Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

The Truth About Solo Female Travel and Safety

115

Grand Bazaar

There’s a sad story in the news that I’ve been wanting to discuss here.  An American woman, Sarai Sierra, was found dead in Istanbul.  She was traveling alone at the time.

This story is indisputably tragic, especially since Sarai was a mother to two young children.  Predictably, there was an outcry.  Go onto any site covering this story — here’s one from NBC – and leaf through some of the comments:

“It’s not safe for a woman to travel alone.”

“What was she thinking?!”

“I’d never let any woman I loved travel alone.”

Hammam Kate

Hi.  That’s me, traveling alone in Istanbul.  And I’m here to tell you that the outcry is misguided.

Fear, Rage, and Searching for Answers

I understand the anger out there.  People need something to blame, something to assuage the dark fears that this same thing could happen to someone they love.

Very little is known about what happened to Sarai, so people are focusing on the one thing they know for sure: she was traveling alone.  That is literally the only fact about the context of her murder known at this time.

The truth is that you need to consider the source.  Many of the people blaming this murder on solo female travel are not well traveled themselves and know little about other parts of the world.  It’s no coincidence that this story is huge in the United States, a country where only 37% of the population have passports and both long-term and solo travel are uncommon.

Kate in Cappadocia

Solo Travel and Safety

I’ve built a career out of encouraging women to travel the world alone.  Part of that has been combating the ridiculous misinformation out there and showing you, through my experiences, how safe the world can be when you take steps to protect yourself.

Safety is researching your destination in advance and learning what actions to take and what regions to avoid.  Safety is only accepting drinks from bartenders and not letting them out of your sight.  Safety is taking cabs at night when necessary.  Safety is hiding secret stashes of money in different places.  Safety is, most importantly, listening to your intuition and getting away from situations that feel potentially dangerous.

Safety is not putting on all the diamonds you own, getting blackout drunk, and walking through a shady neighborhood by yourself at night.  I know this sounds outlandish, but you would be surprised at how many women do exactly this, both at home and while traveling.

In lots of ways, other countries are just as safe or even safer than home.  I’ve never felt safer than in places like Southeast Asia, Iceland, and Jordan.  No matter what, I’m far less likely to be a victim of a mass shooting when I’m outside the United States.  And let’s not forget that the one time in my life that I got mugged, it was literally in front of my apartment in Boston.

However, the sad truth is that no matter how prepared you are, no matter how many precautions you take, sometimes tragedies happen.

That goes for abroad, and that goes for home.  You could be killed by a drunk driver tomorrow in Massachusetts or Madagascar, in Ohio or Oslo.

9/11 didn’t stop me from returning to New York City.  The Costa Concordia disaster didn’t put me off cruises for life.  As terrible as Sarai’s story is, her death is not going to stop me from traveling solo.

#WeGoSolo

Comments

115 Responses to “The Truth About Solo Female Travel and Safety”
  1. Good shout McCulley! Some great tips in there that apply anywhere really. It’s all about perspective with this media hype.

  2. Absolutely great article. Americans always seem to fear what they don’t understand. When the only reason they don’t understand is because they are too afraid to go out and see the world for themselves. All they know about the world is what is on the news(who only look for ratings).

    This article is directly to the point, it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, if you are not careful, bad things can happen. So be careful and go out and experience for yourself what mankind as a whole is really all about!

  3. Stephanie says:

    I love your posts Kate :) Read about this article today and it is a bit of a knock to the confidence as I’m leaving to backpack solo around South America for 3 months in July. I’m 21 and have wondered if I’m a bit young or ambitious to be doing this but I’m too excited to care! Planned everything out to the dot so I’m hoping everything will run smoothly. Will be keeping a blog also about my experiences out there, for anyone that wants to have a read and see how I’m doing it’s (http://sasekula.wordpress.com/).

  4. Lily says:

    Agreed! Safety abroad is just like safety at home. If I wouldn’t do it in Chicago, I don’t do it overseas. And of course, accidents happen anywhere.

  5. Kate says:

    I’ve read a lot on this today and its posts like this one that keep me confident in my decision to travel solo. It’s true when you think about countries poorer than your own you imagine dangers waiting around every corner, taxi men that will want to try to sell you off to the nearest brothel (I watch too many horror movies). But the truth is where I live now in London is most likely more dangerous than most of the places I want to visit.
    It’s true, it’s all about common sense and being street wise.. At least that’s how I get by here!

