Or “19 Stories of Solo Traveller Safety You Don’t Want to Be Yours” – I couldn’t decide…
Staying safe while you’re travelling the world solo is a whole new ball game from looking after yourself in your home town. Every day is some thing and some one new, you need to take extra precautions. You need… my best safety tips for solo travellers.
I know what it’s like, I travelled the world solo for three years. You’re travelling, it’s a time for new experiences – pushing those boundaries – but it’s also a time when you learn things about the world you might not want to know. I don’t think solo travel is dangerous, no more so than being at home, but being under prepared and overly trusting can definitely get you into problems.
I’ve seen it.
Coming up with my top safety tips for solo travellers has totally made me realise how stupid some of my friends / acquaintances sound, but honestly, life on the road is just different. You’re more trusting, stories seem more believable and it’s tempting to cut corners financially so you can have money for all those ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences you’ll never be back again for.
Safety first, safety second though – especially when you’re travelling by yourself.
19 Safety Tips for Solo Travellers
1. Have money in reserve
I’m sure I’ve told you this story before so I’ll keep it short. I was passing the border into Guatemala from Mexico. I was so proud of myself for managing to spend every Mexican peso I had ready for the Guatemalan quetzals. Then, it turned out my bank card didn’t work in Guatemala, neither did my credit card. So there I was, all alone, no money, not even a dollar, no access to any cash and no friends.
Incredibly, and amazingly luckily for me, I met a couple from the bus who offered to pay for my hotel that night, and dinner. And then, they ended up doing exactly what I don’t recommend in point 12 below – they generously gave me some money. In this case though, I had transferred the money first via PayPal into their account (they were Australian) and they withdrew the cash from the ATM for me, after it had cleared. My stupid bank (Natwest) were no help. Although they did end up refunding the cost of all the phone calls to them, and saying sorry.
I would’ve been absolutely screwed if I hadn’t met them. Honestly, don’t know what I would’ve done.
Always keep at least $50 (depending on your country) in a safe place for emergencies. And just as an extra precaution, always have enough money in your bank if ever you should need to get a need to get a cheap air tickets out of wherever you are too. Don’t put yourself in danger by not having access to money.
2. Stay alert
On that same bus trip, from Mexico to Guatemala, we stopped for a food rest. This American girl came of the back of the bus all floppy hat, dramatic cardigan and bejewelled, and looked at us from under the brim. “Oh my god, I’m sooo fucked, I took like three Valium’. I didn’t really think anything of it, but then one of the other guys on the bus told her she was an absolute idiot and got really angry.
– by herself
– knocked out
– asleep at the back of a bus travelling across borders
Yeah, it was a pretty stupid thing to do. You need to stay alert so you can deal with whatever your travels have to throw at you.
Don’t fall asleep on public transport if you’re by yourself – anything can happen.
3. Don’t get too drunk
If I was in a place solo, even with ‘new friends’, I stuck to beer. I can’t really drink beer fast enough for it to get me drunk, or take enough in. I’m all about wine and spirits the rest of the time, but generally, when travelling solo I stayed with beer to get the buzz, but not get wasted.
4. Watch your drinks
Spiking is a thing. My brother’s friend (boy) did the whole minesweeping thing in Ibiza because he didn’t want to pay the extortionate prices – and then ended up in hospital. Yep, another stupid thing to do. Granted he wasn’t solo, but he definitely was when he decided it’d be a good idea to pick half empty drinks up in da club.
Always watch them pour your drink and keep an eye on it.
5. Be careful who you trust with your safety
I remember a time, only in Ios in Greece, so hardly the most notoriously dangerous place I’ve been, and I was on a tour. But I asked the girls I was with to tell me when they were going home because I wanted to take out my contact lenses and wasn’t sure of the way home. “Yeah course”, they replied.
Cue a few hours later and I realised they’d just abandoned me in the club we were in. The next day they said they couldn’t find me, in a club a little bigger than a taverna. Obviously I made it home, but I was pretty pissed off, seeing as I’d asked them especially.
