A couple of weeks ago I had a long layover at the Toronto airport and used the chance to catch up with a friend who’s planning a trip to Spain. She might explore Barcelona for a couple of days at the beginning of her trip. Her first inclination was to book a guided tour so she wouldn’t need to travel alone. I shared that traveling with a guide is one of my least favorite ways to travel because I enjoy being able to spend as little or as long as I like at each site. I also enjoy changing my plans mid-day and deciding to walk down a beautiful street or pause in a square a bit longer. She was concerned about doing this because she’d be a woman traveling alone. I explained to her my strategies for traveling alone that allow me to be safe and relaxed while exploring a new city. We both realized that many people might be interested in these strategies I’ve accrued along the way. I’m sharing these with you now and I’m also curious to know your own tips and tricks for solo travel. Get out there and explore!
1. Secure your belongings.
The most likely thing that can go wrong when you’re traveling is to be the victim of a pickpocket or a run-by thief. This is why I have an intentional way to carry my important items (identification, money, cell phone and digital camera) on my person. The first thing I do is leave my passport in the hotel safe and carry a copy (if needed) and some form of government ID – a drivers license is usually fine. I also leave about half of my money and a credit card in the hotel safe with my passport. Then I take the other half of my money and divide it in two – half of it goes in a money belt and half goes in a simple wallet in my pursue or camera bag (if that’s all I’m carrying). If I feel extra concerned, I might also throw a bill in my shoe. The reason for the two or three spots is that I can give away my pursue if needed without injury and I won’t be in such a bind.
Here’s a full inventory of what I’d have in my money belt – a credit card, a third of my cash and some form of ID. There are a few designs of money belts – some are like a slim Fanny pack which works nicely under a dress, skirt or shirt (use bathroom breaks to pull out more cash if needed). I also have a nice one that attaches to my belt and works well with jeans as long as they aren’t too tight-fitting. The money pouch slides into my jeans behind my front pocket and is secured by loops on the belt.
Once you have your cash, ID and credit cards split up in a few places you’ve got back up plans in case of the unfortunate situation that someone steals your bag or purse. Your life is more important than your wallet – be ready to give it away!
2. Ask for a paper map
When you check in to the hotel – ask for a paper map of the city or the district you’ll be exploring. I also like to ask the desk clerk for any unsafe areas of the city I should avoid – then I just X those out on the map. I also use this chance to get local recommendations on places to run, eat and special sites to see and mark them on the map. I originally liked paper maps because I could discreetly check it while traveling and not have my face in a phone and look like a tourist, but nowadays everyone lives on a phone in every corner of the world so I don’t think it’s a giveaway. Maybe a paper map is more of a giveaway?! But, I also like them because I often trace my route as I go with a colored marker and then add it to my scrapbook. It’s good for memories and for future recommendations to friends.
3. Slim down
I like to carry as little as possible when I’m traveling around in a new city: paper-map, small notebook, pen (I have a nice tactical pen that doubles as a weapon in a pinch), chapstick, small bottle of water, small umbrella or poncho, possibly a digital camera. Slimming down makes it easier to keep track of my stuff and I have capacity to bring home a souvenir or two.
4. Make a plan and route it on your map.
Challenge yourself to memorize the first three turns you’ll take. Surprisingly, this is a bit hard to do nowadays in the era of google maps. I also like to give myself some flexibility and go where the spirit moves. Another benefit of a paper map is that if you wind up in a place with poor or no cell signal, you won’t be lost! One thing about paper maps is it’s harder to estimate traveling times, so if I’m under time pressure which you almost always are on a weekend jaunt, I like to use google maps to route to the farthest point I’d like to walk in the city and then note how long that will take. This helps me build realistic walking routes.
5. Try to dress like a local.
This can be challenging if it’s a city you’ve never explored. When I went to Barcelona it was a nice summer day, so I wore a summer dress from Desigual and bought a linen shirt to throw over my shoulders as the sun grew stronger throughout the day. I left behind my big digital camera. Wore some comfortable but a bit fashionable Nike Free tennis shoes (Nikes are everywhere folks!). I think I looked a bit like a local? It made it easier to blend in and then you’re less likely to appear to be a tourist (aka target for petty theft).
