Safety as a Solo Woman

A few days ago I was flying back from Boston on the same flight as my sister-in-law, and I was using the time in the airport (thanks, flight delays!) to sort through some of my pictures from the trip. (Yes, it’s been 8 months since I got back; no, I haven’t gotten past the first week’s worth of photos yet. Japan was awesome and I took a ton of pics, I’m having a hard time sorting them!) We chatted some about the trip, and she mentioned that her parents had been worried about my safety, so I thought this would be a good time for a post on what to think about, when you’re traveling alone, to stay as safe as possible.

Doubtful things
My favorite sign from the whole trip, courtesy of the adorable Hakone railway.

When Planning Your Trip

I posted earlier about how to choose your hostel (https://atwlawyer.com/2016/07/16/how-to-choose-a-hostel/), but you actually need to be thinking about safety one step earlier, when you are choosing how to arrive in the city in the first place. Ideally, you can pick a train, bus, or plane that will arrive before it gets dark, so that you have the luxury of time and daylight to get yourself situated at your hotel/hostel/airbnb. If that’s not possible, you want to at least try to schedule things so that you arrive at your lodgings by 9 pm or so. In my experience, that’s about the time of night when the feel of a neighborhood can change from comfortable-but-be-alert to get-your-ass-off-this-deserted-street. If you have no choice but to arrive at a horrible time of night, then you need to take that into consideration when you’re choosing your lodging, at least for the first night, and you need to budget a lot more for transportation. Public transit probably won’t even be running, or it might not be safe, and so you need to be able to pay for a taxi.  You also need to be staying at a place that has a 24-hour front desk, and not an airbnb where the owner can only give you the key in person.

Arriving in a New Place

There are a lot of times where I haven’t been able to take my own advice, and I’ve ended up getting into strange places at 3 am. Whether it was scheduled that way or an accident due to a delay of some kind, in order to be safe you need to have a plan ready by the time you step off into the airport or station. First, if you don’t already have enough for a cab ride in the local currency, get cash. Go to the very first ATM you see, even if it’s before the bathroom and you’ve been holding it for hours; there might only be that one ATM, and if you exit through security without getting money, you could be in big trouble. If you will be taking a cab to your destination, have a printout (or pull up on your phone) the name and address of the place you’re staying, and ideally a map. Often there are language barriers, and it’s best to avoid confusion. (Once a cab driver took me to the Red Fox rather than the Red Fort. They were 10 miles away from each other.) If you won’t have data in the place you’re going, take screenshots ahead of time on google maps. This is definitely a place where Uber comes in handy, but remember that not every city has it, so check ahead of time. Also, sometimes Uber is not allowed to pick up passengers from airports and train stations.

If you’re taking public transit and arriving at night, you should already know what train or bus route you want to take; how much a ticket costs to get to your destination (many cities have zoned pricing); and what the final stop in the direction you’re going is, as well as approximately how many stops you will be going. The frequency of service is much slower at night, and you don’t want to spend half an hour sitting alone in a deserted station waiting for the next one if you can avoid it.

If you’re going to be walking, and it’s late at night, you need to have familiarized yourself with the route already. Have the map (or screenshot of it) on your phone for easy access. Prepare yourself and your bags, so that you don’t need to stop and tie a shoe, reposition a purse, or grab a coat that’s falling off your pile of stuff. Walk confidently and directly, and don’t wear headphones.

Exploring

Just wandering around a new city is one of my favorite things to do when traveling, and as long as it’s daytime and you stay in the right neighborhoods, you’re generally fine. How do you find the right neighborhoods, though? Start with the place where the biggest tourist attraction is: the Louvre in Paris, the Jama Masjid in Delhi, the Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakesh, Big Ben in London, and so on. A radius around that will be very touristy, and pretty safe, and if you get past that and start to feel uncomfortable, you can just turn back in. The size of the radius will vary immensely based on which city you’re in and also, realistically, on your race and how you are dressed. If you want to explore outside of tourist areas, depending on where you are you’ll be fine just picking a direction and walking around, but you might need to do research ahead of time.

