Solo female travel: an Australian’s perspective

Solo female travel has hit the news in the United States for all the wrong reasons. The issue at the centre of it all is tragic; an American woman was found murdered in Turkey. It just so happened she was travelling alone at the time.

The response of a number of commenters made my blood boil, from ‘A single woman traveling alone is risky. In a foreign country, it is downright foolish’, to ‘A woman has no business traveling alone’ and the real fist clencher, ‘No way I would even let my beautiful wife out the door to travel to any country alone’.

dubai Solo female travel: an Australians perspective

That’s me looking all ‘Out of Africa’: I’m actually in the desert on a solo trip to the United Arab Emirates.

The real thing is, women are more likely to be murdered or seriously injured in their own homes than anywhere else.

There’s some great women bloggers that have put their two cents in on this issue, such as the xenophobia, sexism and ignorance that has surrounded the debate, and for that reason I don’t want to cover old ground. For their perspectives, see Twenty-Something TravelKatie Going GlobalAlmost FearlessA Dangerous BusinessC’est Christine and Adventurous Kate.

I think it’s pretty important to note that this story has only taken off in the United States, a country in which only 37 per cent of individuals own a passport. Crime rates are also well documented; Chicago has a higher murder rate than Bogota in Columbia, for example. In fact, I first found out about the murder in Turkey after reading an American blogger’s reaction to the media fallout.

Just this week, I finished my master’s thesis, which covered the history of young Australians travelling, specifically to Europe, in the post-World War II era. One of the questions I asked was, how do Australians travel differently to Americans? In short (a lot shorter than my 26,000 word thesis) I contended that more Australians travel, they travel for longer periods and they often travel alone. This isn’t something new; it’s been pretty consistent from the 1960s onwards. It’s become so mainstream that I’ve termed international travel the new Australian rite-of-passage, alongside things like moving out of home, getting a car and buying a house.

Here in the Netherlands, nor in my native Australia, have I seen solo female travel debated. Solo female travel in these parts is seen as normal, albeit slightly unusual. I have seen hundreds of solo female Australians, Kiwis, British, Canadians, Japanese, Dutch and Germans, to name but a few. However, the only solo female Americans I have personally met in all my travels and all of my tour guiding have been on short breaks from studying abroad, or as au pairs (European nannies).

That’s not to say that American women don’t travel alone, far from it, nor are my simple observations anything close to scientific. However, I remember noticing this back in Europe in 2007 and in six years, nothing seems to have changed.

I don’t use the term ‘solo female travel’ on this blog. In fact, I had never come across the term until I started blogging, and I noticed that a fair few other women bloggers used it. Upon reflection, the vast majority of these women are American (such as all of those mentioned above). It’s taken me a thesis and this tragic event to understand why; solo female travel is simply not a part of American culture.

I am not giving Australia a get out of gaol free card here. My country still has a hell of a way to go in terms of gender equality (people still balk when I have the nerve to call myself the f-word, a feminist), but I think solo female travel was accepted – yes, begrudgingly by many parents – a generation or so ago. Why? Because that’s when international travel took off in general in Australia. At the same time, the women’s rights movement was in full swing. The two occurred at roughly the same time, and women were swept up into the new fad; travel.

So well done, Australia. I do pick on you a lot, but I’m giving you credit here as it’s well deserved.

I could go into this more, but then this post will begin to sound like my thesis, with footnotes and quotes from sociologists and so forth.

So my experiences, I now see, are slightly different because of the supportive Australian culture. To be honest, when I first decided to head off and see the world for myself, it never really occurred to me to ask someone else to come too. My plans were big, complicated and specific – in that they weren’t at all. I just wanted to see the world for half a year.

Some people can travel by themselves and others can’t, it’s as simple as that. The people who told me wide-eyed ‘you’re so brave, going by yourself’ would never have had it occur to them that it doesn’t have to be such a big deal. I don’t think everyone can travel solo, male or female. I have gained most of my confidence through travel, but I needed at least a bit of it to set off in the first place. However, it changed my life and I will always sing its praises.