6. Try to get taxis with others
The scariest times I’ve had abroad have been in taxis. You’re just at the mercy of someone else, with no escape. That’s why I love Uber – at least there’s a record of where you are, been and you can even send your details to someone else if you’re worried.
My scariest taxi time was in Sofia, Bulgaria. I was staying at a hotel out of town, which I totally didn’t realise. The guy who took me from the train station didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Bulgarian, I’d ran out of battery, and I had no clue where he was taking me. Honestly, I was terrified. He stopped the car just before we got on the highway going out of Sofia and went into a shop. I couldn’t go anywhere as I didn’t have a phone, or even know the direction of the hotel. I just had to trust him.
He came out with a big bottle of vodka, asked me if I wanted any, went to open it, laughed creepily and then lit a cigarette instead. Thankfully I was at my hotel 5 minutes later but he had totally creeped me out.
7. Keep your phone charged
I had a similar situation coming out of Delhi Airport, all because, again, my phone wasn’t charged. I’d just arrived and couldn’t check the exchange rate, my hotel name or directions. I asked a taxi driver if he knew where the hotel was.
“Yes, yes, mam, I’ll take you”
He didn’t have a clue, got angry, oh AND HIS MATE JUMPED IN. God it was scary. I definitely cried as we drove round the back streets of Delhi. In the end we found it by stopping at another hotel and using their computer.
All could have been avoided if I knew where I was going. Carry a (charged) phone charger with you at all times, and a spare if you can.
8. Don’t feel pressured into situations
I was travelling to Chiang Mai, through Bangkok, and didn’t realise Bangkok had more than one airport (idiot, one of the biggest cities in Asia) and booked my domestic from the other one. I was going to miss it. A man at the baggage carousel had done the same thing, so we got chatting. He suggested we get a cheap accommodation nearby, ‘it’s what travellers do’.
I was very British about it and didn’t want to be rude, but I think my shocked and disgusted face gave him the message. I mean, travellers do do that kind of thing. I did it in the Philippines with people I’d met on my Tao Experience, but definitely not with someone I’d met at the luggage carousel at Bangkok Airport. Totally chickened out of saying no though and scuttled off saying I was going to try and get another flight and ‘maybe I’d see him later’.
I made sure I never saw him later.
9. Don’t trust anyone with your stuff
Two of my friends, fresh out of school, went to travel round Europe camping. They arrived in Barcelona, stood outside the station and asked someone to keep an eye on their tent while they hailed a taxi (something like that anyway). Two minutes later and the tent had gone, along with the person. At 18 they had no idea Barcelona was one of the thieving capitals of the world, and as village kids, they were totally naive. You gotta think about who you leave your stuff with before you trust them.
Another time I was on a trip teaching English in Madrid and one of the other teachers had been so busy saying bye to people, she hadn’t noticed her bag getting robbed off the luggage compartment of the bus. Apparently she thought the bus driver, or at least the other teachers, was watching but we’d all taken ours before saying bye to the kids. When she realised the bag had gone the bus driver did not give a shit and just wanted to get home. Unlucky.
Always know where your own possessions are!
11. Always use a good lock
My brother trusted his dorm mates in Bolivia and left his stuff out in the room – totally got it robbed that night – iPad, money and all.
The other day someone was telling me about getting robbed in Thailand. Her and her friends had realised all the keys on their floor were the same cut, and you could get in any room. Yet still, her friend left all her money out on the side while they went out for dinner. They got back, and surprise, surprise, it’d all gone.
Sadly, my friend Arianwen from BeyondBlighty.com had her late mum’s engagement ring stolen in Cali, Colombia, along with her monetary valuables.
