In a recent weekend discussion on the r/heronebag forum on Reddit, user pieapplekitten prompted a discussion on things we wish we knew before setting off on our first solo trip. The ensuing discussion was fascinating, covering safety, maximizing fun, and the all-important question of exactly how much underwear we should pack. Because most people aren’t on Reddit, I decided to collect some of these things women say they wish they’d known before taking off on their first solo travel trips into this collection of tips, which have been edited, expanded, and developed for clarity, length, and practicality.
Things Solo Female Travelers Say They Wish they had Known:
On Hotels and Hostels:
Book the first night in advance. Even if you plan to travel without an itinerary, always book lodging for the first night or two in advance, so you can get your bearings and make informed decisions on the ground.
Hostels aren’t right for everyone. And that’s ok. If you can’t rest well in a hostel environment, you won’t enjoy your trip. You can still meet people and make friends by joining a local hostel’s day tours or eating in their cafe.
Arrange an airport transfer before leaving. Always arrange in advance for transportation from the airport to your hotel or hostel so you don’t have to figure out public transportation at the airport and risk getting scammed in a foreign country after a long flight.
On Safety & Security:
Never step away from your luggage. Always take ALL your belongings with you when using the bathroom or toilet – No parking your suitcase outside a restroom stall!
Be smart when looking down. Walk confidently, and if you’re lost and need to check your map, place your back up against a building or wall. If you are wearing a backpack, this traps your valuables in a safe location and allows your peripheral vision to fully monitor your surroundings while you check-in on your phone.
Stay Sober. Avoid situations where your situational awareness will be dulled- that means no drinking to the point of intoxication or getting high- even if you are with other travelers that you think you can trust.
Photocopy Documents. Make a color photocopy of all your essential documents, fold it, and insert it into the liner of your suitcase or jacket. If your passport is stolen, these documents should expedite the process of getting home.
No expensive (or expensive-looking) jewelry. Leave jewelry (and any unnecessary expensive items) at home. Jewelry that looks expensive- even if it’s a dollar store knockoff- can make you a market for thieves and scammers. I like to set off with no jewelry at all, and use travel as my opportunity to buy unique jewelry made by local artists in a destination– it’s one of my favorite ways to find cool souvenirs and won’t draw attention like precious metals and gemstones can.
Personalize your Bag. When I had a horse trailer stolen in 2009, the Kentucky State Police detective told me that the trailers they see stolen are almost always generic, non-descript trailers. Theives passed over trailers emblazoned with custom decals, due to how easily they could be spotted. Since then, I apply this idea to many of my important belongings: A simple patch or two on your backpack, or even a bandana securely knotted through a handle, might be enough to dissuade would-be thieves.
On Packing Tips:
Pack less clothing. Your packing list should include comfortable walking shoes and less clothing than you think you’ll need. Some female one bag travelers travel for weeks with just 2 outfits! Handwashing each evening makes this surprisingly easy.
Hide your passport. I keep my passport in a pink envelope. This makes it easy for me to spot in my bag when I need it, but helps it pass under the gaze of anyone looking to swipe a passport. Good thieves work quickly and steal only what is obvious and unprotected. Adding the simplest layers of concealment can prevent a travel catastrophe.
Camouflage your tech. If you have to take expensive items, camouflage them. I keep my $1,500 iPad Pro in a case that makes it look like a $1 composition book. Even good friends back home are shocked when I flop open the cover to digitally sketch!
Pack solid laundry soap. Buy a bar of solid laundry detergent and pack a chunk of it, shaving off a portion for each sink handwash. Although it’s tempting, especially when one bagging, to hand wash clothing with whatever soap is available, laundry detergent just works better and washes cleaner, which is extra important to staying healthy on the road if you have sensitive skin.
Pack conservative clothing options. If you’re traveling in an unfamiliar culture, carry sufficient clothing to give yourself the option to dress modestly until you acclimate to norms and risks in that region. I’ll never forget stepping off the bus in largely-Muslim Sarajevo, Bosnia and being intensely uncomfortable in the clothing that had felt so appropriate hours before on Croatia’s Adriatic coast.
Pack sunscreen. Several female travelers who participated in this article indicated a need for more sunscreen on departure. Always pack enough sunscreen for your entire trip – in many countries and locations it is more expensive than in North America.
