Safety Tips from a Solo Traveler

By Nomadic Matt | Published June 2nd, 2011

Ayngelina Bacon is Magic standing in from of a mountain in PeruThis is a guest post by Ayngelina of Bacon is Magic. She will be writing a series of articles on traveling as a solo female in your thirties.

In the last 14 months, I have traveled from Mexico to Argentina solo. What surprises me most are people’s reactions to a female alone in Latin America; they often ask what special safety precautions I take. My first reaction is that I have none. But then I realize that after nearly two decades of traveling, some things are second nature and feel like common sense.

The Basics
Scan your driver’s license, passport, and health card and email them to yourself and a friend or family member. If you lose your passport, it makes getting a new one much easier.

Always let someone know where you are going, when you expect to arrive, and where you are staying. When you arrive, confirm those details. If something should happen, at least one person knows where you are.

Trust your instincts
. If someone approaches you and you feel uncomfortable, do not worry about being rude. There are many times I have ignored men who approached in a way that didn’t feel right. I keep walking and ignore them. I may sometimes be wrong, but it’s not a chance I’m prepared to take.

Smile. When you appear to be friendly, other people will reach out to you to help you. A simple smile actually saved me from being robbed once. I gave a pregnant woman my seat on a bus while two other people were trying to convince me I should get off the bus early. The woman overheard the conversation and gave me a look that I knew meant something was wrong. They got off, and she told me that I didn’t need to get off and was going the right way.

Transportation
Two kids walking in front of the colorful transportation buses in South America
Public city transportation is ripe for pickpockets. Never carry anything in your back pocket, and always be aware of your surroundings. It’s not just young men that pickpocket, either. Sometimes it’s a group of women who will kindly bump into you or cram around you on a bus.

On longer rides, if you would prefer to sit next to a woman on a bus or train, simply ask. In some cases, the clerks have passenger information and are happy to help you.

On buses to other cities, I introduce myself to the bus driver and tell him where I’m going. It seems a bit silly, but a lot of the bus drivers will call my name when we reach my destination, and some pull my backpack off first and sit it next to them so no one else grabs it.

Lastly, find out how much a cab will cost from the bus station. I always find this out from a hostel. To double check, I ask the security guard inside the bus station where to find the best cabs so that when I walk outside, I’m confident on where to go and the price to ask.

Walking Around
My goal is not to blend in as a local (there are too many subtleties that I cannot learn), but I do aim to look as if I live there and know what I’m doing. My best hope is that thieves think I’m an expat and shift their attention to someone who looks easier to rob.

I have a very tattered bag that goes over my shoulder. On travel days, it carries my netbook, DSLR, and iPod, but you would never think electronics are in it because there are no special brand names on it or fancy padding. It’s a bag that has been torn and patched many times and never signals “expensive things are inside.”

Never wear your iPod while walking around. Not only does it make you less aware of your surroundings, but it makes you a target for thieves who will either pick pocket you or just confront you with a weapon.

Carry small change in one pocket and larger bills in your bra (or undies, men). Never flash big bills to anyone.

If you need to look at your map, never do it in a street. Pop into a store or restaurant—anywhere but on the corner.

Accommodation
Colorful hostel door in South America
When I arrive at a hostel, I try to be as friendly as I can at the desk. After I put my bags in, I ask the front desk if they have a map and can point out the bad areas of town. I also ask if there are common scams that I should know about. I’m shocked at how many people arrive in Buenos Aires without their hostel or hotel telling them about the many, common scams all the locals know about.

Carry the business card of wherever you are staying. Hostels and hotels have such generic names that it’s easy to forget and get lost, especially if you’re out drinking.

One last word:
If you’re traveling alone and you do get into a situation where people want something that you have, just give it to them. There are some very poor people in the world who do bad things, and unfortunately stealing is one of them. It does not mean they’ll go the extra step and harm you.

It’s why we have insurance. You can get another iPod or laptop or backpack. Don’t take a bad situation and make it worse by fighting back.

My goal is to be aware, not afraid. I take steps to minimize risk, but sometimes it’s all about luck.

Ayngelina left a great job, boyfriend, friends, and apartment to find inspiration in Latin America. You can read about her adventures at Bacon is Magic (which it is!).

comments 28 Comments

Good tip about asking to sit next to a woman on a bus. I have never thought to do that.

It hadn’t occurred to me either until I reached Peru and I saw a bus company had different options for seating MF or FF actually I think it was MH or MM as it was in Spanish but I then realized if I had to sit next to someone on an overnight bus I’d probably prefer it to be a woman as there was less chance of snoring!

These tips are just as good for solo male travelers. Thanks I will keep all this in mind. It’s all just common sense but sometimes you just need to read it or have someone telling you to actually get to be aware of these small things.

I completely agree with you, when it comes to safety there are not a lot of tips I would say are female-specific as men need to be just as careful.

LR

If you’re a guy traveling alone, don’t smile, especially at local women and children, they might perceive you as a sex predator. And never act chivalrous, either. Local women, especially in Muslim countries, get offended by it. Also, be prepared to deal with cock-blocking local men as well. Those who try to prevent you from going near their women. It happens all the time. And for women, if you look aloof, chances of harassment and violence are even greater than non-aloof women.

Colleen Setchell

These are really great tips, thank you. Like the one about asking the hostel about known scams and also asking security guards at the station about the good taxis.
Thanks :-)

I have been to so many cities with well known scams but hostels and hotels don’t post signs because they don’t want to scare you but I would rather know.

