By Diane Mehta
Recently, I asked other Fodor’s editors and some globetrotting gal pals to share their best advice for intrepid ladies hoofing it around on their own. We came up with the following tips, some of which will be helpful to anyone away from home.
Consult with residents. Walk into a boutique, café, or any place you see women who seem savvy, and ask them where they would go if eating alone. Chances are you’ll get great recommendations, and maybe even a dining partner.
Dine at a bar. This is a lot less embarrassing than dining by yourself at an empty table. And bartenders tend to be good at making people feel comfortable. Sushi bars, ubiquitous in big cities, are another option.
Chat up the staff. If you find a place with a friendly waiter or bartender, make conversation and return the next day. Once you’re a "regular" and someone recognizes you, you’re bound to feel less awkward.
Eat with strangers. In nice restaurants, Fodors.com Travel Talk contributor "L.C." informs the maitre d’ that other single women who want a dining companion are welcome to join her at her table. The benefits are substantial, she says. "You have company for dinner, interesting conversations, and even make a new acquaintance if you find common interests."
Don’t go to a ritzy restaurant. This sort of place tends to be hushed and filled with couples. If you’re the type who gets self-conscious, don’t go too far upscale. Most likely you’ll end up rushing through your meal so you can get out of there.
Avoid restaurants filled with big groups. Nothing’s worse than sitting in a room with raucous diners in large groups, where everyone’s having fun but you.
Keep yourself occupied. Always bring a magazine, book, or writing paper to keep yourself occupied (or to look occupied). Bring your book to a café that serves food. If you’re near a university, you’re certain to find plenty of cafés packed with people eating or studying (often alone) at all hours.
Skip dinner. Have a big lunch instead, and in the evening pick up a snack on your way to a movie or another event.
Etiquette & Dress
Learn the language. Teach yourself a handful of phrases so you can figure out such helpful facts as where the bathroom is and how much something costs. The locals also appreciate your knowing how to say hello and good-bye in their language – a little courtesy goes a long way.
Be extra polite. Everyone’s willing to help a woman who’s alone, and twice as willing when she says please and thank you.
Research cultural taboos. The left hand is used for bathroom duties in some countries, so don’t offer it in a handshake. Be respectful and observe the unwritten rules: never play with your chopsticks in China, always remove your shoes when you enter someone’s house in Japan, and never ask for a doggy bag if you can’t finish your meal in France.
Dress conservatively. If you’re in a religious country, don’t expose too much skin – wear long pants or a long skirt, and a high-necked shirt with long sleeves. Bring a scarf for your hair. A woman I met in Jerusalem had been pelted with pebbles by Orthodox kids in a religious district because her knees were showing.
Don’t take it off unless the locals do. I saw a woman wearing a thong bikini in Jamaica, and another wearing nothing at all. Locals were offended. It’s one thing to sunbathe topless with hundreds of other women in the south of France, and another to run around butt-naked in a place where everyone wears clothes.
Dress like a native. One woman I know wore a Scotland soccer jersey to a music festival in Scotland. Her outfit provoked both positive and negative reactions, but also sparked conversations!
Wear dark colors. Bright colors mark you as a tourist. On the other hand, wearing all black, which absorbs sunlight, isn’t as practical (or as chic) in warm climates. But Hawaiian-print and polka-dot skirts scream American. So do sneakers, of any shade.
Leave the stiletto heels at home. They simply aren’t very practical for zipping around, and they get caught in the cobblestones in the old part of town. Chances are you won’t be invited to any ballroom galas anyway.
Get the names of doctors. Before you leave, ask your insurance company for a list of doctors in your destination, and find out what your policy covers in case of emergencies.
Carry first-aid basics. Not a tourniquet, for heaven’s sake, but at least pack painkillers or aspirin, and antibiotic ointment and adhesive bandages for scrapes.
Stock up on medications. Bring double the supply of pills or medication you need. Plan for the worst-case scenario. If you’re solo and out of commission, there may be no one to trek to the drugstore for you. Always keep extras on you, in case your luggage gets stolen. (If someone grabs your purse, you’ll still have a supply in your luggage.)
Before you leave, ask your doctor for Diflucan. It’s a pill that fights candida infections, and it’s a lot easier to carry around and a lot easier to cope with than messy over-the-counter yeast infection medicine. And bring antibiotics for urinary infections, just in case.
