More Australian women are travelling alone than ever before.
For many, the idea of travelling alone is associated with loneliness and boredom – even pure terror. There’s no ready-made safety net to fall back on, with no friends, family or tour group acting as a buffer between you and your surroundings. Safety risks are amplified – particularly for women – and horror stories plague the internet, reinforced by incidents such as the case of New York mother Sarai Sierra, who was killed while travelling alone in Istanbul in January 2013.
But solo travel is becoming increasingly common. The Solo Travel report, commissioned by Bookings.com, found that 51% of Australian women are more likely to travel alone than they were five years ago.
Like many others, flight attendant Kimberly Halverson first began travelling alone because she had nobody else to travel with. Sick of coordinating with other people’s schedules, she booked a flight to Paris for three days. “It was kind of a do or die thing” she says. These days she finds it easier to travel alone, making use of the free flights offered to her by her employer and travelling whenever she has consecutive days off work. “I find it just really pushes you out of your comfort zone, and that is something that I really struggle with.” Travelling alone seems to trigger a different mindset. “I’m more likely to talk to a local or another traveller when I’m on my own. It’s surprising how something as small as a comment made to a stranger can result in such an unexpected new experience.”
“Once you travel with a companion, you might as well be travelling with a tour group: both risk and opportunity are vastly diminished,” says Annabel Barnes, who travelled alone through Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and Macedonia. “The fear and the thrill of travelling alone pushes you to become involved in situations you wouldn’t be in if you were with company. Strangers reach out to you and there’s no one holding you back from taking any diversion along your path or spontaneously changing your plans.”
In many cultures it’s seen as unusual for women to travel alone. This can provoke curiosity among locals and even open up new opportunities. After all, a woman travelling on her own is often perceived as less of a threat than a couple or a group, and locals or other travellers may be more inclined to invite you into their circles.
When Kylie Tindale travelled through South America she found her solo status seemed to bring out a protective side in some of the locals. “I had a few people go out of their way just to ensure that I was safe,” she says. “Others were just fascinated and asked me lots of questions about why I wanted to come and see their country.”
The attention is not always positive, however. The Smart Traveller website advises women that in some countries they may become the focus of unwanted attention in the form of “hissing, passing comments, obscene behaviour, stalking or unwanted physical contact such as pinching.”
Travelling alone through Morocco, Annabel found the hassling in markets extended far beyond locals trying to sell their wares. “I was followed many times, touched, asked repeatedly, almost forcefully, ‘We go back to my house and have sex now? Yes? We have sex now’ until I really felt like they thought white women only existed in pornography.” The intention was there even when she picked up a male travelling companion, however. “A local offered him three ounces of hashish for three hours with me. My companion was assured I would be returned unharmed!”
Annabel thinks the vast majority of inconvenience faced by female travellers can be overcome by viewing such propositions not as a threat, but as part of a culture. The best defence is researching your destination before you go, knowing the potential threats and being as culturally sensitive as possible. Further safety advice could apply to life in any big city. “There’s nothing needed more than common sense” says Annabel. “You’d have to be very, very unlucky to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. That said, you can’t afford to get wasted when there’s nobody else looking out for you. And don’t immediately put your faith in those fellow travellers you just met!”
Even experienced travellers can expect to feel overwhelmed from time to time, and many face undue stress and criticism from friends and family who consider solo travel unsafe. “Bare in mind that most people who will tell you that, have probably not tried it for themselves!” says Kylie. “You will never feel more yourself than when you strip away from every part of your normal environment and let unexplored parts of the world, new cultures and new friends shape you into a more confident and more adventurous version of yourself.” – Victoria Kerridge
Top photo by Kimberly Halverson.
Photos supplied by Annabel Barnes and Kylie Tindale.