In cosmopolitan cities like London, Paris, or Tokyo, where the population is diverse, most of the city will be totally safe, and you probably won’t stand out much. Smartphones come in very handy here, because you can look at a map and try to figure out where you are without looking too much like a tourist, since everyone has their nose in a phone all the time. In more homogenous cities, such as Delhi or Phnom Penh, if you are of a different race than most of the population, you will stand out. Period. (In Morocco, I was traveling with a Chinese friend, and we got catcalled with “Konichiwa” for her and “fish and chips” for me, in addition to “gazelle” for both of us.) It can help significantly to dress conservatively and in a color palette that blends in a bit. On my last day in India, I looked out the car window and saw such lecherous expressions on the faces of two men on a motorbike that I shrank back into my seat, and then followed their gazes to see what they were looking at. It was a blond woman in a sleeveless, just-above-the-knee sundress which would have been perfectly appropriate, and even modest, in the US. In India, though, she was practically naked, and people reacted accordingly. In conservative countries I usually wear a light cotton tunic with three-quarter sleeves, over loose-ish pants or tucked into a long skirt, and that helps a lot.

In General

The most important advice is to be realistic, and err on the side of caution. If you need to ask directions, step into a café or shop and ask someone who works there for help, don’t stop a stranger on the street (making it clear to everyone not only that you’re a tourist but that you’re confused). And be careful about going out after dark. There are certain experiences (mostly involving alcohol) that are simply more dangerous as a solo woman traveler than as a solo man or as someone traveling with a group, like going to an all-night club on a tiny island that is only accessible by the occasional ferry boat. I usually only ever have one drink, unless the bar is in the place I’m staying, less than a 10 minute walk away down well-lit (and populated) streets, or if I’ve managed to make friends from the same hostel who want to go out together in a big group and will keep an eye on each other, and even then I stop at two or three drinks. If going out at night is a big part of what you enjoy when you travel, then take a few basic steps ahead of time: leave your passport and all but one credit card locked away so you can’t accidentally lose them; have enough cash for a cab; and, if you’re staying in a hostel, set everything out on your bed before you leave so you won’t be fumbling in your bags in the dark, and waking everyone else up, when you get back.

 

As long as you have a plan for the day you arrive, do a little research ahead of time on safe/unsafe parts of the city, and walk with an air of confidence, you should be fine. Just don’t be stupid, especially after dark, and listen to your gut when it warns you something is wrong. Have fun!

 

Packing List

When I started planning this trip, and realized that I would have to deal with temperatures that could top 100 (Cambodia in August) or dip below freezing (Iceland at the end of September), I started looking at packing lists in travel blogs to see what other people suggested. I found them super helpful, so I’m publishing this packing list in case anyone else finds it useful. I’m sure I overpacked, because my suitcase is heavy, but I’m planning to ship a package home from Hong Kong with most of my warm-weather clothes and shoes, so that should help. (Part of the weight also comes from the clothes I’m bringing to the friend I’m staying with in Cambodia, because Amazon Prime doesn’t exactly deliver to her apartment.) I thought about trying to do the carryon-only backpacking style of trip, but for the reasons I mentioned in an earlier post, I decided to bring a few more things and just check the bag.

 

Shoes

  • 1 pair sneakers
  • 1 pair walking sandals
  • 1 pair plastic flip-flops
  • 1 pair silver sandals
  • 1 pair black flats
  • 1 pair black booties

Six pairs of shoes is a lot, I admit, and the silver sandals and black flats didn’t necessarily need to come, but it’s going to rain for part of each day in many of the places I’m going, and I hate going to dinner in soaking wet and muddy shoes. I’m going to send the silver sandals back from Hong Kong, because once I’m in Europe it should be cool enough in the evenings that flats won’t give me blisters. The black booties are waterproof, and I’m planning on wearing them when it’s rainy and cold in England and Scotland. Plastic flip-flops are a necessity for hostel showers, and I’m going to be doing so much walking I want to be able to switch between sandals and sneakers if one is bothering my feet.

