I’ve done some pretty stupid things over the years while traveling. In fact, sometimes I wonder how I’m still alive, relatively sane, and still have all of my limbs intact.
I’ve gotten a ride home drunk at 2am in Panama with police officers carrying machine guns. In Costa Rica I’ve walked across a crocodile and shark infested river up to my neck. I’ve wandered dark empty streets at night and gone to the homes of complete strangers in Morocco. I’ve ridden a bicycle without a helmet through mad traffic in Vietnam. I’ve nearly drowned in a riptide on the Caribbean coast. I’ve walked home alone in Thailand after last call and had a man expose himself to me on the street. I have even been lured into the home of scammers in a sketchy neighborhood in Cambodia.
Call it dumb luck, sharp intuition, or divine grace, that despite these absurd mistakes, nothing that bad has ever happened to me.
When I let my ego go unchecked and my rationale fall to the wayside, the universe has a way of nudging me to wake up before I drive off the cliff. The close calls have been like dress rehearsals, showing me what to do on opening night.
As much as I appreciate my close calls, I wouldn’t wish them upon you. Instead, I hope that you will arm yourself with information and listen to your intuition. While only you can hear your voice of wisdom, I’m here to support you with information. Because why have your own close call, when you can simply learn from mine?
If you want to travel the world on your own, but worry about the risks or dangers, let these safety tips give you the confidence to know that you can still do it without compromising your safety. By having these tools by your side, you can feel solid when you chase adventures, challenge your fears, and open your heart.
Ready? Here we go:
It’s very common to feel disoriented when you arrive somewhere foreign. The language, the culture, the landscape, the laws, all seem so different you may feel clueless about how you’re supposed to act. Some travelers respond by escaping the “local culture” and hiding in resorts or expecting the locals to conform to their needs.
However, as visitors it is our responsibility to educate ourselves on our new environment to both protect ourselves and give our respect. Do research, ask questions, and listen. Approach people with sensitivity and curiosity instead of judgment or fear. The more you seek to understand your surroundings, the more your surroundings serve to protect you.
Before I travel to a new country I research the basic treatment of women in the local culture, the expectations of women travelers, the appropriate attire, the general safety of the particular town(s) I’m visiting, and common scams so that I’m tipped off immediately and don’t get in too deep. I get my information from guidebooks, travel blogs, and Lonely Planet’s Thorntree Forum.
When I arrive at my destination, I ask locals and other travelers for the inside scoop. I typically ask if it’s safe for me to walk alone, what areas I should avoid, if there are dangerous animals/poisonous snakes (depending on where I am), where it’s safe to swim, and if I can drink the water.
Try not to get obsessive, this research shouldn’t take more than an hour, and don’t listen to everything that you hear. Remember, it’s all opinion, not truth. You likely will receive contradictory information. Take it with a grain of salt and filter the information through your own understanding. Keep what resonates, forget what doesn’t.
Use the information that you gather as helpful guidelines, not hard rules, as you explore and draw your own conclusions.
Often our greatest fear in solo travel is the vulnerability that comes with being alone. I understand that fear, because I’ve felt it every time I arrive somewhere new. This fear tends to come from discomfort more often than danger.
Learn to lean into the discomfort that arises when you’re alone. When you feel strange in a restaurant by yourself, afraid alone in bed at night, or nervous on a long bus ride with strangers, instead think about how strong you are. The more comfortable you can become in these uncomfortable situations, the more empowered you will become in your life.
Trust yourself and your capabilities, because ultimately YOU are the only one who can truly keep you safe. This trust is far more valuable than anything you will read in a guidebook or on a blog.
Connect With Other Travelers
Feeling safe and strong alone will empower you tremendously, but as humans we’re not meant to be alone all of the time. We’re meant to connect and have community, and being part of a tribe offers greater safety than being out on our own.
Though contrary to what some may think, traveling alone can be even more social than traveling with others. Through youth hostels, expat cafes, family run guesthouses, yoga studios, retreat centers, and organized tours, I have met many locals, transplants, and travelers. Some were my companions for the day while others have become lifelong friends.
I love and value my alone time, but I also appreciate the strength that comes from community.
Like the time I arrived in Morocco without any plan and without knowing the language. I got to the bus station, disoriented and the only foreigner, with men staring at me from all directions. As soon as I saw three guys with big backpacks, I approached them. We ended up traveling together for about a week and in their presence I didn’t get hassled at all.
