Is there really such a thing as safe travel for women? Can you guarantee it?
Of course you can travel safe, and no, there is no guarantee.
Traffic accidents can happen anywhere. So can violence, aggression and theft, as can war or terrorist attacks or natural disasters.
In fact, these things can strike anywhere: next door, in your town or around the world.
But they rarely do. And unless you visit some particularly dangerous places, you’ll be risking about as much as driving through heavy traffic late on a Saturday night. Here are some statistics to back that up:
- About 80% of US citizen deaths abroad are from natural causes (I suspect statistics are similar for citizens of other countries).
- Of the remaining 20%, nearly a third is from road accidents, 19% from homicide (remember, that’s 19% of 20%!), 14% are from drowning… and 3% are from terrorism, in case you were wondering. So your chances of something other than a road accident happening are pretty slim.
It doesn’t feel that way, though. When we travel, we tend to feel more vulnerable, especially as we begin to travel alone.
We end up in unfamiliar surroundings, our coping mechanisms don’t seem to work as well, and foreign languages and cultures add to the confusion of unfamiliar situations.
A lot of it comes down to preparedness. If you visit a place having done your research and with your eyes wide open (as I did when preparing for Sri Lanka), you’ll have a better chance at staying safer should something arise.
WHY TRAVEL FEAR STRIKES
Our fears about safety when traveling abroad can be triggered by specific and real dangers − places where terrorism is rife, where natural disasters occur frequently, or where women are disrespected. There’s nothing irrational about avoiding war zones or disaster-prone regions. On the contrary, those mechanisms of suspicion and avoidance help keep us on our toes, hence, safe (instead of wrapped in a holiday escapist fog).
But sometimes, our fears are not rational, or we may suffer from travel phobias.
Here are a few reasons why we may fear travel.
- If we don’t know a place, we may be swayed by reading about negative experiences. I read two reports by bloggers I follow when I was getting ready for Vietnam, and they were scathing. I made the extra research effort and was surprised to find nothing they had said matched my experience. A place can be different for everyone.
- Another problem is isolation. At Lake Song-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, I couldn’t use my cellphone because there was no signal. In these days of constant communications, being cut off from the world can increase anxiety and fear.
- A related challenge is communication: even if you know a lot about a place and you can get a phone signal, in an emergency you may not speak the language, so getting your plea for help understood could be difficult. Knowing this can contribute to stressfulness.
- There could be misinformation. When something happens in a city, the entire country tends to be lumped together. Just because something happens in California doesn’t mean you should be worried about visiting Vermont.
- You may be afraid of feeling lonely if you’re traveling solo. After all, is it worth looking at a glorious sunset if you can’t turn around and share it with someone?
- You may also be afraid of getting sick abroad, a perfectly natural fear. You may wonder if doctors will be competent, health facilities adequate or if your insurance will cover you.
- We hear so much about muggings and pickpockets and robberies − what if our documents or money get stolen and we have problems getting home? What if we are victims of some travel scams?
- Sometimes, we’re scared of disappointment. A destination has been built up in our minds and we worry about the reality. What if it’s not great? What if we have a terrible time?
- Some people are scared of the actual act of travel, more specifically flying. I’ve been there, and there are effective ways to beat the fear of flying (or at least make it manageable).
What if you have some of these fears? Should you just stay home?
No! Please don’t!
You might be missing out on the adventures, experiences and fulfilment of a lifetime.
What you can do is take precautions and prepare yourself so that when you do leave, those fears will be gone − or at least vastly diminished.
SAFE TRAVEL FOR WOMEN: SOME SOLO TRAVEL TIPS
Here are 12 things you can set in motion to help you get rid of your most persistent fears.
Of course you’ll use your common sense. But common sense alone might not be enough. These steps will help.
1. Check your mindset
How are you feeling: adventurous or terrified?
It matters when you’re traveling abroad alone. If you feel or look like a victim, you might be drawn into situations you’re not prepared to face. If you look strong and confident, you’ll feel more powerful. If you can’t bring about those feelings, just pretend. LOOK powerful and confident. Stride with purpose. The mindset will follow.
Looking strong will also help deter anyone on the prowl for a pushover. (Read more on warding off unwelcome attention here.)
2. Take a breath
We know that fear is often irrational and that no amount of logic will dislodge it, but there are ways to tame it.
Meditation is one way, if you have the ability or patience.
Another way is by practising something called the Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT (you can find plenty of online books or courses − it’s also sometimes called tapping).
EFT is a simple technique you use to tap gently around certain parts of your face and chest − no one really knows how it works, but it does. It has walked me down cliffs (in the throes of severe vertigo), helped me swim safely to shore, and allowed me to climb narrow mountain roads I was sure would lead to certain death.
3. Get in physical shape
Being fit helps. If nothing else, you can always run from danger if you’re in shape.
But a good course can also teach you how to do a lot with very little.