 

Coats/Cold Weather Gear

  • 1 packable down jacket
  • 1 rain coat
  • 1 lightweight jacket (water resistant on the outside, fleece on the inside)
  • 1 fleece hat
  • 1 pair fleece gloves
  • 1 pashmina-style scarf

So the key here is layering. I looked like an idiot wearing three coats on top of each other in my oven of an apartment in July, but I confirmed that if I wear the down coat, then the jacket, then the raincoat, a) it all fits, b) I can still move my arms, and c) it’s warm. I also am bringing a few merino sweaters, and with all that put together, plus a hat and gloves and the hood on my raincoat up, I should be comfortable in Iceland. I hope. The jacket and the pashmina scarf come in my carryon, because I get cold on planes, and everything else rolls and squishes into a medium-small packing cube. The down jacket is one of those ultra-lightweight down jackets from Uniqlo, which is only $70, packs to the size of a fist, and is water resistant.

 

Clothes

  • 6 t-shirts
  • 4 long sleeve shirts
  • 4 wide-strapped tank tops
  • 2 spaghetti strap tank tops
  • 3 merino tops (1 ultra-lightweight base layer, 2 sweaters)
  • 2 lightweight cardigans
  • 1 button-down shirt
  • 2 pairs jeans
  • 1 pair quick-dry travel pants
  • 2 knee-length skirts
  • 1 dress
  • 2 bathing suits

For working out/hiking

  • 1 wicking t-shirt
  • 1 wicking button shirt
  • 1 pair athletic leggings
  • 1 pair athletic shorts
  • 1 pair yoga pants
  • 1 pair hiking socks

Miscellaneous

  • Pajamas
  • 12 pair underwear
  • 6 pair socks
  • 1 pair leggings
  • 1 pair tights

The indulgences here are the second pair of jeans and the second sweater. But it all fit in, under the weight limit, and I know I’m going to be so sick of everything else by the time I get to the UK/Iceland that I will be happy to have different clothes for the colder weather. I’m planning to do most of my laundry in the sink, and only use a washing machine every 10 days or two weeks for stuff that either doesn’t fit in a sink or won’t easily air dry. I found this awesome clothesline at REI that fits in a pouch smaller than my thumb but stretches out to be pretty long, and I have a little bottle of Dr. Bronners and a rubber sink plug.

 

Electronics

  • DSLR camera
  • Laptop
  • iPad mini (for reading e-book guidebooks)
  • iPhone
  • Mini power bank (for recharging the phone in the middle of the day)
  • Converter plug with USB ports
  • Noise-cancelling headphones

 

Miscellaneous

  • Very thin cable, for locking my suitcase to the rack on overnight ferries/trains
  • Packable towels (1 full-size, 1 hand towel), so I don’t have to pay towel fees at hostels
  • Swiss Army knife
  • Safety pins
  • Paperclips, for switching SIM cards
  • Bug spray and sunscreen
  • Makeup and jewelry
  • Journal
  • Headlamp, for finding stuff in my bag at hostels
  • Hats
  • Medicine and tissues. I always seem to get a cold when I travel.
  • Portable humidifier. (It’s only about 3x3x6, and weighs about half a pound. It takes any regular disposable plastic bottle of water. I often get colds when I travel, and if the air is too dry, I wake up every 15 or 20 minutes because I’m so thirsty.)

 

I hope this was helpful!

