A recent article from The New York Times has been making the rounds in Facebook travel groups. Written by Shivani Vora, it’s called “Tips for Women Traveling Solo, From Dining Out to Hotel Safety.”
The title is misleading. Rather than a collection of tips, the article is an interview with Suzanne Randolph, founder of Alix Experience, which sells memberships to women traveling solo who want access to a personal concierge. Currently available in New York and London, and soon also in Paris and San Francisco, the service costs $750 to $2000 per city per year.
My first reaction on reading this was “What? 750 to 2000 dollars? How could this possibly be worth that price?”
Randolph states why she founded the service: “In Paris, for example, I remember going to a French seafood restaurant, where I had awful service, and many of the diners stared at me. Beyond dining, it was also hard finding where to get my hair done early in the morning when most salons are closed or where I could take a great spin or Pilates class.”
Getting your hair done? Pilates? Really?
But what had me rolling my eyes most about this article was the suggestions it made for what such a high-priced concierge might do: “…the staff suggests welcoming restaurants and will help travelers book services such as yoga classes and manicures.”
Looking at the Alix Experience website, I see that it’s meant for “executive-level women.” In other words, not me. It quotes an unnamed Hedge Fund Investor Relations Manager as saying “When I’m traveling for a major presentation I like to continue my normal routine of getting professional hair and makeup done.”
Sorry, but most of us solo travelers don’t face these issues. And we certainly wouldn’t pay $750-2000 to help solve them.
To be fair, Alix Experience does include networking events for its members, often involving high-end dinners or tours. They sound worthwhile for their high-flying members, but the rest of us are perfectly capable of meeting people and signing up for events and tours on our own.
Advice for women traveling solo: my version, for the rest of us
After reading the article, I decided to write my own version. My goal is to actually live up to the promise of the title: actual tips for women traveling solo who are not “executive-level women.” In other words, real advice for real solo female travelers who can’t or won’t pay $750 or more dollars to have someone else do what they could perfectly well do themselves.
A few other bloggers also offered some tips, so I’ve added theirs as well.
And this advice is free! (However, I am including a few affiliate links below. If you click on one of them and spend any money, I’ll get a small cut. It won’t affect your price at all.)
1. Brazen it out.
Rudolph says people stared at her. Why? It’s hard for me to believe that they did more than glance up when she walked in. After that, they went back to their food and conversation and forgot she existed. That’s what people do.
So how do you deal with that momentary awkwardness? Walk in, ask for a table and sit down. Brazen it out. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
2. Bring your own entertainment.
Bring a book or magazine to read or play TwoDots on your phone, so you have something to do until your food comes. No one is staring at you!
3. To choose a restaurant, just ask.
High-end hotels have concierges, and you can consult them for free. They might take a kickback from certain restaurants as Randolph suggests in the article, but I’ve found that if I phrase my question correctly, I’m more likely to get an honest recommendation.
Instead of saying, “Can you recommend a restaurant?” I say, “I’d like an inexpensive restaurant that local people would go to with their family that serves (fill in local dish here).”
Cab drivers are great people to ask for restaurant recommendations. Or try the person at the hotel reception, or the bartender at the hotel bar. The friendly woman at the corner shop who sold you a toothbrush because you forgot yours might have a favorite restaurant. In some cities, you can use Yelp.
4. Eat in.
If you really can’t stand eating in a restaurant alone, use room service. Or buy local take-out food (e.g. sushi in Japan) and eat it in your room. In some cities you could try out (affiliate link) Door Dash, a delivery service where drivers, operating independently, much like Uber drivers, pick up your order from a restaurant for you. For lunch, buy your food in a supermarket or street market and have a picnic on a bench while you watch the people go by.
5. Ward off unwanted dinner guests.
If anyone starts bothering you while you are eating, say that you want to eat alone. Don’t be polite, don’t smile. Be firm and blunt. If the person still insists, call the waiter over and say that the person is bothering you. Ask for the manager, if need be. It’s unlikely, but just don’t be afraid to make a scene if necessary. (Actually, that applies pretty much anywhere too: women are so trained to be nice that we have trouble getting ourselves out of dangerous situations.)
