Traveling While Female

This article has some pretty good tips. Especially this:

“First, strike a balance between trusting and foolish — most adventures happen when you say yes. But weigh out the options first. Does someone know where you are? Do you have cellphone reception? Do you know exactly where you’re going? Do you know the people you’re going with — even a first and last name is something.

“Second, be really comfortable with yourself. Some people can make friends easily anywhere they are, and that’s amazing. But even the friendliest of people need some down time, and when you’re all alone you can become lonely really fast. So make sure you can be okay with your own thoughts.

“And third, take a tampon everywhere. It’s not just good for your own period, it’s a bonding experience. If you’re in a crowded train, or a hostel room, or a bus ride, and someone doesn’t have one, you just made a new friend by giving yours away. They also work well to stop blood if you scrape your knee or get a nosebleed. Really, tampons are awesome.”

Also, sometimes airport security in places where tampons aren’t commonplace won’t know what your tampon is, and you can have a great uncomfortable moment where a dude pulls your tampon out of your bag, touches it, smells it, and then looks at you quizzically while you attempt to stammer out an explanation in a language you don’t really speak.

I travel a lot, and I am a lady, and I often travel alone. There are some major perks — waiters and waitresses assume you’re sad or lonely, so free wine is often involved in any dinner out. And if you are a big eater like me and you sit down alone and order half the menu and don’t bother anyone, the waitstaff also likes you and can give you good tips as to where to go out afterward.

It’s also a great way to meet people. Traveling with friends is lovely and fun, but traveling alone requires you to interact with others — and you might be pleasantly surprised at how wonderful other human beings can be. I spent my 22nd birthday in Belgrade, as part of a solo three-week trip through Turkey and the former Yugoslavia; I checked into a hostel, walked around the city, and when I came back everyone was gathered in the main room with a cake, ready to sing me Happy Birthday and take me out to the clubs — the hostel-owner saw my birthday on my passport and coordinated the whole thing. I met a girl a few days later who I traveled with for the next three days, and after she left I never saw her again; I met a boy who I talked to for five minutes on the walls around Dubrovnik and who I saw on and off, whenever he would come through New York, for years after. In Egypt, I met a group of girls who spent a whole day with me and showed me around their city, and a man who grabbed my hand and ran me across the impossible intersections on Tahrir Square; in Buenos Aires, I spent a lovely evening trapped in a restaurant with a Swiss journalist while the streets flooded outside; there are at least 10 Frenchmen in Paris who helped me navigate the subway, and as many waiters who helped me pronounce “chevre.” People have cut me slack and given me directions and taken me on rides on their motorbikes and refilled my wine glass and brought me free dessert.

People can be pretty cool, is my point, and while I’m sure men are also approached and talked to by strangers, solo women are less threatening and I suspect more likely to be invited out or chatted up or helped out by strangers — which can be a blessing and an annoyance.

The biggest downside to traveling while female is access: There are some places where women simply are not allowed, and it can be frustrating to have to go to the second-rate version of wherever the boys are (if there even is a second-rate version at all; sometimes you just don’t get to go). And of course there are people who will target you because you’re female and alone — I’ve had more than a few of those experiences, from the old naked man with a boner on a Greek beach to the pack of teenage boys in Cairo who followed me around for two hours before one of them handed me a note asking, “Do you have sex?” to the stoned hotel proprietor in Amsterdam who I almost stabbed in the neck with a pen after he followed me into my room and asked me to kiss him goodnight. Creeps, they are everywhere! But they are also in New York and probably in your home town too, so you know, you do a creep-scan anywhere and follow your gut and don’t be afraid to tell a man what’s what and don’t place being nice ahead of your own safety and realize that Bad Things actually happen fairly rarely and then hope for the best. The fear of creeps or uncomfortable situations keeps too many women from stepping outside of their comfort zones, so figure out how to stab someone in the neck with a pen and then get out there.

And always bring tampons. Always bring a scarf.

About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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44 Responses to Traveling While Female

  1. FashionablyEvil says:

    There are some places where women simply are not allowed

    I had this problem in Morocco–cafes are pretty much exclusively male areas, but I love to lounge in a cafe and people watch in the afternoon while I’m on vacation. My standard was that there had to be at least 3 other women, preferably wearing hijabs, before I felt comfortable plopping down.

