in their 40s and 50s… one asked for my number within 10 seconds of my walking into the dorm. I had not checked the reviews properly, and I had no accommodation alternatives on hand – thank goodness I was taken in by some extremely generous and sweet family friends living in the area, and ever since then, I have always had a back up plan written down in case my hostel/hotel is a disaster (which I have avoided since then, by reading the reviews properly).

The same goes for checking the reviews of local restaurants, and attractions too. If you’re on a limited budget or limited time, it’s important seeing whether something is all hype, or worth the extra cash. It also helps you avoid arriving somewhere, and it being closed. Plus, without checking the best rated attractions, I would never have known about the quirky Cork Butter Museum – by far best thing you could do in Cork!*

*And I’m not just saying this because of the stunning city views and Shandon Sweets right next door! Yum yum sweeties!

3. You’re Only as Alone as You Choose

I’ve never had the luxury of living alone – I’ve always lived with family or flat mates, and while this means my solo trips are even more precious, I can sometimes find myself missing people after only a few hours by myself. This is why, when you first travel alone, I cannot recommend hostels enough. Staying in hostels, you immediately have new friends in the same room, and as well as being budget friendly, you have people to go and eat dinner with if you feel a little awkward eating alone (I’ve come to love my solo dinners, but when I was younger I hated it!). The lounge areas are the perfect places to find new people to hang out with, and I haven’t been in one hostel where a random group hasn’t welcomed me with open arms. I’ve met some of the most wonderful people this way. Always book a “female only” dorm for your first trip, and once you get the feel for hostels and solo travel, you can decide what you feel comfortable with. Personally, I’ve found they are always nicer than mixed dorms.*

I am also a big fan of group tours, especially when you’re in countries where travelling is difficult (for example, if you don’t want to drive, budget travel in the US can be a challenge), or you feel you’d like safety in numbers. These are great for combating loneliness – you will be with people most of the day, but you also have the option to explore each location by yourself if you want more alone time. There is something to be said for having a travel nanny to sort your travel, food, accommodation and day trips! Not always the budget option, but it’s 100% worth it if it’s on the table.

*I have seen things. Nudist men + jumping off top bunks = wild flying bits, far too early in the morning…

4. Learn the Language

I shouldn’t have to say this, but unfortunately I have seen far too many travellers who don’t do this. I’m not saying you need to be fluent in 800 languages, but you have to know key phrases like Yes, No, Thank you, Sorry, I don’t speak X, do you speak English? Winging it is not funny or cool, it’s just a weird attitude to take, and is rather rude. We go to different countries to see the sights and meet new people, and you can’t meet new people if you don’t know the word for hello. Being polite can mean the difference between help and aggression, and part of being polite is trying to meet someone halfway. You can get a long way with ridiculous pantomimes and a few smiles, but no-one will play charades with you if you don’t put in a little effort. This is generally good advice for everyone, but more than this, you’re less likely to get lost if you know how to ask for directions!

5. Trust Your Gut

The above tips are guidelines. Sometimes, all logic will say something is ok, but your gut says it’s not. Don’t chase the adventure if you don’t feel comfortable. If you wouldn’t do it in your city, don’t do it in another! Don’t feel like you have to make yourself uncomfortable, just because those wanderlust articles say it’s the only way to “truly” travel. Those articles are almost always written by men, or people who are travelling on high budgets where safety is a secondary consideration. Travel is filled with adventure whether you seek it out or not – ask any travel agent, and they can tell you a million stories of things going wrong, outside of anyone’s control. From natural disasters, to forgetting your toothpaste at home and mistakenly buying foot cream to replace it (I’ll never truly recover), you will have enough to be getting on with anyways. A big part of enjoying your holiday is ENJOYING YOUR HOLIDAY.

I know I’ve touched on safety as a big thing in this article, but the thing is, once you realise that solo travel is actually acting like you do at home, just with different scenery, you realise how stupid all of that advice to “run down dark alleys at night” really is. We should be able to, yes, but we don’t, so don’t feel like you have to, just because someone who’s never had to worry about alleys before does it “all the time”. Trust your gut, and forgive yourself for having some form of self preservation!

6. Women Are Magical

Let’s say you’ve done everything you can to avoid disaster, but it happens anyways. You’re lost, you’re confused, stuck, out of luck or just plain scared. In every of these situations, I have been saved by women. They appear out of nowhere, swoop in, and take me to safety, like mythical beings with impeccable panic radars. They have been my guides, lent me bus fare, been my translators, given me haven in storms, pretended I belong to them, and generally kept me safe – all without my even asking for assistance. Women go about the world, hyper-aware of those around them, and so often they will notice when you are in trouble before you even think to ask for help. Shopkeepers are especially helpful because they know the area, are used to being helpful for work, know the language, and usually let you use their phone if you’re in a bind (the best part of my day working retail was helping lost tourists haha).

When you travel alone as a woman, you become a part of the club of protectors too. If you see a fellow female traveller in trouble, help them out, pay it forward. We look out for each other in a way I didn’t realise existed before I started my solo adventures. It’s the same in every country I’ve visited, in every place I’ve stayed, every path I’ve walked – we have each other’s backs.

I think for me, the most magical thing about travelling alone as a woman is that you never really travel alone.

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