Or when I got to Koh Rong and was told not to hike to the remote beaches alone because of poisonous snakes and the possibility of getting lost. I made friends with some travelers in my hostel and we went on the hike together, unscathed.
The key is finding the confidence to go on your own, having freedom to do what you want, and meeting others who you can share experiences with when you feel called.
Respect the Locals
I genuinely believe that by offering respect you are more likely to receive it. Whether that translates to covering your knees and elbows in Morocco or entertaining the friendly banter of a Caribbean Rastafarian, you set the stage for a positive experience when you honor locals and their customs.
Be accepting of the paradigms in this culture, rather than attaching to the paradigms of your culture. Be open, respectful, and understanding, without losing yourself and what you believe. Know that you are the outsider and it is up to you to bridge the gap.
Never, I Repeat, Never, Walk Alone Late at Night
Alright, I never say never, but really, unless it’s entirely necessary, just don’t walk alone late at night, ok? Really, please, don’t do it. Even in the safest of places, it’s not a good idea.
In Kampot, Cambodia I was told that it’s safe to walk alone at night. I did, but felt creeped out, and didn’t do it again. Later I heard a young woman had been murdered along the river a few months before. In Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, everyone will tell you not to walk alone at night. A friend of mine, a local, was robbed by gunpoint when she ignored the advice. In Chiang Mai, a city that feels extremely safe to me, I walked home alone late and was followed by a man on a motorbike who eventually pulled down his pants and started masturbating in the street.
I don’t want to scare you, but don’t take the risk. Instead, come home earlier, stay out with your friends, take a taxi, or if you’re at a friend’s place already, just stay the night.
Find a Taxi You Can Trust
Sometimes it’s tough to know whether you’re safer walking alone or getting into an unknown taxi. I’ve been in this position, and I’ve even had some scary moments with taxis trying to scam me or take me a different route. If possible, ask your hostel or hotel for the number of a taxi that you can trust. Call them for a ride. If you’re out and you can’t get a hold of them, ask the bar or restaurant to call a taxi they trust for you.
Be Confident, or at Least Fake it
Our insecurities and hesitations are what make us vulnerable. Think about it, if you were to scam or rob someone, would you choose the person confidently walking down the street, or the one looking lost standing on the corner?
One of the greatest methods for self-protection is self-assurance. This goes back to trusting yourself. The more you believe that you’re capable of being safe alone, the more you will radiate it. Others can actually feel your energy, and you will consequently repel those who want to take advantage of you, and attract those who are inspired by you.
But what do you do when you don’t feel confident? Fake it.
Even as an experienced traveler, there are still times where I feel unsure of myself. I’m aware that this can attract the wrong kind of attention, so I do my best to fake it.
In the company of strangers, pretend that you know what you’re doing. If you’re asked if you already have a place to stay, say yes. If you’re asked if you know where you’re going, say yes. Look ahead and move forward even when you’re lost. If you need to consult a map or ask for directions, step inside of a reputable hotel, restaurant, or shop, and figure it out in there.
Set Boundaries and Don’t Waver
There’s a reason why people feel safer when they live behind walls and fences. There’s a reason why countries are divided by borders. There’s a reason why we learn from a young age the words “yes” and “no.”
Boundaries enable us to declare what we do and don’t want to come inside. Boundaries express to others what kind of treatment we do and don’t allow. The firmer and clearer your boundaries are, the less likely you are to be taken advantage of.
That said, setting boundaries is a challenge. As humans, and particularly as women, we often feel compelled to please others. We may worry that our boundaries will offend someone else. However the only way to truly respect yourself and others is by clearly and kindly letting your boundaries be known.
Whether it’s finally yelling at a Rastafarian woman chaser that I’m not interested after politely declining his advances again and again or informing the tuk tuk driver that I don’t need a ride to go two blocks, the more deliberately I communicate my boundaries, the more I protect myself from what I don’t want to enter my existence.
Have a Safe Haven
Sometimes, it does get to be too much. The hassling and harassment can grow exhausting and when you stop being aware is when you start being at risk. These are the times when you need to escape and recharge before getting back out into the madness.
Stay in a hotel or hostel that has a nice common area where you can chill out and interact with other foreigners. Yoga studios and expat owned cafes are also great places when you need to forget that you’re in a foreign country.
Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself
I’ll be the first to admit that my ego has gotten me into trouble. At times I want to prove that I’m a badass more than I want to honor my body or my life.