The New York Times article does give some sensible advice about choosing a hotel: in a small hotel you are less anonymous, and it is a good idea to be near public transportation. Book through (affiliate link) Hotwire, if you like a bit of a gamble. Keep your costs down by using (affiliate link) Airbnb. Here are more pieces of advice about accommodations:
6. In hotels, ask for a room on an upper floor and close to the elevator.
An upper floor prevents peeping toms or break-ins, and being close to the elevator allows you to get to your room quickly without walking past lots of other rooms’ doors.
7. Block the peephole.
Crumple up a small piece of paper and place it in the peephole in the door of your hotel room; in some places there have been reports of hotel staff reversing the mechanism. Leave the paper sticking out a bit so you can remove it if needed.
8. Use the peephole.
Even if you’re expecting room service, use the peephole before unlocking the door.
9. Use the chain lock on the hotel room door as well as the door’s regular lock.
Hotel employees have access to the regular lock. Only you have access to the chain.
10. Use a door wedge.
Patti Morrow of Luggage and Lipstick recommends getting a cheap plastic door wedge and using it under your hotel room door in addition to all the other locking mechanisms.
Here are a few tips about safety when you’re moving around a foreign city:
11. Follow all the safety routines you probably already follow at home.
A handbag with an across-the-chest strap is harder to snatch than a shoulder bag. In crowded areas, keep your bag or backpack in front. Don’t walk down dark alleys or deserted parks at night. Just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean those basic safety rules don’t apply.
12. Use public transportation.
Public transportation is cheap and there’s safety in numbers – but not too many numbers, so avoid places like the Tokyo subway system at rush hour! Some cities, including Dubai, have women-only cars on the metro.
Some of the best people-watching is on public transportation.
13. Use taxis wisely.
Only take marked, legal taxis. Ask at your hotel what the price ought to be. Agree on a price with the driver before getting in and/or insist that the meter is turned on. Sit in the back seat. Note the name and number of the taxi and taxi driver as soon as you get in. Some cities, notably Dubai, have women-only taxis with women drivers. Choose them.
14. Take the address of your hotel with you.
This is especially useful if you can’t speak the language. It’ll help if you need directions or want to tell a taxi driver or ask a bus driver where to go.
15. Carry a really loud whistle with you at all times.
This way you can make some noise if you need help. (Again, thanks to Patti Morrow of Luggage and Lipstick.)
16. Carry a wedding ring.
If you don’t already wear one, i.e. if you’re single, it can be useful for people to think you’re married. A simple, cheap ring is easy enough to take with you. (Again, this is one of Patti’s.)
Much as I enjoy solo travel – being able to make all the decisions without any consultation remains a joy – it can certainly get lonely sometimes. Here are some suggestions for meeting people.
17. Take a tour
Michele Peterson of A Taste for Travel says “One of the best ways for solo female ( or male) travellers to connect with other travellers and explore a new city is to sign up for a culinary walking tour. These tours offer excellent value. Not only do you get to enjoy the company of new-found friends who share the same interests as you do, but you’ll be guided by an expert local resident who can introduce you to a city’s hidden neighbourhoods offering insights into the culture, history and architecture along the way. Plus a full morning or afternoon of tasting stops makes a great substitute for a sit-down meal.”
Anita Lee Breland of Anita’s Feast adds “Cooking classes are another way I like to connect when traveling.”
Really any kind of walking tour would work, not just culinary. I always end up in conversation with the other participants.
18. Talk to other travelers and to locals.
You don’t have to stay in a hostel to meet other travelers (though hostels do make it easier). One time, when I was traveling in Japan on my own and hadn’t spoken English with anyone in days, I was waiting for a train and heard someone speaking English. My ears perked up right away, and I saw a couple and a young child not far away down the platform. I walked over to them and I don’t remember what I said, but it was enough to strike up a very pleasant conversation. We ended up doing a bit of sightseeing together that day and having dinner together a few nights later.
19. Ask questions.
A good way to approach other people – locals or travelers – if you’re feeling uncomfortable with this idea is just to ask them a question. “Do you know if this is the right platform for the train to Tokyo?” “Have you been to Kanazawa? I’m trying to decide whether to go there.” Any simple question will be enough.
20. Be open and friendly.
Say “Hello” to the owner of a shop when you walk in. Have a chat with the proprietors of your hotel. Coo at a fellow bus rider’s baby. If you are friendly and make eye contact, you’re more likely to be able to strike up a conversation.