How To Choose A Hostel

So, you’ve decided to take a solo trip, and you’ve taken a look at your budget. If you want to be able to do fun activities, you realize you need to keep your lodging costs below $50/day, and $15/day is sounding even better. That means a hostel, rather than a hotel. Today, Airbnb is also a cheap option, but I like the social aspect of hostels, and the chance encounters with strangers that can lead to fun discoveries, so I won’t discuss Airbnb here. If you’ve never traveled alone before, it can be overwhelming to sort through all the options and find a place you’re happy with. I have stayed in over 20 hostels in the last 6 years, in 15 countries (including the US!), and I have developed a system that has served me well.  Just follow these steps, and you should have a smooth hostelling experience.

1. Research the city you’re going to. Look at maps.

The location of your hostel is far and away the most important thing about it. Before you start looking at specific hostels, you need to get a sense of what neighborhood to be in. When I travel alone, I am very careful about going out after dark. If it’s a purely residential neighborhood, and you start to feel unsafe, there’s not much you can do about it, because there’s no one around to intervene and no place to go into for help. That’s why, especially if I’m traveling during a time of year where it gets dark really early, I like to stay right downtown, in commercial neighborhoods where there’s a lot of stuff to do, and places to eat, within walking distance. So, start by looking at the Google Maps for the city. Zoom in and out enough that you get a sense of where the train station, bus station, and airport are; if there is a subway system, how close together are the stations and how much of the city does it cover; how clustered are the museums/tourist sites; and how long it would take you to walk across downtown (which tells you how important public transit will be). If you’re zoomed at the right level, the map gives you the names of the neighborhoods, and you can keep that in mind for step 2.

2. Look at several hostel websites in tabs at the same time.

I generally find that between hostelworld.com and hostelbookers.com I’m set, because they’re the two biggest ones, but there are lots of other options if you google “find a hostel in [city]”. You enter the city, the dates, and the number of guests, and see what results you get. For Tokyo, checking in August 13 and checking out August 16, for one person, Hostelworld found 48, starting at $19.93 per night, and Hostelbookers found 45, starting at $20.98. So obviously both websites cover the same universe of hostels, but it’s worth it to look at both because they have different ratings and reviews, which helps you make the final choice once you’ve narrowed it down. I used to use both, but when planning this trip I’ve found that Hostelworld has WAY more options once I’ve set the filters, particularly more highly rated options, so I’ve been using it exclusively. Its rating system also seems more precise than Hostelbookers’.

3. Filter out your deal breakers.

As a starting point, I filter out any hostel that doesn’t have free wifi and that has a rating below 65%. It takes a lot for people to leave bad reviews of a hostel, and at this point in my life I don’t feel like dealing with the headaches that go along with that kind of place. (Like not enough hot water, dirty bathrooms, doors that don’t lock, etc.) Realistically, I won’t stay anywhere that’s rated below 80% if I can help it, but it’s best to start broad and narrow in. You can also look for places that have washing machines, common rooms, bars, air conditioning, a gym, and many other types of amenities. At this point, most highly-rated hostels in big cities have been custom built, or renovated, with a global crowd of short-term travelers in mind, and they’re more like fancy hotels with bunk beds and shared bathrooms. Sometimes they’re called “flash packing” hostels, which means you’re less likely to be sharing your space with someone who’s living their long term. That’s a good thing. (In Chamonix, two friends and I took three beds in a 10-bed dorm. All the other beds were filled with people who had just come up to ski for the weekend, except for one lady who had been living there for four months. She made the atmosphere so uncomfortable with the way she had laid claim to the space, with her towels and socks drying on lines strung all around, that we spent no time in the room except to sleep. And then the room smelled like feet, which is always a risk with dorms but less common in nicer ones that are regularly cleaned, and filled with short-term guests.)