  6. Crystal Carminati says:

    You are spot on. I just returned from Istanbul and my travel precautions were just as you describe they should be. I was very cautious, but felt safe and the people there are so warm and friendly. Unfortunately and sadly for Sarai and her family she encountered one of the worlds evil characters while on her trip. The truth is that Istanbul has a very low incidence of crime against tourists. It’s such a beautiful place rich in history and culture. Sad about Sarai, I was hoping for a different outcome. My thought are with her and her family.

  7. Well done for biringing up something that needed to be said. It’s all about perspective and you have brought bundles of that with this post:-)
    xx

  8. Keith says:

    Couldn’t agree more! Fab piece Kate! :-)

  9. I could not agree with you more. Beautifully written.

  10. Katrinka says:

    Great post, Kate– I just moved to Istanbul (by myself) a little over a week ago and my family has, for obvious reasons, been on edge over this story. However, I’ve found Istanbul to be safe and friendly (as well as wild and literally bursting with life). Hopefully this tragedy won’t scare people from travelling, or from Turkey!

  11. I couldn’t agree more. The only time I was mugged, I was in a nice neighborhood in Paris. Would I tell people that they shouldn’t travel to Paris because of that? Absolutely not. Everybody just needs to take reasonable precautions. Most of the world is a very safe place and reasonable research will tell you where it’s not.

  12. I totally agree. The media goes crazy with these kind of stories and people buy into them. There is danger all around us no matter where we are. It is sad that stories like these will discourage people from traveling either solo or with others.

  13. Honestly, women are murdered all the time a town over from where I’m from originally. It’s unbelievably sad to see someone lose their life to such foolishness, but it can happen anywhere and at anytime. I don’t think anyone, especially women, should let things like this dictate how they choose to live their life.

  14. Amanda says:

    Amen, sista. Glad to have you on the #WeGoSolo bandwagon.

    I love the dialogue we’ve started about women traveling!

  15. arielle says:

    Just wrote a post on the same thing. Sexist bulling trying to put the blame somewhere. Great post and loved it from your perspective, especially having visited. If you want to check out my version: http://littlemermaidatsea.com/2013/02/06/fear-and-traveling-for-solo-women-my-thoughts/ Thanks again for all your insight.

  16. Betti says:

    statistically, a woman is in more danger closer to home than anywhere else. abuse, assault, attempted murder and murder are still highest from the hands of parents and relatives, guardians, neighbours, acquaintances and other people we know face to face.
    the opposite is true for men, they are more likely to be harmed or killed by strangers.
    just saying.

    • Graham says:

      So true. As a man, let me travel with a woman. I’m less likely to be pegged as a possible pedophile, engaging in the sex trade, or suspected of being wanted by the law in my home country. Women travelers are much more likely to be protected in foreign countries, invited into local’s homes–looked after. As a solo traveler I’ve heard this inclusion confirmed over and over by solo women travelers.

      Most incidences of troubles that I’ve heard, I’ve silently questioned the behaviors of travelers that I would have thought anyone would have had better sense than engaging in the activities that had gotten them into trouble.

    • Very true, Betti. An excellent point.

  17. I couldn’t agree more Kate. People get killed every single day and nobody ever writes about that. The media hyped this up so much that it is really annoying me actually. I feel sorry for her family, but blaming her solo travel for her death is not the right thing to do in my opinion.

  18. Liz says:

    Rock on, so glad this has been brought up on so many forums. People are scared of what they don’t know, and yeah, someone dying abroad is scary! I haven’t done a ton of solo travel, but traveled with female friends, and you have to be smart and watch each other’s backs. Common sense goes a long way.

  19. ChinaMatt says:

    It’s all about traveling safe and smart. Even men have to be cautious when traveling alone. No one should be deterred from traveling and experiencing the world.

  20. George says:

    I think it’s important to point out people shouldn’t be outraged about the fact that she travelled solo but about the fact that she was a victim of violence. Women travel solo everyday and do not suffer the same fate, if you look at the statistics it’s miniscule.

    • Amanda Halm says:

      @Passport Dave I think *everyone* fears what they don’t understand.
      I do feel like our media is partially responsible for *some* Americans being frightened. Not only while abroad, here. Some are frightened we’ll be attacked again and then there’s this whole attitude that we have to arm ourselves against a great threat. I think our news is very American focused – I lived in Canada and noticed instantly the difference in coverage. Theirs is so much more international, which helps connect people to the world.
      The truth is, it’s not that easy for women to just cast fears of rape and harassment aside and globe trot completely alone. We’re told there’s so much to fear – here too, and that it’s our fault if it happens to us. That’s not even about travel – anytime a woman is raped or murdered, people feel like they need the whole backstory. Like they need to prove she did something wrong. I can’t believe that they keep bringing up that she was attractive. :( I hate the idea that we need some type of travel escort. Such b.s. No one would ask if a man was traveling alone.
      I do feel more vulnerable alone and abroad, simply because there’s language barriers and unfamiliarity – not that it’s not safe, just that I would be an easier target. That will never prevent me from travel and I love going solo.
      Such a sad story. Sorry for the long comment! Great post.