If you’re diabetic, have your doctor write a note, so authorities know why you’re carry syringes.
Pack your favorite tampons. Don’t assume you’ll like what you find. Few countries have the broad selection we do in the United States, and far-flung regions may not have them at all. Same goes for contact lens solution (and bring an extra pair of lenses).
Use common sense. Don’t eat sushi in a landlocked country, avoid red meat in Great Britain (because of mad cow disease), and consider taking malaria pills before going to India. And remember: if you can’t drink the water, you can’t have ice in your Scotch.
Avoid street food. In India I loved getting fresh sugarcane juice from street vendors, but now avoid it. The juicers are not always hygienic – and may spread hepatitis.
Stay where you’re guaranteed to meet people. Consider staying at bed-and-breakfasts or intimate hotels, where you’re likely to meet and chat with others and where the owner will probably take a liking to you and help you out any way he or she can. Also tell the owner of your lodging that you’re on your own, so he or she might be more inclined to keep an eye on you and your things.
Watch your room key like a hawk. Never just leave your key on the front desk if it’s unattended or if the person on duty is distracted; always make sure that someone takes the key and puts it away so no one else can grab it.
Consult the concierge. If you don’t speak the language, have the concierge call your next stop to confirm your reservation. This is also a good way to get a reservation if you’re stranded – or to find habitable, clean rooms. I used this method while traveling in Spain, and it worked wonderfully. I always had a decent place to stay and ended up getting far better treatment.
Also, ask the concierge whether it’s safe to take mass transit at night, and whether the area you’re going to is considered safe.
Center yourself. Pick a hotel in a central location. It will be easier to go out, easier to meet people, and safer.
Be discreet. Never ask for a single room when suspicious characters are lurking about. And ask for a room near the elevator so you don’t have to walk down a dark corridor at night.
Don’t give your solitude away. Don’t use the room service tags that hang from the door knob. It’s a giveaway when you put down breakfast for one.
Bring a rubber door stop. If you end up in a sleazy hotel, the door stop can be wedged under the bottom of your door from the inside. This will deter intruders.
Carry your hotel’s business card with you. In a big city, it’s easy to get lost or forget the address where you’re staying. If you carry your hotel’s card, you’ll be more likely to make it back, and you’ll have a number to give people you meet so they can contact you. And when asking locals about restaurants or nightclubs, it’s handy to have the address so they can recommend places near your hotel.
Save money on cabs the last night. If you have an early departing flight and don’t want to break the bank, spend your last night at a hotel near the airport.
Pack light. Don’t rely on porters: you’ll be the only one lugging – and watching – your stuff much of the time. Pretend you’re roughing it. No blow-dryers or diamond tiaras. One lipstick, and a little blush.
Mix and match. Bring one skirt, one pair of light black pants, one pair of jeans, two cardigans, and a bunch of cotton shirts. Buy some black shoes with rubber soles, or mod black sneakers that can pass as evening shoes.
Wash in Woolite. Avoid the hotel laundry or outside laundromats by washing your clothes in Woolite. You’ll find it less difficult to pack light when you know you can easily clean what you’ve got.
Lock your valuables! Use luggage with a built-in lock, or bring one of your own. Always lock your valuables inside your luggage when you leave your room. A Fodors.com editor once had a towel, a leather wallet, and a jacket stolen from a hotel that required her to leave her key at the desk. She hadn’t used a lock.
Don’t be cheap. Invest in durable luggage with sturdy handles. I bought a bag-on-wheels in Bombay once, and after a week of traveling the handles ripped. After that it was like carting a sack of potatoes.
Bring your own towel. It’s worth it. Unless you’re staying in plush hotels, you won’t get plush towels. Even in $50-a-night hotels in Paris and London I preferred my own towel to the hotel’s. I usually bring an old one and throw it away on the last leg of the trip.
Meet your friends’ friends. Have your friends contact their friends or family in the place you’re going to let them know you might be calling. Call when you arrive to give them time to schedule a visit.
Suggest meeting in the evening – which takes care of what to do that night. Offer to pick up the dinner tab, and bring gifts for anyone who is putting you up for the night; most couples will insist on paying for you, so you may want to bring a small gift for them as well. In Lisbon and Paris, my friends’ friends insisted on taking me out, and both suggested meeting again – with their friends.
