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Sarai Sierra, aged 33, was murdered while on her first trip abroad to Istanbul, Turkey last month.

In response to news reports on this tragedy, many people were quick to comment on the irresponsibility of women who travel independently. With condescension, they questioned Sierra’s common sense, affirmed the vulnerability of women traveling without male companions, and scathingly discouraged females from engaging in solo travel.

This, of course, resulted in backlash from independent female travelers and other advocates for solo travel. Twitter feeds teemed with blog posts and articles dedicated to “Safety Tips For Female Travelers” and “Why Traveling Alone As A Woman Is The Best Thing You’ll Ever Do,” all aimed at proving these internet commenters wrong. The hashtag #WeGoSolo was created as a way of promoting awareness of female traveler independence and linking readers to all kinds of resources on women and travel safety.

What bothers me is I see a lot of these blogs, tips, and articles aimed strictly at women. At least once a day I come across a post dedicated to the “Ten Things Women Should Be Aware Of When They Travel,” but never do I ever see similar posts on precautions for male travelers.

To say that a woman traveling on her own is unsafe because she is a woman is sexist. In my opinion, dedicating entire articles to only women’s safety tips is also, in a way, sexist. Are these articles, tips, and advice columns helpful? Absolutely. Women especially may be apprehensive to travel on their own because of the way mass media portray women’s roles around the world. Everyone can use a little more encouragement, a little more “girl power,” from seasoned, solo female travelers to get them going. However, the more we single out women with these titles, the more the word “female” or “woman” is connected to the word “safe,” the more the world will continue to think a woman is incapable of traveling at all.

Safety while traveling alone is not, and should not ever be, a gender-specific issue. Travel safety is relevant to us all.

Often, we are so focused on the fragility of the female traveler that tales of men in dangerous situations while abroad seem ‘anomalous.’ But they are constantly being told. For example, Matador contributor Bart Schaneman wrote an article about a man who was drugged and taken advantage of while traveling through Vietnam. Jon Brandt and his travel companions were robbed after their bus was hijacked in Quito, Ecuador. In college, I had a friend who decided to hang out with a group of amiable out-of-towners (male and female) who were visiting Charleston for the night. They went to a club, where they drugged him. When he woke up in the club’s doorway, brutally beaten and missing his wallet and cell phone, he was thrown in jail for the night because he couldn’t pay the exorbitant tab left by his ‘friends.’ This was in his own backyard; he hadn’t even gone somewhere unfamiliar.

Female travelers, be safe. Male travelers, be safe. But more importantly, keep traveling.

The worst story I ever heard was about the son of a neighbor who lived down the street from me. Henry Lo was a smart kid, a math major at William’s College, a nice boy I remember playing on the playground with in grammar school. He was killed in an avalanche while hiking through the Swiss Alps. His death was tragic and unexpected, much like Sierra’s — except no one commented on the foolishness of Lo for traveling abroad and choosing to participate in such a risky adventure. They were more concerned with the loss of someone they cared about, someone they missed very much.

Is it about gender vulnerability? Is it about victimization? Is it about keeping your wits about you? Preparing for all circumstances, taking self-defense classes, carrying a knife, carrying a gun…? Is there any way we as travelers can completely protect ourselves at home or abroad?

Of course, using common sense will increase your chances of returning home in one piece. It’s no guarantee, but being vigilant about your surroundings, sticking to well-lit streets and crowded areas, researching rough parts of town and country-based crime ahead of time, keeping a close eye on your belongings, your drink, and the people you come into contact with will at least help you feel prepared in the rare case you encounter potential harm. There are millions of ways both men and women can use their travel savvy to avoid unfortunate circumstances.

And most travelers know that every time you travel, whether alone or in a group, you take a risk. You’re put into an unfamiliar arena, and it’s up to you to get through your journey while making it as pleasurable as possible. Despite your preparations, and possible reservations, more often than not you return unscathed.

According to an article on fear by David Cain,

…there are all sorts of unpleasant scenarios that can happen. But there is no way you can cordon off enough of life to eliminate the risk of pain, and that’s what our fears are trying to do…. Fear of the future is fear of the past. You can’t fear the future because you don’t know the future. You’re just deathly afraid that certain parts of the past will happen again.

