• March 2011

Got the Travel Bug? Terrific! But Heed These Words of Caution

By Bruce Northam
Host, American Detour

Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling book “Eat, Pray, Love,” inspired millions of women to want to take to the road and have an adventure. I can relate, as I have explored and chronicled 125 countries as a travel writer. I have never really felt fear as a man traveling alone. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case for women.

Consider the disappearance almost a year ago of Aubrey Sacco, 23, of Greeley, Colorado, who never returned from her trip trekking through the Himalayas in Nepal. The search for Aubrey continues, and you can read more about it on Facebook. Her disappearance renewed my urge to warn women about some of the realities of eating, praying, and loving alone in foreign lands.

For assistance, I asked two of my favorite female travel writers to lend a hand. Carla King, (pictured above and below) has ridden motorcycles solo across Asia, Europe, and America. And Lisa Alpine, (also pictured below) is in the midst of visiting 112 countries, and has hitched rides solo in canoes through tributaries of the Amazon.

As veteran travelers, we share tips on how to stay safe so you can have the adventures that make life worth living.


15 Safety Tips for Women Traveling Solo

Carla’s advice:

1. Use your intuition, and never talk yourself out of acting on your gut feelings. It’s unwise to convince yourself to “work through your fear.” Our animal instincts are ancient, and there for a reason. Trust them.

2. Slow down. When you are in a hurry, it’s easy to get distracted. The key to being safe is to pay attention to your surroundings so your intuition and instincts have time to kick in. When you take your time, you are also less likely to be careless and leave things behind.

3. On the issue of “packin’.” People often ask me if I carry a weapon, and the answer is no, because I might rely on a weapon instead of my intuition. Instead, I carry a cable lock with a motion sensor to secure my belongings. My favorite is the Targus Defcon with a retractable cable and audio alarm, because you can also hang it on your hotel room door, or attach it to the zipper on your tent. The alarm will sound if it’s moved, and it’s really loud.

4. Please, dress appropriately. Try not to call attention to yourself by wearing a flowery Hawaiian T-shirt, like a tourist just off a cruise ship. Be neat and respectful of the local culture, and for maximum efficiency, opt for wrinkle-free, quick-dry clothing. Also, learn and respect local customs. In some countries they couldn’t care less if you walk around topless, while in others showing your knees is verboten.

5. Ask for help when you need it. People love helping others, and often don’t have enough opportunity to do it. Enlist the assistance of a shopkeeper, restaurateur, or the nearest old lady if a man is bugging you. They’ll give him hell, and that’ll be that.


Lisa’s advice:

6. Before you go, learn a few basic words in the native language. This will endear you to the locals. Even if your communications are garbled and childlike, it can help you work your way out of a jam.

7. Hire a local guide who isn’t just a tourist hound, but someone who can show you the insider places and whom people know and respect.

8. Scan your passport, as well as airline tickets, traveler’s checks, and other essential documents, and email them to yourself along with bank account and credit card account numbers. Also, include international 800# contact information for all of the above and the local embassy contacts.

9. Don’t pull out large wads of cash when shopping or paying for hotels or meals. And don’t reveal where your valuables are stashed on your body. Calculate what you will need for spending that day and have only that amount readily accessible.

10. Be respectful. When you are, you will most definitely get respect from the locals. Simply follow their cultural mores, and learn the appropriate cultural behavior for females in the regions where you are traveling. When appropriate, be sure to cover your arms and hair. Don’t look men directly in the eyes. Speak in a soft voice. Use the local greeting ritual. And observe the women around you. They will teach you what not to do.


Bruce’s advice:

11. Realize that cops and bartenders know their terrain better than the local chamber of commerce, and they work nights. Cordially get to know them when you roll into town. Inquire about the best meal deals, zones of peril, inviting accommodations, safe strolling, camping, worthwhile attractions, and colorful hangouts.

12. One of your biggest allies on the road is the person who owns or manages the place where you’re staying. They’re likely not going anywhere anytime soon and should be consulted about storing valuables, shopping referrals, and where not to go. As innkeepers or landlords in an entertainment business where word travels fast, the last thing they want is mistreated guests.

13. The first thing you pack is yourself. Then comes luggage — the less you lug, the less you’re a target for thieves.

14. Buy clothing with secret pockets. Check out www.scottevest.com, and www.exofficio.com. Or, sew hidden pockets into the interiors of your clothing (which can be very inexpensive to do in many countries).

15. Most suggestions I pose for women traveling solo double for men. Whether you’re hiking or barhopping, it makes sense to band with a group that’s already traveling together, at least until you understand the lay of the land.


About Bruce Northam and American Detour

Bruce Northam, the writer and host of American Detour, has reported (mostly good news) from 125 countries on seven continents. His keynote speech, Street Anthropology, is a hit on campus and at corporate events and Governor’s Tourism Conferences. A National Geographic Society “Destinations Rated” panelist, his book, “Globetrotter Dogma,” is an award-winning ode to freestyle wandering. For more, visit www.AmericanDetour.com.