Other general advice
21. Skip the manicures and haircuts.
The New York Times article also mentions getting a manicure or getting your hair done. Here’s my suggestion: don’t. Get your hair cut before you leave; don’t waste perfectly good travel time in a salon! A manicure can be fun, I suppose, but you can find one the same way you can find a restaurant: ask around.
22. Pack light.
Unless this is a business trip and you need several days of different outfits with accessories in order to land that big account, you should be able to take very little with you.
I know many of us have trouble with this. However, if you’re traveling solo for the first time, remember that you won’t have anyone to help with your bags. Yes, if you’re staying in an upscale hotel, a porter might help. On the plane or on a train, though, you’re expected to lift your bag into the overhead compartment all by yourself. Make sure you can.
My advice: lay out what you think you might need. Then subtract half. You should be able to fit all of it into one carry-on bag. The make-up, blow-dryer, bathrobe, dressy outfit because-who-knows-you-might-get-invited-to-a-party? Leave them at home.
I wrote about my own struggles with this in my post “Packing for a Solo Trip” and then, after my solo travel, in “An Over-Packing Update.” I traveled for two months with one carry-on bag. If I can do it, so can you!
23. Wear things more than once.
This follows from packing light. If you’re moving from place to place, no one is going to know that it’s the fourth time you’ve worn those jeans. Don’t worry about it until they are visibly dirty or smell bad. Use deodorant, of course, and shower regularly, but you don’t need to change your clothes entirely every day.
24. Do laundry as needed.
I usually hand wash clothing when I need to. The soap or shampoo they provide in hotels works just fine as laundry detergent, by the way.
If you’re traveling for more than a couple weeks, ask at your hotel where the nearest laundromat is and go do a load of laundry. This is another reason to take simple, durable clothing: you want to be able to throw it all into one wash.
And by the way, laundromats are another great place to strike up conversations with strangers.
Alternatively, choose an (affiliate link) Airbnb accommodation. You can filter your search to show only places with washing machines.
25. Where to travel?
In light of the recent attacks, this might be your biggest concern. My view is: go anyway! I discussed why in “Choosing a destination in a time of terrorism” just after the Berlin attack.
Randolph, not surprisingly, suggests the cities that Alix Experience covers (New York, London, Paris and San Francisco) as great for solo travel. These are all wonderful cities, but there are plenty of others. Tokyo, for example, or Seoul or Berlin or Prague or Hong Kong or Melbourne … well, there are lots of places you could go. Pretty much anywhere, actually, is good for solo travel.
I’m assuming, though, that this advice is for relatively inexperienced solo travelers. I’m also assuming you’re from the US as most of my readers are.
In that case, stick with Canada, anywhere in Western Europe, or Australia/New Zealand. Public transportation in these places is good and dependable. The water is safe to drink, the traffic moves more or less according to rules, the rule of law is mostly respected, and crime rates are low. Most importantly, you’ll always be able to find someone who speaks English.
Of the places I’ve been, I’d also add Japan and South Korea for all the reasons I listed above, but you will find fewer people who speak English than in Western Europe.
For lots of great travel recommendations around the world, see my post “Choosing a Travel Destination” and my collaborative post “Trip of a Lifetime: Bloggers pick their must-see destinations.” Italy got the most nominations from my fellow bloggers, but you’ll find plenty more ideas as well.
These tips have all been pretty general. They also come from a particular point of view: a white, middle-aged, able-bodied woman who is alert when traveling, but doesn’t face racism and only rarely experiences any sexual harassment.
- If you are black, look up accounts written by other black women traveling solo. It might help you choose where to travel, and where not to. Here’s a list of bloggers to start you off.
- If you are a young woman, look up other young women’s experiences with harassment in the countries you are considering. The International Women’s Travel Center keeps track.
- If you are LGBTQ, look up which destinations are most tolerant. Pride.com’s travel section is a place to start.
- If you are disabled, look up which places are most accommodating for people with disabilities. You can get lots of good advice from Disabled Travelers Guide.
Meanwhile, please share this post wherever you do social media (The picture below is pinnable!). And if you’re still considering paying that $750-$2000 for personalized travel tips, contact me. Maybe we can work out a deal!
Do you have any tips you could add about traveling solo? Please comment below!
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