Women are not encouraged to do things alone. We are seen as fragile and at threat by the world and dangerous men. As a result, women are left to live in fear instead of feeling the strength to do things on their own. When a woman wants to travel alone, she is strongly discouraged from doing so. It is sad that the world must be so scary for women. Although, we do need to take extra caution, I believe we can travel alone and still safely enjoy ourselves.
When I was 19, I took my first solo trip and it was life changing. I was studying abroad in the Netherlands and only taking classes twice a week. I was free to travel on my days off, so I decided to book my trips from Wednesday to Sunday. I mostly took trips with other friends, until a friend told me she would have to meet me a few days later due to a Midterm. I was nervous to take this trip alone, but I knew I could do it. I decided to still go early to Interlaken, Switzerland. I felt strong and independent. People were kind and helped me with carrying my bag up steps and directing me where I needed to go. I never felt threatened. Of course Switzerland is a safe country, but it was a great start to my adventures alone.
I treated myself to dinner alone, which felt awkward at first, but rewarding in the end. I made friends and explored the town on my own. Following this trip, I felt confident enough to take the rest of my trips alone or go early to a country and meet my friends later. I stayed safe by trusting my instincts and not being naive about drinking or partying.
When I graduated from college, I decided to go back to Europe. My parents were supportive, because they knew I was fiercely independent and wouldn’t take no for an answer. My extended family looked at me like I was crazy. They asked me constantly how I could not be worried about traveling alone. They asked my parents how they could let me travel alone as a woman. They responded by saying, “do you think we have a say? Melissa is stubborn and we can’t stand in her way.”
They were right. I left for three months and traveled from Ireland through England, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands. I ran into two incidences where I really needed to rely on my instincts to keep myself safe. The first was an American man living in Ireland that I couch surfed with. On my second night there, he tried to make a move on me. I locked myself in his bathroom until he drunkenly passed out and I snuck out and left. The second was an African guy in Liverpool, England that I also couch surfed with and he left me stranded at a club on my own. I managed a ride back to his place, but he would not let me in the house. I stayed at a strangers house, who lived with his mother. She took care of me all night and they paid for my bus in the morning. Now, these events don’t sound wonderful and I was young and a bit naive.
Looking back, I think the best bet for a young girl traveling alone is to either stay in hostels or couch surf with women. That being said, I couch surfed with many other men who were extremely respectful and treated me really well. You just need to make sure to read all of their reviews and make sure plenty of women have given them positive reviews first. Also have an escape plan that is safe for you, if something were to go wrong. Always tell your close friends and family who you are staying with and where.
After this trip, I felt pretty confident about traveling alone. I decided to do it again. I traveled to Ecuador in the summer between my first and second years at Graduate School. This time I wasn’t so lucky. I did encounter some pretty bad things. I also met some really amazing people that I’m still friends with. There are good and bad people out there. The best thing we can do as women when we are traveling alone is assess a situation before ending up in trouble. I decided it was safe for me to stay in the Cloud Forest with a host family. The father of this family, raped me. I know you must be thinking right now that traveling alone for women is unsafe and this isn’t helping my argument, but let me go on. I want women to feel safe traveling alone. I don’t want my experience to be a warning that it is a bad choice. I do want to prepare you though for what is out there.
Rape can happen anywhere. It could be some guy you know well. It could be on a date with a stranger. It could be a family member or close friend. It can happen at home. You don’t have to stay home to avoid these horrible things happening abroad. I was unlucky. It was not my fault and I’m not saying this happens to every woman that goes down to Latin America. I wouldn’t suggest staying in host families alone. I would suggest if you do any volunteer projects, that you inquire if other volunteers will be there at the time you will be. If there won’t be any other volunteers, tell them you would like to wait until there are. Being alone in a secluded place is not safe. I was alone at this volunteer project for two days. He managed to sexually assault me in those two days. After the new volunteers showed up on the third day, I never had a problem with him again. It is better to make a friend and bring them with you, or make sure there will be other people there with you.
