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What Are the Safest Countries for Women Who Travel on Their Own?
Updated 1 April 2018 — What are the safest countries for women?
This is actually an odd question and as feminist discourse would have it, one we shouldn't be asking at all.
Women should be able to travel anywhere, period. I agree. But for now, reality has decreed otherwise. I would love not to be writing this page. I would love it to be superfluous, outdated, ridiculous even.
For now, though, women do travel differently than men, especially when we travel solo, and especially if we happen to be gay, disabled, of a different race... and no amount of rebellion or irateness or burying our head in the sand will change that.
Our best option (and this is my personal opinion, doesn't have to be yours!) is to acknowledge the differences and dangers, do our best to circumvent them, and keep traveling with a vengeance.
Eventually, by being out there, we won't stand out, raise eyebrows or be seen to encourage approaches. Maybe men will change. Maybe society will change.
But we, certainly, will change.
Our confidence and empowerment will take us where WE want to go, not where anyone else thinks we should go. Or shouldn't.
Few days go by without my being contacted by women travelers asking about female travel safety and safe destinations for solo women. Many of them are first-time solo travelers, older women solo travelers or women who have only visited cultures similar to their own and are about to take a big step out of their comfort zones.
It's easy for seasoned travelers to sit back and say, bravely, "You can go anywhere you want to!"
But if you're a first-time solo traveler, it's reasonable to have questions and fears.
A point to remember is that travel as I describe it here is overwhelmingly undertaken by women who are white and Western. Race plays a major role in safety, as do such factors as nationality and sexual orientation. While anyone who can afford it can of course travel, the dangers each faces can be magnified by discrimination.
No place is perfectly safe, not even home. So it's important to understand there are no guarantees.
But it makes sense to put the odds on your side when you travel to places that are foreign, where you don't speak the language, don't know the rules and can't interact appropriately under pressure.
No two places are created equal. Chances are I'll be safer walking down a sophisticated city street than in the middle of a war. Yet as the recent terrorist attacks in European capitals have shown, things can happen anywhere, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, in a war zone, or at the nearest mall or school.
Since there are no guarantees, what we can do is choose wisely, do our homework, be cautious - and enjoy ourselves to the max because the rest is out of our hands.
Seoul and Istanbul, two of my favorite cities
How do you choose the safest travel destinations? (and some great tips for traveling alone)
We need to define 'safety'. What makes a place safe or unsafe? Plenty of factors are at play here.
First, there is our personal perception. Do we feel a place is dangerous?
I have a friend who won't go to Morocco because it is in Africa - "where there is Ebola". For those of you who don't remember, there was a major Ebola outbreak in 2014 in three West African countries. It was the largest outbreak in history, took two years to stamp out and killed more than 11,000 people. That is a terrifying thought.
I rarely felt as safe as walking along country roads from Moulay Idriss, near Fes, Morocco, to the ruins at Volubilis
Placed in context, the epicenter of the epidemic was 2800 kilometers (1750 miles) from Morocco as the bird flies, nearly twice as far by road. That's quite a distance. But her perception was that because it was "Africa", the danger was everywhere. And so she didn't go. You might react differently, so perception is of utmost importance in shaping what you understand as a safe place - or not.
Second, we all have different safety thresholds. You may think walking high up on a mountain path is a wonderful thing - I'd feel I was putting my life in danger. I have vertigo and tend to be attracted to open spaces next to high ledges. That same mountain path may be perfectly safe for you but life-threatening to me.
Third, safety and danger can come from environmental factors that make a place unsafe for solo female travel (or any travel, in most cases):
- other natural threats such as wildlife or extreme isolation or rugged terrain
- high crime, violence or urban threat
- war or a high state of alert, as well as post-conflict countries littered with landmines and unexploded ordnance
- corruption, which makes navigating a country difficult and potentially more dangerous
- discrimination based on gender or race or sexual orientation, which increases dangers for women and can lead to violence
- extreme economic disparities, with huge poverty and excessive wealth living side by side (under these circumstances, foreigners can easily be targeted as rich - even when they are broke backpackers; after all, we were able to pay for our trip, right?)
