Most of us womenfolk would like to believe that we are capable of traveling the world in the same way as any other human being, without needing a separate set of guidelines. Yet, most of us experienced lady travelers have also been forced to acknowledge that, while we may be more capable of taking care of ourselves and competently moving around than our male companions (I happen to be the world’s greatest map-reader, not that I’m bragging), the world we live and travel in doesn’t always want to afford us the same rights and freedoms as our male counterparts.
While this should never prevent any of the female or female-identifying individuals out there from strapping on a backpack and a pair of hiking boots, it may affect exactly what ends up in that backpack and how you do the aforementioned strapping.
With recent high-profile incidents of assault against female travelers and residents in several popular tourist destination countries, it’s becoming increasingly important for female travelers to find the appropriate balance between naïveté and paranoia. There’s no reason for any adventurous ladies to be concerned or scared away from volunteering, interning, studying, or teaching abroad solo.
But, as with most things in life, there are a few strategies to make things a bit easier on your adventurous selves while you’re there. Whether you’re going to study abroad with a huge program or you’re heading out on a whirlwind solo adventure, here are a few tips to make your experience as fabulous as possible.
1. Feel free to get cozy with the ladies
If you’d prefer to stay in a female-only space but don’t have the cash to spring for a hotel or private room, take a look through hostel listings and room descriptions. Many hostels, especially the larger ones with a wider range of rooms, offer single-gender as well as mixed dorms. However, keep in mind that if you book a room online, this may not translate to reality, so make sure to remind the person at the desk when you arrive if you have requested an all-women room. Couchsurfing can also be an option here, if you find a trustworthy female host – you may even get a great new friend and tour guide out of it!
2. And ride with women, too
Just like with housing, some places have means of transport that are specifically designated for women, such as train cars, cabs or sleeping compartments. Depending on your comfort level and budget, it may be worthwhile to seek out these women-only spaces. Your best resource for this information will be local women, who will have the best knowledge of what your options are and just how necessary they may be.
3. Make friends! Or don’t!
Just by being a woman, you may have an easier time with many of the logistical aspects of travel. People tend to be friendlier and more open to talking to you, giving you directions, inviting you somewhere, or even giving you a ride. However, depending on where you are, your X chromosomes may affect how people treat you, in either positive and negative ways. Keep in mind that the norms shaping interaction between genders may be different where you’re going than where you’re from, so trust your instincts, especially if you feel like something isn’t quite right.
We all want to trust people, but sometimes it can be hard to figure out whether certain behavior - or treatment - is a social norm or something out of the ordinary. Meeting people is a huge part of the travel experience, though, so don’t feel like you have to isolate yourself and refuse to speak to anyone if you’re traveling alone. You can solve this by pairing up with someone who may be heading in the same direction as you, or seek out a friend of a friend in your destination city.
If you’re the type who prefers to have someone to take photos of you at scenic landmarks, go ahead and find yourself a travel buddy – because if summer camp taught us anything, it’s that the buddy system is never a bad thing!
Keep in mind that the norms shaping interaction between genders may be different where you're going than where you're from, so trust your instincts, especially if you feel like something isn't quite right.
4. Dress the part
In the U.S., Canada, Britain and other countries linked by the baffling use of phrasal verbs, we ladies tend to enjoy a bit more liberty when it comes to the right to dress ourselves. It doesn’t always work out this way - though it certainly seems to be true at least on the New York subway system, but the essential idea is that you should be able to walk down the street wearing whatever you want without having to feel physically threatened. However, not every part of the world follows this belief – and, whether or not you personally feel that the standards there are justified or even remotely acceptable, the truth is that most of the time, trying to blend in with the local women – or at least to not completely stand out from them – will save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
Sometimes it’s simply a logical thing – women in very hot countries wear loose skirts instead of jeans for a reason, not just because it looks nice. There is also an aspect of respect – just because we can walk around in corset tops at home doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a polite thing to do somewhere else. If you feel that the rules in a certain place go so strongly against your personal beliefs that you can’t possibly stick to them, then maybe that isn’t the best place for you to visit. Granted, most people will give you some leeway as a foreigner, but that may not be the kind of attention you want directed toward you.