Avoid attention. To stay safe and pass under the radar of would-be thieves and scammers, avoid being too flashy. We all get excited about new luggage or travel clothing, and many travelers now dress to be ready for that Instagram travel photoshoot, but that more you look like a wealthy outsider, the more vulnerable you are to crime, mugging, and theft. Used bags and off-brand luggage can actually be a safety asset.
On Handling Loneliness:
Bring a hobby. I believe having a hobby on the road helps fight boredom, loneliness, and even helps make new connections. I sketch in my travel journal a lot when I’m traveling It keeps me busy, it’s fun to do to give my body a break during days where I’m walking a endlessly, and it seems to be a connecting point to start conversations with locals and other travelers.
How to book a friend-for-the-day. If you have a really low day or week of intense loneliness, book an Airbnb experience! Most locations have dozens of experiences to choose from, and they’re a fun way to spend a day hanging out with someone very interesting who speaks your language. Through Airbnb Experiences, I’ve gone truffle hunting in Tuscany, spent an evening learning to paint traditional pottery in Romania, learned to weave from traditional weavers in Peru, and had a personal photoshoot in Budapest. AirBnB experiences range from $30-$100, on average, and can last from 1 or 2 hours to a full day. 1-on-1 experiences have been my favorite for making important human connections during solo travel.
Keep your guard up. Even if you are very lonely, never trust anyone who is overly friendly or who approaches you on the street, even if they seem genuine. It could be legit, but it could also be a scammer. Read on for more tips on handling scammers.
Get a debit card that will reimburse international ATM fees. If you plan on making travel a lifestyle, you’ll need to open a checking account with a bank that will reimburse all international ATM fees. (Many banks offer this for US ATMs, but may still leave you exposed to the exorbitant ATM rates in international tourist locations) On the advice of other Reddit travelers, I opened a Charles Schwab Investor Checking account in 2018 to get access to their international ATM fee reimbursement, and I liked them so much they’re now my primary bank.
ALWAYS opt for withdrawing currency at market rate. Most international ATM’s will offer you the option to withdraw at a currency conversion rate that the bank has set, or at the “current rate.” Without exception, always choose to withdraw at the market rate, as the bank assigned rate always inflated.
Use ATMs that are attached to a bank. When possible, withdraw money from ATMs attached to a bank rather than ATM’s that show up randomly in tourist spots. Tourist-spot ATMs usually have predatory fees and are far more likely to be insecure than ATMs located in an established bank.
Split up your money and credit cards. Keep some cash and one credit card and one bag, and some cash and another credit card or debit card in another bag. Except for transfer days (moving between cities) one of these should always be locked in your hotel or hostel locker. That way, if your bag is snatched, you’ll still have payment options.
General “Wish I’d Knowns”
International Phone Plans. Get a phone plan that includes seamless international coverage. Having a phone that works the moment your plane lands halfway around the world is a must for solo female travelers. I adore my Google Fi plan that charges the same $10/gig data rate whether I’m at home in Seattle or traveling through a remote part of the world. (The international coverage works via Fi’s network structure: rather than building their own, Fi has agreements to work on major networks around the world. This even allows me to manually switch networks on the fly if the network Fi automatically connects me to is unreliable.)
Make your phone lock screen emergency contact info. Make a note of your travel insurance, emergency contact, and an email address where you can be reached if someone finds your phone and wants to return it. Then screenshot the note and set it as your lock screen. Alternately, just download our free traveler’s ICE lock screen template below:
Download the Google translate language file. Before you leave on your trip, download the language of your destination country or countries via Google translate.
Look to other women for support. If you need help while you are alone in a foreign country, look for a woman with a small child or stroller and ask for help. An actively parenting woman is far less likely to be an active scammer.
Learn 24 Hour time conversion In most countries, transit schedules will be on a 24-hour timetable, not the 12-hour AM/PM timetable we use in the United States. Memorize or download this free phone wallpaper (click here for high resolution wallpaper download) to make it easy to convert between 12 and 24-hour timetables.