Browse the local media before you leave. Scan online or print newspapers to see what’s happening. Consider planning your itinerary around a festival or lectures – another opportunity to meet people with similar interests.
Join classes or tour groups. Cooking classes and sightseeing tours are ideal. You may even meet locals in the classes. Sightseeing tours kill two birds with one stone: you might get to spots that would be difficult to get to on your own, and you might meet other travelers. Tour guides, too, are often very friendly. When no one else showed up for a tour of Oxford, the lady took me around for double the time allocated. Then she gave me tons of suggestions for things to do and places to meet others.
Be friendly. Save up all the effervescence you’ve got, and spend it. Just watch out that you’re not too friendly. It’s always easier to meet men than women, but make sure, if you decide to go out, to meet your date in a public place. Don’t agree to go to a man’s apartment just because he’s keeping you company.
Offer help to other tourists. I met a wonderful German couple in Sintra, Portugal, by offering sightseeing suggestions. We ended up driving out to the coast and spending the next few days touring together.
Go to cabarets. In Seville I attended a somewhat touristy flamenco dance performance and was seated next to another solo traveler. He and I meshed perfectly: we spent days doing our own thing and met up for dinner and dancing each night.
Hire a driver or private guide. If you’re not a fan of big tour groups, try this option. You’ll get the guide’s expertise – and his or her companionship. And you may end up safer, too. A film scout who lived in Morocco said a woman in his group went to Tangiers, a place notorious for pushy men who greet you upon arrival, determined to sell their services as a guide. She picked the most aggressive guy, who got rid of the others, took her places she could not have gone to on her own, and was very protective.
Don’t go solo at night. Avoid empty bars and seedy local joints at night.
Keep your spirits up. Try to hook up with others during the middle or end of your trip, when being alone is most likely to nose-dive into loneliness.
I once spent two weeks on my own in Seville, Madrid, and Toledo before meeting up with friends in Granada and traveling with them to Córdoba and down to the coast before returning to Seville. I arranged it so I would be in big cities with a lot of sights when alone, and smaller, out-of-the-way places with my friends.
And if you do get lonely, there’s no shame in calling home or going to a cybercafé to feel more connected.
Don’t be a sucker: negotiate. Just because you’re alone doesn’t mean you should be taken for a ride. While traveling in Goa, India, my cousin and I lost a lot of money because he consented to pay whatever the cab drivers requested. I told him to let me go first, alone, and to join me in five minutes. At the cab stand, I was polite but insistent, and refused to accept a price higher than the one I had in mind. Eventually one of the drivers backed down and lowered his fare.
Ask someone at your hotel how much a taxi to the airport – or anywhere else – ought to cost.
Threaten to get the cops. In Bangalore, South India, a cabbie changed the fare when I got to my destination. I immediately threatened to get a cop (fortunately, it was the middle of the day and we were in a public space). He grumbled, but lowered the fare immediately.
Expect questions about your traveling status. Always have some answers handy to convey that you are not traveling solo. When some people in Spain asked why I was traveling alone, I said I was waiting for friends from Germany (it was true, but I had scheduled two weeks of solo travel first).
Snap photos in moderation. Unless you want to call a lot of attention to yourself, don’t act like a click-happy tourist.
Don’t wear a backpack. But if you must, don’t flip it around to the front of your body. Nothing screams "tourist" more than that.
Keep track of the day. Plan your itinerary carefully and keep track of the day. That way you won’t be stuck with nothing to do on a Monday because all the museums and sights are closed.
Set up a home base. If possible, put up temporary roots in a central location and then take day trips to see the surrounding countryside or sites. It’s easier than lugging all your stuff from place to place.
Jog. Any semblance of your normal routine will make you more comfortable, and exercise will energize you and offset all those heavy meals you may be eating. But find out whether people in that country actually jog. If not, don’t take public transportation all the time – go for long, strenuous walks or find a gym.
Follow the women-and-children rule. If you see women around, especially women with children, you’ve got less to worry about. This is critical at night. If all you see is men, men, men, high-heel it out of there.
Don’t speak the language to creeps. If you’re dealing with an unsavory guy who speaks English, don’t say hello back. Shake your head or shrug your shoulders and say "No English." If he says "Speak Italian?" say "French, no." If he says "Speak French?" say "German, yes."
However, do learn such key phrases as help and get lost in the language of the country you’re visiting.
