Going it Solo in Europe
What Every Adventurous Female Traveler Needs to Know
|The happiest solo travelers are the ones that are prepared for anything—such as this rain-ready hiker, who just completed the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
photo Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door.
Every year, thousands of women, young and old, travel to Europe on their own. To do a trip like this is to be part of a grand group of adventurers. Traveling alone, you’ll have the chance to make your own discoveries and the freedom to do what you like. It becomes habit-forming. Here are some tips—assembled with the help of female travelers on my staff—on meeting people, dealing with men, and traveling smart.
Traveling Alone without Feeling Lonely
Stay in hostels and you’ll have a built-in family (hostels are generally open to all ages). Or choose small pensions and B&Bs, where the owners have time to talk with you. You could join Servas, a room-sharing organization for travelers, and stay with local families (www.servas.org). Camping is also a good, safe way to meet Europeans.
Take a walking tour of a city (ask at the local tourist information office) to learn about the town and meet other travelers too. Or try pairing up with another solo traveler. Stay for a while in a small town or return to a city you enjoyed. The locals will remember you, you’ll know the neighborhood, and it’ll feel more like home.
When you’re alone, restaurants feel cheerier at noon than at night. Have lunch as your main meal. And an afternoon at a café is a great way to get some writing done; for the cost of a beverage and a snack, you’ll be granted more peace and privacy than at a public fountain or other open space. Invite another solo traveler to share your table.
Or consider a quick, cheap alternative to restaurants. Try a self-service café, a local-style fast-food restaurant, or a small ethnic eatery. Visit a supermarket deli and get a picnic to eat in the square or a park. Get a slice of pizza from a take-out shop and munch it as you walk along, people-watching and window-shopping. Eat in the members’ kitchen of a hostel; you’ll always have companions. Make it a potluck.
Experience the magic of European cities at night. Go for a walk along well-lit streets. With gelato in hand, enjoy the parade of people, busy shops, and illuminated monuments. Night or day, you’re invariably safe when lots of people are around.
During the evening, visit an Internet café. Send travel news to your friends and family. You’ll find friendly answers in your inbox the next time you have the opportunity to go online.
If you like to stay in at night, get a room with a balcony overlooking a square. You’ll have a front-row seat to the best show in town. Bring along a small radio to brighten your room; pull in local music, a friendly voice, maybe even the BBC. A music player loaded with familiar tunes can also help cheer you. Call home, a friend, your family. With cheap international calling cards, it’s inexpensive (as little as a few dollars per hour).
Protecting Yourself from Theft
Carry a daypack instead of a purse. Leave fancy jewelry at home. Keep your valuables in your money belt and tuck your wallet (containing only a day’s worth of cash) in your front pocket. Keep your camera zipped up in your daypack. In crowded places (buses, subways, street markets), carry your daypack over your chest or firmly under one arm. Ask at your hotel or the tourist office if there’s a neighborhood you should avoid, and mark it on your map.
Avoid tempting people into theft. Make sure valuables in your hotel room are kept out of sight. Wear your money belt when you sleep in hostels. When you’re sightseeing, never set down anything of value (such as a camera, wallet, or railpass). Either have it in your hand or keep it zipped away. If you’re sitting down to rest, eat, or check your email, loop a strap of your daypack around your arm, leg, or chair leg.
Dealing with Men
In small towns in continental Europe, men are often more likely to speak English than women. If you never talk to men, you could miss out on a chance to learn about the country. So, by all means, talk to men. Just choose the men and choose the setting wisely.
Be aware of cultural differences. In the Mediterranean world, when you smile and look a man in the eyes, it’s often considered an invitation. Wear dark sunglasses and you can stare all you want.
Dress modestly to minimize attention from men. Avoid tight tank tops and skimpy skirts. Take your cue from what the local women wear.
Wear a real or fake wedding ring and carry a picture of a real or fake husband. There’s no need to tell men that you’re traveling alone, or whether you’re actually married or single. Lie unhesitatingly. You’re traveling with your husband. He’s waiting for you at the hotel. He’s a professional wrestler who retired from the sport for psychological reasons.
The way you handle harassment at home works in Europe, too.
In southern Europe, men may think that if you’re alone, you’re available. Keep your stride confident and look away from men trying to attract your attention. If a man comes too close to you, say “no” firmly in the local language. If he’s obnoxious, solicit the help of others. Ask people at a café or on the beach if you can join them for a while.
In America, harassment is especially scary because of its connection with assault. In Europe, you’ll rarely, if ever, hear of violence. You’re far more likely to think, “I’m going to ditch this guy A.S.A.P.” than “This guy is going to hurt me.”
But if you feel like you’re being followed, trust your instincts. Don’t worry about overreacting or seeming foolish. Forget ladylike behavior—start screaming and acting crazy if the situation warrants it. Or head to the nearest hotel and chat up the person behind the desk until your self-proclaimed Romeo moves on. Ask them to call you a cab to take you to your hotel, hostel, or B&B.
Create conditions that are likely to turn out in your favor, and you’ll have a safer, smoother, more enjoyable trip.
Be self-reliant, so that you don’t need to depend on anyone unless you want to. Always carry local cash, food, water, a map, a guidebook, and a phrase book. When you need help, ask another woman or a family.
When you use cash machines, withdraw cash during the day on a busy street, not at night when it’s dark with few people around.
Look like you know where you’re going. Use landmarks (such as church steeples) to navigate. If you get lost in an unfriendly neighborhood, go into a restaurant or store to ask for directions or to study your map.
Learn enough of the language to get by. With a few hours’ work you’ll know more than most tourists and be better prepared to deal with whatever situation arises. At a bus station in Turkey, I witnessed a female tourist repeatedly asking in English, louder and louder, “When does the bus leave?” The frustrated ticket clerk kept answering her in Turkish, “Now, now, now!” If you know even just a little of the language, you’ll make it much easier on yourself and those around you.
On a bus, if you’re faced with a choice between an empty double seat and a seat next to a woman, sit with the woman. You’ve selected your seat partner. Ask her (or the driver) for help if you need it. They will make sure you get off at the right stop.
When taking the train, avoid staying in empty compartments, especially at night. Rent a couchette (berth) for overnight trains. For about $20, you’ll stay with like-minded roommates in a compartment you can lock, in a car monitored by an attendant. You’ll wake reasonably rested with your belongings intact.
Try to arrive at your destination during the day. Daylight feels safer than night. For peace of mind, reserve a room, particularly if you can’t avoid a late-night arrival. If you’re departing late at night, ask your B&B owner if you can hang out in their breakfast room—generally untouched in the evening—until you need to leave for your train.
Cafés, including busy Internet cafés such as the late-night easyInternetcafé chain, can be a better spot to kill time than the waiting room of the train station. Note that major train stations have nicer first-class waiting rooms (for travelers with first-class railpasses or tickets) and scruffier second-class waiting rooms.
If you’re not fluent in the language, accept the fact that you won’t always know what’s going on. There’s a reason why the Greek bus driver drops you off in the middle of nowhere. It’s a transfer point, and another bus will come along in a few minutes. You’ll discover that often the locals are looking out for you.
Your friends and family may try to talk you out of solo travel, worrying for your safety and regaling you with horror stories. Remind them—and yourself—that millions of women have traveled alone, and will continue to do so time and time again.
Solo travel is fun, challenging, vivid, and exhilarating. It’s a gift from you to you. Prepared with good information and a positive attitude, you’ll thrive in Europe. And you’ll come home stronger and more confident than ever.