    • Very true, George. Most women are attacked by someone they already know.

  21. Sofie says:

    Woopwoop!
    Great post!

    I have to say, I don’t often watch the news in toher countries, but when I watch news from the US (which happens more often because you can get channels like CNN in many countries), I’m, always surprised by the degree of drama and ‘terror’ in it. Like those bulletins are designed to make you afraid.

    • Yes, Sofie, that is definitely true. Sensationalized stories are the rule rather than the exception in the US, especially on 24-hour cable news networks (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC). Such a far cry from the BBC…

  22. I’ve had to deal with negativity towards my decision to move abroad and explore to scores of people back home, and agree wholeheartedly when you say, consider the source. I’m shocked by the frightenly low number of US Citizens who haven’t got passports or much less driven across the Canadian border. These are the people who consider Americans above all others, who speak out against travel and who definitely do not think traveling alone is smart. My first solo trip was at age 23, and I wish I’d done it sooner. I applaud people like you, or Beth or Evelyn who speak up for women.

  23. It’s funny to me how one little thing will happen abroad, yet hundreds of people die in the U.S. each day. I remember how many people thought I was crazy to travel alone, as a female, before I took off on my trip. I haven’t felt in danger at all. I KNOW that SE Asia is safer than Los Angeles, where I’m from. Perspective, people.

  24. Yep, agreed. Women everywhere are going about their business alone with no problems at all and cases like this are fairly rare. Common sense is all you need.

  25. SineadF says:

    It makes me SOOOOO mad to see how one woman traveling alone can be twisted so as to deter others from doing so.

    I solo travel a lot and meet up with many guy & girl travelers along the way too – and have never had any real issues (other than the usual stuff I get at home.) Don’t believe me?

    Then meet me and let me explain … http://www.wandermates.com/profileview.php?profileuserid=21 … I promise u, solo travel is fine with all the usual precautions.

  26. Jessie says:

    Hey Kate,

    I read your blog for months and I hadn’t considered traveling solo but after reading about your adventures I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I spent months planning and saving for my 2 months for Spain and literally a few days before I am about to leave the story about the woman in Turkey showed up. I felt terrible for my family and friends who of course were horrified by the story, especially since she was a New Yorker and so am I.

    Now staying in contact with my friends in family has become super important.

    Kate-what is the best way to stay in touch? Do you pay a monthly fee and use Skype?

    Thanks,

    Jessie

  27. Kim says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I’ve JUST got home from traveling solo for ten months, and Turkey is a place I’ve spent about 6 weeks in. To be honest I feel safer there than at home; for every sleazy guy, there’s another guy who’s like your dad or grandpa, and who wants to give you a cup of tea and make sure you get around safe. I hope people don’t buy into the hype too much.

  28. Shaun says:

    Awesome Kate, this needed to be said.

    Tragic as it is, fear is a huge hindrance to travel. Mentally, socially and physically. It closes your mind, creates prejudice and even hate. You can’t predict everything but pay attention to that little voice in your head.

    Don’t give in to fear.

    I was just in Istanbul in October and felt VERY safe the whole time.

  29. Grace says:

    atta girl!! and that’s why i adore you! =D

  30. Priscilla says:

    There’s definitely more to this story than we know now and we have to see what went wrong with this woman. Did she ignore her inner “fear factor” and go off with someone who meant her harm? Was she naive? Did she not take precautions? Was she slipped something in her drink? The media has speculated, but there’s no point in that. We have to wait for the facts to come out.
    Traveling solo is safe when done properly and also some luck is involved – good luck and bad luck. There is pure evil in the world which can find you even in the safety of our own homes. People break into homes here in Houston and cause great harm so there’s no need to panic about traveling solo. Follow safety tips, be aware of strangers, but go, see and travel – don’t let it stop you!
    Good piece Kate,
    Priscilla

    • Brian D. says:

      Kate, I absolutely love your blog and have become an avid reader.

      I agree 1000% with all of your comments re: solo travel. Having visited Istanbul with my wife, and with Sarai Sierra being my age and from my hometown of Staten Island, I have followed this tragic story closely.