You can be over-prepared, under-prepared, angry, disturbed, adventurous, physically fit…but don’t let fear of the unknown keep you from doing the things you’ve always wanted to do. If I gave up on the prospect of traveling alone because someone else did the same thing and ran into trouble, I’d never have experienced the totally awesome and crazy things that have happened to me while traveling abroad.

Let’s stop making travel safety a gendered issue. Instead, let’s keep doing the things we’ve been doing — booking flights to new and exciting places, talking with locals who may or may not be nice to us, sampling food that smells or looks weird, opening ourselves up to new opportunities. If we let other people’s opinions dictate how to travel, it becomes their experience, and not our own. Female travelers, be safe. Male travelers, be safe. But more importantly, keep traveling — because the best way to influence others is by doing.

Travel SafetyWomen's Rights

 

About The Author

Katka Lapelosa

Katka is a Contributing Editor and the Social Media Manager for Matador Network. She is based in New York and has worked in the travel industry for the past five years. Other contributions include articles for Vittana, Thought Catalog, Travel Fashion Girl, Yelp!, Where’s Cool?, TripAha! and more. Read more about how awesome she is at katkatravels.com.

  • Priyanka Kher

    Excellent post Katka! I’ve been reading a lot of reactionary articles recently on the issue of women safety while traveling and I wondered why no one was talking about the men. I endorse your views totally. I also find your writing extremely compelling.

    Great job!

    Priyanka

    • Katka Lapelosová

      Thank you! That’s the coolest thing anyone has ever said to me :D

  • Caroline Eubanks

    Another great post, Katka. The Charleston club anecdote makes me curious about what club!

    • Katka Lapelosová

      It was that one that used to be above Milennium Music, I think it was called the Terrace?

    • Katka Lapelosová

      It was that one that used to be above Milennium Music, I think it was called the Terrace?

  • Shalese Maria

    Amen sister!

  • Andy VC

    Well said!

  • The World Wanderer

    This is an awesome article. Travel safety is about everyone. I love the quote you added about fear, and not letting fear get in the way. People thought I was crazy for traveling solo to Africa, but I came back just fine. People don’t realize that home can be just as dangerous as another country. You just have to try your best to stay as safe as possible.

  • International TEFL Academy

    Great article! While there are always precautions that women should take extra measures for, the larger question is safety in general, be aware and make a plan. This is an article we wrote last year that mirrors your comments: Is it safe for a single woman to teach English abroad? http://www.internationalteflacademy.com/faq/bid/103370/Is-it-safe-for-a-single-woman-to-teach-English-abroad

  • Kate Sedgwick

    I agree with you on some points, but I do think there are gender issues at play. Women are socialized to “be nice.” It goes beyond common sense at points and knowing how to deal with threatening situations is very important. LGBT travelers also have special concerns when traveling. If you have reason to believe that because of your race or gender, or orientation you may be targeted, then you should take extra precautions. Lots of folks face specific dangers apart from the average single traveler and denying it isn’t going to make it any less true.

    • Katka Lapelosová

      You are absolutely right. I am aware that gender, race, sexuality etc. will always play a role in travel, but I just get upset with the fact that we have to constantly justify those issues based on categories when really, they affect us all in different ways. I just don’t want people to think they can’t do something based on the person they are, but to also be aware of these realities no matter how they define themselves.

    • Kate Sedgwick

      Of course. But people who would be afraid to travel based on a few articles using inflammatory language might not need to travel anyway. Travel isn’t for everyone.

      Some places I’ve been have been just very hostile to me, and it was because I was a woman. When I was in Antofagasta, Chile, the place was full of miners on the prowl. It was incredibly unpleasant and I got out of there as fast as I could. Everyone said it was dangerous. Is it? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s not a place I would ever want to go again.

      I think it’s entirely appropriate to have articles directed specifically to women. When we’re dealing with information, it’s the least offensive (in comparison to “Television for Women” for example. You said it yourself. The same issues affect us all in different ways, even as individuals, but also in terms of certain criteria that change the way the world views us.

