Solo Travel is a Feminist Issue

“Why was she backpacking alone?”

“What was she doing meeting a man on Tinder?”

The victim blaming I’ve seen online this week, for Grace Millane, the British backpacker murdered in New Zealand, has been disgusting. Suggestions that a 22-year-old woman was in some way asking for it, or that it was inevitable, that if she dared to travel and to use the technology available to us now to enrich the experience, she deserved what she got.

We don’t know the exact circumstances of her death, but it wasn’t travel that killed her, or New Zealand, or Tinder, or what she wore – it was, by all accounts, that man.

And now, the case will be used to suggest that women shouldn’t travel alone, for oppressors to say:

“Look, this is what will happen if you travel solo as a woman”.

Solo female travellers

In all my travels, from spending a week in luxury in Barbados to travelling solo around Papua New Guinea, there have been raised eyebrows and confusion at the fact I’m travelling alone.

“No husband?”

Best places to go backpacking

People feel sorry for you. Like it wasn’t a conscious choice to travel the world care free and to think of no one but yourself. They pity you, or assume there must be some sort of problem.

A female actually choosing to travel alone is not only unthinkable in a lot of the Third World, but also in the UK. I remember when I started my three years of solo travel, with six weeks in Mexico. Friends and family worried if I would be ok.

“Mexico? By yourself?”

And yes, I survived. As millions of other solo female travellers have as they travel the world to understand different cultures. To see the world’s most impressive landscapes. To meet people and to experience a life so different to their own.

I’m sure the only difference between Grace and I is, I didn’t meet a murderer.

Women travelling solo

The comments I’ve seen about Grace are just the same as the comments left for the two Argentinian backpackers Maria Coni, 22, and Marina Menegazzo, 21, who were sexually assaulted and killed in February 2016, while traveling in Ecuador.

Full of blame for the intrepid women.

The pair were reportedly bludgeoned across the head by two men who had offered them a place to stay after they were running out of money. An offer I know for a fact my male travel friends would take up, thinking of it as a ‘cultural experience’.

“#viajasolo” – Spanish for ‘I travel alone’ – was picked up all over the world in the wake of the brutal deaths, to show solidarity for the independent, strong and unlimited women who’d dared to do what many men do without hesitation: trust others. 

The fact that the women weren’t even travelling alone, they were together, seemed to have escaped the media who criticised them.

‘Alone’ just meant: without a male.

What do female backpackers need to be equal to men?

Why is it more dangerous for women to hitchhike? To stay in hotels? To accept invites for meals? To make friends.

Why are the cultural experiences available to men, not available to us, for fear of gendered violence?

It’s the privilege of growing up as a male, rather than a female, that makes you not question the danger.

I was looking at the line up for the annual Adventure Show in London last week. Going off typically female / male names, there are 49 talks, with 13 of them from women. Why aren’t there more women adventuring, and wanting to regale their tales to inspire others?

I had some criticism on an article I wrote about sleeping on trains in Vietnam. At the time, I was travelling with my ex-boyfriend, yet still, as I lay awake in a cabin with him above me sleeping, and two strangers in the other two beds, I worried about my safety. As I say in the article I weighed up my physical strength against the other men, I made an exit strategy if either of them had a tool for suppression, and I made sure to stay alert as my ex slept, so I could defend myself.

Neither man had done anything to suggest danger, other than be a man I didn’t know.

A commenter called ‘Matt’ – so let’s assume he’s a guy – said I was a racist and sexist and ‘playing the victim’. No ‘Matt’. I was a female in a vulnerable position. It’s lovely that you don’t have to worry about things like this, but lying in a sleeper cabin, in a room where I know one guy wasn’t registered to even be on the train, is a worrying situation.

Imagine the comments if the men had done something to me.

“Why did she fall asleep?”

“What was she wearing?”

“Why was she in a cabin with three men?”

“HAD SHE BEEN DRINKING?”


