Practical tips for women who are traveling solo

From tampons to modesty laws to protecting yourself against sexual assault, Go! Girl Guides’ Kelly Lewis has tips for the female going it alone.

The idea for a series of female-geared travel guides was a dream of Kelly Lewis’ -- literally. “It came to me in a dream, a dream in which I was looking at a guidebook for women, saying, ‘Why didn’t I think of this?'” says Lewis.

Passport? Check. Tickets? Check. Tampons? Um...maybe double check. Photo: mylove4art/Twenty20

Passport? Check. Tickets? Check. Tampons? Um…maybe double check. Photo: Courtesy of mylove4art/Twenty20

She remembered her vision later that same day and began a search for women’s travel books.

When she came up empty handed, she began writing the first draft for what would soon become Go! Girl Guides.

Now, her idea has grown into a company that employs women writers around the globe, includes a handful of guide books (Thailand, Mexico, Argentina, London and New York, plus a guide to the essentials).

New York native Lewis is as well traveled as they come, too; she’s been to almost 40 countries since she graduated college, including the time she spent in New Zealand working for a company that conducts Lord of the Rings-themed tours.

Her books reflect her experiences: Reading them is like talking to a cool, well-traveled older sister who can tell you not only where to eat and sleep on your trip, but other, more personal, information, like where to buy tampons.

traveling solo

Traveling solo can be a fun and liberating experience if you use common sense and a little planning. Photo: Courtesy of Brandon Scherzberg

In addition to sections on volunteering and recipes for local dishes, Go! Girl Guides focus on health and safety abroad, each with a list of women’s health clinics, interviews with local OBGYNs, resources for pregnancy help and information on where to find emergency contraceptives over the counter.

“We tell you how to ask for things like Monistat or tampons in the local language,” says Lewis. “It’s a lot of girl talk, but it’s important. We’re huge on safety, and we tell it like it is. If there’s a hotel in a sketchy part of town, we’ll tell you that. If you should avoid a particular area after a certain time, we’ll tell you that, too.”

Here, we get Lewis’ tips for staying safe if you’re traveling solo:

Obviously you believe in traveling solo; what’s a common misconception about women traveling abroad by themselves?

I think the biggest misconception about traveling solo is that you’ll be alone all the time. But that’s not the case at all.

Travelers are so friendly, and it’s so easy to make friends if you’re open to it that many solo female travelers I know find they’re hardly ever actually alone.

What are some of the very real dangers of traveling alone for women?

Unfortunately, we live in a world where women have to fear the very real dangers of being assaulted sexually. Like many women who travel, that’s one of my biggest fears.

Traveling does open you up to a wonderful, amazing world, but it can also create a situation in which you’re unfamiliar and vulnerable, especially if alcohol is involved.

I think the best way to stay safe is to be aware. Talk to everyone, make yourself known, limit your drinking and avoid the beaches at night.

There are things women need to think about that men don’t: access to birth control, tampons, etc. Do you have any good tips for preparing ahead of time for access to both?

If you’re going to any developing country, bring your own tampons! They can be pretty hard to find in some areas. (I’ve actually fought with a friend in Argentina because she wouldn’t share due to the shortage).

Birth control can be tricky as well, but in many areas of the world, you can obtain it over the counter. When in doubt, bring it with you.

Kelly Lewis

Kelly Lewis’ idea for a series of women-focused travel guides came to her in a dream. Photo: Courtesy of Kelly Lewis

What are some basic things we should learn about a region before we travel?

I always try to find out about the dominating religions in each country, how modest the people are and how expensive the place is. Those three things really do determine a lot about the experience you’re going to have.

We always stress the importance of covering up while you travel, to keep a lower profile and to show respect to where you are.

In many areas of Thailand, for example, it’s a bit insulting to walk around in shorts and a tube top.

What’s the most common gripe or question you hear from female travelers?

I normally hear great stories from women who travel, but there is a pretty constant discussion about the access to women’s hygiene products and how aggressive men are in particular areas. Like I said earlier, though, knowledge is power.

What are some items every woman should go out and get ASAP before a trip?

My number one item to travel with is a sarong. It can be used as a towel, a pillow, a dress, a beach mat, a blanket on a cold bus -- the possibilities are endless.

The other things I always bring with me when I travel are bandannas (to cover crazy travel hair) and medical items like Band-Aids and Benadryl.

I don’t usually use my phone when I travel -- I turn it to airplane mode and just use WiFi -- but if I’m in a country for a while, I bring a cheap Internet-less phone (or buy it in a market) and get a local SIM card so that I can communicate locally.

What’s the scariest experience you’ve had traveling?

I’ve been through the wringer when it comes to my experiences with men, unfortunately. I’ve been assaulted abroad and spied on while using the bathroom in a bus in Argentina, which was horrible.

I write about these experiences so that other women won’t have to go through the same.

When I first started traveling, I was so scared of being seen as a rude American that I allowed conversations to go further than I was really comfortable with. After these experiences, that stopped.

The second I start feeling weird, I get up and move, or I shut the conversation down. I’m not afraid to be firm.

Erica Arvizu

Photos within the Go! Girl Guides were taken by women around the globe, including Erica Arvizu, co-author of the Argentina guide. Photo: Courtesy of Kelly Lewis

For the first-time solo traveler, do you have any destination suggestions?

I’m a pretty big advocate for domestic travel; getting outside of your hometown, even if it’s just a few hours away, is a great way to clear your head and get comfortable traveling on your own.

If you’re looking for something a bit further, Puerto Rico, or most other islands in the Caribbean, are lovely and easy to navigate.

New Zealand and Australia will also always have a special place in my heart, as they were the first places I went when I started traveling, and the people and scenery are just lovely.

Do you have any travel rules?

The rules are the same no matter where you go: Stay alert, be aware, be cautious (not paranoid) and soak up all of the beauty the world has to offer. Most importantly, get out there!

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