Like the time I ran out into the ocean alone in Costa Rica, despite the red flag warnings, and nearly drowned. Or when I jumped through the burning ring of fire on the beach in Thailand, without any strategy or experience, and burned and blistered my entire back.
Don’t be fearful, but still be humble.
I don’t have any experience rock climbing, so it’s probably not the best idea for me to free climb across a cliff, even if all of the locals are doing it. I’m not a strong swimmer, so going out into the ocean when it’s turbulent, not the safest of plans. When I first learned to drive a motorbike, you better believe I wasn’t ripping around corners.
Know your strengths and your experiences, heed the warnings, and treat yourself and the forces of the universe with respect.
Wear a Helmet
I know it looks silly and messes up your hair, and none of the surfer boys wear one, but just put it on anyway. Your head is precious and you only get one.
Don’t Flash Your Cash
When traveling in developing countries, please remember that most Westerners make more in one hour than many locals make in an entire week. Sometimes in an entire month. You can imagine how this disparity can cause resentment. Perhaps people who steal assume that the person they stole from didn’t need it anyway.
No matter where in the world you are, the more you show how much you have, the more you become a target for people who want to take. I recommend keeping most of your cash and your electronics in a safe or in a locker in your room, leaving expensive jewelry at home, and keeping your bank balance to yourself. Bring as little as possible with you out at night and next to nothing when you’re going to the beach.
Keep Your Valuables Close
If you’re walking around the city or the beach for the day, only take as much as you need. Carry a small amount of cash and leave your passport behind. However on travel days, you will have all of your belongings with you, which means a higher risk of losing something valuable.
In this case, keep your valuables either on your body or in a small carry on bag. Always keep that bag with you, and if you fall asleep on the bus or on a train, hug the bag and sleep on top of it.
Drink Bottled Water and Take Probiotics
Food poisoning is not only unpleasant, but it can actually be dangerous. Unless you’re certain that the water is very clean and pure, opt for bottled water. Aside from foreign bacteria there can be many harmful pollutants in water in developing countries.
I’ve had such bad food poisoning on a remote island that I nearly blacked out from vomiting. It was not a pleasant experience, ‘nuff said.
To arm yourself from the bacteria in your environment and in your food, be sure to regularly take probiotics. Learn more in my post How to Travel the World and Never Get Food Poisoning.
Watch for Critters
If you’re traveling in the tropics, insects and wild animals can potentially pose a threat. Be aware of where you place your foot, always stick to a trail, and if you’re walking in deep jungle, you may want to wear rubber boots.
You can avoid encounters with tarantulas and scorpions by keeping your belongings clean and off of the floor and checking your bedsheets at night. Use coconut oil on your skin to ward off mosquitoes and keep sand fleas from biting you on the beach. Resist the urge to scratch your insect bites and always keep them clean with soap, water, and perhaps some tea tree oil to prevent infection.
For more on this, read my post How I Cured Myself of Mosquito Bites Forever.
Have a Positive Attitude
The energy you put forth into the world is often the energy that greets you. Therefore, if you want to have positive experiences, express positivity.
I’ve noticed consistently that when I smile, treat people with kindness, and have a positive attitude, even in challenging situations, my entire experience improves. If I’m frustrated, perceiving things negatively, and behaving impatiently, the frustration and struggle seems to grow.
I don’t mean that anytime something bad happens to us it’s somehow “our fault.” Life is far more complex and compassionate than that. Rather, by choosing a positive outlook, we can empower ourselves to find higher ground no matter where we are.
Listen to Your Gut
Even if you did everything on this list perfectly, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll always be safe. Life doesn’t come with guarantees and no one can give you full proof answers.
But there is something that will. Your intuition.
As animals, we have a built in response that warns us when we’re in danger. The same way we feel when we’re hungry or tired, we also feel when we need to stop, say no, or run. Often that feeling comes from our tummy, but it may also speak to us from a voice deep within.
When you get a “bad” feeling about a certain place, or a person, or anything, go with it. If a voice inside of you spontaneously tells you “no,” listen. Our bodies often know better than our brains.
The key is to work beyond the fears that have been programmed into us by society, the media, our families, and our peers for our entire lives. Connect with what is really happening around you right now, quiet your mind, and be present in the moment. When you’re really listening, your voice of intuition will guide you.
What have you found to be the best ways to stay safe while traveling? Or, what safety concerns do you still have?