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Women Travel

The Woman Traveling Solo

Every year, thousands of women, young and old, travel to Europe on their own. You’re 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.

As a solo woman, you’re more approachable than a couple or a solo man. You’ll make friends from all over the world, and you’ll have experiences that others can only envy. When you travel with a partner, your focus narrows and the doors close. When you’re on your own, you’re utterly open to the moment.

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 dance through Europe. And you’ll come home stronger and more confident than ever before.

Here’s how to make it happen.

Getting Inspired. Read exciting books written by solo women travelers about their experiences (Try Dervla Murphy’s 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 you’ll 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 you’re 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 you’ve traveled alone in America, you’re more than prepared for Europe. In America, theft and harassment are especially scary because of their connection with violence. In Europe, you’ll rarely, if ever, hear of violence. Theft is past tense (as in, “Where did my wallet go?”). Experiencing harassment, you’re far more likely to think, “I’m 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 you’ll 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 you’ll meet more people in an hour than you would at home in a day. If you’re feeling shy, cameras are good ice-breakers; offer to take someone’s 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. You’ll 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). You’ll learn about the town and meet other travelers, too.

It’s easy to meet local people on buses and trains. You’re 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, you’ll 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 (you’ll see the city from a local’s 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, you’ll know the neighborhood, and it’ll feel like home.

Eating Out

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 member’s kitchen of a hostel; you’ll 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 they’d 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 that’s 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.

At Night

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, you’re 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. You’ll 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, it’s easier than ever. Read novels set in the country you’re 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, you’re often perceived as being more vulnerable to theft than a man. Here are tips that’ll 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 day’s 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 there’s 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 you’re sightseeing, never set down anything of value (such as a camera or wallet). Either have it in your hand or keep it hidden. If you’re sitting and resting, loop a strap of your day-pack around your arm, leg, or chair leg. Remember, you’re 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 won’t draw any more attention from men than you do in America. In southern Europe, particularly in Italy, you’ll get more attention than you’re used to, but it’s nothing you can’t handle.

Be aware of cultural differences. In Italy, when you smile and look a man in the eyes, it’s 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. There’s no need to tell men that you’re traveling alone. 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.

If you’d like to date a local man, meet him at a public place. Tell him you’re 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 you’re going and when you’ll return.

Handling Harrassment

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. If a man comes too close to you, say “no” firmly in the local language. That’s usually all it takes. Tell a slow learner that you want to be alone. Then ignore him.

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.

If he’s well-meaning but too persistent, talk openly to him. Turn him into an ally. If he’s 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,” he’ll be more like a brother than a bother.

Usually men are just seeing if you’re interested. Only a few are difficult. If a man makes a lewd gesture, look away and leave the scene.

Harassers don’t 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.

Traveling Smart

Create conditions that are likely to turn out in your favor. By following these tips, you’ll 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 don’t 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 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 look at 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.

Before you leave a city, visit the train or bus station you’re 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 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.

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 wouldn’t recommend hitchhiking alone, I’ve 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, 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 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 can’t 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 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. Often the locals are looking out for you.

The same good judgment you use at home applies to Europe. If anything, I’ve 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. I’ve 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 doesn’t work out, something else will. Thrive on optimism.

Have a grand adventure!