READ MORE: Am I Lonely? Travelling Solo 


Best destinations for solo female travellers

God you see these lists doing the rounds all over the internet. When the truth is 80% (guesstimate) of the world is the same – you have your sketchy areas, and your safe, in any country and city. Generally, you’re going to be ok when you follow the rules of safety you’ve inherently learnt from childhood.

Unless you happen to meet a psycho who gives you no chance of survival – which happens at home, more than it does abroad.

And anyway, I’ll bet you that New Zealand is on most, if not all of these lists. Statistically and factually, it’s a safe place, which I’m sure was one of the considerations Grace Millane took in when she decided to travel there.

Is this usually well-meaning travel advice just another way to try and control women? To use fear to tell them where to go so they won’t get raped and murdered?

The world is as safe as it is dangerous, and unfortunately, it’s usually not a country that will kill you, but a fatal encounter with a person in it.

Female solo travel in numbers

If you look at the figures, the fact is, travelling solo as a female is statistically relatively safe.

According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), in 2013-14 there were 106 reported rapes of British nationals abroad and 152 reported sexual assaults. The Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales, released by the Ministry of Justice, Home Office and Office for National Statistics in 2013, revealed that 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year, of whom around 15% report the incident to police.”

– The Guardian, Why is travelling alone still considered a risky, frivolous pursuit for women?

If I look back to all the countries I’ve ever been to, the only times I’ve ever felt at risk, was in London, in New Orleans, and in Caye Caulker in Belize – only three places out of hundreds. And it wasn’t the places, it was the people around me, and the hyped media stories I read while I was there.

I’ve travelled to Central America, to Africa and to Papua New Guinea. The kind of places where if something had happened to me that made national news, there would be commenters asking:

“Well, what did she expect?”

What could’ve saved Grace, Maria and Marina?

Seriously?

What, not travelling? So just stay at home. In actual fact, the home is the most dangerous place for a woman – statistically.

– NOT MEETING ABSOLUTE PSYCHOS who decided to murder innocent women.

Who thought it was ok to kill.

The recommendations for us women out there to not get murdered include:

– Don’t go out late at night

“So you’re meant to stay in your room and not soak up the night time atmosphere?”

– Don’t wear short skirts

“It’s hot.”

– Don’t talk to strangers

“That’s kinda the point of travelling.”

– Don’t drink too much

“So, tell me, how much is too much?”

– Always let a friend know where you are.

“I’m travelling solo, it’s kinda the point.”

– Wear a wedding ring

“Oh, so they know I BELONG TO SOMEONE.”

Instead of these recommendations, why don’t you just not murder me. 

Solo travel as a female

– You’re wolf whistled in the street, in order to get your attention.

– You’re judged on what you wear.

– You’re stared at.

– Unabashed nonchalant ogling is the norm. 

– You’ll hear hissing, clacking and whistling as you walk the streets. 

– Verbal aggression is normal, especially if you’re rejecting advances.

– You’re always asked about children – are men?

If anyone does any of the things above to you, they think they’re better than you and absolutely do not respect you. And, in my experience, it will always be the men.

PNG Mount Hagen

Low level misogyny as you travel is everywhere. Here are just a few examples, from many of the past…

– I was on a plane travelling domestically in Papua New Guinea. The guy sat next to me, who I’d had a lengthy conversation with, about life and careers in general, said ‘good girl’ when I chose a beer from the drinks cart. Never, would I have even thought to say to him ‘good boy’ at his drinks choice. Another patronising comment showing he thought he was better than me in some way. 

– In Belize, a local guy shouted at me ‘slow down woman, ya bouncing’, as I hurriedly walked past him wearing a top and bikini top underneath. Referring to my breasts.

– Man spreading on planes. I make a conscious effort not to take up anyone else’s space on a plane. Low level men’s domination.

– In Oz the only guy in the group was taking ages to make a fire for a BBQ. We wanted to eat and go to bed. One of the women just grabbed the materials and started up a flame immediately. He kicked off – in a really embarrassing way. “Do you know how emasculated that makes me feel?”