Before I left for my six-month trip to Africa (which turned into nearly four years) I took a local self-defense course, “just in case”. It guided me through the motions and made me feel confident so that IF I ever needed to, I could (albeit in a very limited way) defend myself without the help of weapons or tools.
I never had to use any of that physical training, but I felt far more confident knowing I at least had it. It certainly strengthened my mental attitude!
4. Plan your trip intelligently
A few simple steps can help you travel with greater serenity.
- Have you left your itinerary with someone you trust?
- Have you taken care of health matters with the right vaccinations? Have you bought your travel insurance? Do you have a first aid kit with you?
- Have you done as much research as possible about your destination so you can be prepared?
- Do you have some accommodation reserved, at least the first night?
- Are you checking in with someone daily?
These are simple steps: If you don’t show up where you’re supposed to be, you’ll be easier to track.
5. Check your destination’s safety rating
I have a new favorite travel app – it’s called Geosure and you can read more about it here.
Geosure provides you with a safety rating for your solo trip (and it’s free!).
It gathers safety information from a number of sources in one place, with an interactive map so you can check out several places at once and even compare their safety ratings. Not only that, but it breaks down data into safety for women and safety for LGBTQ travelers.
Use it to plan your trip and in conjunction with news about your destination − get Google Alerts about your destination a few weeks before you go, just in case things happen, like civil unrest or a major strike.
6. Stay in touch
While staying in touch is always a good idea, sometimes you can’t. So the first step is to keep your phone charged and useable in case you need it.
But what if you’re in a part of the world where even your phone won’t reach (like I was in Kyrgyzstan)?
You can equip yourself with specialized safety gear, like this personal locator beacon, which is basically an emergency tracking device that calls the cavalry and brings you help if you’re really, really stuck. It also lets you send a short text message via satellite if you think people back home might be worried about you, whether you have a phone signal or not.
7. Beware the petty thieves
One of the most frequent safety breaches is pickpocketing. In some cities, it’s actually a surprise if you don’t experience at least one attempt. The good news is that you can often avoid pickpocketers by using the right gear. I tend to travel with a Pacsafe Crossbody handbag, which I wear across my chest and which has lockable zippers and a metal-fortified strap. I also have several other anti-theft handbags that I swap around. Or I use a money belt.
8. Wear the right clothes
In addition to the usual advice − look conservative in conservative societies − there’s another dimension to fashion. If you are traveling somewhere potentially dangerous, pay careful attention to your clothing. Don’t wear high heels or anything that will impede your running. Don’t carry a handbag so heavy you can barely break a shuffle while you carry it. It’s simply part of being streetwise.
9. Keep your things safe
It’s not enough to protect your belongings when you carry them around, so think about what you’re leaving behind in your hotel room − and your own safety while you’re in it.
If there’s one incredibly simple way of making sure no one gets into your room while you’re inside it, it’s this: use a rubber doorstop to keep your door closed and no one will be able to get inside, period.
10. Plan your escape
If you’re going somewhere risky, it’s worth spending a few minutes thinking it through.
What would you do if disaster struck?
A couple of years ago when I visited Sri Lanka I had planned to stay by the sea, but memories of the 2004 tsunami haunted me. I decided to invest in a commercial alert service that would send me a text message whenever unusual underwater activity was detected.
I also mapped an escape route on Google Maps: I looked at the aerial photographs and carefully traced my steps to safety – just in case. I’m glad I did because when I checked into my hotel and asked about tsunami escape routes, the staff looked at me as though I was a lunatic.
I never needed my printed map with its highlighted route, but I was happy I had it (along with the flashlight in my pocket).
11. Arm yourself
No, not with a weapon, but a whistle (hat tip to Jodi of Legal Nomads for this one). I admit I did carry a small canister of mace with me when I crossed Africa but that wasn’t for people − it was for stray dogs, which scared me a lot more.
Your self-defence course should teach you how to use common objects to protect yourself.
12. Protect yourself online
Protecting yourself physically is one thing, but traveling can often mean exposing yourself to unscrupulous data thieves. This can happen when you use free or unsecured WIFI at airports, hotels and the like.
Find out what it means to protect your data, why it is now absolutely essential, and how to do it by using a virtual private network, or VPN. It’s not expensive, and avoiding data or identity theft on holiday is priceless.
SAFETY TIPS FROM READERS
Readers of Women on the Road have sent in their own safety tips for travel and they prove one thing, again and again: most travel safety is common sense. Do the sensible thing, do what feels right, and you’ll put chances on your side.
At the airport
(Cindy Lou O’Brien): When waiting for a connecting flight in a foreign airport check the board for gate changes regularly. They don’t always announce changes and you could miss your flight.
- Always take pictures of your passport and credit cards and keep a copy with you and leave one at home. Also, write down or print out all the travel info and key phone numbers, including your embassy. If you lose your phone, you’ll have all your essential info (K-la C. and Debra H.)
