How advice for solo female travelers is harming women

Two writers I follow recently published blog articles providing tips for women traveling on their own. One is a generic travel advice post, and the other is specific to a hike in Ecuador. Both of the authors are badass travelers who definitely know what they’re talking about, so I read their articles eagerly, curious to hear their insights on a topic that is so obviously relevant to me. But as I read, I realized the information in the articles was not specific to women at all. The advice was so generic it could apply to anyone of any gender, alone or with a partner.

That got me wondering: how much of the “solo female” advice on the internet is actually specific to women? And for that matter, how much additional advice do women really need? Is a woman traveling on her own really so different from a man traveling on his own that she requires travel content specific to her gender?

The short answer is yes, absolutely.

The fact of the matter is women are more likely than men to experience sexual assault during their lives, and that doesn’t change when traveling. If anything, the risk is greater. Cultural differences, disorientation, and lack of a social network all contribute to increased risk abroad. Ask any woman who has traveled extensively if she’s been harassed or assaulted and she’ll almost always have a story to share—I myself have several.

Here’s someone else’s story that I merely witnessed: I was woken up at dawn in a hostel in Mexico by a commotion in the courtyard. A young woman had just staggered in through the front gates, clearly in shock, her face wet with tears. While out with her friends the night before she drank too much and decided to head back to the hostel alone. She caught a cab, but instead of taking her home the driver took her out into the mountains and raped her in the back of his taxi. Once he was done with her he left her on the side of the road to find her own way home.

Drunkenly taking a taxi home by yourself in a strange city is a bad decision. While that mistake might cost a man his wallet, it can cost a woman a whole lot more. That’s why advice for women traveling on their own is so critical, and why it bothers me so much when normal travel tips get pawned off as advice for solo women.

Which brings me back to my original question: how much of the “solo female” advice on the internet is actually specific to women?

In search of an answer, I typed “top 10 tips for solo female travelers” into Google and read the first page of articles that appeared. I then summarized those eight articles in the chart below and subjectively categorized them based on their relevance to women:

  • Pink = advice that is specific to women (I apologize for the cliché color choice)
  • Purple = advice that is useful for men and women, but has more serious implications for women
  • Green = broadly applicable to all travelers
Summary of advice in eight "Top 10 Travel Tips for Solo Females" articles.

Summary of advice in eight “Top 10 Travel Tips for Solo Females” articles.  Click for a larger version.

Of the eighty travel tips I read, only nine of them gave advice that was specific to women. Furthermore, those nine could be condensed into just five tips: carry a whistle, don’t accidentally engage with men on the streets, learn to defend yourself, be ready to tell people about your imaginary boyfriend or husband who’s meeting you later, and join a group. Yes, that last one is actual advice for women traveling on their own.

Advice for solo female travelers broken down by relevance to solo female travelers.

Advice for solo female travelers broken down by relevance to solo female travelers.

A further thirteen tips I deemed useful for men and women, but the repercussions of not following the advice could be far worse for female travelers, like it was for that young woman in Mexico. These thirteen could be distilled to just four items: don’t get drunk, don’t give out personal information, follow the local dress code, and use a rubber doorstop to secure your door at night.

Advice for solo female travelers broken down by advice category. Colors indicate if the advice is specific to women (pink), useful for men and women with greater repercussions for women (purple), or generic travel advice for men and women (green).

Advice for solo female travelers broken down by advice category. Colors indicate if the advice is actually specific to women (pink), useful for men and women with greater repercussions for women (purple), or generic travel advice for men and women (green).

The remaining fifty-eight tips are so general they could go on any travel advice list, things like “lock up your valuables” and “get travel insurance”. Calling an article “Top 10 Tips for Solo Women Travelers in Europe” and then filling it with generic advice about luggage and social media both trivializes the dangers facing women abroad and makes it harder for women to find the advice they really need.