READ MORE: 27 Tips for Solo Travellers


My code of travel

I live with the expectation that something bad will happen, and this has served me well in the fact that nothing particularly ever has, but it’s also robbed me of what I’m sure could’ve been some incredible experiences around the world.

Travelling to Papua New Guinea

– Me in Papua New Guinea

I love the idea of learning about a destination through the locals, but unfortunately unless I have a personal connection, or there’s some website to verify authenticity and safety, or I’m in a group – there’s no way I’m going to anyone’s house.

I have met people from Tinder as I’ve travelled though. I have gone out with people I’ve only known half an hour, I’ve slept in dorms, I’ve drank, I’ve even been drunk, I’ve worn short skirts, and I’ve had the best time meeting new people and seeking new experiences.

Women, go forth and travel

It’s a scary thing to trailblaze: to be a confident woman travelling solo abroad. You can’t just retire back to your bed at night and congratulate yourself on a day well lived, you have to stay alert and have the burden of worrying about your safety. 

I’m sure some women don’t even realise they’re doing it. I didn’t, until I spoke to males about how they felt in certain situations.

What is Papua New Guinea Like

I’ve followed Grace’s case intently. I’m so sad for her family and friends, a life pointlessly snubbed out for a reason we don’t yet know and will probably ever understand. Thanks to one man.

I really hope her case doesn’t put anyone thinking of travelling, going though. The world is an amazing place, and as the statistics prove, it’s just not as dangerous as the media suggests. Murders of tourists abroad get a huge amount of coverage because it’s such an anomaly.

Thousands of women go travelling every day and come back having achieved their dreams and enriched their lives. Sending the message to women that it’s too dangerous to travel, limits their horizons and prospects. As they have been for the history of womankind.

Anyone who’s been shook by this horrific case, I urge you to travel with empowerment and stay curious and strong.

Female solo travel is NOT the problem here. It’s violence against women, and the continuing narrative that still, despite being the victim, women are to blame.


I’d love to know your thoughts…

Either on my Facebook post, or in the comments below.
What do you think about solo female travel? 

solo travel and feminism


Statement from Grace’s father, David Millane, and her family

Auckland City

“Grace went off to travel the world in mid-October and arrived in New Zealand on the 20th November.

By the amount of pictures and messages we received she clearly loved this country, its people and the lifestyle.

After the disappearance of Grace on 1st December 2018 our whole world  turned upside down. 

We all hope that what has happened to Grace will not deter even one person from venturing out into the world and discovering their own OE (overseas experience).

Finally we would like to thank the people of New Zealand for their outpouring of love, numerous messages, tributes and compassion.

Grace was not born here and only managed to stay a few weeks, but you have taken her to your hearts and in some small way she will forever be a Kiwi.

My brother Martin and I leave for the UK this weekend to take her home.”


More on solo female travel

The Realistic Guide to Solo Travel 

Safety Tips for Solo Travellers

My Tips for Travelling Vietnam Solo
Backpacking in Vietnam: Everything You Need to Know
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25 Comments

  1. by Harry on December 10, 2018  1:31 pm Reply

    We need to be more aware while travelling. So sad to hear that.

    • by VickyFlipFlop on December 10, 2018  1:53 pm Reply

      Thanks for your comment Harry? And how exactly can we be more aware?

      Maybe people just need to stop murdering people instead?

  2. by Abbi on December 10, 2018  6:43 pm Reply

    Seriously incredible article Vicky! I totally agree with everything. There are dodgy areas everywhere so travel is not to blame. I’ve been on night buses surrounded by local men, got lost at night in cities, been in a scooter accident in the middle of nowhere, met up with guys and went drinking well into the early hours and survived.
    I don’t think you need a man to travel with or make you feel safe. Take for instance the case of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller who were murdered in Koh Tao in 2014. A male and female travelling together. It’s just wrong place wrong time. Running into a total psycho.
    Interestingly enough just after those two died, I travelled to Koh Tao - my parents went out of their mind with worry.
    People dying overseas won’t ever put me off travelling. I think people should just stop killing!