Make like you’re hitched. Whether you’re married or not, wear a wedding band. If a man bothers you, say you’re meeting your husband soon, or pat your belly to indicate you’re pregnant.
Never look at maps in public. Memorize them in advance, or look at them in a café or your hotel room. In many cities you can buy credit card-size street and transportation maps – which you can glance at inside your purse, so no one knows what you’re doing. Sometimes I sketch a rough map of major streets and write down the exact addresses and directions for places I’m going, to avoid the map problem altogether. You might also want to bring a compass to help you get your bearings when you’re lost, or just for navigating labyrinthine streets.
Consider going first-class on trains. When I traveled first-class in India, the car was packed with vodka-swigging bureaucrats. Once, I opted for second-class and met friendly families eager to talk and offer help. But if you’re nervous or simply want to relax, stick with first-class, sit in a corner, and don’t meet anyone’s eye – keep your stuff on the seat next to you and scowl a lot.
Carry embassy contact info. If you’re going to a far-flung or potentially dangerous destination, always have with you a list of local embassies, with their phone numbers and dialing codes. Let the local embassy know you’re there, and leave a list of its numbers with friends or family at home.
Check in with the folks at home. Tell friends when they can expect your calls and give them your embassy contacts in case you disappear. Also leave them phone numbers and addresses of hotels you may be staying at, along with a rough itinerary.
Always carry I.D. Keep your passport with you at all times. You do not have to store it with the hotel owners, no matter what they say. Many places are required to take down foreigner’s passport numbers, but don’t actually need the passport. Make photocopies of your passport in advance, and hand over one of those.
Don’t wear a headset. It gives someone a chance to catch you with your guard down. (On the other hand, sometimes music is good company on long trips and late at night, when you’re trying to get to sleep in an unfamiliar room.)
Don’t wear a money belt. Once you fish for your bills, everyone will know you’re a tourist. And once you’re pegged as a paranoid tourist, you’re a sitting duck. And don’t wear a fanny pack. Only tourists wear fanny packs (and someone can grab your arms while his accomplice rips off your pack). Your best bet is to stash money in your front pocket or shoes, and carry whatever you carry at home – just make sure it has a zipper. I wear a snug wrap-around bag that drapes across my body, with the zipper in front, where I can keep an eye on it. So if someone wants my money, he or she will have to face me directly to get it. One of our editors – who was dragged by her purse from a motor scooter in Palermo, Italy – swears by a money pouch that hooks to bra straps and hangs down inside the front of her shirt. She stores only a little money in her purse, to cover casual spending.
Trail other women in bazaars. They don’t even have to know. One of our editors got tired of being stared at in Calcutta, so she walked closely behind a woman with kids, which quickly put an end to the stares. Another time she asked a middle-aged woman if she could walk with her. The lady graciously obliged, and even bought her an orange.
Sit next to older women or a couple. When I was traveling obviously solo in the Middle East, a young man on a bus asked me point blank to have sex with him. This would have been less likely if I’d been "in the orbit" of an older woman or a couple.
Wear sunglasses to avoid scrutiny. People look away when they can’t make eye contact.
Go high- and low-tech. A cell phone can be invaluable, to call – or threaten to call – the police. But a whistle can be just as effective at warding off trouble.
Walk like you know where you’re going. Studies show that if you exude confidence and strength, people are less likely to try to take advantage of you.
Be cautious in remote places. Some destinations contain open roads and beautiful scenery but few well-traveled places to stop and enjoy the view. You’ll tempted to stop and look while driving, which is dangerous. Always lock your doors, even in small towns where nothing seems likely to go wrong. And never leave stuff in plain sight in the back seat.
Time your last stop of the day carefully. Arrive in cities by midafternoon, long before it gets dark. If you arrive early, you’ve got more time to find a decent hotel and get your bearings. At night, however, stores shut down, streets become deserted, and hotels get full. The last thing you want to be is stuck without a place to sleep when it’s late, you’re tired, and you don’t know your way around.
Special thanks to Fodor’s staffers Aisling Brennan, Leslie Ching, Christine Cipriani, Tiffany Kim, Jennifer Libutti, Erin Nedell, John Rambow, Caragh Rockwood, and Terri Wearsch – and world travelers Jennifer Kelley and Nina Mehta – for their contributions to this article.