 

4. Read the reviews

This is the fastest way to weed out unacceptable hostels, so that you only bother looking at the details and pictures of the serious contenders. If a review mentions bedbugs, construction noise (and it was written within the last 3 months), dirty bathrooms, or a musty smell, I’m done with that hostel, especially if more than one are telling the same story. But once you’ve gotten past that step, dig a little farther back in the reviews to get a feel for the place. Is everyone talking about all the great friends they made while they were hanging out on the roof deck? That tells you that the common space is well designed, and probably comfortable for you to hang out in and socialize when you aren’t in the mood to go around in the neighborhood. One hostel I stayed in in Nelson, New Zealand baked a huge chocolate cake every night at 8 pm, so you could count on a full common room every day. If it wasn’t for the people I met my first night (who I then went on a day-long hiking/kayaking excursion with, and who then wanted to get a beer after a long day outdoors), I would never have discovered the coolest craft-beer bar I’ve ever been in, where the taps are just colors because the beers change so much. (It’s called Free House and it used to be a church, http://www.thefreehouse.co.nz.) Are people singing the praises of the helpful staff, who gave them advice on where to go and how to buy tickets, or are they complaining that they had to stand in the street with their bags for an hour because no one was around to let them in? Especially if you haven’t done a lot of research on the city ahead of time, a knowledgeable person at the front desk is worth their weight in gold. Plus, a lot of big urban hostels have connections to free walking tours, and sometimes the guide will even swing by the hostel to pick you up if the hostel regularly sends big groups on the tours. I have taken free walking tours in Berlin, Sydney, and Melbourne through hostels.

Another thing to keep an eye out for is comments from the season you’re going in talking about the temperature. If you’re going to Southeast Asia in the middle of the summer, and the reviews talk about how they only run the AC for 8 hours at night, so it’s muggy and hard to sleep, that’s a bad sign. Similarly, if you’re going to Switzerland to ski in the middle of the winter, and people are complaining that it was hard to find extra blankets and they shivered all night, that’s not ideal either.

5. Select your room type

This is the category where I have arrived at all of my conclusions through bad experiences, so I am trying to save you from having puke splash on you because the bunk beds are too close together by sharing my wisdom, moving from larger room sizes down to small.

  • Don’t stay in a dorm with more than 12 beds, 16 max. I stayed in a 24-bed room in the Hague, and the beds were so close together you had to turn sideways and suck in your stomach to navigate around the room. There was absolutely nowhere to put your stuff, and when the guy on the top bunk next to me was too drunk to make it to the bathroom, puke splashed on me. Don’t do it. The rooms are never big enough for that many beds. And unless the weather is warm enough to leave a window open for fresh air 24/7, they stink.
  • If you’re a woman traveling alone, don’t stay in a mixed-gender room smaller than 6 people. In Berlin, the first night in a four-bed room was me and three other solo women travelers, in a nice new hostel where the room had its own bathroom. The second night, I walked out of the shower to find three guys who were all friends with each other, who had been pregaming before getting ready to hit the Berlin nightclubs hard. They were gentlemen, but unfortunately not everyone is, especially when they’re drunk and in a group of friends they’re trying to impress, and in a bigger room there’s a smaller chance that every other person will know each other except you.
  • If you’re staying in a mixed-gender room, I’ve found the sweet spot is 8 beds, because that’s usually 4 sets of bunks, and there’s generally enough floor space for everyone’s luggage. It’s usually a mix of pairs, trios, and solo travelers, and you can meet some really interesting people. In Barcelona, I shared my room with a French mother and her two children, who were staying in a hostel because someone had pickpocketed the mother and they couldn’t get back to France until the consulate replaced their documents since you can’t take children across international borders without papers; and two British girls who were traveling around Europe for a few months and who accompanied me to a sangria bar I had heard about but didn’t want to go to alone. In Vienna, I met a ballerina who was just about to go pro after graduating from college, who thought going to the opera and getting sachertorte after (standing room tickets at the Vienna Opera House are only 3 euros) was a great idea, so she changed her train by a day and rounded up another friend. And so on.
  • At this point, I always try to get a bed in a women’s only room, and if I can’t at one hostel often I will choose a different hostel where women’s only rooms are available. Safety is the biggest reason, but also girls generally don’t snore as loudly. There was one guy in Melbourne who was so loud that I couldn’t sleep all night, because it sounded like he had swallowed a dinosaur and it was trying to escape. And, while shared dorm rooms don’t necessarily smell like sunshine and flowers, especially if it’s in a place where people are there to do a lot of outdoor sports, the average stank-level is definitely lower in women-only rooms. Often the other girls in the room are traveling together, or at least some of them are, so it can be harder to make friends with your roommates, but as long as the hostel has a nice common room that really doesn’t matter. Since uninterrupted sleep is a higher priority than in-room socializing, I go for the smallest room I can get, usually a 4-bed. However, single-gender dorm rooms can go up to 12, though usually not much larger. Some hostels do have men-only dorms, but it’s less common than women-only ones.
  • Private rooms are great if you’re traveling with a few other friends, but if there’s only one of you, you need to read the terms carefully. If it’s a room with a double bed, the price listed is the price per person, so it’s actually twice that if you want to stay in it alone. One of the requirements of a private room generally is that you pay for every bed in it, so if it’s a 4-bed room you pay for four beds even if there are only three of you. It’s not super common, but some hostels do have private rooms for one person, just barely bigger than a twin bed, and those can be really nice if you want privacy. They’re more expensive than half of a double private room, but still way cheaper than a hotel, because you’re still sharing the bathroom with the other dorms. In Rotorua, New Zealand, I stayed in a single private room, and it was great because the sinks, toilets, and showers were just steps away, but I could watch videos without having to wear headphones, Skype without having to go into a common room, and not have to worry about being woken up by someone stumbling in late from a bar.

