Q&A: Traveling alone

Q&A is a series on Nomadderwhere that uses questions posed by readers and commentators to address topics of travel, alternative lifestyle design, blogging, and other interests. To send in your questions, contact me or send me a link to your video question on Youtube!

Hello, My name is Natalia. The extensive traveling you have done is not only amazing for the wide array of places you've been to, but because it seems to me that it's relatively difficult to travel without strict guidance and a tour guide. Of course this is because that is the only sort of traveling I've done, but then that leaves me with the tremendous question of: How have you done it? Which leads me to my next point...

How do you travel and backpack without having a security net at all times? Is it courage? Do you need backpacking friends? Did you do it on your own? I ask because this is something I only dream of doing, and if I could receive advice or information from someone that's been there and back, I would be eternally grateful. -Natalia

Aside from questions about the World Traveler Internship, this inquiry on traveling alone is my most common topic of discussion with readers. Though I've always had an independent tendency since childhood, I certainly had major issues getting comfortable roaming the world as a solo female.

The short answer: You learn to be your own security net. And if you've researched, are savvy, and a good observer, you'll learn fast without needing big mistakes to be your lessons.

And now for the long answer...

Once you leave the USA (and sometimes Europe), you realize how many people out there are willing to help you out, better than you could help yourself. Of course, there are the evil doers out there, but it's possible to learn how to spot these people, know when you're vulnerable, and be prepared for the worst without always being freaked out...without having to make huge mistakes in order to learn from.

Your Own Security Net

Traveling alone even for a day or two allows you to feel this survival mode that's inside your being...but when you're catered to, it doesn't have to rear it's head. Within the first week of traveling alone, especially in third world countries or areas that are known for petty crime, I think women (and probably men, too) learn how to listen their gut and their survival instinct. I've adapted habits of looking in windows beside me to see if anyone is following, always having escape plans, using my humor to say how I really feel and reveal potential scams around me, and many others that now seem involuntary.

Flamingo viewing at Lake Nakuru in Kenya

You definitely need courage, but showing and having courage becomes secondhand after a couple experiences that give you that sense of strength. I was freaked out in my first Third World country (Brazil during Carnivale), on my first trip to India, and the first time I traveled alone completely in a really foreign land: Vietnam. I cried the whole morning before I went off alone, but my tears were for Ha Long Bay; I didn't think I would get to see it. All that crying was stupid, since there was nothing stopping me from going anyway (aside from the fear of relying solely on myself and my parents telling me never to travel alone).

The world wasn't as scary as I had imagined it would be from the eyes of a lone female. After that, it wasn't fear but exhilaration.

Alone or With Friends?

I love having backpacking friends, but you don't have to have them. Of course, it depends on your personality. I am both social and introverted, and I love how being alone encourages that survival mode and more writing/reflecting on your end. I've been on one organized tour in my own travels, and I liked it, probably because of the nature of the tour. It was an overlanding experience across Africa, so not your typical Contiki cattle herding.

Looking out from my houseboat on Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir

Traveling alone just takes street smarts, confidence (and that confidence can be false or faked), a little preparation, and humility. You got to be humble in order to constantly ask for directions, acknowledge you're a tourist, and seek help from someone every quarter mile. If you dream of traveling alone, you should do it.

Do Your Research

Previously, I've taken a somewhat arrogant approach to travel solo as a woman, and one of the things that really helped me do it was a false sense of confidence and security. Your family will be scared, because they've been told the world is out to get people like us. As you probably know, it's far more likely that we will be hit by cars pulling out of our neighborhoods than be kidnapped in Cairo by crazy gypsies and ninjas.

Alexis reads her guidebook from a bar in Delft, Holland

After traveling alone once, you will tell yourself, "This is a piece of cake" and do it again. Soon you'll be bouncing all over the place in a haphazard manner. I think this is great, but something I've definitely realized as of recent is that you really need to do your research, as we are not immune to the bad and could always benefit from being more aware.

While you should always know what you're getting yourself into before traveling, there are particular destinations that require a lot more knowledge than others (e.g. Iran as opposed to Canada). I've never been to Egypt, nor have I done much research on the culture, but most audible word on the streets these days is that Egypt can be scary for a woman alone. I'm sure I'd prefer to go with a guy or two, but that's simply because of the nature of that place. There are some places that are easier with a male companion because of the local treatment, and fortunately for us, Egypt is on a short list of countries that are like this. There's plenty of places you can go solo and not feel threatened, trapped, etc.

The Language Barrier

Hungary presented its fair share of difficulties for me, and thankfully I don't often experience obstacles that ruin my humor or sour my perception of a country. In Budapest, I tried to order two pickles at a fast food restaurant and got two chicken sandwiches. This thoroughly discouraged me as I usually try very hard for things like that not to occur. Though this is a minor issue, this is often the extent of the problems one experiences. I carry around a notepad wherever I go in case I have to draw out what I'm trying to say. This proved pivotal in China. An airplane for the airport, a bus for the bus station, copying hanzi characters - you get the picture.

My notebook for Japan on Semester at Sea

The Dangerous Moments

Most dangerous situations can be avoided if you are smart and prepared. Also, most dangers in countries abroad are over-stated by those of us stateside.

I can't even pull up a memory where I was truly frightened because I am a woman. There are times I think:

Hmm...I could possibly be worried right now...I have the right to be worried about this situation I'm in...Why am I not worried?

Of course, it depends on where you go, how you carry yourself, how you appear to others, and how vulnerable you allow yourself to be. I'm not afraid to be a girl and alone while traveling; of course, I haven't romped around the 'Stan countries by my lonesome or hung out in the Congo, just me and the guerillas. And that's part of my tactic for being safe.

The Bottomline

You're afraid to travel alone because for some odd reason, we in America are trained to be scared of being among the world's other citizens without crutches like male friends or a group to hide in. It's honestly not so scary, and the best way to enter this world is to find an easy place to go solo without having to know a load before you go.

Going to India alone is amazing but requires a little learning curve, like knowing how to haggle for transportation, knowing how to work your money to your advantage if on a budget, knowing where to stay and how to book places and trains, etc.

If you're still in university, ask your study abroad office to refer you to someone who went on your study abroad trip previously who can answer some of your questions and give you a better feeling before you go.

Don't be afraid; just do your research. Go into it with a prepared mind, and 99% of the time you'll turn out just fine...actually elated to have done what you did. Seriously, if I can do it, anyone who applies themselves can.

Was this Question and Answer post helpful to you? Would you like me to expand on any points above? Are you a solo female traveler with something to add? Any other questions about anything? Comment below or contact me! And if you'd like to ask a question to be featured in this series, think about asking the question in a video and sending that URL to me!