There are books on solo female travel. I remember being in Borders in Perth a month or so before I was to head off, flicking through a book on the topic. The book absolutely freaked me out. I was to wear a wedding ring all of a sudden, not frequent public areas at night and seemingly never look another human being in the eye. It took me a couple of weeks into my trip to realise that all I had to do was use my own judgement, the same as what I’d do on the streets of Melbourne.

The thing is, there’s a wealth of discussions on solo female travel; it’s just that the best ones don’t use that phrase at all. They just travel. By travelling alone, they’re showing that it’s not such a big scary world out there. The world is a lot more ready for single women travellers than the travel industry cares to admit.

You’re looking for examples? OK, here’s one. I arrived in Dubai one morning all by myself after a month in China, desperate for some warm air. My Lonely Planet had told me that as a solo female, I should ask for a female-only cab to take me to my hotel. I got to the taxi rank and hesitated. I didn’t see any signage for female cabbies, and I didn’t know whether to risk it and jump in a ‘normal’ cab. I got to the front of the queue, and I was motioned to get inside.

Which I did. I sat in front, Aussie-style, and chatted away happily to my Indian driver, just like in Melbourne. After a month of Chinglish I was happy to converse in my mother tongue, discussing the cricket and being shown Dubai’s sights along the way. Female cabbies never crossed my mind again during my stay.

Another occurred last year, when I was working as a tour guide in Morocco. It was my last visit for the year, and our local guide, Ali, wanted to buy me a mint tea while the group was shopping. I had noticed that almost all cafes in Morocco were patronised solely by men, so I mumbled some excuse involving earrings and handbags. Ali shook his head and insisted, so I did the polite thing and followed him to a cafe.

We sat and drank our delicious tea, chatting about his kids and the upcoming Ramadan. I was the only woman at the cafe, yes, but nobody gave me a second glance. I had been invited by a local, dammit, so how could I have thought I was doing the wrong thing?

Moral of these stories? Trust your instincts. Act how you would normally act; just like at home, if you feel you’re in a situation which calls for more decorum, follow suit.

So, this is all you’ll hear from me on solo female travel. This whole blog is about it. But, I have learnt some things along the way that might be helpful for those considering solo travel (and, by the way, if you’re already considering it, that means you can do it). Enjoy.

  1. Do away with the day backpack. I wore one for a couple of years, with a lock on it, before switching to an unlocked handbag. Dressed like this I blend in a lot more and don’t scream ‘tourist’. Same goes for runners – comfy sandals work better.
  2. If you’re going to go to a restaurant by yourself stick by these two hard and fast rules. Firstly, never go to a buffet restaurant – you’ll lose your table to a new family each time you go to restock. Secondly, bring a book or notepad. There’s nothing worse than waiting for your dinner by staring at a wall, or worse, another diner.
  3. Invite people to join you on your travels for the day. Often dorm-mates will share what plans they have for the day – don’t be afraid to ask to join them, and vice versa. If you decide they are a horrible, terrible person, guess what? You’ll never have to see them again. Sure beats travelling with the same person for weeks or months on end.
  4. Avoid all-female dorms if you’re keen to meet new people. I find that all-female dorms are full of those who have read the aforementioned scary books and tend to keep to themselves. On the other hand, a all-female dorm every so often can literally be a breath of fresh air.
  5. In a similar vein; the smaller the dorm, the better. Of course, this usually means a few extra euros, but the same rule also applies for the size of the hostel. Small hostels are great for meeting people, and my magic number is a six-bed dorm.
  6. Avoid telling people you’re travelling alone. I will always say that my friends or boyfriend (even when he didn’t exist) were back at the hostel, or at the ATM, et cetera.
  7. If you’re up for a few drinks, join a pub crawl, preferably organised by your own hostel. This means you’ve got a group of people to go out with, as well as people to walk back home with at night.
  8. In terms of general safety, always carry a mobile phone in range and with sufficient credit. I usually wear a money belt and have credit cards in two separate places. Something like a text message a day is a way to keep worries on the home front at bay.