What tips would you add to this list? There’s a lot of information online about one bag travel lifestyles, but much of it is particular to men. While I’ve learned a lot from following male-dominated one bag spaces, it’s hard to deny that the travel and packing needs for men are very different, generally, from women (and that one bag packing for average size women has significant differences from one bag packing for plus size bodies) so I’m especially thankful for conversations on thing female travelers wish they had known before their first trip, like the one that spawned this article.
Travel Safety Tips: Avoiding Conversations with Scammers
International travel – especially solo international travel – can be intimidating, and it doesn’t help to think about all the many scams that con artists try to execute on vulnerable travelers. Whether you are traveling solo or with a group, it can be very helpful to face this anxiety head-on. Rather than ignoring the fact that there are people who will try to take advantage of you during your travels, it’s best to think proactively about how you can prevent yourself from becoming a target. I hope that these tips will provide some advice on making yourself a less desirable target for many scam artists.
Never Accept Anything from a Stranger
If someone tries to hand you something on the street, don’t take it. This might sound obvious, but it’s our natural response to reach out and take something that is handed to us. While often this is an innocuous brochure or flyer for local tours, it can also be the start of the scam, or just a simple rouse to get you to stop in place long enough for a pickpocket to hit.
Instead of accepting something held out to you, either keep walking with your eyes ahead or, with an awareness of yourself and your belongings, place your hands out of reach (such as in your pocket or crossed over your chest) and just use your eyes to look and confirm whether it is a promotional brochure or something else. Beware of both your curiosity and your empathy, while neither is a bad thing, be alert for scammers attempting to prey upon them.
Beware of both your curiosity and your empathy, while neither is a bad thing, be alert for scammers attempting to prey upon them.
Practice maintaining a neutral facial expression in public. Never show confusion on your face, and minimize your reactions to strangers speaking to you. This was incredibly difficult for me when I first moved to an urban area in the USA, but after a few months, it became clear how much easier it was to move in large crowds by simply focusing in on getting to my destination, with awareness but disinterest in what was going on around me,
For both scammers and pickpockets, a moving target is harder to hit. Often, scammers approach from directly in front of you, hoping to get you to stop. Anticipate this, and do not stop moving. Keep walking forward, and if your way is blocked, sidestep and continue on your way without stopping.
One common scam that targets travelers- especially solo female travelers- is a rouse in which an individual stops you long enough to slip a bracelet or ring onto your hand, and then demands payment by aggressively stating that you agreed to purchase when you allowed them to place the jewelry on your body. Scams like this one, and many others, can’t get started if you keep moving.
Headphones – Turned off!
Headphones or earbuds are a great way to reduce your vulnerability to scammers as a solo traveler- most scammers won’t bother with a target that can’t hear them.
Just remember to keep your earbuds turned OFF or disconnected in places where you aren’t entirely comfortable – this way others will assume you can’t hear them, but you’re still able to be fully aware of your surroundings.
Use nonverbal cues
Nonverbal communication offers us the option of being able to refuse to engage without having to converse. I know travelers who have learned sign language for “I can hear you but I don’t want to talk to you,” as a way to defer unwanted or manipulative conversation- while respecting the origin of the sign language (you can learn how to spell this message out here – and learn some basic sign language in the process).
Short of learning official sign language – which does vary from culture to culture by the way – you can also communicate disinterest with nonverbals. Occasionally when I am approached- by a person who is holding nothing in their hands- I hold my palm up in a “stop” gesture as I continue walking.
Often, a forceful no is actually an effective deterrent! While many personal safety tips advise complex evasion or avoidance, just about all humans learned from a young age to be disoriented by a loud, firm, and angry “NO!” – Thieves and scammers included. While it might not completely dissuade their advances, a loud “no,” draws the attention of persons nearby and will take scammers by surprise – buying you a second or two to exit the situation and walk away swiftly. When aggressively pursued in a crowded area, shouting “Leave me alone, I don’t know you and I don’t want to talk to you!” similarly alerts others.
IF YOU ARE LOST
if you find yourself lost in an unfamiliar city, especially if they are crowds and even if there are no other people around (such as late at night) do not simply stop and stare down at your phone while trying to orient yourself. This posture indicates your vulnerability. Instead, either keep walking until you see a safe storefront you can enter, or place your back against a wall or building so that you have a full view of what is going on around you and your bag is protected.