  • Mike Dunphy

    As always, you rock.

  • Samara Thompson

    Well said! I often get annoyed at media reports that damn a whole country for the actions of individuals, accidents, misfortune and misadventure can happen anywhere. Many people that get in trouble are ill informed, too willing to trust people they have just met, drunk, on drugs or just plain stupid and the media condemns the place they were in for lack of hospitals or medical assistance, lack of communication as no one speaks English, or corrupt officials and this is often the case when you travel but you need to take personal responsibility for your actions in order to keep yourself as safe as possible. I live in a small relatively safe city but we have tourist bashings, robberies and murders just the same as everywhere else. I always get the raised eyebrow about my travel choices “why would you want to go there?” “what if something happens to you?” “I wouldn’t think going anywhere is safe these days?”…well I refuse to live my life wrapped in a bubble, I do my homework on local scams and dangers, I respect the culture and religions of the places I visit and I pack my humanity and friendly outlook and leave my house with zero expectations and so far I have travelled hassle free, feel that I have only been ripped off slightly on 2 occasions and will continue to travel for as long as I am physically and mentally capable.

    • Katka Lapelosová

      You go girl!

  • Drea Franco

    I don’t know know about this article. Yes travel safety is for everyone but there have been numerous times I’ve been alone traveling in south america or asia or wherever and I’ve had to think twice about going down a certain road, taking a certain bus that goes through a bad area, debating whether to take a cab instead, wearing certain clothing etc. because I’m a girl. As women we are usually an easier target, even a smaller guy will usually be stronger than you. Unfort being a female traveling alone can be kinda of scary sometimes. I’ve done some dumb things because I’m afraid id regret not doing it, ive had too many close calls that I think a lot of males would never of had. Honestly this is my opinion. Ive travelled a lot, I have a lot of experience traveling alone and although things happen to men and women we always have to be extra careful. Unfort this is reality.

  • Scott Hartman

    Kat, just here to echo what many have already said – You CAN write! :) Each and every piece from you compels me to slow down, take it all in.
    I also echo those who believe that while travel (Hell, while Life!) has inherent dangers and are not gender specific, women do have (IMHO) issues that men do not. Men are not groped (at least with any regularity) while On the Road… much of my own travel is in Asia/India and that happens there with a regularity that is appalling.
    I stand behind every woman blogger who has rallied in the wake of the death of Sarai. This issue was perhaps reignited by the horrendous rape/murder on the bus in India. This issue, for me, is much less about “safety” per se as it is about dignity.
    Write on! Kat :)

    • Katka Lapelosová

      Thanks Scott! I really hope this article does not come across as denying the existence of specific safety issues female travellers encounter; I have had my fair share of instances too. I was just responding to those terrible comments people were making about Sarai to show that women travellers aren’t the problem, because bad things happen to guys too. There is perhaps a better article aimed specifically at the issues surrounding the controversy here http://twenty-somethingtravel.com/2013/02/female-solo-travel-is-not-the-problem/ But for those countries where women are not treated very well, other than avoiding them altogether, do you deny yourself the experience based on the person you are? I think that is the aim of #WeGoSolo, to show women AND men that we can, and will continue, to travel

  • Anton Crone

    Hi Katka

    Thanks for your post. I believe your title misleading as travel safety does relate directly to gender. To try and avoid being sexist one can highlight general safety issues pertaining to both genders but it is responsible to point out those that would affect women directly, and likewise, men because, depending on the destination, there are issues that affect each gender differently.

    However, I believe solo travel is rather a state of mind than a gender issue. I have travelled extensively, particularly in Africa and what interests me is that the women travelling alone are often more confident than the men travelling alone who sometimes seem completely unaware of potential threats – which makes them more vulnerable – or overly concerned about them which again makes them more vulnerable. The confidence I have seen in woman travelling alone puts them in much better stead.

  • Anton Crone

    Hi Katka

    Thanks for your post. I believe your title misleading as travel safety does relate directly to gender. To try and avoid being sexist one can highlight general safety issues pertaining to both genders but it is responsible to point out those that would affect women directly, and likewise, men because, depending on the destination, there are issues that affect each gender differently.