I heard lots of horror stories from young women who stayed in homestays alone. This does not mean that all of the host fathers or brothers are going to assault you. Their culture is different though and they look at young American women differently. Be safe. Don’t go to these projects alone. I had a second experience there with a very nice Ecuadorian couple that became my friends. Not everyone is horrible like the man that raped me. You can travel alone, but be smart. I’m not saying this was my fault. How was I to know he was going to be a predator. I just know if I could do it differently, I would have asked the company to check if there were other volunteers there when I was planning to be there.
I also found that just traveling and using hostels and making friends with other travelers is very safe. I have friends who traveled for a year down there and never experienced what I did. This is not meant to scare you or deter you, just to make you think about your choices when you travel. We can travel alone, but we need to be smart. It sucks that women have to do more work than men to stay safe, but if we want to enjoy the freedom, we must sacrifice some things for our own safety. A big thing that you should never do is go out alone to a bar and drink to the point of intoxication. You need your wits about you to make smart decisions. Also don’t tell strange men where you are staying. I find that traveling alone, doesn’t necessarily mean you are alone. It means you didn’t come with anyone, but I made so many friends while traveling that then joined me on the road, that I was rarely alone.
Make friends especially with other girls, so that if you want to go out at night you have companions. Also, this is a great way to learn about other cultures and make memories with new people. Don’t be afraid to approach people in hostels. This is how you stay safe while traveling alone. You find companions to join you in doing new things. It is a lot more fun that way. That is the beauty of traveling alone, that you aren’t actually alone most of the time.
Another tip I have is to always bring a phone or some way to communicate with you. This is tough when you are in the jungle and there is no reception. It is smart to have a way to communicate with the outside world when you are traveling. Just being able to send a quick text to your family about how you are doing and any updates will ease their state of mind. In Ecuador, it was before smart phones. I had to rely on pay phones and paying for the internet to email people. It was tough. It is of course nice to disconnect, but stressful for those back home to not know if you are okay. Just be thoughtful of their feelings.
I won’t let my experience keep me from traveling. I took a trip with my sister two years after Ecuador and we went to Australia and SE Asia. We worked for some challenging employers in the Outback in Australia, but I learned to stand up for myself and gain my strength back. We loved touring the coast of Australia. We met a 30 year old Irish woman, who had been traveling for 6 months so far and planned to continue for another 6 months. She actually ended up going for almost 2 years all by herself. She visited the Middle East, Asia, SE Asia, Australia, New Zealand, all of South America and Central America and the United States. She inspired me.
Don’t be afraid. If you don’t have a friend to travel with, that is okay. Traveling alone can be a really eye opening experience and teach you so much about yourself and the world. I learned some tough lessons out there, but I wouldn’t take back my travels for anything. I am stronger for them. I could have stayed home and had bad things happen just the same. I didn’t though. I got out there and saw the world and I’m going to keep seeing the world. I’m happy I took time in my life to travel alone. It isn’t just a luxury of men, we can do it too. Take a kick boxing class or self defense class first, if that will make you feel stronger and more empowered. Learn how to tell men off in many languages. Don’t decide to stay home, because it is scary out there. It is also scary in here; in our own country. It is so worth it to explore our inner self and our world outside of comfort zone. I promise you will learn a lot from the experience and you won’t regret it.
I learned self reliance, to trust my instincts, to love myself whole heartedly with no exceptions, and most of all I had an amazing time doing it. I made friends from different walks of life, I tried new foods and new drinks and challenged myself to climb bigger mountains. I gained a strength and independence that no man can take away from me. This is so important. We shouldn’t teach our girls to be scared and fearful of the world. We should teach them to rely on their best judgement and follow their hearts and explore every path laid before them. When I have children, if I have daughters, I will encourage their spirits to wander and to be safe and return to me with new insights on life.
Go on girl, be strong and go travel alone!