Ten Rules to Safe, Solo Travel: How to Stay Safe in Body and Mind
by Lisa McCallum
(St. Paul, MN, USA)
Fake Eiffel Tower in Dalat, Vietnam
Heading out for a RTW trip? That's round-the-world, of course! For smart, sassy women traveling for more than the usual two weeks per year, here are ten credos to help keep you safe and sane out there.
1. Only bring what you can carry. That means spreading everything you want to take out on your bed a few days before you go and putting half of it back. You can buy things you need in other countries. That's what those outdoor markets are for! Wouldn't you rather have some photos of yourself in cool new t-shirts and unique skirts than in that outfit you've been wearing for the past three years at home? And as you're packing, roll your clothes instead of piling them up. Rolling saves space and helps prevent wrinkles.
2. Although you'll be gone for several months (or years), only pack travel-sized toiletries. Dragging around a regular-sized shampoo bottle and a gallon of suntan lotion is not going to be fun. You can refill your small bottles as your trip goes on and you run out of the soaps and creams you brought from home. A big plus of traveling is shopping in a new environment. You have to buy toiletries at some point, so explore what the local culture has to offer. You just might discover the perfect remedy for your skin that nothing at home could cure.
3. If you want to be the brunt of hostel jokes, drag out your hair dryer, makeup bag, stilettos, and miniskirt while moaning about how horrific your latest plane ride/train ride/bus ride/taxi ride was. Traveling solo on a budget doesn't mean you have to look like crap all the time. In fact, more pictures will be taken of you on your trip than on a yearly basis at home. Keep your look, but tone it down. Leave the appliances at home and get an easy haircut. Use minimal makeup. Outdoor apparel for women gets better looking by the season, so invest in some Ripstop pants, fleece, hiking shoes, and sandals. You might have to trade the club-hopping for nights in the hostel kitchen, but swapping travel tips and stories with your hostel mates will be more memorable anyway.
4. Make sure your online bank accounts are glitch-free before you leave the country. Transfer a chunk of money ($1,000 or more, depending on your budget and location) about once a month from your savings to your checking account. When you use ATMs around the world, the cash will most likely come from your checking account without giving you a choice of checking or savings. Also, check the fee for international ATM withdrawals so you know what to expect, and don't be surprised if the local bank charges you a fee as well. Each time you withdraw, take out the maximum amount allowed by your bank and keep it safe in your money belt. Keep a pocket calculator handy to convert the dollar amount you're withdrawing to local currency. Better yet, figure out how much you're going to withdraw before heading to the bank so you're not fumbling at the ATM (a bad idea in any country!).
5. Even though it feels bulky, wear your money belt under your shirt like a second skin. It's your baby. It's your life. If someone wants your cash, passport, and/or credit cards, that's where those things are. Bring it with you in the hostel shower and hang it on the hook. Keep it locked in the hostel locker or hotel safe. If nothing lockable is available, keep it under your pillow while you sleep. The last thing you need to ruin your travels is an unexpected wait in a town you've already explored, biding time until your new passport and credit cards appear.
6. Pay attention to dates in guidebooks and on websites for 'when to go/when not to go' to your destinations. It may seem exciting and adventurous to travel on a whim without any planning, but you might get stuck wandering around a city in the midst of a city-wide festival, practically begging for an available room when there are truly none to be had. The Gods of Travel didn't conspire against you; you just should have arrived before or after the big event. Head to a nearby town to find a room and hope all isn't full there too. In some parts of the world, like Europe, booking a hostel bed a few days in advance is a necessity. In other parts, like much of Asia, it's completely unnecessary. Your guidebook and fellow travelers will help you out if you're not sure how much to plan and how much to leave to chance.
7. Pack a page or two of quotes or poems that you know will inspire you when you need them. Keep them in your journal and read them at those times when you are wondering why you are where you are. When you are lonely or annoyed with everything that is foreign around you, go back to your room and take a breath. Read over your inspiring quotes. Write in your journal, not on your blog! Vent all your frustrations about how hard it can be to travel all alone in a foreign place when you don't know what to expect from moment to moment. Then put your journal away and let it soak up your negative feelings. Treat yourself to a cup of tea or a dessert at a women-friendly restaurant. Even in areas of the world where the cafes are dominated by men, you can usually find a restaurant with couples and families where you'll feel comfortable to sit and people watch.
8. Don't beat yourself up if you forgo recording every detail of your trip in your journal or on your blog for a few days. It's okay to just hang out with new friends or read a book and recharge. Writing down the places you visited each day in a day planner or pocket calendar is an easy way to keep caught up with what you've been doing. Refer to the planner when you have time to update your journal. Fill in all the juicy details before too much time has passed and you've forgotten the name of the bar where you spent New Year's Eve in Vietnam or that incredible museum in Madrid you want to return to someday, not to mention the names of all the fascinating people, both locals and travelers, that you met along the way.
9. Even though it isn't fair, women have to watch themselves more than men do when they are traveling solo. Explore the nightlife of a new city if you have companions, but don't head out to the bars or wander around the streets of a foreign city after dark alone. It may sound grandmotherly, but the most important part of seeing the world is to be able to come home unscathed, with your self and your belongings intact. When I was traveling in countries near the equator, the sun rose at 6 and set at 6. That gave me twelve hours of daylight to explore, more if I was with friends. If I was alone, I made sure to be back at my hostel or hotel by sunset. Remember, you are a stranger in a foreign country. Accept that you will not have the same freedom as men when you travel and try not to resent the local cultures for this fact, as difficult as that may be at times.
10. Give yourself a break if you don't fall in love with every place you visit. Concentrate on getting an impression, a feeling, and a taste, while maintaining a positive attitude towards the people and the culture. You are a visitor, after all. You don't have to move there, and you also don't have to disparage the place in front of people who do love it. Ask yourself if you would rather be home instead. If you are truly having a horrible time and can't wait for your trip to end, I suggest you end it before you sour other people's trips. But if you are simply stuck for a few days in a spot that is less spectacular than you had expected it to be, then wait it out. Change your situation. Get a few people together to play cards or board games, or tell yourself you are on a culinary tour and taste every local specialty you can find. Read your guidebook and plan the next leg of your trip. Don't wallow. You may never return to this place, so try to enjoy it while you find yourself there!