    That said, my sister decided she wanted to get a haircut while we were there and that ended up being a really cool experience–like being members of a secret club.

  2. I’m glad to hear you say all of this, Jill. I’d say it myself to female friends with the same concerns, but it’s just not the same coming from a guy. Maybe I’ll forward along this column instead.

  3. Andie says:

    I love travelling alone but unfortunately I don’t get to meet too many people because I tend to be shy, especially if I don’t know the language. Having friends along helps me be more outgoing, but I like travelling alone because I don’t like having an itinerary.. I’m kind of a ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ kinda gal.

  4. Kristen J. says:

    Maybe its just that we look friendly…but when M and I travel we tend to make friends. I think its our ability to connect with pretty much anyone about food/beverages. Last time we were in Portland our waiter invited us to go bar hopping with him and his girlfriend and try all these microbrews. We had a similar experience with french bakeries. When we were in PR a lovely woman who ran a food stand invited M home to meet her mother to learn more about how to jerk goat. In Tokyo he spent an entire day learning about traditional soba making after talking to a guy on the train about the best place for soba. And just writing that down made me realize our trips are very much food centered and also delicious.

  5. DAS says:

    Agreed on the tampon (or other “sanitary” product). Not travel related, but when I was a teenager, as happens to a good proportion of teenagers especially amongst us male-types, I had a bout of rather severe nose-bleeds. The best approach to containing the blood was to use a “light-days” pad (even those can absorb a decent amount of blood) and just hold it over my nose.

    Another magical menstrual related product are the pills you get for PMS — again as a teenager, between growing pains, indigestion from eating all the food I had to eat in order to grow and still have a healthy enough weight that I wouldn’t float away in a wind storm and allergic angio-edema (my allergies got very bad as a teenager), I was constantly bloated, irritable and crampy; IOW, I had a bad case of PMS more or less from puberty to age 17. And whaddya know, if you have the symptoms of PMS, even if you are an adolescent male, those pills really do help!

  6. Jane says:

    Reading other people’s solo travel experiences makes me realize how much of an introvert I am. . . I’ve spent about 9 months total outside of the U.S. doing internships and things, but with very few exceptions I spent all of my time actually traveling alone. I would like to add that travel by yourself is super rewarding, even if you _don’t_ interact a whole bunch with other people. I spent a lot of time in museums and just wandering around city streets.

    I think the main advice I could giver other solo female travelers is: Stay alert, no matter where you are. No place is completely safe (the one time I got mugged, it was in a church garden in full daylight in a reasonably nice part of Madrid), so it’s not a good idea to think you can stay safe by just “avoiding the bad areas.”

  7. Sarah b. says:

    When I was alone in Greece last summer, I passed by a mens cafe daily. I took their hollarin’ until the day one of the old men sprayed me thus soaking me with a hose. I turned around and cussed him out, the final being something along the lines of you think I’m a weak girl who takes your shit? Or just a tourist? I’m neither. Go fuck yourself. All in Greek, since Im greek american and was there visiting sick family. I was able to pass that cafe everyday for the next 2 weeks with just a knod and a smile.

  8. Florence says:

    Out of curiosity, why a scarf?

  9. zuzu says:

    I’m going to guess a scarf is useful for getting into things where women’s heads or shoulders must be covered.

  10. FashionablyEvil says:

    Because scarves are good for everything–warming you up if you’re a little cold, covering your, head, legs, or shoulders if you’re going to a religious site or similar where they require one, tying back your hair, making a somewhat blah outfit a bit more festive for evening, covering your nose and mouth to protect from dust or pollution, etc., etc.

    I am sure someone who is more familiar with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy could list more uses.

  11. Sarah says:

    I’m studying abroad in Italy for a semester – just got here a week ago – so thank you, thank you for this piece. It gives me more courage to travel on my own. There are a lot of other people in the program I’m attending, but I like wandering around by myself. But I am “the five-foot-0 woman who has never been abroad before.” So there’s some fear, too.

    Anyway. Cool article, great advice.

