Travelling solo as a black woman, especially to places without many black people, can come with risks. I saw this first-hand when I travelled to the medieval city of Dubrovnik, Croatia.
As I sat at the entrance to the Old Town, a 50-something year old man approached me out of nowhere. He was dressed in khaki shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and dark sunglasses.
“Hey, what’s your name?” he asked.
“Um, Sheila,” I lied. Well, Sheila’s actually my middle name.
“I was looking at you and was wondering… Are you by yourself?”
“No, I’m waiting for some friends,” I lied.
“Oh, okay,” he continued in broken English, “While you wait I can take you out to lunch, get to know you a little better. I like dark-skinned girls. Very beautiful.”
“No, thank you,” I retorted, “I’m not interested.”
“Are you sure? I’ll take you to a fine restaurant. The best Croatian food. You’ll like it.” he insisted.
That man followed me around the city for two days, popping up in different locations. He even showed up next to my hostel! Luckily, he didn’t harm me, but the incident shook me up. After that, I developed a system to stay safe while travelling solo. These are some of the key steps I take:
Register your trip with your relevant State Department or Embassy
Being from the United States, I register my trips with the U.S. State Department, but most countries have a similar option for their citizens.
Check with your relevant embassy to see what programmes are available for citizens who travel abroad. If you’re British, subscribe to email alerts from GOV.UK to receive timely updates and advice in the case of an emergency abroad. You can choose the frequency of the emails.
If you are from the U.S., the U.S. State Department offers the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) for citizens travelling or living abroad. The purpose of the program is to alert citizens of emergency situations and facilitate an intervention if something goes wrong.
To register for the program, go to the STEP’s website, list the places you’re traveling to and the dates you’ll be there. That information is made available at the U.S embassies in the destinations you’re visiting. Let’s say civil unrest breaks out at your destination, the State Department will immediately send alerts to your phone or email and provide you a course of action to take.
Even if you don’t have a trip planned at the moment, you can still register and then add your future trips when the time comes.
Have a check-in system for friends, family and yourself
Staying in contact with friends and family back home is critical when you’re travelling alone. First, you should make sure at least one person has your complete itinerary. Then you can send updates along the way. If, for instance, no one hears from you for four days, then they will know that something is up.
In addition to staying in contact with those back home, it’s also important to check-in with yourself regularly so you don’t forget things and realise too late. A great example is the 3-step system I use before I leave the airport or my accommodation:
1. I check what my needs are. Am I tired, light-headed, sleepy, or hungry? My top priority is always me!
2. I check my passport, since I need it to enter or exit the country so I want to know where it is at all times. I have a small compartment deep in my backpack where I store it.
3. Lastly, I check for all my key belongings: wallet, phone, train tickets, toiletries, among other things. If they are all in my bag, I’m ready to move.
I use this system so that I stay attentive, organised, and prepared at every stage of my trip. I’m a meticulous planner so cross checking is a habit, but it might not be your style. You have to figure out a system that works for you. As long as you are organised and alert, you will be fine.
Research directions before you arrive
The last thing you want to do when you’re travelling solo is to wander around looking at Google Maps. This can make you easy prey for predators.
That’s why it’s important to take some time to familiarise yourself with the layout of your destination. How does the public transportation system work? How will you get to your hotel from the airport? Have you been told of any no-go zones? These are the types of questions you need to answer.
When I was planning my one-week solo trip across Italy, I researched many routes before I took off. I looked up the national train system, Trenitalia, the local train system in Southern Italy, Circumvesuviana, and the local buses. Once I learned that theft was common at the train station in Naples, which would connect me to my last stop in the Amalfi Coast, I took a 5-hour bus directly from Rome to Positano to avoid that problem. The journey was longer, but at least I had peace of mind.
Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself
When the predator I encountered in Croatia came back a third time, I yelled at him to leave me alone. He persisted so I shouted even louder, cursed up a storm and caused a scene. Other tourists took notice so he scurried away.
It’s important to be assertive as a solo female traveller. Men may think they can easily take advantage of you. Of course, that’s not the case.
Be firm, direct, and confident when interacting with others. If you encounter a predator, you want to make sure those around you are aware of what’s going on. Don’t handle it alone. You could announce that you’re being harassed so good samaritans can come to your aid. Luckily, I’ve only had one such experience.
Travelling solo as a woman can seem scary, but with some planning, there really isn’t much to worry about. You need to take the same precautions you take when travelling with others, but be more attentive.
On the plus side, you can do whatever you want whenever you want. You will get to truly travel on your own terms.
I constantly sing the praises of solo travel because it has been so empowering for me. Solo travel has helped me to overcome self-doubt and to become more independent. I am constantly pushed beyond my comfort zone, teaching me to trust my instincts and decision-making. I am a stronger version of myself because of solo travel. Although taking some extra precautions is often necessary, the process can be just as empowering for you.