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 (, 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.


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!


The View From The Top

I’m finally here! It took 28 hours and 37 minutes door-to-door, but I am nicely settled in a “ladies room” on the 14th floor of a Tokyo hotel. I was following the advice of the “First Time in Asia” Lonely Planet book to make sure you had a nice place to stay the first night because of jet lag, and I’m glad I did because I think I woke up at 3 am and every 20 minutes from 5-7, but I could always roll over and go straight back to sleep since the room was so quiet. My plan for the day is to go to Mariakan, the museum of emerging science and technology (robots!!!!), walk around the neighborhoods of Asakusa and Ueno, and probably go to the Tokyo National Museum. I’m going to try to meet up with my cousin, and she has some friends she wants to see, so we’ll see how it all shakes out. Also it’s the O-Bon festival, which means some stuff is closed (like the Tsukiji market, which I am very bummed about), but hopefully that means there will be a parade at some point. When I’m traveling, I love stumbling onto local parades and street fairs, because everyone who’s there is always, without fail, very cheerful and happy, and the good moods are infectious.

When I checked into the room, the lady at the front desk gave me this cute little goody bag with shampoo and things, which surprised me because it seemed like a nice enough hotel that it would already have that in the room. But it turns out that the Ladies Rooms come with special perks: I was opening all the cabinets and finding all of these little machines, most of which I could not identify. I did figure out what the foot massager and clothing steamer were, but there were two other little boxes. A white noise machine maybe? And a mystery box? But the goody bag also came with a questionnaire.


So I’m assuming the mystery box is a face steamer. I have no idea what that is or how to use it, but I might give it a try. There are also all sorts of little packets and things, most of which are either only labeled in Japanese or which have very generic names (e.g. “ladies amenity”, which I’m guessing is a pad?) in English.


I picked the ladies room (it’s on a floor that only women stay on) because I had heard that drunk Japanese businessmen can get a little pushy, and it cost the same price as all the other rooms so I figured why not, plus it was guaranteed to be non-smoking, but based on the questionnaire the “ladies amenities” and “ladies facilities” are also things that people seek out. I’ll try to ask my cousin’s boyfriend if this is a common thing in most big hotels, to have a women-only floor, but he probably won’t know.

For the last twenty minutes or so of the flight, I started chatting with (read: lightly interrogating) my seat mate, because even though he was obviously American he was also a Japanese citizen (since he had refused the foreigner card when the flight attendants were passing out immigration forms). It turns out he was bringing his boyfriend to meet his ultra-conservative Japanese relatives, and so all of his time living in Japan had been mostly with family. But he did confirm some of the things I hadn’t been totally sure about, namely that Google Maps is absolutely essential, and unless you read and speak Japanese you really can’t get around without it. Japanese addresses are for the location on the street on the block in the district in the bigger district in the something else in the city, and without Google maps you have to go find the district map to figure out what block to go to. Sort of like DC, where there are four places where Second Street intersects D Street, and you have to know which quadrant you’re in, only in a language that I can’t read. Also when I was asking about manners things, he basically said I can get away with anything because I’m so obviously white, and if people get upset with me for being rude I will probably never know. (Unlike in his case, where his relatives get mad at him for being rude but don’t tell him why.) I will try not to be rude, but there are so many extra rules! When the front desk lady handed me back my passport she did it two-handed, which reminded me that you’re never supposed to hand things to people with only one hand, and that I had therefore been rude to (so far): the people at the SIM card counter, the ticket lady at the airport, the guy at the information desk in Ueno station, and the lady at the front desk when I handed her my passport in the first place. Oops.

Two random facts about Japanese customs: they ask about swords on the forms. (Like, “are you importing illegal drugs, explosives, or swords.”) Also, they funnel you through a single file line next to a quarantine station (big sign reading “This is a quarantine station! We do NOT provide ANY medical care!”) so a thermometer can read your temperature, and over a carpet soaked in disinfectant. There were a lot of signs warning about various diseases, with maps of the world color-coded in various shades of red to indicate risk, but it was all in Japanese, and the US was the palest yellow, so I figured I was fine unless someone told me otherwise. The only word in Roman script was “MERS”.

Getting to the hotel was surprisingly easy, because the trains run so. precisely. on. time. I started with the information desk at the airport, asking her to tell me how to get to an ATM machine, a SIM card seller, and the train. Money in hand, it was time to get online. There were a bunch of counters selling SIM cards, I just picked the closest one, and paid about $35 for 200 mb of data each day for 15 days. More expensive than India, but still very cheap given how impossible it would be for me to function without a smartphone. I asked at the train counter what the best way to get to Shinjuku was, since Google Maps was telling me about trains and buses and I wasn’t sure what was easier, and she looks at the clock (it was 8:03 pm) and says “There’s an 8:10 train, and you only have to change trains once. But you only have seven minutes! Go!” So I hustle downstairs, and wait in line, and by the time I step up to the ticket counter it is 8:07. And yet I managed to get on the 8:10 train with not only my train ticket (I love the train names, it was the Kaisei Skyliner) but a two-day pass for the Tokyo metro. Amazingly efficient.

It took me longer to get the 500 meters from Shinjuku to my hotel than to walk 1 km from the main Ueno station to the one that had the E subway line, because there are so many exits, and so many streets, and all the streets were packed with people on the Saturday night stroll. I kept getting turned around. Thank goodness for Google Maps! Even when I could see the tower of the hotel, I couldn’t necessarily figure out which streets took me to the entrance. The only obviously drunk guy I saw was this older man, who was being carefully steered away from the crowds by very cheerful-looking policemen with white gloves. Somehow I can’t imagine the Times Square police on a Saturday night with white gloves on.


So I have now spent one night in a Western-style room, and I have to say, other than the fact that the bed is raised off the floor, there is no question about the fact that you’re in Japan. I won’t sleep on a tatami until near the end of the week, when I stay in a ryokan, so I don’t have anything to compare it too, but the Japanese definitely like their mattresses and pillows FIRM. I slept well, but I think it will take my back a while to get used to the new normal.

The mattress has no springs, and has an interesting pattern on the top:


One of the pillows is a normal feather pillow on one side, but then it’s like straw on the other, you can sort of see the ridges on the top:


And then the other pillow is sort of like a cross between foam and straw:


When I say straw, it’s not spiky like real straw, it bends, but it’s like a bunch of flexible straws sewn into pockets. Also, the toilet has a lot of buttons on the wall for the various angles of spray, and you can set the water pressure. Toto is definitely not in Kansas anymore!