  12. Tori says:

    Also, sometimes airport security in places where tampons aren’t commonplace won’t know what your tampon is, and you can have a great uncomfortable moment where a dude pulls your tampon out of your bag, touches it, smells it, and then looks at you quizzically while you attempt to stammer out an explanation in a language you don’t really speak.

    Though if this is one’s idea of a good time, may I recommend a menstrual cup to heighten the experience? I’ve traveled three times inside the U.S. with mine in my carry-on. Each time I’ve had to explain it to the TSA agent.

    Me: It’s a menstrual cup.

    TSA: A what?

    Me: To catch blood during my period. You know, like a tampon would?

    TSA: All liquids must be in 3 ounce or smaller containers, and all containers must be inside a zip-lock bag.**

    Me: No, there’s no liquid in it now. But if I were bleeding —

    TSA: Ma’am, is this a medical device?

    Me (raising my voice just a little): It’s for my VAGINA.

    TSA (placing the bag back in the tray): We do recommend that you remove batteries in all personal devices prior to screening.*** But we’ll let it slide just this once. Have a nice day.

    ** To be fair, this part only happened one time. But also to be fair, my cup is a 3-ounce or smaller container, and it was in a clear plastic zip-lock bag.

    *** Also in fairness, the sex toy bit only came up one time too, by the same person who assumed it held liquid.

  13. Paloma says:

    Scarves are good for many different reasons- they can be used as protection from the cold or the sun, they can be used to wipe seats/faces/ hands in a pinch, allow you to enter certain religious spaces, can be used to cover the face in case of dust and pollution, and if necessary, can be used as a tourniquet. I’m sure there are more reasons but yeah, really really useful for traveling.

  14. Solo Woman Traveller says:

    Florence:
    Out of curiosity, why a scarf?

    Apart from it suddenly getting chilly, a scarf is useful for getting into places where women are required to cover up, e.g. houses of worship.

  15. Athenia says:

    Hehehe, I wish the Hitch Hiker’s Guide the Galaxy had been written by a woman and starred a woman–instead of a towel, it would have been a tampon!

  16. PrettyAmiable says:

    Do you travel for fun or work? I grew up without a lot of money, and consequently the idea of a vacation anywhere interesting now that I have it seems wasteful. I took my first vacation two years ago, visiting friends in France, and it was a great experience. I’d love to travel more, and I wonder what kind of experiences I could have through work travel. Wondering if anyone has any thoughts on that.

    In other news, I learned today that while paying small bribes (facilitation fees) will normally get you fired, you’re allowed to pay them if you’re a lady getting fucked by airport security in a foreign country without getting screwed by work too. Random, mostly unrelated, but it made me happy.

  17. Placebogirl says:

    If you can manage it I recommend a cup over tampons–you’re never caught short, and it copes with all kind of plumbing. And I totally agree about the scarf–it can be a blankie or a coverup or an extra layer of warmth or whatever else you need.

  18. FashionablyEvil says:

    I’d love to travel more, and I wonder what kind of experiences I could have through work travel. Wondering if anyone has any thoughts on that.

    Depends on where you’re going/what you’re doing. If you’re able to track on a couple extra days (like staying over the weekend instead of flying home Thursday or Friday), you can do all kinds of cool stuff. When I travel for work, I usually try to find fun, local restaurants or nice places to wander around, but I’m usually too tired from the travel and the meetings for too much more than that. When I’m alone, I usually sit at the bar for dinner and chat with whoever’s sitting there.

    Also, travel doesn’t have to be expensive. If you’re traveling internationally, the plane ticket will be expensive, but you can travel in cheaper countries quite comfortably on $50 day per person.

  19. Jill says:

    Out of curiosity, why a scarf?

    I’ve learned this via trial and error, but as others have said, a scarf:

    -Allows you to walk into most houses of worship and be appropriately dressed.
    -Keeps you warm if you’re cold.
    -Can double as a towel if you get wet or are showering and forgot a towel.
    -Is a great bathing suit cover-up.
    -Can be balled up and used as a pillow.
    -Can be a cute, jaunty accessory to dress up a plain outfit.

    Basically SO MANY THINGS, it is always great to have on hand.