      I feel absolutely awful for her family and regardless of her actions Sarai did not deserve this end, and nor does any woman. But I think her actions were at best reckless and may have even been criminal, if you believe recent news stories. There is an enormous difference between a woman (or man!) traveling solo with the common sense you describe, and someone who’s never left the U.S. going to Istanbul and staying in a stranger’s apartment in a seedy neighborhood and possibly interacting with drug dealers/smugglers and/or meeting up with a random man from the Internet. Again, she never deserved this end and I feel horrible for her and her family, but I really think there is way more to this story than simply a photography loving woman spending time in Istanbul (with bizarre 1 night trips to Munich and Amsterdam).

      Brian

  31. Aryn says:

    It’s funny that Americans are afraid to travel considering how dangerous the US is. But I suppose that everyone thinks their country is safes., Talking to my students in China, many of them said they were afraid to go to America because they legitimately thought that they would be shot.

  32. Kanako says:

    I agree, Kate. It’s not about a woman travelling solo. We should think how absolutely selfish, spoiled and immature indivisuals can easily strip people’s lives away and they must pay what they have done.

    I am a solo female traveler – rather prefer to travelling solo. I was born with disabilities and easily be spotted my disabilities. But, lucky me, I’m fit enough to move around . I am an oriental. So, I must say I often get heart-warming attentions but also unwelcome attentions from the people regardless of genders and at the places including where I’m from.
    What I always try is being a low profile – not go to the places which my hunch alert me, try not to ask anything to the people on the streets, keep ignoring any sponteneous chats (especially by men) etc.. Also try not to hold uncomfortable feelings too long cos I’m on holidays.

    I like your blog, Kate. It assures me I am not somehow a “strange” one who loves flexibilities and freedom.

  33. Stephanie says:

    I’m about to embark on quite an ambitious solo trip and I am quite astounded at the response I get when I tell people about it. Most people nearly fall off their chair when I say that I’m going alone.

    Their advice is always ‘be careful’. I know that they mean well but it just creates such negative vibes around the trip. Like its a risk that I shouldn;t be doing. I’m always careful and use common sense.

    It’s such a shame that people belive the exaggerated media hype of the dangers of the world.

  34. Bruce says:

    This topic has really generated a lot of interest. Previously I’ve written about travel safety
    ( http://travelandphototoday.com/2012/01/14/travel-emergency-go-kit/) and more recently I wrote a couple of times about the unfortunate happenings in Istanbul and travel safety. (http://travelandphototoday.com/2013/02/04/travel-safety-death-in-istanbul/ ) and (http://travelandphototoday.com/2013/02/08/solo-travel-travel-safety/) I appreciate your perspectives on the issue. In the Feb 8 article I linked to your article.

    I’ve enjoyed following your blog, have been a bit envious of your travels, and have admired your success. Keep up the great work!
    Bruce

  35. Monica Suma says:

    This is so true, Kate, it all depends what you do to keep safe, and it’s highly circumstantial, you can’t generalize. I went this summer and I really felt safe. I had all these scenarios of what to do or say if friendly Turkish men pester me and there was no issue whatsoever. It’s so sad when ignorance takes over people, and place judgment on issues they have no idea on.

  36. Colleen says:

    My biggest wonder in all this is why we aren’t having discussions about men’s behavior towards women. Why do people seem more outraged at the victim than at the perpetrators?

  37. Devyn says:

    Excellent article and very encouraging! I’m about to take off on a Southeastern Asia backpacking adventure, mostly by myself. I get comments all the time in regards to my safety and if this is a “smart” idea. As long as proper precautions are taken, I’m confident I’ll be fine. Thanks for the article!

  38. Fatah says:

    be carefull for solo travel especially for woman ,,,it can be good if you go with your friends maybe1 or 2 ,,,I am hawaiian (POLYNESİAN) but studying in istanbul now,, I think in that place were sierras body was founded its not a good street in the night ,, be sure that before you go travalling googling your travel place that you will go,, I love you all traveler ,,,and for sierra RİP ,

  39. Shalu Sharma says:

    I agree with you that there are many ridiculous information all over the place about safety and you just wonder where they are coming from. I absolutely agree with you that learning some information of the place you are visiting, its people, a bit of language can go a long way.

