Embracing solo travel is empowering for women

By Rick Steves
This item appears on page 49 of the March 2019 issue.

Carrying yourself with confidence is one of the keys to a successful solo travel experience. Photos by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

I've been inspired over the years by female colleagues and friends who happily and safely travel solo overseas. There are challenges but also many rewards awaiting women who venture out on their own.

Whether it's due to concerns about loneliness or safety, many women put off their travel dreams because they don't want to do it by themselves. But traveling with the wrong person can make you feel lonelier than traveling alone. When you're solo, you're more likely to meet people because you're seen as approachable.

Solo travel is intensely personal. You can discover more about yourself at the same time you're discovering more about your destination. You can travel at your own pace, do the things that interest you, eat where and when you like and splurge where you want to splurge.

Combating loneliness is easy. When sightseeing during the day, if you meet travelers whose company you'd enjoy, invite them to rendezvous for dinner. When you do eat out alone, take something to busy yourself with.

If you stay in hostels, you'll have a built-in family (plenty of hostels are comfortable and welcoming to people of all ages). Or choose small pensions and B&Bs, where the owners and fellow guests sharing breakfast have time to talk. Take a group walking tour of a city (check your guidebook or ask at the tourist office).

Consider taking a food tour. Not only will you eat well, you'll get to hang out with the local guide and other foodie tourists. Try meeting up with other solo travelers through social media. Like-minded individuals can find one another via Meetup, whose worldwide members welcome visitors to events such as photography walks or happy hours.

As for staying safe, the key is to use the same good judgment you would at home. Use caution, and figure out what feels right to you as you travel.

Theft and harassment are two big concerns that hit women more than men. In America, theft and harassment are especially scary because of their connection with assault. In Europe, where I do most of my traveling, you'll rarely, if ever, hear of violence. As for experiencing harassment there, you're far more likely to think, 'This guy is really annoying' than, 'This guy is going to hurt me.'

Don't miss out on meeting new people out of fear; just be choosy, and consider whether you're in a safe setting.

In certain areas, you may get more attention than you're used to. (In Italy, for example, it's usually in the form of the "long look.") Be aware that in the Mediterranean world, when you smile and look a man in the eyes, it's often considered an invitation. Wear dark sunglasses and you can stare all you want.

To minimize attention, take your cues from what local women wear. Don't be overly polite if you're bothered by someone; ditch them as soon as they annoy you. Use unambiguous facial expressions, clear body language and a loud, firm voice to fend off unwanted attention.

If a man comes too close, say "No" (or the local word for "no") firmly and loudly. ("Basta!," meaning "Enough!," works well in Italy.)

If you feel like you're being followed or hassled, don't worry about overreacting or seeming foolish. Yell if the situation warrants it. Or head to the nearest hotel and chat up the person behind the desk until your admirer moves on. Ask the hotelier to call a cab to take you to your hotel or next sightseeing stop.

Walk purposefully with your head up; look like you know where you're going even when you don't.

Blogging, trip planning and sending updates back home are great ways to combat loneliness while dining solo.

If you get lost in a seedy neighborhood, be savvy about whom you ask for help; seek out another woman or a family, or go into a store or restaurant to ask for directions or to study your map. Locals are often looking out for you. However, a healthy dose of skepticism and an eagle eye in crowded and isolated places will help you stay safe.

Wear a real or fake wedding ring. There's no need to tell men you're traveling alone or to disclose whether you're married or single. Lie unhesitatingly. And if you are arranging to meet a guy, choose a public place.

It's not a bad idea to talk over your plans with your hotelier before you head out, especially at night. If a situation or locale doesn't feel right, leave. It is better to be safe than sorry.

Realizing that you have what it takes to be your own guide is empowering. Traveling solo is rich and fulfilling. All it takes is some common sense, good decision-making and confidence. You'll come away with life-changing experiences and great stories to tell your friends.

Rick Steves writes European travel guides and hosts travel shows on public TV and radio. Contact Rick Steves' Europe (Edmonds, WA; 425/771-8303, www.ricksteves.com).