  20. Amanda Knox says:

    Sarah: I’m studying abroad in Italy for a semester – just got here a week ago – so thank you, thank you for this piece. It gives me more courage to travel on my own. There are a lot of other people in the program I’m attending, but I like wandering around by myself. But I am “the five-foot-0 woman who has never been abroad before.” So there’s some fear, too.

    Pro tip: DON’T KILL YOUR ROOMMATE.

  21. Sid says:

    The biggest downside to traveling while female is access: There are some places where women simply are not allowed, and it can be frustrating to have to go to the second-rate version of wherever the boys are

    I don’t mean to sound skeptical, rather curious, but of the desirable places in the world to go visit where is this really an issue? The only places I can think of houses are worship, which generally aren’t touristy anyway.

    • Jill says:

      I don’t mean to sound skeptical, rather curious, but of the desirable places in the world to go visit where is this really an issue? The only places I can think of houses are worship, which generally aren’t touristy anyway.

      Oh a lot of places. Certain bathhouses. Certain houses of worship which are actually worth seeing. One thing I was particularly thinking of when I wrote this post was a friend who hitchhiked into a remote area in Egypt to stay overnight at this amazing monastery in the middle of nowhere where they didn’t allow women — if I had gone, I would have been shit up a creek.

  22. peggyluwho says:

    I went on my first solo vacation in July. I had travel alone before, like spending a day or two on my own before meeting up with friends or family, but this was my first trip all by myself. I went to Kauai, because I was a little bit weary about leaving the country alone. I was really shocked by how ‘courageous’ or ‘brave’ everyone thought I was for going on vacation alone. I hadn’t even thought of it. I wanted to go on vacation, no one was available to come with me, and I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I loved it so much that I am looking forward to taking many more vacations by myself, and am feeling more adventurous about where I might go next.

    Also, while I was in Kauai, I made a friend who invited me to come back and visit him anytime, so I’m returning next month.

    Finally, 5000 times YES to the scarf!

  23. Vic says:

    places where tampons aren’t commonplace

    One of those places happens to be the Philippines. Where I study, we get a lot of foreign exchange students from France, China, and other countries. A lot of them are female.

    Napkins are the thing here, maybe because prudishness is a sort of norm here (that, or some people think it takes one’s valuable virginity). So yeah, if you’re comfy with tampons, and you’re going here, pack a lot.

  24. andie says:

    peggyluwho:
    I was really shocked by how ‘courageous’ or ‘brave’ everyone thought I was for going on vacation alone.I hadn’t even thought of it.

    I get that sometimes.. I love taking road trips and this past labour day weekend, I took my daughters on a road trip to Quebec City, just the three of us. A lot of people were like ‘whoa, you’re just going to up and go? That’s really brave (well.. some said crazy)’

    Aside from a slight language barrier (we get taught french in school, being an official language and all, but it’s hardly conversational) I didn’t see what the big deal was, but apparently taking my kids on 11 hours away by car is a big thing…?

  25. chingona says:

    There are places it’s hard to go to as a woman, things it’s hard to do, but my experience was that being a woman also gave you access to places that men couldn’t go, like inside homes.

  26. Kristen J. says:

    peggyluwho: I went on my first solo vacation in July. I had travel alone before, like spending a day or two on my own before meeting up with friends or family, but this was my first trip all by myself. I went to Kauai, because I was a little bit weary about leaving the country alone. I was really shocked by how ‘courageous’ or ‘brave’ everyone thought I was for going on vacation alone. I hadn’t even thought of it. I wanted to go on vacation, no one was available to come with me, and I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I loved it so much that I am looking forward to taking many more vacations by myself, and am feeling more adventurous about where I might go next. Also, while I was in Kauai, I made a friend who invited me to come back and visit him anytime, so I’m returning next month.Finally, 5000 times YES to the scarf!

    Oh I used to travel to Kauai by myself all the time. And Maui. I never really thought of that as “travel” since its just other islands, but they are fantastic places to go by yourself. And its so easy to pick up a hiking buddy or a golf buddy or a spa buddy anywhere.

  27. Sid says:

    Jill: Oh a lot of places. Certain bathhouses. Certain houses of worship which are actually worth seeing. One thing I was particularly thinking of when I wrote this post was a friend who hitchhiked into a remote area in Egypt to stay overnight at this amazing monastery in the middle of nowhere where they didn’t allow women — if I had gone, I would have been shit up a creek.

