Freedom, Formation And The Female “Tax:” A Look At How The World Greets Women Traveling Alone

And what specific steps you can take to stay safe.

Google “solo female travel” and you’ll be met with 240 million results—many of which are in the form of listicles outlining the insert-arbitrary-number-here best destinations for females traveling alone, or compelling narratives about why every woman should embark on a solo trip. You may come across the Solo Female Traveler Network Facebook group and decide to join the 208,061 other members seeking support, recommendations and encouragement. And you will undoubtedly fall deep into the black hole of a Quora thread, vacillating between the conviction that a solo trip is the single best thing you can do for yourself as a female, and the gut-wrenching fear that it’s also the worst. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Whether you find yourself squarely on one side of the debate, or teetering somewhere in between, there’s simply no denying the fact that solo female travel is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance at the moment. People are talking about it, because people are doing it. En masse.

According to a 2015 TripAdvisor report, 74% of women globally either had traveled solo or were planning on doing so. And between October 2016 and September 2017, Google reports that the average monthly search volume for the term “solo female travel” grew by 52% to an average of 2,900 queries.

And yet, you don’t have to be clued into quantitative analyses and trend reports to know that it’s happening. All you have to do is go on social media, and scroll through the wanderlust-inducing photos of hole-in-the-wall, quote-unquote authentic restaurant experiences, or the pinch-me-this-can’t-be-real hiking summits. Indeed all you have to do is see the smiling, tanned faces of women that seem to communicate, in no uncertain terms, a degree of ease and carelessness that cuts through the claustrophobia and mundanity of normalcy to wonder why you aren’t doing the same. Who wouldn’t want that?

But if you manage to look beyond the filtered facade of social media, you’ll come across an entirely different story—as we here at Journy did last month after stumbling upon this New York Times piece unearthing the tales of violence and death that lie beyond the “Instagram-worthy escapades” of solo female travel. As we read, we began to earnestly wonder what women who have traveled extensively on a solo basis would have to say about these harrowing stories. Are they mis-representing the danger of solo female travel? Or are they a long-overdue awakening on the sober reality of how the world greets women who travel alone? We wanted to know more about the real lived realities of the experience, so we asked.

For Catherine Pao, the catalyst to embark on her first solo trip was the realization that she was operating “as a cog in a machine… on a train towards a comfortable, secure and safe life that felt empty.” After years spent in various digital marketing and product management roles at Microsoft, Fab.com, Digital Ocean and Blue Apron, she left the corporate world (and an eight-year relationship) to begin a 200-hour yoga teacher training. As her first foray into the world of meditation—of “human being” rather than “human doing”—it eventually led her on a year-long solo backpacking trip across Asia, Africa and Europe: five months in Southeast Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam), three months in Africa (South Africa, Mozambique) and three months in Europe (Netherlands, Italy, Greece, UK, Scotland, France, Denmark).

Ayesha D'Souza’s conviction was similarly born out of a defining personal event. Finding herself in the middle of a divorce, she was overcome with the urge to escape it all (a demanding job in investment banking included) and travel—recalling all-too-well the way she felt years earlier, in and out of hospitals with her mother who was fighting cancer, swearing to herself that she’d never lie in a hospital bed someday thinking “coulda, shoulda, woulda but didn’t.” And although she ended up staying and learning her lessons “as difficult as they were in the moment,” solo travel followed suit: 20 countries over eight months as “a celebration of life, of lessons learned and of promises kept”—from dinosaur fossil hunting in the Gobi desert and camping with nomads in Mongolia to climbing Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar in Tanzania.

A failed relationship is what led Talena Liu to hop on a plane alone to a country she’d never been to before, too. That, plus the fact that she was tired of waiting for her friends to travel. Fast forward to today and she’s been to 80+ countries across six continents, with her favorites being short stints in Sri Lanka, Jordan, Tunisia, Mongolia, Nepal and Laos.

Brooke Locke, one of Journy’s very own Trip Designers, was also tired of waiting—so after coming across a super cheap flight to Europe, she took the plunge. “I knew that if I waited around for someone else to have the desire and ability to go with me, I’d never go anywhere.” After growing up as one of six kids, she found herself marveling at the independence of traveling alone, and has since been throughout most of Europe and South America.

And then there’s women who, like Sarah Khan, fell into the solo travel trend by way of work.

When Khan—an award-winning travel journalist whose work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Saveur and more—began finding herself faced with work trips popping up on such short notice, she was left with no other option but to set off on her own. Today, depending on the assignment, she may embark on one-off trips that hover around a week in length, occasionally spending 3-4 months in India during the winter with friends and family and taking smaller trips around the country by herself for assignments.