    • by VickyFlipFlop on December 11, 2018  9:46 am Reply

      Thanks Abbi. I was getting so angry as I was writing it. Sounds like you've had plenty of adventures – which is what life is all about IMHO. Yes, I remember that case. Another horribly sad waste of a life. But yes, you're right – Hannah was with a man and still murdered.

      I was talking to my mum last night and despite her reading this post, and knowing in her right mind that wherever I am there are risks, she still worries about me travelling so much. I'm not surprised your parents were worried. My parents are planning a gap year next year and I'm worried about them! When someone is so precious you want to look after them as much as you can, but as you said, if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time there's not much you can do. And this can happen wherever you are.

  3. by VickiC on December 10, 2018  7:55 pm Reply

    I can't believe the attitudes your article has exposed - in the "enlightened" 1st world, no less. I travelled alone in 1999, while in my mid-20s, and the only people in whom it occasioned a comment were my parents and other Eastern Europeans I met (who generally have more conservative attitudes). All the Westerners found it perfectly normal.
    Mind you, I did travel in Europe (mostly Western) - I wouldn't have felt confident enough travelling solo in a 3rd world country; and took all sorts of precautions (from not going to certain areas at night to wearing a fake wedding ring at times).
    I'm not naive enough to think that the world has become a completely safe place for solo women, travellers or otherwise; sadly, a woman would have to wear armour and more weapons than Rambo to be completely safe (and even then, to skip on sleep and not accept drinks from strange men). Yet I do find it unbelievable that people in countries where generations have grown up with feminism - supposedly - still blame the victim and think solo travel is not for women.

    • by VickyFlipFlop on December 11, 2018  9:41 am Reply

      If you read the reactive comments online it's hard to understand how people think in this world. It seems so normal for me for a woman to want to go travelling alone. I know loads of people who've done it. But something like this happens and people question why she was alone, and how it's dangerous out there for lone female. Personally I just take the same precautions wherever I am as I do when I'm alone in England.

  4. by Cynthia Hufnagel on December 11, 2018  4:41 am Reply

    Thank you for sharing Vicky. I agree with everything you said and it is very sad that we blame the victim instead of the person who did the murdering. I'm so sorry to hear about their families loss.

    • by VickyFlipFlop on December 11, 2018  9:38 am Reply

      Such a sad story isn't it? For this man to have taken a life so unnecessarily and to have ruined the family's and friends in the process. So punishment could ever fit the crime. Thanks for reading.

      • by Cynthia Hufnagel on December 12, 2018  1:03 am Reply

        You are welcome. Yes thank you for sharing.

  5. by Shelley on December 11, 2018  1:53 pm Reply

    We are all more vulnerable when travelling alone. Male or female. I still tell my 24 and 28 year old sons to avoid the alley ways to our house when out late at night and walking back alone. My mum always said some of the things that have been said about Grace and they have stuck with me. I still travelled alone but used common sense. I don't think we need to turn it into another feminist issue.

    • by Abi on December 12, 2018  9:23 am Reply

      Another way society could look at this problem would be to suggest that men stay at home, since men are overwhelmingly responsible for violent crime that occurs outside the house. This would be abhorrent since it would deprive so many decent men of the chance to travel (although it would save many lives.) But the thought experiment is interesting because that is what many people say to women. I don't agree with the notion that we should all forget about standard safety advice. But it is time to try to look at the problem of violent crime a different way.

      • by VickyFlipFlop on December 12, 2018  5:01 pm Reply

        That is an excellent point Abi, and just highlights how ridiculous it is to suggest women don't go out. Definitely an interesting thought experiment to flip the cause and solution. Of course we should always think safety first, and even more so in a new location, whether that's abroad or at home. I would always avoid an alley way at night in my home town. I'm not suggesting we shouldn't Shelley.

