10 things I’ve learned over 27 years of traveling solo as a woman
After 27 years of solo world travels, Marie-France Roy shares some of the things she’s learned along the way, including packing tips, staying safe and making friends.
You don’t need more than three pairs of footwear
Packing light is the mantra of many seasoned travelers, but it’s especially important for women traveling solo.
One item that is particularly heavy and bulky: shoes! The good news is that you can usually manage with only three pairs of footwear. This has worked for me on dozens of trips, lasting from four days to four months.
Bring one pair of comfortable walking shoes or sandals that you can wear to dinner. Also take one pair of flip-flops for the beach and dubious showers, or just to wear as slippers.
Finally, on travel days, wear your third and heaviest pair of shoes, either hiking boots if you plan on hiking, or dressier boots otherwise. If you’re going to a tropical destination and won’t be hiking, bring flip-flops, walking sandals and walking shoes but no boots.
Your medical kit should be bigger than your makeup bag
After a few weeks of sunshine, fresh air, and freedom, you’ll probably realize that your face can do without a 7-step skin routine and 10 makeup brushes. All you really need is a good moisturizer with sunscreen.
Keep your makeup to a minimum (I only bring one lipstick), and instead put together a medical kit to help you take care of minor ailments. It should contain your existing medications plus whatever your travel doctor recommends for your destination, such as anti-malarial tablets and a broad-spectrum antibiotic.
Rules about medications vary by country. For example, in Malaysia anti-histamines can’t be sold over the counter. Even throat lozenges might be hard to find abroad. Take everything you think you may need and pack it in your hand luggage.
Bring the feminine hygiene products you need with you
You can find toothpaste and shampoo everywhere you go, but you may not be as lucky when it comes to feminine hygiene products, especially if you rely on a specific type and brand. Yes, tampons and pads can get a little bulky on a long trip, but it’s really comforting to have those when you need them.
The pickings can be slim in some developing countries, and even if they aren’t, you may not be able to read the box. (Just picture yourself in a Cambodian pharmacy trying to ask questions about a box of tampons.)
A sarong and a scarf are two very useful items
Another way to pack light is to bring items that serve multiple purposes. For women, a sarong and a scarf are especially useful. The sarong can be used as beachwear (see YouTube videos for various ways to tie one), beach towel, shawl, skirt, and even light sheet.
The scarf can of course be worn as an accessory to dress up your tops, and to keep your neck warm. You will need to put it on your head in mosques, or around your neck and shoulders for modesty in certain countries.
A woman alone is more approachable than a couple or group
I always meet more people, both locals and travelers, when I’m on my own. Since I don’t have a friend to talk to, I need to get out of my shell and approach others.
Conversely, a lone traveler appears less intimidating to others than a group of visitors chatting in their own language within their self-contained little bubble.
Also remember that you’ll make friends faster on the road than at home. Maybe it’s due to the 'holiday mood,' or the fact that you’re less afraid of being judged when meeting people you may never see again. Or it could be because you instinctively know that you’re more dependent on others in a foreign environment.
Tour options for solo female travelers are on the rise
Not only are tour operators and cruise companies realizing that solo travelers are now a major market and trying to cater to them, some companies are offering women-led trips for women only.
Operators like Wild Women Expeditions and WHOA Travel connect travelers with local women, and support women-run businesses in the destinations they serve, including hiring female guides. Intrepid Travel now offers a number of women-only tours.
Follow common sense precautions and ask for local advice
Staying safe is of course top-of-mind when you’re traveling solo, regardless of your gender. Avoid deserted areas both at night and during the day in places you don’t know well. Ask at your accommodation what areas you should avoid, and whether you need to take taxis at night or can walk around on your own.
In Cape Town, for example, I was told not to walk through the Business District on weekends because the lack of people made it unsafe.
I am always very wary of men approaching me on the street and offering to show me places. If you decide to take their offer, do not get into a vehicle with them, and make sure that you remain in busy areas. Don’t be embarrassed to change your mind at any time if things get sketchy. You should always trust your intuition.
Don’t be overconfident, especially in ‘easy’ countries
England for a Canadian feels like a mirror image of home, with people driving on the left but speaking the same language (albeit with a cute accent). The first time I went to London, I neglected to take a proper map with me (in an era before smartphones), missed my stop on the bus, and got lost in a maze of residential streets all named after trees.
Since I had previously navigated cities like Delhi, Bangkok, and Cairo without losing my way, this was a rather embarrassing turn of events.
Always know where you’re going, how to get there, and carry the business card of your hotel with you.
Do something ‘crazy’ once in a while
Being careful and staying safe is important, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be adventurous. Getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things yields the most satisfying trips.
In 2009, I decided to do a tandem skydive while in New Zealand, something that had been on my bucket list since my teenage years. I still smile when I think about it. I also once booked myself on an Antarctica cruise without any research, after seeing breathtaking pictures of the icy continent. It turned out to be my best trip ever.
There are lots of us solo women out there
You’ll come across tons of solo women on your travels, from young students to 80-something retirees, in every part of the world. Many of them will become friends.
On my Antarctica cruise, I met two women with whom I later hiked in Patagonia. I eventually visited them in their home countries (Sweden and the United States). On separate trips to Ecuador and Mexico, I made two good friends from Montreal that I now see regularly when I visit my hometown. And in Myanmar, I met a solo French lady who introduced me to another solo traveler. She later married him.
Marie-France Roy is a Canadian freelance writer based in Toronto, who has been exploring the world mostly solo over the last 27 years. She has traveled to 65 countries on every continent and is especially fond of sunny destinations with good coffee. Her blog bigtravelnut.com focuses on affordable solo travel for the 40+ crowd.