“Over the next few days I kept having moments of realisation about what else had been in the bag. I’d lost cash, a camera, my toiletry bag, a head torch and – most distressing of all – my mother’s engagement ring, which I had worn since she passed away. I’d meant to leave it in the UK and, when I’d realised it was still on my finger at the airport, I’d put it in a small SD card pocket of the bag for safekeeping.” – Ari, in Robbed Travelling in Cali, Colombia.
Don’t think ‘oh, they’ll be ok for a minute’. It only takes a few seconds for someone to take all the valuables you own.
12. Don’t talk to anyone at the ATM
I was staying with this girl I’d met in Mexico in San Pancho, in Guadalajara, and her young (18ish) English house mate had an interesting story. He’d been at the ATM on their street when this Mexican guy came up to him, saying he was in a bit of trouble and he needed the housemate to give him some money and he’d pay back on PayPal (I’m sure it was equivalent to around £1000).
Innocently / stupidly / laughably, he handed it over.
Yep, not making this up.
What’s sad is that he was obviously a lovely, trusting guy and was really upset that the guy had never transferred the cash. But this shark had just totally rinsed him. When I left a week later he was still trying to get the money back from the bank.
13. Spend money on safety
If you’re travelling on a budget by yourself every spend counts but you need to be prepared to spend money to get you out of a situation, if you need to.
From not feeling safe in your accommodation, to really not feeling safe in a country, have money in reserve to pay to get the hell outta there.
Thankfully I never had to do this, although when I think back to some of the places I’ve stayed, I definitely should’ve.
Sometimes things seem sketchy because they’re different, not necessarily because they’re dangerous. You need to trust your instinct to know the difference.
14. Know the name of your hotel
I was in Nozawa Onsen in Japan having a lovely time in a karaoke bar in the ski town. For some reason I decided to go home before the group I was with (probably trying to be responsible) and got totally lost. So lost. I was alone in the freezing cold on a mountain, and didn’t even know the name of the Ryokan we were in. Everything looked the same and before I knew it, I’d walked to the next village. I ended up hitching a ride back to the bar I was in and, thankfully, working it out again from there.
In this case I’d booked on this group trip thing so didn’t actually book the Ryokan myself, and didn’t have the name of the place. Normally I would have it screenshotted on my phone from Booking.com. That could’ve ended very differently.
Screenshot it on your phone and / or pick up a business card at reception. When you’re in a new place everything can look the same so make sure to give yourself the best chance of getting home.
15. Leave dangerous situations
I was on Caye Caulker in Belize, which is a really lovely place by day, but at night, especially late into the night, it changed.
I’d gone to the club with a group of people I’d met on the island. It was around 3am and we were leaving. One of the guys in my group took a bicycle that was outside the club and rode around on it, and then put it back. It belonged to one of the locals and they were furious.
Long story short, basically a ridiculous ‘man off’ ensued. It escalated to the local guy bringing out his machete and threatening us all the way up to our hotel. Obviously we didn’t want him to know where our actual hotel was, so we ended up hiding in the bushes until we were sure he had gone.
It was one of the most bizarre and scary situations I’ve ever been in.
I’d been planning to stay on the island a few more days, but just got the hell out of there the next day as I didn’t want him to recognise me as being part of the group. Paranoia took over.
16. Read up on the place you’re going to
I was happily walking back from Beale Street in Memphis on a weekend, to my hotel about two miles away. There I was, wandering camera in hand through the housing estates, when an unmarked police car stopped beside me.
“Excuse me mam. I’m a police officer [*shows ID*].
Do you know that you’re in a very bad neighbourhood?”
I didn’t. I actually didn’t have a clue. He made me get in right there and then, and if I didn’t, he would send one of his colleagues and a police car to do it instead. Memphis is apparently the second most dangerous city in America and I was in a particularly sketchy part.
READ MORE: I Was Picked Up by a Cop in Memphis
Read up on your destination beforehand, know the dangers, the challenges, and where not to go at night. Stay safe.
17. Heed warnings
Another time when I was skiing in Japan, I saw all these red Japanese signs up on the mountain – couldn’t read them, totally ignored them.