Fourth, just because there's a problem in a country doesn't mean the ENTIRE country is a dangerous place. The Turkish-Syrian border, as of March 2018, remains a region to avoid, but plenty of travelers (including myself) still visit Istanbul.
Even in the world's safest places, there are some no-go areas - inner-city neighborhoods, deserted roads and countryside or parks after dark, so don't judge an entire country by a single region.
Every city has its neighborhoods...
Safe travels: how to assess the safety quotient of a place
There is an abundance of resources to help you decide the best places to travel solo.
- Many western countries have government advisories through their foreign ministries or in the US, the State Department. (Here they are for Australia, Canada, the UK and the US). They provide a list of countries with warnings and alerts about safety and security. While they are useful, the last thing a country wants is to mount a rescue operation for a misguided citizen, so they tend to be a bit alarmist. If you use them, compare what they say and remember - they are trying to scare you - at least a little).
- One way to bypass these advisories and find information in a single convenient place is by downloading the Geosure app, a new (free) service that scrapes the data from government advisories and many more international, UN and national sources to deliver a safety rating for many countries - and a unique safety rating for women. I explain in detail how you can use it to find out where it's safest to travel, or you can go straight to the Geosure page.
- Keep on top of the news - it's still the quickest way to know what's going on. But do take it with a grain of salt. Reporters are only human, and only as good as the information they are given or events they are or allowed to see. Use news sources with reliable international bureaux and a strong tradition of international coverage, like The Guardian or Al Jazeera English or the Washington Post.
- Google. Of course. "How safe is xxx..." You can also sign up for Google news alerts right in your Inbox so you will be notified whenever your destination is mentioned in the news.
- Check Twitter. If something just happened at your destination, Twitter will probably have it first. But since social media can be inflammatory, double-check anything that comes across with a factual source.
- There are several expat forums and sites, and some of the most accurate and immediate news you'll get will be from them - Search for "expat blog [country]" or "expat forum [country]". People on the sites actually live at your destination and if something is happening, you can bet they'll be talking about it. Ask questions, take the local temperature.
- Local tourism websites sometimes have breaking news, although the situation would have to be pretty dire for them to warn tourists away. Still, they're usually good for essential local information, like emergency phone numbers and English-speaking tourist police services.
- Travel blogs, bien sûr! If a blogger happens to be on site, she may write about it while still in-country. Have a look at a few of my own favorite travel blogs for women!
- Real people are great sources of information - friends, friends of friends who have recently come back from where you're going. If you don't know anyone personally, you can always post on Facebook and ask your friends if they know anyone who has just returned from that country.
- For health warnings, be sure to visit the travel sections of the WHO and the CDC, in case there's an Ebola or other deadly epidemic to avoid, or if you need a new vaccine.
And you won't forget your travel insurance, right? I use World Nomads whenever I travel and recommend it if you're under 66 (70 in some countries). If that birthday has come and gone, click here for travel insurance recommendations that cover you at any age.
So then... what ARE the safest countries for solo female travelers?
I've scoured the web for opinions and added my own from personal experience, so what follows is a selection of places most women travelers consider safe.
No entire country (barring some of those at war) can be tarred with either the "safe" or "dangerous" brush. Some countries are mostly safe, others are mostly dangerous, others are both dangerous and safe, depending on the town or neighborhood. So please accept these as broad generalizations, designed to give you a sense of risk rather than an all-out characterization. This is a partly subjective list, based on my personal experience AND on the Global Peace Index.
Considered among the safest countries for women...
- Northern Europe (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden) - Scandinavia consistently ranks among the world's happiest (and safest) countries, with Iceland leading the Global Peace Index most years
- Most Western European countries - yes, the Mediterranean region can be a bit more daunting, as men are far more vocal than their northern neighbors might be used to...