6. Look at pictures and the map to confirm your choice

At this point, it’s probably down to two or three choices, so look at the pictures they’ve posted of the rooms, bathrooms, and common spaces to get clues about how comfy the common space is, how big the kitchen is (if you’re planning on cooking), and if it looks like there’s room for your suitcase in the room. Double check the map to make sure you’re not in the middle of nowhere, half an hour’s walk away from the nearest public transit.

 

Congratulations! You’re ready to book your hostel!

 

Welcome!

My name is Emma, and I graduated from law school less than two weeks ago. I’m spending this summer studying for the bar, and also planning my post-bar trip: a 47-day (mostly) solo adventure around the world. This is my third I’m-making-a-big-transition solo trip, and I’m hoping to share some of my planning tips and tricks before the trip, as well as my stories (and plenty of photos!) once I’m on my way. I also joined Instagram half an hour ago, so you can find me there at #atwlawyer (https://www.instagram.com/atwlawyer/).

A little bit about me and traveling: I grew up in Illinois but have also lived for 6 months or more in Australia, England, France, Ithaca (NY), Boston, and DC. I have been to 41 states and 38 countries on 6 continents, and I am as into food (both cooking it and eating it) as I am into travel. I spent my first year after college as an au pair in a Paris suburb, dipping my toes in the water of solo travel by going all around Western Europe during school breaks and on the weekends. My first big transition trip was the two weeks between when the kids got out of school and when my visa expired and I headed to DC to get my first real job. I went to Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland) and Germany. My second transition came between quitting my job and starting law school (four weeks in Australia and New Zealand).  Now, I’m done with school and I’m about to start my career, and it’s time to get out of my comfort zone and figure out who the new-and-improved Lawyer Emma is and how she should interact with the world. I’m hoping that 6 weeks in 9+ countries will do the trick!

If you decide to join my on my journey, expect to see pictures and hear stories from Japan, Singapore, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Finland (very briefly), Budapest, Croatia, ??? (TBD; Italy? France? Spain?), London, and Iceland. Right now, the only thing I have planned are the dates I will be in those countries/cities, because I had to buy plane tickets, but over the summer I will work on where to go and what to see/do/experience in each place. I can’t wait!