    Some sympathy on the bathhouses , but frankly the more houses of worship (especially remote monasteries) that are closed to tourists of any sex the better. I think these places should be exclusive to their original intent, not for a bunch of outsiders to indulge their inner Elizabeth Gilbert.

  28. Heather says:

    peggyluwho:
    I was really shocked by how ‘courageous’ or ‘brave’ everyone thought I was for going on vacation alone.

    This summer I had an internship is a city where I’d never been and when my mom told her co-workers about it, they told her how brave I was, which was the last conception I had of my decision to go there.

  29. JS says:

    I’ve been hosting couchsurfers for years. Lots of women (from ages 18 to 72) have stayed with me.

    The 72 year old, by the time she got to me, had traveled alone for the better part of 6 months, and if she couldn’t get a free place to stay, would sleep in her car. Most of the younger ones don’t take such long trips, but I’ve hosted a number of women traveling alone who’ve been on the road for a month or more.

  30. Matt says:

    I second what Comrade Kevin said, thanks Jill.

    I’ve had so much fun traveling alone in West Africa (especially Cape Verde, Senegal, and Mali) and Europe in the past that I’m a big advocate of people, especially women, going outside of their comfort zone to experience the awesomeness of the people and places not home.

  31. Matt says:

    I second what Comrade Kevin said, thanks Jill.

    I’ve had so much fun traveling alone in West Africa (especially Cape Verde, Senegal, and Mali) and Europe in the past that I’m a big advocate of people, especially women, going outside of their comfort zone to experience the awesomeness of the people and places not home.

  32. zuzu says:

    Sid: Some sympathy on the bathhouses , but frankly the more houses of worship (especially remote monasteries) that are closed to tourists of any sex the better.I think these places should be exclusive to their original intent, not for a bunch of outsiders to indulge their inner Elizabeth Gilbert.

    That’s where they put the art.

    Also, given that we’re past the feudal system where monasteries got income from their patrons, they need to make a living somehow. Some make bread, some train dogs, and some open up their historically-significant monasteries for tourists.

  33. Medea says:

    Sid: Some sympathy on the bathhouses , but frankly the more houses of worship (especially remote monasteries) that are closed to tourists of any sex the better. I think these places should be exclusive to their original intent, not for a bunch of outsiders to indulge their inner Elizabeth Gilbert.

    Their original intent included providing a place for travelers to rest, at least in Europe.

  34. benvolio says:

    I travel alone all the time. I travel abroad as often as I can afford it. I am happy to drive a 10-year-old used car so that I can go to Europe every year. I’m happy to pay for an experience rather than buy some trinket. I’m excited to order the thing on the menu I’ve never had, or maybe never heard of. I like comparing the various formulae of diet coke from country to country. I love the planning, finding just the right hotel, poring over guidebooks and maps, and working out train schedules.

    I’ve had very few dodgy encounters, and never experienced firsthand any crime. But I am careful to pay attention to what’s going on around me. Partly for safety, partly for fun.

    And in addition to the ones I pack, I buy a new scarf in every country I visit!

  35. Elisabeth says:

    I think there was a comment on the NY Times article that made a lot of sense, which is that gender is merely one aspect of your embodied identity of which you must be cognizant (and which will affect your experience) while traveling. Race/ethnicity/nationality (actual or perceived), size/shape, appearance, age, etc. will all affect how you are treated, and most things have positives and negatives, creating different experiences, rather than better or worse experiences.

    As someone’s comment pointed out, a 6 ft. tall woman might have a very different experience than a 5 ft. tall woman, depending on where you’re traveling. A woman who easily blends in with the native female population might have a very different experience than one who stands out in a particularly noticeable way. Looking like you’re from a wealthy developed country might make you more a target for theft, but it also might mean the police take you more seriously and even decrease your chances of being a victim of violent crime, etc. I think it’s great to offer up our own experiences, but even as women are experiences might be very different due to other aspects of our embodied identity.

