The Woman Traveling Solo
Every year, thousands of women, young and old, travel to Europe on their own. Youre part of a grand group of adventurers. Traveling alone, youll have the chance to make your own discoveries and the freedom to do what you like. It becomes habit forming.
As a solo woman, youre more approachable than a couple or a solo man. Youll make friends from all over the world, and youll have experiences that others can only envy. When you travel with a partner, your focus narrows and the doors close. When youre
on your own, youre utterly open to the moment.
Solo travel is fun, challenging, vivid, and exhilarating. Its a gift from you to you. Prepared with good information and a positive attitude, youll dance through Europe. And youll come home stronger and more confident than ever before.
Heres how to make it happen.
Getting Inspired. Read exciting books written by solo women travelers about their experiences (Try Dervla Murphys outrageous adventures). For practical advice, read how to travel guidebooks written by and for women.
Seek out other women travelers. Invite them out for dinner, and warn them that youll be asking a lot of questions.
Take classes. A foreign language course is ideal. Consider a class in European history, art history, or travel skills.
Keep up on international new so you can discuss local politics. Study a map of Europe and get to know your neighbors.
Pretend youre traveling alone before you leave America. Practice reaching out. Strike up conversation with people in the grocery line. Consciously become more adaptable. If it rains marvel at the miracle.
Think hard about what you see and hear. Create the trip of your dreams.
Facing the Challenges
These are probably your biggest fears: vulnerability to theft, harassment, and loneliness. Take heart. You can tackle each of these concerns head-on.
If youve traveled alone in America, youre more than prepared for Europe. In America, theft and harassment are especially scary because of their connection with violence. In Europe, youll rarely, if ever, hear of violence. Theft is past tense (as in, Where
did my wallet go?). Experiencing harassment, youre far more likely to think, Im going to ditch this guy A.S.A.P., rather than this guy is going to hurt me.
Loneliness is the most common fear. But remember, if you get lonely, you can do something about it.
Traveling Alone Without Feeling Lonely
Here are some tips on meeting people, eating out, and enjoying your nights.
Meeting people: Stay in hostels and youll have a built in family (hostels are open to all ages, except in Bavaria where the age limit is 26). Or choose small pensions and B and Bs, where the owners have time to talk with you. Join Servas and stay with local families.
(11 John St. #407, New York, NY 10038, tel. 212-267-0252). Camping is also a good, safe way to meet Europeans.
At most tourist sites youll meet more people in an hour than you would at home in a day. If youre feeling shy, cameras are good ice-breakers; offer to take someones picture with their camera.
Talk to other solo women travelers and share advice.
Take your laundry and a deck of cards to a laundromat, and turn solitaire into gin rummy. Youll end up with a stack of clean clothes and conversations.
Stop by any American Express office.
Take a walking tour of a city (ask at the tourist information office). Youll learn about the town and meet other travelers, too.
Its easy to meet local people on buses and trains. Youre always welcome at a church service (dress conservatively in small towns); stay for the coffee hour. When you meet locals who speak English, find out what they think about anything.
Play with kids. Bring along a puppet or a ball toss game. Learn how to say pretty baby in the local language. If you play peek-a-boo with a baby or fold an origami bird for a kid, youll make friends with the parents.
Call the English department at a university. See if they have an English conversation club you can visit. Or ask if you can hire a student to be your guide (youll see the city from a locals perspective, give a student a job, and possibly make a friend).
Try pairing up with another solo traveler. Or return to a city you enjoyed. The locals will remember you, youll know the neighborhood, and itll feel like home.
Consider quick and cheap alternatives to formal dining. Try a self-service café, a local fast-food restaurant, or a small ethnic eatery. Visit a supermarket deli and get a picnic to eat in the square or a park (local families often frequent parks). 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; youll always have companions. Make it a potluck.
A restaurant feels cheerier at noon than at night. Have lunch as your main meal. If you like company, eat in places so crowded and popular that you have to share a table. Or ask other single travelers if theyd like to join you.
If you eat alone, be busy. Use the time to learn more of the language. Practice with the waiter or waitress (when I asked a French waiter if he had kids, he proudly showed me a picture of his twin girls). Read your mail, a guidebook, a juicy novel, or the International Herald
Tribune. Do trip planning, write or draw in your journal, or scrawl a few postcards.
Most countries have a type of dish or restaurant thats fun to experience with a group. When you run into tourists during the day, make plans for dinner. Invite them to join you for, say, a rijstafel dinner in the Netherlands, a smörgåsbord in Scandinavia,
a fondue in Switzerland, a paella feast in Spain, or a spaghetti feed in an Italian trattoria.
Experience the magic of European cities at night. Go for a walk along well-lighted streets. With gelato in hand, enjoy the parade of people, busy shops, and illuminated monuments. Night or day, youre invariably safe when lots of people are around. Take advantage of the
wealth of evening entertainment: concerts, movies, puppet shows, and folk-dancing. Some cities offer tours after dark; you can see Paris by night on a river cruise.
If you like to stay in at night, get a room with a balcony overlooking a square. Youll have a front-row seat to the best show in town. Bring along a radio to brighten your room; pull in local music, a friendly voice, maybe even the BBC. Call home, a friend, your family.
With a USA-Direct type of calling card, its easier than ever. Read novels set in the country youre visiting. Learn to treasure solitude. Go early to bed, be early to rise ... explore the city as it rubs its eyes and wakes up. Shop at a lively morning market for fresh rolls and fruit.