And my biggest piece of advice? Don’t avoid travelling just because you can’t find anyone to go with you. If I’d done that, I wouldn’t have had all the adventures that have filled up this blog for the last six years.

19 Responses to Solo female travel: an Australian’s perspective

  1. Nancy February 7, 2013 at 12:46 PM #

    Wise words from someone who knows! Well said Cait :)

    • Caitlyn February 7, 2013 at 3:06 PM #

      Thanks Nance! When are you planning your next adventure?

  2. Shama Says via Facebook February 7, 2013 at 1:16 PM #

    Excellent post, kudos.

  3. Olympic Wanderings via Facebook February 7, 2013 at 1:34 PM #

    Thanks so much Shama!

  4. Steph February 7, 2013 at 2:32 PM #

    Really interesting to hear a different cultural perspective. I often remind my fellow americans that many other countries in the world are far more advanced when it comes to travel. I like to think that’s changing, but slowly.

    • Caitlyn February 7, 2013 at 3:05 PM #

      Thanks Steph, it’s something that’s caught my eye over the years. However, I don’t have a proper explanation for it! And thanks for the great post, you inspired me to write this one!

  5. Kelly February 7, 2013 at 5:17 PM #

    Excellent and true. When I set off on my 6 month solo travel through Europe I was advised by many, women and men alike, that my path was a dangerous one. So much worry was piled upon me. Thankfully I had strong individuals to reference, such as yourself, whom I had met on previous/shorter travel to inspire. And so after years of never considering it a possibility even though the need for adventure was strong, I was off. Upon my return I have attempted to discuss the superiority of traveling alone and how the need for fear can be removed if you set your mind to it. I think it lost on most, but a few just maybe will be encouraged to fly.
    In the United States, I do feel that this is not just a feeling/condition that applies to females alone. I know very few men that have traveled solo. It is an affliction of the culture. The fear of the unknown. The bombardment of negative media being the biggest villain. But our parents also (likely unknowingly) passing on this fear. We are a culture that sets the highest priority on work and money. All for the sake of play which most are only allotted 2 weeks a year to do so. Our college tuition comes out of student loans unless you have been blessed with a scholarship or wealth. Upon graduating, when you might have shaken some of the fear that has been driven into you over the years, you suddenly have this heavy responsibility of loan repayment and job establishment. It is a hard cycle to break when it is all you know. I hope this changes. The United States could certainly use more outward thinking.

    • Caitlyn February 7, 2013 at 5:29 PM #

      Oh Kelly thanks so much for your kind words! I often think back at that great day I spent with you and Jess in Budapest, such great memories!

      Totally agree with what you are saying about the work/money culture. Having lived in the States as a kid, I find Americans and Australians pretty similar but we do have a laidback culture in Oz, where travel is highly prioritised. It also helps that our universities are highly subsidised and we pay back our share through our taxes later on. My BA cost me about AU$12,000 which sounds like a lot to me, but it’s nothing compared to what so many pay in the States. Plus, in Oz you don’t pay anything back unless you’re earning over AU$35,000 a year (roughly the same in US$).

      Over here in the Netherlands it’s even better. The government here pays me to go to uni, and covers all of my public transport costs. Once you’ve got a job, you can negotiate your leave (my partner gets ten weeks’ paid and this isn’t unusual). I don’t think you have to be a rocket scientist to work out that these cultures, amongst others, are always going to foster a culture of travel more than others. Keep spreading the word about the merits of heading abroad!

    • Kelly February 7, 2013 at 5:40 PM #

      I of course am speaking from my own experience and only skimming the surface of fear. There is always a much deeper level. There are also many who have been less fortunate than me in life. Raised in a way that lacks support, financially and emotionally. They have had little access to positive in their life. And while there are those that can rise above this torment, many are doomed to repeat. It seems as though a vicious cycle is ever present. Travel is the last thing on their minds, survival the first. Our nation is a mentally unsound one, a lot of the time.
      I enjoyed this blog, it got my head spinning. A good quality for a post to have.