- I use a thin infinity scarf that has a hidden seam zipper with a pocket big enough to hold passport, credit card, and some cash. It’s not wool, so not hot and can be used year round (Fran M.R.) Here’s more information about those infinity scarves.
Get informed and be prepared
- Above all else, research where you are going. Know something about the customs, city/town/country layout, a few choice phrases (Mary Lou M.)
- I try to always overprepare. I spend a lot of time before leaving updating my list of nearest medical facilities, embassy protocol, police stations and policies, reviews of various lodging options. I feel a lot safer if I know where to begin if I do need to find help (JoAnn H.F.)
- Before my solo Japan trip, I typed up in Japanese a list of the names, addresses and phone numbers of places where I was staying and places I wanted to visit and carried it on me to show the taxi drivers as most don’t speak English (Jill F.)
Finding your way around
- My number one tip is to walk confidently along having already mapped out my way before I left my accommodation. I also take screen shots and love a local map in my back pocket for the big picture. (Virgnia M.) I love a street map and have learned not to look at them in the street, which often results in unwanted attention. Better to find a busy cafe to sit in and get your bearings (Serena G.)
- Know the name and address of where I’m staying so I don’t have to tell the tuk tuk driver…it’s by the Starbucks…not this Starbucks…just keep driving… (Mary Ann W.) And get in the habit of picking up the hotel’s business card with all information and telephone number (Ellen D. W.)
- Bring a street map (in case your phone dies). Screen shot a map of the area you are walking so you can zoom in to find your way back (Cindy Lou ).
- Under Armour offers a free app called Map My Walk. If you turn it on it’ll track your location and you can follow the line it creates to get back to the starting point (Helen R.-B.)
- I sometimes use Google maps “street view” to check out the streets I will be walking down. It gives me an idea of how “well-kept” the neighborhood is and what to expect, and it is nice to recognize landmarks when I actually get there (Cathy R. F.)
Staying in touch
- Always, let someone know where you are (Angelique T.)
- I make my phone screen saver my emergency contact and travel insurance info (Tamara M.)
- Leave an itinerary with someone at home and also in your hotel room (Cheryl K.)
- Listen to the locals (Ericka K. and Una M.)
- Ask at your lodging if there are any neighborhoods to be avoided and when. Some places are perfectly okay to walk during the day, but at night it is a different story (Cathy R.F.)
- I have a ‘wedding ring’ that I wear when I’m in very conservative countries or regions. referring to my ”husband’, who can help stop or derail unwanted questions … (Claire D. and Annye C.)
- Know how to say key phrases such as “Fire” “Help”, etc. in the language of the country where you are. Also.know the emergency number; it changes from country to country (Marjorie S.)
- Carry a whistle (Mary B.)
- I try to get accommodations near cafés, restaurants so I can stay out at night yet be close to home (Faith D.)
- Watch how local women dress, talk, behave and then do the same (Laverne B.)
- If you have any health issues, bring an updated letter from your doctor. Check if any drugs you’re taking may be illegal in some countries. Take copies of drug prescriptions (Debra H.)
- Health insurance! (Annye C.)
- Use a money belt. It may seem old fashioned but you’ll never lose your money, passport, bank cards, etc. (Kay A.)
- I use a light jacket with inside pockets. I keep my money, cards, keys and transportation tickets in the pockets (Mariann P.)
Talking about common sense…
- Travel light, wear shoes you can move in (Carol F.)
- Be as alert as you would be at home − “situational awareness”. (Phyllis F.F. and Cindy B.)
- Be present without becoming paranoid! (Gwen McC.)
- Don’t OBSESS about safety. Take basic precautions, be aware of your surroundings and be cautious when you need be. The more you dwell on the negative, the more you will find it. Think positive thoughts about safety, Be happy and have fun! (Diane K.M.)
- Follow your intuition! (Marta K.)
WHAT HAPPENS IF YOUR PRECAUTIONS FAIL?
These are common-sense reactions, and you already know them.
- If you fall ill, you’ll seek medical care or call your insurance.
- If you have an accident, you’ll phone for help or ask someone else to.
- If you get robbed, you’ll go to the police.
- If you get into serious trouble, you’ll call your embassy.
But there’s a sobering fact: sometimes, you can do nothing.
I certainly didn’t expect to get lost in a minefield in Mozambique or in the Amazon rainforest, or almost drown off the coast of Zanzibar. It happened – and I was terrified. In each case I was lucky – yes, luck does play a part. And I survived.
It would be nice not to have to think about any of this scary stuff, but that would be foolish. Being prepared and aware will usually do the trick, and most women can and do experience safe travel for women, facing no more danger than they would at home. The only thing we shouldn’t do is play ostrich in the belief that things only happen to ‘other’ people.
Just the act of thinking through a realistic plan of action will help you do the right things if adrenaline and panic kick in.
By being prepared, you put the odds on your side. And if you’re superstitious, you can always give those odds a little nudge by carrying around a little talisman for safe travels that will help keep the fates in line.
— Originally published on 31 July 2011