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Dangerous Destinations for Women Travel: Myths or Realities?

Women travel dangers can be avoided with precautions.
If you do your research and take a few common-sense precautions, travel for women is rarely dangerous abroad.

With the very best intentions — before I set out on a grand adventure — my friends, family, and colleagues usually say to me… you could die… you might get tossed in jail… you’ll get into an accident. I can always see it in their eyes and feel it in their farewell hugs. I know what they’re really thinking is, “I’ll never see you again.”

My journeys are generally not terribly risky. I am not bungee jumping (a “sport” I have yet to try). I may be driving from New Jersey to Alaska, trekking around the Pacific Rim countries for a year, going around India for a month, or riding my motorcycle from Seattle to Panama.

While these were all solo trips, none were hazardous in and of themselves. “Really?” you might ask. Yes. To begin with, I was well prepared for each trip by researching my destination(s) and understanding what I was getting into. Time spent probing up front had the added benefit of building my confidence when I discovered that taking these trips was not much more hazardous than staying in my backyard. (OK, perhaps there was a little more danger in the motorcycle trip).

This brings me to how exactly one defines a dangerous trip and what this means for women. There are journeys that are inherently more perilous because of the region, those that are perceived to be and therefore labeled as dangerous by loved ones and, perhaps, our own government, and those that involve riskier activities.

Of Course, Dangerous Places Do Exist

Yes, there are dangerous places in the world. I won’t deny that. War zones and destinations where severe political unrest threatens to destabilize the region and infrastructure come to mind. Sometimes, a situation can change so quickly that one might be put at risk without any foreknowledge of impending issues.

Having said that, I have a friend, Betty, who travels to Afghanistan and Columbia yearly for volunteer work (she’s in her 80s, by the way). She always returns with her limbs (and sense of adventure) intact.

I recognize that this is an extreme example and am certainly not advocating travel to a region heavily occupied by the U.S. military, where no one is immune to the relatively frequent attacks of terrorist groups. But when I am asked (which is often) about which destinations are “safe” or “dangerous” for women travelers, I refuse to answer because what may be safe for one woman may be a far stretch for another. Circumstances, ethnicity, travel experience, and confidence should all factor in to one’s decision. And ultimately, only the individual can know the right answer.

It is entirely inappropriate for me (or anyone) to judge what is right/wrong or safe/dangerous for another. After all, if Betty could hop on that flight to Kabul to nurse abandoned orphans and return safely in the recent past (she would not do so in 2024, clearly), I think the rest of us can do anything.

Perceived Danger

There are destinations that we are merely led to believe are dangerous. Take Bali. After the bombings in Denpasar in 2002, the area was put on the U.S. Department of State’s Travel Warning list, urging Americans to avoid the region. Interestingly enough, the U.S. government recommended we all travel to New York City after the September 11th attacks. In both cases, we were fed information to change our perceptions of both destinations: Bali is dangerous, and New York City is not.

While government-issued travel warnings should not be dismissed entirely, it is essential to conduct due diligence amongst the travel community to determine how severe a warning may be and how safe your destination is.

Forums and blogs are regularly updated with personalized information and opinions on current topics from individuals living in these “dangerous” places. Simple precautions can often be followed to thwart the most common issues: petty thievery, unwanted advances from men, and being ripped off by unscrupulous retailers, taxi drivers, or money changers.

Living Dangerously

It may not be your destination that adds the element of adventure, but your choice of activities (e.g., bungee jumping), mode of transportation (a bus careening through the Nepalese mountains), or perhaps what you eat. I was once served some unknown fish organ in Vietnam as an honor. Holding down my gag reflex was difficult, but it made for a memorable meal!

Adventure writer Kira Salak was the first person to paddle 600 miles down Mali’s Niger River to Timbuktu. She was also the first woman to traverse Papua New Guinea. Kira chose destinations that were not exactly considered “safe.” She added some very unusual elements (kayaking and bushwhacking, respectively), but has lived to tell that and many other stories.

You, too, might like to live a little on the edge. But that edge is going to be different for everyone. As a college student, my edge was taking a semester off from school and driving around the U.S. for three months. Now, I’m trekking in the mountains of Bhutan.

Our challenges change over time, and hopefully, we become more, not less, adventurous. During one of my recent women’s travel workshops, a 75-year-old participant, Sue, shared with me her desire to stretch her travel wings. After exploring the Pacific Northwest and getting used to hostelling, she looks forward to her first trip abroad. Where will her desire to travel overseas lead? The British Isles? Vietnam? South Korea? To her, these destinations will give her a chance to live large.

We do not all have to be Bettys or Kiras. We can follow our passions, as Sue discovered, no matter how small or grand.

This Woman’s World

There is a perception that danger awaits the woman traveler. We may appear to be meek and, therefore, easy prey. However, we actually have attributes that help us overcome these potential weaknesses.

I have interviewed more than 100 women for my books. A few of these brave females found themselves in uncomfortable positions with men — being pressed for a sexual encounter, for example. The consensus was that they “sensed” an issue before it happened but did not quite know how to extract themselves from it. In other words, they all knew something was amiss. Still, they did not have the confidence or forethought to remove themselves from the situation. (I might add that none of these women had been raped — the problem was just drawn out far longer than was comfortable for them.)

The overwhelming majority of women I interviewed tended to listen to their instincts, approached their travels cautiously, and never got into any trouble.

But whatever your adventure entails, it is prudent to build up your confidence by taking a self-defense course and making practice runs (such as an overnight trip) before you embark on a bigger journey.

It's not about climbing Yosemite; it's about embracing the unknown. Take a small step outside your comfort zone, and you'll feel that exhilarating rush. It's a part of all of us, waiting to be discovered.

For More Information

Always check out travel warnings posted by your home government sites while planning your trip or in-country.

U.S. Department of State Travel Warnings

Canadian Government Travel Reports and Warnings

U.K. Travel Advice by Country

Learning about your government's travel advisories is just as important as learning from people who are traveling and/or living in the areas you plan to visit.

More by Beth Whitman
Safety Tips for Solo Women Travelers
Health on the Road for Women
Finding Inner Strength as a Solo Woman Traveler
For Women Traveling in India: Preparing for Safe and Culturallly Respectful Immersion
Women Group Travel: Wandering Women Traveling Together
Related Topics
Women Travel

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