  6. Kelly February 7, 2013 at 5:45 PM #

    and thank you for planting the seed all those years ago!

    • Caitlyn February 7, 2013 at 7:07 PM #

      You are of course welcome! And I think you’re right, we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg and there’s a whole wealth of issues here, lack of travel is just one and quite insignificant in the bigger picture.

  7. Sammi February 7, 2013 at 5:50 PM #

    this is the first i’ve heard about this, how upsetting for the poor girl’s family. unfortunately, i find american’s to be incredibly insular people when it comes to things outside their borders. i know that is a gross generalisation, and some americans do break out and enjoy travel- even solo travel. it just seems to me their attitude is such towards female travellers because they’re so insular- otherwise, like here, it wouldn’t have made the news.
    this is a great post, caitlyn. i love the tips, i do tend to stay in female only dorms, tho’ if i can. purely because i find girls to be quieter when they come in at night time and (tho’ it appears i am often the last one in) also its quite a good way to bond with the girls in the room if you’re all getting ready to go on a hostel organised pub crawl :) if i do end up in a mixed dorm, i dont usually mind once i’m there.

    • Kelly February 7, 2013 at 6:30 PM #

      Insular thinking exist to a heavy degree, but it is not a widespread characteristic of the States. I am from the South, Louisiana. The ruler of all that is insular. It is the reason I now live in the Pacific Northwest. An innovative, creative, open minded, and well informed space. The one thing that I miss terribly of the South is the tremendous culture that it possess. An unchanged culture/people while negative in some aspects, is also very beautiful in others.

    • Caitlyn February 7, 2013 at 7:09 PM #

      You’re welcome Sammi! You’re right, in a female-only dorm you do tend to get a better sleep and I reckon women are a hell of a lot cleaner!

  8. Kate Hughes February 7, 2013 at 8:38 PM #

    Well said Caitlyn, having met you as my guide a few times you also inspired me. My trip overseas alone was at 60 & all of my Aussie friends thought I had lost the plot. Must amazing journay of my life, would go again in a heart beat. Keep travelling my , we are heading back to Europe in March. Cheers

    • Caitlyn February 7, 2013 at 11:04 PM #

      Thanks Kate! I can definitely say with full confidence that YOU inspire all of us! Happy travels (again)!

  9. Leanne Mansfield via Facebook February 7, 2013 at 11:01 PM #

    Great read

  10. Magpie Groupie February 10, 2013 at 11:17 PM #

    “I remember being in Borders in Perth a month or so before I was to head off, flicking through a book on the topic. The book absolutely freaked me out.”

    “Guilty” As the person who was with you all those years ago in Perth, and I think I was the one who found the book, I maintain it opened the discussion on awareness. That’s my defence 6 years later.
    As a parent, who proudly read this post, I can see that awareness of so many things have been hightened through your travels and experiences. Life experiences do that, for both the parent who is farewelling their first-born as they leave to go on this massive adventure and for the daughter who is venturing out with passport in hand. Would it have been different had you been male. Yes and no. The emotions and worry would still be there as that comes as part of the parental package. Maybe the list of so called ‘words of wisdom’ may have been longer as we all have read the research on maturiity rates of 21 year olds by gender! So you think you had it tough with all those lectures 6 years ago…..hmmm……imagine what Dane O’Dowd would have had to hear!

    • Caitlyn February 16, 2013 at 8:12 PM #

      Glad you read it proudly! I suppose you could say it made me more aware, but I think that the awareness is something you need to have wherever you are, not just travelling. Heightening your awareness simply when you are travelling I think makes you more afraid of the unknown. I think what made me more aware was getting two iPods stolen the year before when I was out, that made me a lot more aware of my surroundings and I have not had such an experience ever since then!

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