    However, I believe solo travel is rather a state of mind than a gender issue. I have travelled extensively, particularly in Africa and what interests me is that the women travelling alone are often more confident than the men travelling alone who sometimes seem completely unaware of potential threats – which makes them more vulnerable – or overly concerned about them which again makes them more vulnerable. The confidence I have seen in woman travelling alone puts them in much better stead.

  • Anton Crone

    Hi Katka

    Thanks for your post. I believe your title misleading as travel safety does relate directly to gender. To try and avoid being sexist one can highlight general safety issues pertaining to both genders but it is responsible to point out those that would affect women directly, and likewise, men because, depending on the destination, there are issues that affect each gender differently.

    However, I believe solo travel is rather a state of mind than a gender issue. I have travelled extensively, particularly in Africa and what interests me is that the women travelling alone are often more confident than the men travelling alone who sometimes seem completely unaware of potential threats – which makes them more vulnerable – or overly concerned about them which again makes them more vulnerable. The confidence I have seen in woman travelling alone puts them in much better stead.

  • Leah Marie

    Being a frequent overseas traveller, the situation with Sierra really hit home. I’m a business traveller, so I’m usually with coworkers, but I do venture off alone or go on solo mini-vacays while in-country.

    I think women are at a somewhat higher risk in some situations. Men rarely have to worry about rape while overseas and they’re generally bigger and stronger than women. Although I recognize the risks, I can’t sit around and miss out on amazing, life changing travel opportunities because of my gender. Why should men be the only ones who get to experience the world?

  • Jenny Venecek

    This article is horrifying.

    “To say that a woman traveling on her own is unsafe because she is a woman is sexist. In my opinion, dedicating entire articles to only women’s safety tips is also, in a way, sexist.”.

    As a feminist, a solo traveler, and someone who is responsible for the health and safety of young female and male travelers living abroad – I could not agree less with this article.

    Part of being a feminist is to live in reality – expecting things to be different just because we want them to be different is ignorant and a fantastic way to put yourself at risk. Like it or not, the reality is that we women have our own unique issues that we have to take into consideration and deal with while traveling.

    Encouragement and “girl power” will not keep a woman safe in Saudi Arabia if she decides to forgo long sleeves and a head scarf because of her girl power attitude. Shunning local norms as a way to defy the gender reality or adhere to your position on feminist equality is not noble; it is ignorant and most likely disrespectful to your host community. Being an informed, adaptable, and therefore empowered traveler is what being a strong woman is about.
    This is not sexist – this is called accepting the cultural norms of the countries we travel to and abiding to those norms which are different for men and women (local men and women, and guests).

    We are guests in the places we travel. It is not for us to impose our feminist view points on our host countries during the few days or weeks that we are there. The point of travel is to visit new places, to learn to about their traditions and beliefs. It is irresponsible to think that if a woman goes to Siwa, Egypt dressed in short shorts and a tank top that she is going to open the eyes of the local culture – that walking around scantily clad is more empowering than the traditional cover of the local women. Wanting to prove how much ‘girl power’ one has by ignoring local beliefs on modesty and donning a bikini at the nearby spring is a joke. The reality is that a crowd of men will gather to ogle the woman – whereas if a man jumps in the spring in just his shorts, nobody bats an eye.

    Encouragement and “girl power” is not going to keep a solo female traveler safe if she thinks that the laws of the land don’t apply to her just by her sheer will power.
    You don’t have to like it but the reality is that travel safety absolutely is a gender issue, and when it comes to safety advice, it should remain a gender issue. Like it or not, different cultural rules apply to each of the sexes. Like it or not, females traveling alone in certain countries are subject to much more harassment than their male counterparts.

    That is not to say that women shouldn’t travel solo – but an empowered woman is an informed woman. Know where you’re going, dress and act appropriately; show respect toward the local cultural norms – whether you agree with them or not.

  • Helen

    I love traveling and intend to travel extensively in the future. However, I choose NOT to travel to unsafe places or contribute to the economy of countries/cultures that disrespect women. I found cruising to be very safe and value for money, so I will stick with that.

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