And finally, Andrea Schubiner, who, after leaving her marketing position at L’Oreal and before starting at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business for her MBA, decided to travel for six months. Captivated by the nomadic lifestyle and fueled by “this fiery desire inside to validate to myself that I could survive in a foreign country on my own,”she accepted a job at Bain & Company as a management consultant after graduation, splitting her time between their Johannesburg and London offices—the perfect mix of personal and professional that led her down the solo female travel path to over 35 countries on five continents, including the Balkans, Baltics, South Korea, Russia, Bolivia, Chile, Namibia, Uruguay and Liechtenstein.

For D'Souza, traveling with company is a bit like marrying them for the duration of the trip. You have to be in sync on all things: budget, lifestyle, activity level. You worry if they’re having a good time, acquiesce to their “what to do next” suggestions for the sake of marital bliss and take one-too-many bathroom breaks, frustrated that your bladders aren’t in sync.

The liberation of not having to deal with any of the above is precisely what makes solo travel so gratifying. In fact, if there’s one merit of the experience that all women agree on, it’s this exact freedom.

“I get to do whatever I want, whenever I want,” explains Liu, reflecting on this temporary window of justified self-indulgence. “There’s no waiting for a group decision, no compromise and a lot more room for spontaneity.”

Khan is inclined to agree, and finds herself relishing in the luxury of only frequenting the kinds of restaurants she wants to eat at, or the kinds of “quirky walking tours” she wants to do. What’s more, she can structure her day exactly how she wishes, from the time she wakes up, to the pace of the day, through to the time she goes to sleep.

“When you’re with friends and family, the company is amazing, but you’re often forced to make compromises about what you end up doing, to make sure everyone is happy and gets what they wanted out of the trip,” she explains. “But when you’re on your own, you can plan everything right down to your preferences.”

For Pao, the absolute agency stems from taking actions “fully aligned with my own core.” And yet, she acknowledges that this liberating degree of freedom comes with an equally-as-hefty degree of responsibility—a large chunk of which revolves around the unglamorous lower, physiological levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: shelter, food, water and sleep.

Staying in any given hostel from one to five nights meant Pao was constantly thinking about where she was going to stay and live in the following city, meticulously researching whether she would have access to clean water and whether she would be able to receive a shipment of new contacts. Always staying one step ahead because there was simply no alternative.

Moving up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to social belonging presents a different, albeit important, sense of responsibility for solo travelers: the action required to forge human connection.

“Sometimes, I would go for a stretch of a few days where I didn’t really connect or resonate with other people in my hostel or that I met outside of the hostel,” admits Pao. “Humans are social creatures and not having fulfilling in-person social stimulation for days on end at some points could be emotionally challenging. Ironically, it was in the larger, more Westernized cities where I would feel more isolation.”

For Schubiner, the struggle is less about finding people to interact with in moments of loneliness and more about assessing who to trust. What constitutes a serendipitous encounter in which to let your guard down, and when do you stand your ground?

Questionable encounters aside, Schubiner remains adamant that, as a solo female traveler, you are only as alone as you want to be.

“Many women are afraid to travel solo because they fear being totally alone,” she says, “but if you want to find people to spend time with on the road, you can always find fellow travelers out there to join.”

...like the time she embarked on a month-long solo trip to Bolivia and ended up spending three of those weeks with a group of Aussie’s she met on a ferry… on day two. Or the four days she spent in a cabin on the Trans-Siberian Railway with three Russian men who didn’t speak a word of English—spending the entire time “laughing endlessly attempting to communicate” and allowing them to graciously take her under their wing for a far more local experience than she’d otherwise have.

Cross-cultural, border-hopping kinship that speaks every language, and yet none at all.

Stretching yourself out of your comfort zone to a region of visceral vulnerability undoubtedly leads to personal growth, and solo female travel is no exception. Faced with countless decisions, both large and small, on a daily basis, Pao leaned heavily into her intuition, learning to listen to her gut in a way she hadn’t had the confidence to before. “The feedback loops were quick,” she tells us.

Schubiner similarly considers solo travel a way to reconfirm her independence— from her ability to navigate complex cultural barriers to her deftness in making decisions. The result? A rare opportunity to learn how to be okay with being alone, and to reconnect with herself along the way.

“When all you have to depend on is yourself, you realize just how strong and capable you are,” Locke adds.

And yet for some, the question remains: how much are you willing to pay for personal formation? Because as Khan will be the first to tell you, the “tax” you end up paying for being a female solo traveler is not insignificant.