  40. niyazi says:

    Hi Kate, very nice blog, very good assay. Miss Sierra’s tragedy is devastating and striking, let her RIP. I tried to follow the story from day one, but I felt something missing and disturbing in that story. There are too many details in the event for one touristic trip, a very very log list of intertwined stories… here is one news entry example..

    http://www.detroitnewsday.com/news/150300-sarai-sierra-husband-of-new-york-mother-that-was-killed-in-turkey-says-that-reports-that-she-traveled-to-have-an-affair-don-t-change-anything.html

    Noone can say that istanbul, a city of 14 million people is totaly safe, but that much details is too much and too conspicuous in one sad story . Common sense is necessary…

  41. Maryann Virack says:

    I am 66 and have been traveling alone for 12 years. I wouldn’t change it at all.Friends often chide me for the risks I take going solo; but it all goes along with your advice: If I wouldn’t do it home, don’t do it anywhere. I live in CA and love Mexico. I had friends arrested in Mexico for walking down the street drinking a beer. Come’on…can’t do that in San diego. Othes pickpocketed in Rio for hugging hookers. Really??? I don’t walk down deserted street after dark. I don’t get drunk in public. I go on escorted tours and often find a hotel employee willing to make a few bucks by taking me to local sites of interest. I write freelance travel articles re single senior female travel. I love connecting with the people of the area. AND I don’t look/act like a victim. Love your site and agree wholeheartedly.

  42. Dean says:

    I just stumbled upon your site and I love it! This was a fantastic post. I may be male, but I’ve lived in Japan for the past 19 months and I travel alone everywhere. There is an invigorating feeling to traveling alone and as long as you are careful and act like you know what you are doing, you are in no greater threat than your front door. Keep traveling!

  43. Well put. Women shouldn’t be discouraged to travel. Rapists, murderers and thieves should be discouraged with harsh penalties.

  44. Jenn says:

    Kate, thanks for this post. As a fellow solo female traveler, I agree with your points that it’s not just a scary world out there. Being smart about your surroundings, where you go, what you do, who you’re with, etc, is the same common sense you use at home. I have never felt any more in danger in South America, Eastern Europe, or anywhere, than I have in D.C. or NOLA or any other city in my own country.
    I’ve heard many times that women shouldn’t travel alone and sure, there are places in the world I would not go alone based on geopolitical realities and cultural aspects and so forth, but there are places in DC, where I lived for two years, that I wouldn’t go alone, especially after dark.
    Thanks for taking on this topic Kate and continuing to prove that the world is really a great place to explore.

  45. Misty Evans says:

    I’m currently working on a blog post about this particular thing. I’ve been living in Italy for 4 years and I’m surprised that MORE women aren’t killed here. I cannot even count how many times I’ve personally pulled 18 year old girls so drunk they can’t stand off of the street and away from some 40 year old creep trying to take advantage of them. Obviously, bad things happen even to safe, smart women, but getting completely wasted alone in a foreign city is an almost sure way to end up molested or dead. I would also like to add that in no way am I saying women who are attacked are, “stupid and asking for it.” Obviously the problem is with the men, however, until men evolve a little more past chimpanzee, women should be extra careful when traveling. Oh, and not take their tops off so much. I’ve seen so many bare-chested American girls in pubs here you’d think my life was a tribal edition of National Geographic.

  46. Chris says:

    Loved this refreshing perspective, Kate. Here in America, we love to look out at the world and project how dangerous it is, as if everyone outside our borders is less advanced and more prone to act inhumane. You’d be hard pressed to find articles printed in this country that warn of the dangers of people traveling to the United States and how to avoid everything from theft to rape to murder. If it had happened to her in the city she was from, NYC, people would try to find an angle of her being somewhere in the city at a particular time as the cause of the unfortunate event. I feel the reaction to the story helped to highlight a level of xenophobia that most citizens hold when they never take the time to explore the world they live in. Enjoy your travels!

  47. Mariana says:

    Hi!

    I’m doing my first solo travel in a month, and I’ve been so scared that I’ve been thinking to cancel. I live in South America and I’m travelling to England.

    I’m feeling more confident after reading your posts.

    Thank you!!!!

  48. Alba says:

    Spot oon with this write-up, I seriously believe that this web site needs a great deaql more attention.
    I’ll probably be returning to read more, thanks for the info!

  49. Pam says:

    I never travveled solo, I don’t think I have the gut, though I’d like to and your blog is very encouraging!
    I’ll keep reading you, will see if I’ll dare it! :)

  50. Love this post! There are so many misconceptions pertaining to a woman’s ability to or safety in travelling alone. And generally this fear mongering tends to come from those who don’t travel as you mentioned in your post. I’m a Canadian teacher who has been working at an International School in China for the past 3 years. I started backpacking alone around Europe when I was 18 and since then have visited countless places around Europe and Asia by myself without ever having any issues. I completely agree with your emphasis on the importance of being aware of your surroundings while travelling as necessary in staying safe. Well said!

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