This article is speaking from my soul! I do literally all of the things you mention, except of saying my name to the bus drivers. The one working out the most for me is always pretend to know what I’m doing and where I’m going :D

You have to tread a fine line in Latin America with the bus driver, you don’t want him to think you are interested.

It happened to me once in Peru where a 50 year old bus driver who graciously offered to take me to a hotel room. Jokes aside he was very polite when I firmly declined his offer.

I always think the less you look like a stranger, the more people will help you and watch out for you.

David Krug

I guess most of the time I blend into Mexico so much I forget to take precautions. Good reminders!

I blend in somewhat, people tend to think I am from Argentina or Colombia so not completely a gringo – that is until I open my mouth!

Great tips Ayngelina. I like your tip about introducing yourself to the bus driver and telling them where you’re going, that’s a great idea I’ve never thought about. I definitely agree with asking the hostel for a city map and taking a business card… my navigation skills aren’t the best, so at least I know how to get back if I ever get really lost.

– Lily

I tend to be overly friendly with people I know can help me and they are usually quite nice about it when they see I am alone.

Hey Ayngelina – awesome post and cool ideas…what sort of insurance did you get that would cover possessions?? Most of the companies we were looking at for travel insurance were fairly comprehensive should we end up in a hospital or need medication, but these ones weren’t great when it came to covering stolen laptops or cameras etc….

I use World Nomads and they are good for theft. But keep in mind your possessions have to be on you so say you check your bag onto a bus, it is no longer in your possession and therefore they won’t reimburse for the theft. But if you have the bag on you and someone takes it and runs you just need to file a police report and claim the theft.

I think that all the points you mentioned here not only work well for solo traveller but for couples or people who are travelling together.

Aside from asking to sit next to people on the bus, every other point is a precaution we always take while we travel.

The biggest one though is Smile. The more we are friendly to people around the more we find people are always willing to help. Don’t always assume that people are trying to scam you!

Agreed, when people ask me for solo tips or female-specific tips I tend to struggle with something actually unique to women traveling alone which is why we didn’t want to frame this post as tips specifically from solo female travel.

I love travel days because I meet so many nice people. I have wonderful stories of half the bus yelling to me that it was my turn to get off and people getting off with me and negotiating the cab for me because they didn’t want me to get ripped off.

99% of people in the world are really wonderful.

Awesome advice. I use most of them as well. Never asked a security guard for taxi tips though, that’s a new one.

I say hello to all the bus drivers (or assistants), and tell them where I’m going too. Most of the time they remember to say something at my stop. I’ll also ask people around me in the bus (usually a nice little old lady) what city we are in, and about how much longer it is to my stop.

But I’ve never introduced myself to a driver. May have to try that… probably won’t have to worry about invites to a hotel. :)

I also get the taxi driver to tell me which part of the cities to stay out of or bad streets, which is particularly useful here in Buenos Aires because you can have a bad street in the middle of a good neighborhood.

Excellent post and very valuable advice! The advice to talk with the hostel/hotel owners and get a nap is gold, not only do you avoid the dangerous areas, you get recos on great restaurants. I would recommend that smiling as a women traveling solo in India is perhaps best used sparingly. As a Midwestern (US) woman who arrived smiling all over India, I got some unwanted and unneeded attention as the smile was typically viewed as an invitation. I quickly learned to smile sparingly and use that great advice on “going with your gut.” That said, there were more than enough instances where the kindness of strangers saved me from some less than ideal situations.

This is really an excellent post and advice!

Kristin agree with you that smiling should be used wisely, and more often with women so that men don’t get the wrong idea – like the bus driver who wanted to get a hotel :)

Dorian

Ayngelina,

Always enjoy reading your articles and blogs.. It helps that your site has the word “bacon” in it…lol

Careful traveler

This is very useful post! In fact travel safety is one of the most important thing for today’s travelers. I just want to add something. Traveler should know that in order to be in safety during travel she (he) must prepare for travel before trip regardless of what country (city, region) he (she) is going to. First of all you should learn your travel places. Pay your attention to presence (or forecasts) of extreme weather, natural and man-made disasters, ecological and epidemiological problems, social and political tensions etc. Create a list of possible dangers that may affect you during travel. Thereafter you can prepare for your travel (to equip relevant clothes, first aid kit, maps and guids etc.). Be prepared and enjoy your travel!

Murielle

Very interesting tips ! I have traveled a lot solo mostly in south-east Asia which is very much a safe place for women. A tip, in muslim countries, it might be a good idea to wear a wedding ring since a married woman especially a foreigner will be more respected by men. Then, you can always say you’ll be meeting your husband if someone gets a bit annoying …I have traveled a lot in Malaysia and sometimes alone in night buses without any problems following this simple rule. (along with being dressed so as not to offend anyone).

Debby

I’ll have my first time travel to europe with my girls on September and these tips are really good and useful! Thanks Ayngelina

Emma

i travel solo few years ago, another safety tip:
never NEVER say you are traveling solo, lie, you are with friends and/or family, but that day you decide diferent activities, let them know SOMEONE is waiting for you in the end of the day and someone is going to miss you and look for you

Thanks for the tips! I’m planning a solo trip to Southeast Asia and Japan this year, and these will help me out!

Thanks Ayngelina! Really good info.

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