“You’ll often pay more for more secure accommodations in safer areas,” she explains, “or advanced booking so you’re not hustling at the last minute, or specific flight times to not arrive too late or too early, or for taxis or travel agencies, just to make sure you’re as safe as possible, in places where male travelers might be able to just rock up at a hostel late at night without a booking and pass out on a shared bunk without a second thought, or take buses or even hitchhike without worrying too much.”

Schubiner found herself dishing out the female “tax” on a trip to Kosovo. Wanting to go hiking in the Rugova Mountains but worried that the trails weren’t well marked or over utilized, she decided to hire a guide.

“This is likely not something I would have done if I were a male,” she admits.

On D’Souza’s third night in Mauritius, she was robbed while she slept. The thieves entered her bedroom and somehow didn’t wake her up—or harm her.

Although she noticed from day one that the doors and windows of the ground floor apartment didn’t lock properly, she was on a business trip for a job she had just recently started. Not wanting to appear high-maintenance, she didn’t say anything.

“Lesson learned,” she tells us. “While I don’t insist on much, I have grown comfortable with politely and diplomatically making clear that my security is paramount, budget or not.”

Khan learned the importance of being hyper-aware after a violent mugging experience in South Africa. It took place in broad daylight while she was running errands, opening her eyes in a big way to “how vulnerable a target a petite female can be in a situation that would be completely safe if a male had been walking down instead at that exact moment.”

With anecdotes like these, it’s easy to bucket both destinations in the Do Not Travel Alone As A Female list. Logical fallacy aside, it’s human nature. And the same goes for positive experiences. It’s all too easy to bucket an entire country as “safe” for solo female travelers by virtue of the fact that nothing happened to you. And yet, to make an assumption either way would be missing the point entirely. Because as the New York Times writers argue, “there are no dangerous countries, just dangerous people.”

Take Schubiner, for example. Before moving to South Africa, people overwhelmingly flooded her with horror stories and warnings. But nothing bad happened—and not because she was less aware or alert or careful than Khan was. And then she returned home to Chicago, and during her first week back had her phone stolen at an otherwise nice bar in River North, her own home turf.

Nobody’s telling you not to move to Chicago.

“The risks of traveling solo as a woman are real and should be taken seriously,” argues D'Souza. “But so are the joys. It is not one or the other. It is both.”

Should females feel empowered to travel alone? Yes. We’re not in the business of employing fright tactics, nor would we want to. But we’re also not going to paint a rosy, filtered picture of the experience, and we have no plans to provide another list of the 12 Destinations Perfect For Females Traveling Solo In 2019! anytime soon. We have faith in humanity, but we also have the cognizance of reality. It’s not an either-or; it’s an imperfect, dizzyingly nuanced both-and.

With that in mind, we leave you with a list of tips for how to stay safe in this marvelous world we have at our fingertips—and we implore you to heed them. We’ll be cheering you on always.

1. Develop a relationship with the hotel staff

“I let the front desk know not to send anyone up to my room for any reason. I [also] treat hotel staff kindly and tip so they look out for me. Kindness and generosity of spirit go a long way.” —D'Souza

2. Even if you’re lost, pretend like you’re not

“Walk with purpose. Look over your shoulder from time to time to make sure you are not being followed.” —D'Souza

3. Share your Uber status

“I used to text friends taxi license plates and use Google Maps to make sure we took the right route, and now I can just share my Uber status with my husband.” —Liu

To do this, swipe up on the driver name and tap “Share Status.” Select the contact you want to share your status with, or copy and paste the link if you want to share manually.

Speaking of Uber, before entering, always ask: who are you here for? Wait until the driver says YOUR name, as opposed to asking “are you here for [insert your name]?”

4. … and your location

“My family monitors my location on [the app] Find My Friends, and I update my itinerary with my dad constantly so he knows where I should be and the address for where I am staying. We also have a code word in case something goes wrong.” —Locke

5. Don’t discount drivers

“I sometimes will hire cars and drivers, which can add up, just to make sure I’m safe—I don’t want to limit myself from exploring because I’m feeling uncertain about an area or a time of day, so paying more for peace of mind frees me up to experience more.” —Khan

6. Don’t listen to music while you’re walking

“I tend not to wear headphones when walking alone, to be fully attentive, and do look for lighted places at night to walk.” —Schubiner

7. Always trust your gut and honor your boundaries

“If you don’t feel comfortable doing something, don’t do it. [And] if something feels off, it probably is. I’ve learned to trust my gut and exit the situation as quickly as I can. For instance, I knew instinctively in Mauritius that, as a woman in a ground-floor apartment with doors and windows that didn’t lock, I was a target. If I had to do it over, I would have checked myself into a hotel immediately.” —D'Souza