6. Learn some local phrases and load Google Translate onto your phone.
No matter where I travel, I try to brush up on some local phrases in the native language. The areas to focus on are the ones in all the travel guides: ordering food, getting directions, greetings, asking for help. Usually, it’s enough. If it’s not enough, google translate is your friend. Just type in your phrase in your native language and it will generate the translation in the local language! I’ve used it to carry on conversations in Italy, Turkey and Brazil!
7. Be quiet, listen and be a chameleon
If you don’t want to stand out, try to be quiet. Americans, on a whole, are VERY LOUD tourists. So, if you want to be an obvious American, please, by all means, sit down at a cafe, speak loudly, ask for water with ice and complain about the SLOW service before you get lost in your iPhone… BUT, if you want to look like a local, sit down at the cafe, order in a normal volume voice, preferably in the local language and observe the people and mimic their behavior. I find it can be fun to do. If someone strikes up a conversation with you, by all means talk! But you might find it’s also fun to be quiet and observe and soak up the space and the scents and sounds.
8. Secure your belongings.
While sitting at a cafe table, I like to loop my bag strap around my leg so it can’t just be snatched away. Also, don’t leave your wallet or phone sitting on the table. It’s the best way to get them snatched by someone walking by. I prefer to not wear a backpack because belongings by your side or in front of you are easier to track especially in a crowded subway or bus. So, I prefer to carry a cloth or leather bag with a cross body strap. It gives lots of options for moving the bag to a secure place where I can keep an eye on it.
9. Keep your head up.
It’s important to always be aware of your surroundings if you want to avoid being a victim. Pay attention to the people around you, not in a hyper-vigilant way to the point you can’t relax, but you should be able to notice if a particular person keeps showing up in the same spots as you. And pay attention to your intuition, if a situation doesn’t feel right, walk away from it. There are many other places to visit! Also, when I check my map (the biggest giveaway you aren’t a local), I like to place myself against a wall or in a quiet place. This way I can see all around me and be a bit less obvious. The goal here is to not become a target of a thief.
10. Identify escape routes
This one is a reassuring element for me and some might say it’s going to far, but I always like to identify my escape routes when I go in a building. You never know when something might go down and it’s nice to know how to get away quick if needed. In a restaurant, sit at a table near the edge and in a chair where you have a view of the entire restaurant and a clear path to the doors. This way you’ll know if something is about to go down and can respond quickly. In the beginning this might feel strange or cause you to be fearful, but when it becomes a part of your routine it’s just a natural part of how you travel.
11. Learn how to look at people
Growing up I was always encouraged to look people in the eye, and for human connections this is a great habit: eye contact, firm handshake, smile. But, in the instance where you might be approaching an attacker, in fact looking them in the eye can embolden them. Think of the animal kingdom – looking an aggressive dog in the eye can empower and trigger an attack. Apply the same principal here – train yourself to briefly scan the face and then focus on the breastbone just below the head. In the instance you need to defend yourself, you’ll be better able to track the direction your attacker is going and you won’t be psychologically emboldening them. It’s also important you don’t hold eye contact for too long because depending on the culture, this can indicate interest and for a woman traveling alone could lead to an annoying tag-along that you then later need to shake.
12. Learn some self-defense
It can be as simple as a weekend course, or something you do on a regular basis. In my case, I trained in Krav Maga for about a year and a half while I lived alone in Germany and this made me much more confident to travel on my own. But it also made me much more away of situations to avoid. I can’t say for sure that this training prevented things from happening to me, but fortunately I never was a victim or threat or any sort of physical encounter. Krav Maga training taught me simple strategies to get out of a dangerous situation and also how to carry myself in a way that made me an unattractive target. I kept my head up, walked with a purpose and made sure I was never in a position where someone could grab me from behind (the very worst way to be caught). You might not want to invest so much time in training, but as women I believe we can all benefit from some situational awareness and self-defense training. It’s a small investment in yourself that can make you more self-confident and relaxed when you travel.
Well, there you have it, a dozen of my personal solo traveler safety strategies. I’m curious to hear your ideas. Please post them in the comments.