The Points & Miles Backpacker: How to Solo Travel Safely

Aug 20, 2018

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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.

The deepest and longest-lasting connections I’ve made while traveling were formed when I was backpacking solo. It remains my preferred style of travel. However, the thought of being alone in an unknown foreign land can bring up safety concerns that range from valid to fantastical (and these increase exponentially for women.) I’ll examine these concerns and talk to some seasoned female travelers to show how solo travel, which many find to be the most rewarding kind, can be done safely.

The Hollywood Influence

When the inexperienced traveler thinks of backpacking, sometimes visions arise that involve being kidnapped and sold for torture, organs, sex slavery or other purposes that would put a major damper on your holiday. Often forgotten is the fact that these visions originated in Hollywood films such as Hostel, Taken and Turistas, with no basis in reality.

Still, once a stigma is created, it tends to linger no matter how irrational – just ask sharks 43 years after Jaws. On a recent walking tour in Bratislava, Slovakia, I learned that backpacking tourism in the city dropped 75% in 2006. The horror flick Hostel was released in 2005 – a fictional movie set in Bratislava, about backpackers getting kidnapped, tortured and killed.

This won't happen. Image from the movie Hostel courtesy of Letterboxd.
This won’t happen to you. Image from the movie Hostel courtesy of Letterboxd.

Just think, how would the world actually look if it was how Hollywood movies portrayed it? Secret agents would all be incredibly sexy, aliens would land on Earth every other week, and Matthew McConaughey would have fallen in love with each one of us. I’ve stayed at hundreds of hostels and the number of times I’ve been brutally murdered remains at zero. You can safely expect the same.

Female Solo Travel

With the irrational fears out of the way, we can now focus on realistic concerns of solo travel. And these concerns are understandably greater for women — a topic for which I am horribly underqualified. However, I did solicit the expertise of two travel bloggers who have traveled solo extensively and happen to be women.

Lori Zaino is one of the longest-standing contributors to The Points Guy and shares her travel stories and pictures on her blog Travel Like Lori. Michelle Halpern write the blog Live Like It’s the Weekend and shares her travel photos and perspectives on her popular Instagram page. I asked them both about their experiences when traveling solo.

What precautions do you take to ensure your safety when traveling solo?

Lori: I am always on high alert, but I’m the kind of person who is constantly aware of her surroundings at all times, so it’s not that different from when I’m walking around Madrid, the city where I live. I use many of the same precautions when alone at home that I do when traveling: being aware of my personal belongings at all times, especially when on public transport, reading reviews of hotels, hostels, drivers, tours etc. ahead of time to vet any possible issues or situations that may arise, researching spots ahead of time to understand what potential dangers are (e.g. certain neighborhoods to stay away from or areas I shouldn’t be alone in at night).

Lori Zaino riding the railway in Sri Lanka. Photo courtesy of Lori's Instagram.
Lori Zaino riding the railway in Sri Lanka. Image courtesy of Lori’s Instagram.

Michelle: I think most precautions come down to common sense and are typically the same things I would do back home if I were alone as well. For example, I always opt for taxis or Ubers rather than walking alone at night if it’s an area that is unfamiliar, not 100% safe or a little more deserted. I’m also much more conservative when it comes to drinking alcohol when I’m alone rather than out with a group of friends or fellow travelers. When possible, I like to book my flights so that I’m landing during daylight hours so that I have time when more people are out and when everything is more visible to get my bearings.

Does the location affect the way you act or dress?

Lori: In countries like India or Morocco, spots in the Middle East or Africa, I cover my shoulders and knees, sometimes my hair, as to not warrant unwanted attention. Understanding the local customs of each place helps you blend more. I find the more I respect the local culture, the more I’m respected in return — and the safer I feel.

Michelle: The way I dress definitely depends on the location and how conservative or religious the country is. If I’m in a more conservative country like Morocco or India I’ll dress much more covered up than I would in a place like Europe so that I don’t call unnecessary attention to myself. At the end of the day I just listen to my intuition and see what it tells me.

Michelle says she dresses more conservatively in religiously conservative countries like Morocco. Image courtesy of Live Like It's the Weekend.
Michelle says she dresses more conservatively in religiously conservative countries like Morocco. Image courtesy of Live Like It’s the Weekend.

What is the most important thing women should remember when traveling to stay safe?

Lori: Be alert, be in the know, and trust yourself and your intuition. Go light on the alcohol, keep your personal belongings and valuables close, and have fun! Don’t put your safety at risk to save money, either. If it’s a choice between that two euros to take a tuk tuk or walking home alone in a shady-looking alley, spend the money! You can’t put a price on your safety.

Michelle: To always follow your intuition. Being polite or courteous, although ideal, is not worth it if it means sacrificing your level of comfort when it comes to your safety. If a situation feels strange or off, listen to your gut and remove yourself from the scenario even if it means offending someone.

Universal Safety Concerns

Men, too, should always exercise common sense and caution in unfamiliar places. However, most threats to safety tend to come after drinking too much alcohol or being around people who have. Just like at home, anything can happen to anyone at any time, but there are ways to mitigate the threat by avoiding risky situations.

Have your fun, but keep it reasonable. Photo of a Jager bomb train in Budapest from a previous phase of my life.
Have your fun, but keep it reasonable, i.e. don’t do this. Image of a Jäger bomb train in Budapest courtesy of a previous phase in my life.

Petty crime, such as pickpocketing and mugging, is a much more common occurrence than the threats I mention here, and it will be the subject of its own future column. The risk is no greater, though, than in major US cities and shouldn’t keep you at home.

Final Words of Advice

Overall, safety concerns are more serious for women. Both Michelle and Lori emphasize their constant attention to safety, which can be an afterthought for male travelers. “Safety is the number one reason men can pretty much travel anywhere they want and women may think twice,” Lori acknowledged, adding “women so often, traveling or not, combat harassment, even in the smallest forms.”

That shouldn’t, however, be a deterrent, as Michelle concluded: “This is the reality of being a woman in this world and unfortunately throwing caution to the wind is not really something afforded to us even in 2018, but that doesn’t mean that women can’t have just as many incredible experiences as men while traveling solo.”

Lori in Machu Picchu, courtesy of Travel Like Lori.
Lori in Machu Picchu, courtesy of Travel Like Lori.

Lori has some final tips, which could also apply to male travelers: “Make friends, especially other females in your hostels or tour groups so you won’t always be alone. I find first-time solo female travelers may be more comfortable in setting such as surf or yoga retreat, one in which they can make new friends, but also be on their own if they want. It’s a good ‘starter’ way to travel solo, especially if you’re going to a brand new country.” She finishes, “Once you start traveling alone, you’ll want to do it more and more,” which I agree with completely.

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Featured photo by Thomas Griesbeck on Unsplash

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