I soon realised they must’ve been saying something along the lines of the fact that the red runs were closed, and you could only do black. For anyone who doesn’t know skiing – the black runs are the scariest of them all. And definitely above my skill level.
With no way down I had to ski a black, in the blustery snow, right at the end of the day when the accidents happen.
Made it, but it pains me to admit, only thanks to another guy on the trip who stayed with me and talked me through getting down.
If you notice anything a bit off when you’re travelling solo, do something about it!
18. Pay attention to the new ways
I’d just arrived in Bangkok airport – yep, same time as the airport mix up. I went to take money out from the machine, all normal, walked off. Then, 5 minutes later I realised the money came first instead of the card, and now, my card was stuck in the machine.
I ran back and asked the lady at the money counter to help. She rolled her eyes and unlocked it for me. So, lucky. I assume it happens all the time.
I totally just did the same thing in Papua New Guinea too, although lucky for me they have security guards at the ATMs, and he called me back.
19. Look after your phone
I was in a public toilet in Bucharest, and bent down to hover over the disgusting seat. As I bent my phone slipped out of my bum bag onto the floor. Quicker than you can say ‘Romania’ a hand slipped under the stall and robbed it. Gone.
In Lisbon I was distracted and arguing with the taxi driver about him over charging us. I gave him the money and stormed off. Realised the next morning my phone must’ve been on the back seat. Gone.
I was at a festival in Bilbao when me and my friends were taking selfies. A girl asked if we’d like a photo. We declined. I put my phone back in my bag. Literally a minute later I went to get my phone out to take a photo of the stage, and it wasn’t there. Pickpocketed. Gone.
When you’re travelling solo being without a phone is awful. I rely on mine so much to feel safe and informed – look after it and set it up with all the apps and security you could possibly need to find it should it go missing.
Travelling safely on your own
You can only rely on yourself when you’re travelling solo, seriously. Any lapse in this can be life threatening at worse, and just annoying at best.
Read all these safety tips for solo travellers and I’m sure you’re probably thinking you never want to travel again. Keep in mind, I travelled the world for three years, and at least half these stories aren’t mine. Look back and pretty much all of them are down to solo traveller stupidity.
As I’ve said, travelling solo is no more dangerous than being at home, so long as you stay alert and keep all your senses finely tuned to your surroundings.
Wednesday 15th of November 2017
I've been so lucky with travel mishaps but there was this one time that I was taking pictures of the water buffalo in a field in Vietnam on my phone... a little later I went to look at the map and phone was gone! Yikes. Like you I am SO SO reliant on my phone for everything from communication, to maps, to entertainment (I live on podcasts and ebooks), to all my travel bookings. I was due to leave town in a couple of hours and was kicking myself so hard for being so stupid.
The lucky part for me was that someone had got hold of my phone, figured out who it belonged to and messaged me on Facebook - my husband saw the messages from Europe where he was. He messaged me on my computer and then the hotel where I was staying called the people and went to pick up my phone. They got back and handed me my phone just as I was climbing on the bus.
So lucky but I think I learned my lesson!
Monday 20th of November 2017
Wow, you are LUCKY! That's so good you got your phone back, and lovely they went to that trouble to get it back to you. I'd totally do that now that I know how annoying and hard it is to lose your phone. Got to make sure it's backed up to the max and that you have it all insured. Or just don't lose it in the first place, but that's easier said than done!
Tuesday 7th of November 2017
I've totally left my bank card in an ATM in Bangkok and felt like such a rookie. Luckily I noticed it gone before someone else wracked up on charges on it but as I called the bank from my hotel in a blind panic I paid $80 for the phone bill :(
These are great tips though Vic.
Wednesday 8th of November 2017
Ah nooooo! Oh maybe phone calls should've been on there. When that phone was stolen in Romania I ended up spending about the same reporting it. I guess people would be well on the Skype etc now.
Glad you've done it too though :)