“Taking [solo travel] away from women is just inherently misogynist.”
For many women, the appeal of solo travel lies in the freedom to finally say “yes” in a world when we are often told “no.” And yet in the face of this opportunity, we are still presented with reasons not to get our passports stamped.
A New York Times article published last week bearing a salacious title, “Adventurous, Alone, Attacked,” offered a slew of such reasons. The article details violent assaults on solo women travelers, such as Hannah Gavios, who had to learn how to walk again after an attack in Thailand, or Carla Stefaniak, who was brutally killed in Costa Rica.
Telling their stories is important. But for many women travelers like me,the article bears a familiar message, reminiscent of what a well-meaning parent might email to their jet-setting daughter. It is an implied, “I told you so,” a warning to stay on guard, if not entirely still.
I’ve spoken with more than 300 women travelers for my podcast, which profiles women seeking adventure. Many of the women I’ve spoken with have or would like to travel solo. But when I read articles that highlight the dangers, I am struck by the binary way we talk about women who travel alone. Too often, it is presented in the media as either safe or dangerous. I thought about how people reading the title might fixate on the words “alone” and “attacked”. Sure, these dangers are real and scary. But are the risks of traveling alone really that different from the risks women experience every day, even in places they call home?
So how do we move forward with hope, preparedness, and a sense of adventure? I talked with four seasoned solo women travelers about their practical takeaways when reading stories about dangerous solo travel, why they will never stop heading out on their own, and the reasons they think women should still travel alone.
“If I waited to have a travel buddy to go do all the things I wanted to do, I would never do them”
Georgina Miranda started traveling by herself out of necessity: “If I waited to have a travel buddy, partner, spouse, boyfriend, whatever, to go do all the things I wanted to do, I would never do them. … Life is short. I don’t want to sit at home waiting.” Today, she is on a solo quest to be the fifth American woman and one of very few Latinas to complete the Explorer Grand Slam, an adventure quest to reach the North Pole, South Pole, and each of the highest mountains in the seven continents.
She believes that telling stories about women who have traveled alone and faced danger helps to raise awareness about gender-based violence around the world. But in her own travels, it’s a matter of planning forsafety with every trip. She researches a country heavily before she plans to embark and has even decided against certain locations because, for her, the risk outweighs the benefit.
Miranda equates her learnings with the outdoor concept of “beta.” In climbing, beta is information about a climb’s difficulty or required equipment, among other life-saving tidbits. It’s acquired over time and passed between climbers. Similarly, Miranda shares travel beta with other women she meets on the move.
“Taking [solo travel] away from women is just inherently misogynist”
Writer Ali Wunderman took her first solo trip at the age of 13, backpacking in British Columbia with Adventures Cross Country. Over the years, this kind of travel has cultivated within her a sense of strength, one that can only be maintained with more travel. She gave me her opinion with confidence, “Solo travel is the ultimate way to experience female autonomy. Travel inherently presents problems and challenges that must be overcome if you want to continue and in some cases survive. When you are put in a situation where you get to actively practice that kind of autonomy and survivalist skills, it makes you stronger.” She added, “Taking that away from women is just inherently misogynist.”
That’s one reason why Wunderman wrote a guidebook to Belize with specific advice for women travelers. The book, which is an update to a 2011 version that was written by a male author, included tips like where to turn if you experience assault and which hotels to book to avoid hotel proprietors with a reputation for harassment. Wunderman believes guidebooks should be written by people who use them and argues for more written by women and other marginalized communities. “Don’t let other people’s fears guide you into a place of your own fear,” she told me.
“We have a lot of misconceptions about people depending on which part of the world they are from”
Marinel de Jesus, who quit her job as a lawyer to move to Peru and founded a global trekking company, believes that we should not over-romanticize solo travel and that there should be more data available about its inherent dangers. She acknowledges that if she were not a traveler herself, the anecdotes presented in the New York Times article would be terrifying: “You read it, and if you’ve never traveled — forget it, you’re never going to do it.”
De Jesus believes, on the whole, that solo travel for women is safe, but there’s a lack of reliable information available, which makes stories of danger carry extra weight in the minds of women thinking about traveling alone. She says, “we have a lot of misconceptions about people depending on which part of the world they are from.” Broad generalizations in the media about a foreign country can be misleading. She emphasizes that it’s important for women to do their research, be culturally sensitive, and connect with others who have traveled to the country recently.
“I’m trying to find the path of least riskiness in the risk-taking that I do”
Julie Hotz has thru-hiked 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, bicycled from Los Angeles to Glacier National Park, and hitchhiked across Italy, all on her own. She feels most herself in movement and wants that for other women, too. Hotz sees both risk and solo travel as existing on a flexible and very personal spectrum. Wherever she travels, she mitigates risk: “Even though I do think the best of people, I’m trying to find the path of least riskiness in the risk-taking that I do.” Hotz calls solo travel “whatever [is] at the edge of your comfort zone.” That could mean camping overnight 15 miles from your home, going to the movies by yourself, or booking a ticket to Thailand. In Hotz’s eyes, all are equally worthy endeavors.
All four of these women travelers want the solo travel conversation to continue. And when talking with me, they each emphasized that women choosing to travel without a partner may be solo, but they are not necessarily alone.
We need to create space for the stories we tell about women traveling to be multi-dimensional rather than one-sided. Otherwise, we’ll miss out on the opportunity to truly experience autonomy as we move through the world. Women aren’t going to stop traveling solo anytime soon, nor should we. But it’s worth contemplating the stories we tell ourselves when we are about to make the leap.
Gale Straub is the author of the recently released book She Explores, which profiles creative, adventurous women. She’s also the host of the She Explores podcast. While she believes you don’t need to travel the world to see something new every day, it doesn’t hurt to try. Gale lives in New Hampshire.
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