Protecting Yourself from Theft
As a woman, youre often perceived as being more vulnerable to theft than a man. Here are tips thatll help keep you safe:
Carry a day-pack instead of a purse. Leave expensive-looking jewelry at home. Keep your valuables in your money belt, and your wallet (containing only a days worth of cash) in your front pocket. Keep your camera zipped up in your day-pack. In crowded
places (buses, subways, street markets), carry your day-pack over your chest, held close to you, straps looped over one shoulder. Ask at your hotel or the tourist office if theres a neighborhood you should avoid, and mark it on your map.
Avoid tempting people into theft. Make sure any valuables in your hotel room are kept out of sight. Wear your money belt when you sleep in hostels. When youre sightseeing, never set down anything of value (such as a camera or wallet). Either have it
in your hand or keep it hidden. If youre sitting and resting, loop a strap of your day-pack around your arm, leg, or chair leg. Remember, youre unlikely ever to be hurt by thieves. They want to separate you from your valuables painlessly.
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.
In northern and central Europe, you wont draw any more attention from men than you do in America. In southern Europe, particularly in Italy, youll get more attention than youre used to, but its nothing you cant handle.
Be aware of cultural differences. In Italy, when you smile and look a man in the eyes, its considered an invitation. If you wear dark sunglasses, no one can see your eyes. And you can stare all you want.
Dress modestly to minimize attention from men. Take your cue from what the local women wear. In Italy, slacks and skirts (even short ones) are considered more proper than shorts.
Wear a real or fake wedding ring and carry a picture of a real or fake husband. Theres no need to tell men that youre traveling alone. Lie unhesitatingly. Youre traveling with your husband. Hes waiting for you at the hotel. Hes a professional
wrestler who retired from the sport for psychological reasons.
If youd like to date a local man, meet him at a public place. Tell him youre staying at a hostel and you have a 10:00 p.m. curfew and 29 roommates. Better yet, bring a couple of your roommates along to meet him. After the introductions, let everyone know where
youre going and when youll return.
The way you handle harassment at home works in Europe, too.
In southern Europe, men may think that if youre alone, youre available. If a man comes too close to you, say no firmly in the local language. Thats usually all it takes. Tell a slow learner that you
want to be alone. Then ignore him.
If hes obnoxious, solicit the help of others. Ask people at a café or on the beach if you can join them for a while.
If hes well-meaning but too persistent, talk openly to him. Turn him into an ally. If hes a northern Italian, ask him about southern Italian men. Get advice from him on how you can avoid harassment when you travel farther
south. After you elicit his help, hell be more like a brother than a bother.
Usually men are just seeing if youre interested. Only a few are difficult. If a man makes a lewd gesture, look away and leave the scene.
Harassers dont want public attention drawn to their behavior. I went out for a walk in Madrid one evening, and a man came up much too close to me, scaring me. I shouted, Get! And he was gone. I think I scared him as much as he scared me. Ask a local woman
for just the right thing to say to embarrass jerks. Learn how to say it, loudly.
If you feel the need to carry Mace, take a self-defense class instead. Mace can be confiscated at the airport, but knowledge and confidence are yours to keep. And remember, the best self-defense is common sense.
Create conditions that are likely to turn out in your favor. By following these tips, youll have a safer, smoother, more enjoyable trip.
Have a little local cash with you when you enter a country, and change money before you run low. Bank holidays strike without warning throughout Europe.
Be self-reliant, so that you dont need to depend on anybody unless you want to. Always carry food, water, a map, a guidebook, and a phrase book. When you need help, ask another woman or a family.
Walk purposefully. Look like you know where youre 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 look at your map.
Learn enough of the language to get by. With a few hours work, youll 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, youll make it much easier on yourself and those around you.
Before you leave a city, visit the train or bus station youre going to leave from, so you can learn where it is, how long it takes to reach it, and what services it has. Reconfirm your departure time.
On a bus, if youre faced with a choice between an empty double seat and a seat next to a woman, sit with the woman. Youve 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.
If you have to hitchhike, choose people to ask, instead of being chosen. Try your luck at a gas station, restaurant, or the parking lot of a tourist attraction. If possible, pair up with another traveler. (Though I wouldnt recommend hitchhiking alone, Ive found
it necessary on rare occasions and have hitched without hassles.)
On a train, avoid empty compartments. Share a compartment with women, a couple, a mixed group, or a family. Rent a couchette for overnight trains. Ask for a compartment for women (available in Spain and some other countries). For about $20, youll stay with like-minded
roommates in a compartment you can lock, in a car monitored by an attendant. Youll wake reasonably rested with belongings intact.
Try to arrive at your destination during the day. Daylight feels safer than night. For peace of mind, consider reserving a room. If you cant avoid a late-night arrival or departure, use the waiting room of the train station or airport as your hotel for the night.
Ask lots of questions, but if youre not fluent in the language, accept the fact that you wont always know whats going on. Theres a reason why the Greek bus driver drops you off in the middle of nowhere. Its a transfer point, and another bus will
come along in a few minutes. Often the locals are looking out for you.
The same good judgment you use at home applies to Europe. If anything, Ive suggested being more cautious than Europe warrants. Start out cautious, and figure out as you travel what feels safe to you.
Treat yourself right and get enough rest, food, and exercise. Walking is a great way to combine exercise and sightseeing. Ive jogged alone in cities and parks throughout Europe without any problems. If a neighborhood looks seedy, head off in an another direction.
Relax. There are other trains, other buses, other cities, other people. If one thing doesnt work out, something else will. Thrive on optimism.
Have a grand adventure!