        I'm sure Grace had a good level of common sense and from what we've been told so far she wasn't doing anything millions of people have done before, with no problem, in meeting someone off the internet. Solo travel is definitely a feminist issue, I don't see how anyone can argue otherwise.

  6. by Agnes on December 12, 2018  7:32 am Reply

    It is so true! Thank you for sharing your words!

    Agnes from Hungary

  7. by Kathi on December 13, 2018  9:57 am Reply

    I wholeheartedly agree - anything women do independently is inherently a feminist act because society still tried to restrict women structurally. It a disheartening to hear the same comments about female solo travel over and over again, instead of people just talking about the real issue which is as you say violence against women. People often wonder how my travel blog related to my feminism and it's exactly that!!

    • by VickyFlipFlop on December 16, 2018  2:26 pm Reply

      Exactly. Anything that helps women to be equal and treated equal is feminism. And unfortunately we still need a super strong movement to help people realise the entrenched misogyny present all over the world right now.

      • by adrien on January 19, 2019  2:45 am Reply

        "the entrenched misogyny present all over the world right now" ==> it's always sound painful to hear/read such things. There are as much issues in being a man than being a woman. You don't believe me ? :

        0). Men always protected their country, kids and so their wifes by fighting in wars and being killed.
        1) 96,4 % of people in jail are men.
        2) 95 % of homeless people are men.
        3) 8 % of men only have their kids after a divorce.
        4) 73,6 % of suicides are commited by men..
        5) 85,2 % of people who have the most risky works are men.
        6) 95,4 % of dustman are .... men.
        7) 62 % of homicide victims are men.
        8) 65,5 % of judges in court are women.
        9) 52,5% of unemployed people are men.
        10) 43,2 % of students at university are men.
        11) More money is spend for breast cancer treatment than for prostrate cancer treatment.
        12) We have big proofs that the 24% wage gap is not due to mysoginism but due to differences in study and career choices (If it was due to mysoginism, why employers don't hire more women than men ?? They would gain lot of money).

        ==> - My mother language is French, not English. So it's not usefull to mention my grammar mistakes.
        - I have absolutely no anger against feminism, but I have for people who don't catch that each gender has its own issues, and so saying that the entire world is mygonistic is just a big lie.

        P-S : I really like your article ! I wish all women may experience solo travelling. Have a nice day !

  8. by Arianwen on December 14, 2018  10:06 am Reply

    Well said Vic! One of my school friends was murdered while backpacking in her gap year in Australia, but it never once made me question whether travelling alone was a good idea. Her family are inspirational. They set up a charity called the Caroline Rainbow Foundation to offer safe-travel advice to other young people with a passion for travel. It's not the fact that she was alone or overseas that caused this to happen. She was just unfortunate to cross the path of a man capable of such an horrific act.

    • by VickyFlipFlop on December 16, 2018  2:24 pm Reply

      Oh god that's awful. I've just read about the Foundation – sounds like they're doing really good work. Amazing to think how many travellers they've helped. Yeah, it's so sad, but could just as easily have happened at home, and to a guy. As it unfortunately regularly does.

  9. by Svenja on December 20, 2018  12:27 pm Reply

    Hi Vicky,
    Your article is brilliantly written and I caught myself nodding to every paragraph I read. While nothing serious has ever happened to me, there have been many dodgy situations. I don't know how many times I've been asked before my journey "Alone?! You are traveling alone? None of your friends have time? Are you gonna book a guide? This is so dangerous!"
    However until recently I never did see it as a feminist issues but rather that many people don't like traveling or being alone. But you point it out so perfectly, that is is indeed a feminist issue. Thank you!

    • by VickyFlipFlop on January 3, 2019  12:06 pm Reply

      Thanks for reading Svenja, and taking the time to comment. I can guarantee that women have a different and unique set of questions to men, just based entirely on their born genitalia. Kinda crazy really – just how much is decided for you at birth. But anyway, I think things are changing but it will take a long time to spread across the world. Just important we think about these things, and that men think about these things too.

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