  36. GinnyC says:

    I want to seriously second Elisabeth. I’m currently living in Mexico City. What you look like and how you dress both interact with local stereotypes about class and beauty to have a huge impact on how people will treat you as a visitor. Also privlege matters when traveling in terms of personal confort and security. Racism, homophobia, and very real danger for people who are visibly transgendered or queer are all too common in too many places.

    On a lighter note, scaves are great! Thin but warm shawls are even better. For what it is worth, I strongly recommend staying in a hostel if you will be somewhere more than a day or two. Local roomates you can trust, ie
    friends of friends, are best if you will be somewhere a month or two. This is not always possible, but it helps you keep from feeling alone and depressed

  37. Angel H. says:

    Elisabeth: I think there was a comment on the NY Times article that made a lot of sense, which is that gender is merely one aspect of your embodied identity of which you must be cognizant (and which will affect your experience) while traveling. Race/ethnicity/nationality (actual or perceived), size/shape, appearance, age, etc. will all affect how you are treated, and most things have positives and negatives, creating different experiences, rather than better or worse experiences.As someone’s comment pointed out, a 6 ft. tall woman might have a very different experience than a 5 ft. tall woman, depending on where you’re traveling. A woman who easily blends in with the native female population might have a very different experience than one who stands out in a particularly noticeable way. Looking like you’re from a wealthy developed country might make you more a target for theft, but it also might mean the police take you more seriously and even decrease your chances of being a victim of violent crime, etc. I think it’s great to offer up our own experiences, but even as women are experiences might be very different due to other aspects of our embodied identity.

    Exactly. Ever since this was posted, I’ve been trying to find this article written by a Black woman about her experiences traveling abroad. She had spoken to one of her White female friends who had raved about her trip to Italy. When the author went, she had a very negative experience.

    Does anyone else remember that article? I think it might have been linked-to on Racialicious, but I can’t find it.

  38. Angel H. says:

    There’s actually an excellent thread going on in Racialicious about traveling as a American POC:

    http://www.racialicious.com/2011/09/08/quoted-on-volunteering-and-culture-shock

  39. GinnyC says:

    Thanks for the link. I’m reading it now.

    Angel H.:
    There’s actually an excellent thread going on in Racialicious about traveling as a American POC:

    http://www.racialicious.com/2011/09/08/quoted-on-volunteering-and-culture-shock

  40. Ayngelina says:

    I spent the last 15 months traveling through Latin America and can attest it’s wonderful for solo women and very safe.

  41. matttbastard says:

    Angel H:

    Does anyone else remember that article? I think it might have been linked-to on Racialicious, but I can’t find it.

    I don’t know if this is the Racialicious post that you were thinking of, but it seems apropos, regardless.

  42. Pingback: Tampons While Traveling: Female Bonding Experiences | My Sex Professor: Sexuality Education

  43. Annie D says:

    My experience, largely in France and Germany, was that as I scoured hostel common rooms for other lone travellers to hang out with, I ended up accidentally flirting with the mostly male lone travellers. I’d decided before I went that I would use the chance to practice coming out to strangers, with the hopes of making it easier to come out to my friends and family when I returned home.

    The problem with this approach was that “lesbian” is often mistranslated into “bisexual” or “just waiting for the right man to show me what I’m missing out on,” and alone in a foreign city, potentially with a language barrier, explaining their mistake can be difficult.

    Two problems I had were: Being stalked from Paris to Versailles by a guy I’d asked directions from on the platform and being groped on the couch in the hostel common area wh
    ile waiting for breakfast to open by one of the guys I’d been hanging out with the night before. I also had a really fun night hanging out with a Frenchman from the hostel which ended on an awkward note which could have been prevented by coming out earlier. In the first case I lost him by ducking into a bathroom and out again immediately before getting lost in another corner of the exhibition. In the second case I pushed him away, firmly told him no and left to get breakfast elsewhere. In the last scenario, he said, “why didn’t you say earlier, we could have gone to a dyke bar” which was just disappointing.

    I’d recommend looking less straight (I have wavy hair which refuses to hint at my orientation when short AND asymmetrical) and dropping “my (not necessarily real) girlfriend” into conversations early if you’re travelling in a liberal area, or inventing a boyfriend to deter male attention in other areas (you could even use gender neutral language if you’re trying to keep the deception to a minimum).

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