- Canada and USA (largely comfortable for solo women travelers but not evenly safe throughout - think huge empty expanses and dodgy neighborhoods - and wildlife); I'd definitely ask a local before wandering off the beaten path in major cities
- Australia (but, creepy crawlies) and New Zealand. Melbourne seems to have a great reputation for female safety (I haven't visited Australia yet so I can't confirm it but those in the know think so) and New Zealand consistently comes in at #2, right after Iceland
- Hong Kong and China, both of which I've visited several times on my own safely, my only mishap being the loss of my passport to light-fingered thieves in Beijing (my fault entirely for keeping it in my daypack on my back)
- Bhutan, Singapore and Malaysia
- Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia, which I visited recently and where I felt so safe (other than on some narrow mountain roads) I actually stopped thinking about safety
- Dubai and the UAE are less conservative than some of their neighbors. I'd also add Oman and Jordan to this list. Qatar too - except for the blockade by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which destabilizes it somewhat (but I'd go in a second!)
- Japan - often your biggest danger is getting lost, due to the lack of English, although there is a risk of natural disasters (tsunamis and earthquakes)
- South Korea - I spent two weeks visiting on my own but as in Japan, the alphabet and language can be an obstacle (not to mention the hot and cold political winds blowing in from North Korea)
- Panama (a wonderfully warm and welcoming country). Beware though - it's not safe everywhere. Some cities, like Colon, and the outskirts of Panama City's Old Town, are no-go zones.
The Netherlands, like the rest of northern Europe, among the safest places for women to travel alone
Countries perceived as less safe, but mostly fine with a bit of extra caution
- Certain corners of Europe: the vast majority of each country would qualify as safe but there are a few regions or city districts - suburbs on the outskirts of Paris or Lyon, for example - where you'd have to be more cautious. Despite the bad rap Eastern European countries get when it comes to racism, some women writers of color report fabulous experiences and are trying to debunk these myths.
- Southeast Asia is mostly safe, although there have been a few unsettling incidents of violence aimed at foreign visitors. That said, a bit of alertness and some research before you head off should be enough
- Morocco (though sexual harassment - usually verbal - is quite common) - which I've visited many times and loved each time
- Turkey belongs on this list. Some of the more touristy regions, like Istanbul and Cappadocia, are mostly fine, although in Istanbul, look for news of occasional demonstrations or political unrest or yes, terrorist attacks. I'm much more cautious about Istanbul now than I used to be... but I still feel absolutely safe as a solo female traveler in the city (less so in the countryside). Keep an eye on this country - things change quickly
- The safer and more tourism-oriented countries of Africa, those where there is no conflict or imminent danger of terrorism or piracy. Africa may not be the best choice for first-time solo travelers because tourism infrastructure isn't as developed but if you're tempted - GO! If it's your first solo trip, consider sticking to group travel or women traveling together. Mega-cities like Nairobi or Johannesburg used to be overcome with crime but things are improving (although Nairobi has suffered several terrorist attacks in the past few years).
I've traveled in all of these destinations on my own and have felt safe. They may not be at the top of the list of safest destinations, but with a bit of research and planning there's no reason a trip to these - slightly more exotic - countries shouldn't be perfectly simple and pleasurable.
Most dangerous destinations for women traveling alone
Again - every single recommendation here is subjective. I know plenty of women who travel to dangerous places, and others who won't visit most places on my "safest" list. It's a personal choice.
So here are my picks for least welcoming solo female travel destinations.
- Any country or region at war or in conflict, like Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen or Iraq - no ands, ifs or buts - just stay away.
- Destinations in the throes of a natural disaster - Aceh in Indonesia right after the tsunami, Bangladesh during floods (although disaster tourism is a thing and it does exist) - but once the emergency is over tourism actually helps rebuild shattered destinations, as has been the case in Sri Lanka
- Saudi Arabia because the way women are treated should keep you away but - things may be changing. A few freedoms are emerging and the country is nearly on the cusp of transition (my friend Susie of Arabia provides some intriguing insight into this extremely closed society)
- Pakistan (I hesitate because I know women who have traveled there and loved it), especially anywhere near a border
- North Korea (a rogue state, and one where danger could flare up quickly). That said, plenty of women travel there on tour (there is no independent travel) and are happy with their experience. I'd rather not...
Clearly, this list is anything but exhaustive. It is designed to give the sensible solo traveler some information and food for thought and to encourage you to do your homework and be prepared.
Safety should always be your primary concern.
But - there can always be an exception to absolutely everything I've said so far.
Choosing where you go and preparing well for it is the best guarantee of having a wonderful travel experience!
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