Furthermore, there’s a glaring omission in every one of these articles: an honest acknowledgement that women need to be more careful than men when traveling alone because of the risk of sexual assault. The authors vaguely allude to a need to “stay safe”, but no one is verbalizing what the dangers are. Without identifying the risks, how can we defend ourselves from them?

Fortunately, not everyone is pussyfooting around the issue. There are several wonderful blogs and websites providing advice for women who want to learn how to stay safe when traveling alone (see the links below).  They cover issues like what to do in different scenarios, how to get help after an incident of assault, and how to avoid these situations to begin with.

Sadly, typing “tips for solo female travelers” doesn’t get you any of that information. Instead, you have to type something like, “sexual assault of women travelers” or “how to avoid harassment as a solo female”.

Content that is actually useful and relevant to solo female travelers has been massively diluted by article after article pedaling the same generic travel advice, or, even worse, by articles that have nothing to do with solo female travel at all. A “packing list for solo female walkers” is a “packing list for everybody plus tampons”, the end. Adding “solo female” to a title just to boost your SEO is irresponsible writing.

So I’m sending out a plea to my fellow female travelers and bloggers: please stop writing articles containing women-specific travel advice that is, in fact, travel advice for everyone. If you’re not providing tips to help women avoid situations of sexual harassment, assault or rape, then leave the words “solo female” out of your title and tags.

And if you do have real advice to share about staying safe, write a killer blog post about it and tag the hell out of it.

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Links to blogs and websites about women’s safety abroad:

How female travelers can deal with sexual harassment and assault overseas

Why solo female travel is different

Safety issues for women traveling solo

The women traveling solo question

 

 

 

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6 Comments

  1. Great article Sarah.

  2. Good point and great perspective Sarah! You did a thorough job on the charts and the article is a very interesting read.

  3. I have ALWAYS traveled alone. No one to always want American food. No one who complicates every day “exploration” ( like wearing Cartier shoes to go hiking in a rain forest!) That was the clincher! No more traveling with my AMERICAN friends. It doesn’t seem to be a problem with my Spanish, British, or French friends. I have only been robbed once – in the “PUCES” (flea market in France in the late 60s. Since I knew not to take anything valuable I left almost all of my money in the hotel. However, for what reason did I have my driver’s license in my VERY secure and not large
    purse and my PASSPORT! The thieves were sly and managed to find a way into that purse and “poof” – gone. Not money but the other important items. I am fluent in French and immediately went to the station. They sent me to another station and all was already turned in!!!! A MIRACLE! Since there was nothing the thief/thieves wanted they just threw the items on the street where they were noticed and taken to the station of the district. That’s it, other than a few “pinches” in Italy.

  4. I would summit that much of the advice given for travelers would actually be simple advice for life – i.e. be aware of your surroundings, keep track of your possessions, etc. I’ve visited 60 countries and spent the last year traveling around the world without a plan and one common opinion I find everywhere is that it’s always more dangerous “over there.” I was asked by American what I did to prepare, in terms of self defense, if I go out at night, and how I stay safe. People in Germany, Hungary, Australia and Asia told me they were afraid, or at least concerned, about traveling to the U.S. due to the gun laws. One quote, “everyone over there walks around the streets with guns.” Yes, it’s simply more dangles “over there.” The only place I didn’t go out at night was India which was also the place I researched my safety, spoke via social media with women who lived there and/or knew the place well, and strategized for my safety. I walked the amazing street of Budapest nearly every night of the thirty I was there. Kuala Lumpur comes alive at night. I had nighttime picnics on the beach with Vietnamese locals. I went to listen to amazing live music every night in Bali. Locals work during the day so, if you want to meet locals, nighttime is your best shot. Be aware, be smart, but over there is not necessarily any more dangerous than home.

    • I agree completely. I have done uncountable “dangerous” things abroad, and not one of them has put me in any real danger. In fact, many of my most memorable experiences and interactions came out of those situations. And yes, advice for travelers is often advice for life, just as “advice for women” is usually advice for everybody.

  5. Very thought-provoking. No one likes click-bait, but I never contemplated it as dangerous. So glad you brought this up!

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