what i wish i'd known as a solo female traveler in Europe.
how to stay alert and safe -and have fun- as you travel alone.
I traveled alone for the first time as a 17-year old.
I didn't have a boyfriend waiting at home for me, and I didn't have a contingency plan in case everything went wrong. I guess I would have flown back home, but thankfully, it never came to that.
After graduating high school, I flew from Atlanta to Zurich and strapped on my travel backpack, the 40-gallon kind, and started my adventure.
It was crazy that I'd even made it this far. My whole life, I'd heard bits and pieces of stories about the dangers that women encountered when they traveled solo, and although I never indulged them, the thought was still in the back of my mind.
What if I ran into someone who meant ill towards me?
How should I extricate myself from uncomfortable conversations?
How close should i get to strangers?
After careful planning, and after watching several packing videos and reading a few travel blogs, I thought I was as prepared as I could be and set off for Europe.
(I did take a few things with me that I'll mention and link).
I don't think the travel scarves that have an RFID pocket are necessary, nor do I think you need to hide things in fake-bottomed shoes, and I definitely don't think you need to take a burner phone with you or have someone at home tracking your every move.
There are ways to stay safe, especially as a female, when you travel, and most of them come naturally to us already, because we've been taught to think twice before approaching someone, and our instinct is to watch our backs.
The same rules apply when you travel, so here are the things I learned as I went.
Don't leave home without something that makes you feel a little safer and makes it easier to defend yourself. For me, this was a can of pepper spray that was always in my bag, a striking tool, and a set of keys. These could be the keys you're given when you check into your hostel, or if you want to bring a spare set from home to carry in between your fingers, the feeling of something sharp in your hand will make you more confident if you have to traverse side streets or walk somewhere at night.
I was in Rome a few years ago and studied a map before I left my hostel to figure out the best way to walk to the Trevi fountain from my hostel. I ended up going down a side street in the middle of the afternoon, so it was well lit, but the street was lined with off-duty police cars and I could hear funny noises coming from the apartment building I walked past. I picked up my pace and my heart rate sped up, but I had easy access to my pepper spray and I knew where I was going, so I felt a lot safer and made it to the Trevi fountain without a hitch.
Knowing that you have something to defend yourself with in extreme cases will protect you and allow you more freedom when you travel, because you don't have to latch onto a group or wait until you have a travel buddy.
It's also better to travel with less and smaller items, because they're easier to reach for and easier to handle, which makes them versatile in any situation in which you might need them.
takeaway:: I've been traveling since I was 7, and I carry my pepper spray around daily, and in all of the 14 countries I've been to, I've never had to do more than tighten my grip around its handle. Know your surroundings but don't force yourself to tense up every time there's a burnt-out streetlight. Even just flashing your car keys is usually enough to send a signal that you don't want to be approached.
Hostels are safe. There, I said it. I've stayed in hostels in almost every city I've visited, and their goal is not only to make you feel welcome, but to provide insight into life in that city without the sterility that comes with a hotel room. The atmosphere is relaxed, you can choose to engage with fellow travelers, and there is always more space, both indoors and outdoors, for recreation and lounging. It's cheaper than a hotel, and you get more bang for your buck. My favorite place to look for hotels is on hostel world, and it acts very much like an AirBnB would. Of course, AirBnB's are safe as well, and when I haven't found a hostel close to my destination that I like or want to spend money on, I'll check out AirBnB's site as well!
As a woman, I've never felt unsafe in any hostel I've stayed at, and it takes a little bit of searching to find what you'd prefer, but every hostel has single rooms, shared rooms, and rooms that are limited to one gender, as well. This is always the option I choose, and it has never been an issue. Most hostels will have a small library and computers for you to use free of charge, and the owners are well-versed in must-see sights in that city.
When I traveled to Rome and checked into my hostel, I was greeted with a bottle of Italian wine, and the owner pulled out a map and circled all of the tourist and local spots I should see while I was there! I took that map with me and checked things off one-by-one, and I definitely found some gems that weren't listed on travel websites :)
takeaway:: Hostels are one of the safest options when you travel abroad, because they're vetted by fellow travelers and provide a variety of room arrangements, as well as amenities that far outweigh any hotel. They're affordable and amplify your travel experience.
What scared me most when I started traveling was how I would get from point A to point B. In America, we drive everywhere, and only a few major cities have metro stations, which makes variety in transportation a moot point.
Not so abroad!
There's a plethora of options to choose from in European cities: trains, local buses, cross-country buses, renting a bike, ride-sharing, walking, or renting a car.
I would recommend you stay away from renting a car, because, contrary to belief, in Europe, it limits your mobility. It's much easier to get around by bus and train, and walking to wherever you need to go also adds a bit of exercise to your regimen, while allowing you to see sights you would almost certainly miss if you were navigating a car.
More important than your form of transportation, however, is knowing where you're going before you leave your home base.
A quick, cursory glance at a map will refresh your memory as to which street will take you directly to your location.
Typing directions into your phone and saving them or starting the route before you go will ensure that you're not dependent on flaky wi-fi networks that might result in you getting stuck somewhere unfamiliar.
I made the mistake of saving images of directions on my phone once, and when I lost wifi, my confidence went out the window along with it, and I spent three hours wandering along horse-breeding farms in the British countryside.
The story has a happy ending, but I should have splurged the £10 for a taxi to get me home. The walk also wasn't that nice, so please don't make my mistake.
takeaway:: You want to be safe, and the best way to do that is to prepare. The same goes for guys, but us ladies are more prone to being approached when we look lost, and I don't want you to be left open and vulnerable if you don't need to be.
I know this is hard, but you HAVE to learn how to say no.
Especially if your itinerary has a lot of tourist destinations on it, practice saying no in the mirror before you leave for the day.
Sellers will come up to you telling you that you look beautiful, and would you like a rose. No, you wouldn't.
Someone is going to end up paying, and it's either you or the person you've come with, so don't write it off as someone trying to make your day a little brighter. This is their job, but they know all the tricks, so your best bet is to avoid engaging with them. (It also means that you'll be standing for a minute or two, which means someone can pickpocket you).
You're shopping for a few gifts but keep being charge outrageous prices. You know the items in your hand aren't worth that much. You can say no.
If you look like a tourist, you'll be up-charged. That's a guarantee. If you're okay with it, and maybe you've even budgeted for the scenario, then that's great!
Most people haven't, and I'm sick of being charged too much, so I've learned to genuinely say no when I know I can live without that item. I can try my luck somewhere else, but I don't want to spend an afternoon haggling, and to be honest, I get really flustered when I have to barter.
These salespeople are pros, and they can spot your insecurity and discomfort a mile away, so they'll try, especially since you're a woman, to settle with you on a price that is completely 'fair and reasonable.'
Shocker, it's not. It's just a little lower that they're willing to go, but still leaves a great big profit margin for them.
takeaway:: This is their job, so I get it, but if you want to be safe, learn how to say no when you can live without something, and don't be afraid to move on. If you really want it, you can come back for it. I promise it'll still be there.
Europe is my favorite place as a solo female traveler, for good reason. Countries in the EU accommodate different languages, have open borders and make it easy to travel between them, and it's a perfect entry point for your travel journey because there's so much history to get you started as you travel the world!
Wherever you decide to go, know that you can be safe going solo.