Is there really such a thing as safe travel? 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 shouldn't be at much greater risk than locking your front door and hopping into your car for a dive through heavy traffic.
It's just that when we travel, we feel more vulnerable, especially as we learn how to travel alone.
Our surroundings are unfamiliar, our coping mechanisms are different and things like language and culture help confuse what might already be difficult 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 stab at staying safer should something arise.
This seems like a good time to throw a few statistics out, because our fears are often so unfounded. Here are a few sobering facts:
Our fears about safety when traveling abroad can be triggered by specific dangerous places − places where terrorism is rife, where natural disasters occur frequently, 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 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.
What if you do have some of these fears? Does that mean you should 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.
Here are a few of the 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. Have you taken these steps too?
Are you feeling adventurous or terrified?
It does matter 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. 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.
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.
Being fit helps − if nothing else, you can always run, if you're one of those older women solo travelers who takes her fitness seriously.
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 took me through the motions and made me feel more confident 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 could. It certainly strengthened my mental attitude!
A few simple steps can help you travel with greater serenity.
These are simple steps: If you don't show up where you're supposed to be, you'll be easier to track.
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!).
Rather than check every government listing and individual sites, it's all gathered for you 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.
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 for 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.
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.
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.
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.
If you're going somewhere the risk of danger is high, it's worth spending a few minutes thinking it through.
What would you do if disaster struck?
A couple of years ago I visited Sri Lanka and 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).
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.
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 indispensable, 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.
These are common-sense reactions, and you already know them.
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 travel safely, facing no more danger than they would at home. The only thing we shouldn't do is play ostrich and stick our heads in the sand 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.