5. Know your rights
Though your local embassy is responsible for you to a certain degree, if you are in another country you are expected to obey the legal system of that country. This may not be the same system as that of your home country, but it is equally valid and probably has scarier repercussions. If you’re heading somewhere that has a noticeably different set of laws or expectations for women, it’s in your best interest to find out what those expectations are. This is especially relevant for LGBT travelers, as some countries have some very, very frightening laws when it comes to anything that doesn’t conform strictly to heterosexual standards.
Traveling does not – and should not – have to necessitate shoving yourself into any kind of closet, but do be aware what the laws and regulations are in your local space, because the potential repercussions of those laws can be quite severe. If you have connections in the queer community in that place, they’ll be the best people to ask about how to stay safe – if not, the Internet has a vast and helpful range of guidance and resources.
6. Sometimes, lying is okay
This advice may seem counterintuitive, as most of us grew up learning that lying is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing, but hear me out. While lying is generally to be avoided, there’s nothing terribly wrong with a little white lie between strangers. If you’re not in the mood to be propositioned by the greasy man sitting next to you on the bus, slip a fake wedding band into your bag before leaving home. Granted, this may not dissuade the most determined suitors, nor is it exactly an exemplary feminist statement, but it’s at least a good protective measure if you feel comfortable doing it. The same goes for mentioning the boyfriend, family member or friend waiting for you back at the hotel; the car that’s coming to pick you up soon; the terrible allergy you have to whatever food or drink someone offers you. We’re trained practically from birth that honesty is the best policy, but sometimes it’s more of a guideline than a rule, particularly when it comes to your own safety or comfort.
Just because we can walk around in corset tops at home doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a polite thing to do somewhere else.
7. Crowdsourcing is your friend
Odds are, you’re not the first woman traveling in your destination. People have been there before you, and they probably have some good advice to offer. Check out websites like Wanderlust and Lipstick, the GypsyGals and Journeywoman to see what other ladies have to say about where you’re headed. Of course, everyone’s experience will be different, but it can’t hurt to ask around to see if there’s a woman-run hostel close by or to find out about the closest place that sells decent razors for ladies. Your friends in the travel world are your best resource, so don’t be afraid to ask!
8. You do you, girl
So, why are you traveling? Unless it’s to find a sexy foreign man for a hot summer fling (in which case, you may want to stop watching so many movies), it’s probably for you, right? You want to see a new part of the world, you want to eat all of the pastries in Western Europe, you want to justify that pricey camera you bought last year. Whatever the reason, it most likely has to do with you, not anyone else. That’s the most important driving factor behind your travel, and it should be the most important part of your experience.
Even if you have a day where you want to set fire to the next person who whispers a creepy pickup line at you, or where you would pay $15 at a pharmacy for actual tampons, remember that these days are just collateral damage. They’re unrelated to the reason for your travels, and they should be of equal irrelevance as far as the outcome is concerned. Just make sure those jerks don’t somehow end up sneaking into your photos.
Ultimately, as with all travel, it comes back to being realistic. No matter how many travel books or blogs we read, no matter how many self-defense classes we’ve taken, no matter how vigilant we are about keeping extra money in our bras and not wearing flashy jewelry, things can happen. Regardless of gender, things can happen, and all we can do is be aware of and do what we can to minimize the possibility of those things actually happening.
I readily admit to being one of those people who wants to pretend that my chromosomes have zero effect on my ability to march into any situation and be both safe and respected as a human being, but I also acknowledge that idealism unfortunately doesn’t always translate to reality. I think that all people should travel whenever the chance arises.
Fear, paranoia and insecurity are easy excuses to avoid traveling, but there’s no reason to let them control any of your choices. Still, until we get everyone in the world to read “Half the Sky” and lean the heck in, there are going to be certain ways in which women have to approach travel somewhat differently than our male friends. This won't make our travel experience any less fun, it's just something we must keep in mind. The best we can do is remember that these things don’t define our travel experiences – we, and the good people we meet along the way, do.Photo Credits: API Study Abroad.