Why I Still Believe in Solo Female Travel

Monkey Times at Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Solo Female Travel – it’s a term that has garnered backlash in the travel industry in recent years, one that people think is unnecessary and overused.

Everyone and their mom has become a “solo female traveler” with the rise of personal travel blogs. It’s old news, nothing special. Just as soon as the term became popular, there was an outcry for females to stop using it…mostly by fellow females.

Why should we have to label ourselves as solo female travelers, when guys just say they’re travelers? By putting a label on it we’re just encouraging the sexism and division in how females and males are perceived around the world, is what some women argued.

Others just grew tired of solo female travel perspectives because there were so many out there, we were inundated with them. It seems like everyone travels these days, males and females alike, so do we really need to have a special term for the females who do it by themselves?

The thing is, you can call it whatever you like, but acknowledging that men and women have different concerns when traveling solo is important.

Songkran in Koh Phangan, Thailand - Asia Travel
Me and my other solo female travel friend, Pascale in Koh Phangan, Thailand.

It’s important because these differences need to be actively addressed and given attention.

It’s important because I still meet women on a daily basis who are scared of traveling alone, because of what that might mean for their personal safety. Some of them don’t want to deal with the extra attention they would attract on their own – simply because they were born with the XX chromosome.

We should be encouraging women to continue to break down the negative stereotypes that still exist around traveling alone as a female. If that means feeling empowered by calling yourself a “solo female” traveler, so be it.

I will happily call myself a solo female traveler.

Maybe some people think these stereotypes don’t exist anymore, or at least not as much as they used to, 2/3 of travelers today are women after all. Well, if you think everything is perfectly neat and equal now that it’s 2017, spoiler alert – it’s not.

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My first stint in solo travel was to Paris, France. It was accidental. I was meant to travel with my sister for the summer around Europe, but when she canceled two days before my flight to Rome, I scrambled to find an alternative plan.

Solo female travel in Paris, France
Solo me in Paris, France.

I booked into one of those party bus tours that would last for three weeks and tackle a new country every few days.

However, the tour didn’t fit my itinerary completely for the flights I had already bought, and I had two bookends – one week in Paris at the start of my trip and one in Dublin at the end, by myself.

I’d traveled internationally before. I had been to Costa Rica for a couple of weeks with two of my best friends from high school. By the time I set off for Paris, I had just finished living in Florence for a month with other American students.

You don’t realize how different it is traveling by yourself though, until you actually do it.

You’re in charge of your own itinerary, travel planning, finances, and you have to deal with any issues that come up on the road by yourself. Being a solo female comes with its own set of worries, namely in the face of sexism and other cultural judgements of a woman who travels by herself and what that means.

The other night, I went to dinner alone in Heraklion, Greece. It’s something that I don’t even think about anymore, having been a solo traveler for most of the past four years.

The waiter brought over two menus and then seemed uncomfortable when he realized that I wasn’t waiting for anyone.

“Just you?”

“Yep, just me,” I said with a smile.

He stammered, “…but why?”

His question struck me as odd. 95% of the time when I dine by myself I don’t get any comments, but when I do it always surprises me.

New Zealand Working Holiday Visa for Americans - Wellington
Wellington, New Zealand – where I moved to for a year without knowing anyone before I arrived.

I didn’t say anything because I didn’t really know how to answer his question, but as he walked off to place my order, I was left thinking in my head… but why not?

I have a good book to read, a nice view of the ocean, and tasty food coming my way. At that moment, there was no one I wanted to share that with but me.

I had a few other similar occurrences in Greece, where it was always the male waiters who were both surprised that I was eating by myself, and felt the need to tell me that it wasn’t right.

One waiter in Naxos asked me if I left my boyfriend at home. I actually laughed and said, “no, no boyfriend.”

When he asked me why, I simply said I don’t have time for a boyfriend and I don’t want one.

He looked at me like I’d just spit in his drink, maybe swirled it around a bit, and offered it to him with a cheeky grin.

He avoided me for the rest of my meal, the easy back and forth banter was gone, I was an outcast, a weirdo to him… simply because I told him I didn’t want a male in my life.

A few years ago, I traveled around Asia with one of my close girlfriends. We would sometimes get comments from locals about our lack of male companionship, but we just easily laughed it off and didn’t think much of it.

Leaning Tower of Pisa in Pisa, Italy
With fellow solo female travelers in Pisa, Italy.

This year when I traveled by myself around Asia, instead of questions from the older generation about why I was alone and not married yet, I talked to more local women who were around my age.

From Vietnam, to Laos and Malaysia, I would get the same question – always from local 20-something females.

“You’re traveling all by yourself?”

I would watch the interest spread across their face and then a look of excitement. I braced myself for the usual follow up questions, “but when are you going to find a husband? You don’t have any kids yet and you’re 27!?”

Instead, the women who asked me this question looked impressed, not disapproving.

“How cool. That is so brave, I wish I could do that too!” And I felt like they really meant it.

Black Water Rafting in Waitomo, New Zealand
Black water rafting in a cave in Waitomo, New Zealand even though I was a bit terrified. Photo via The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

I was surprised by the types of replies I received about my singledom in Asia this time around, but it also made me realize how lucky I am to have been born into a culture where, for the most part, traveling alone as a female is easier to do.

That’s not to say that there isn’t discouragement in other ways, however.

Before I left for Australia and my first trip to Southeast Asia, I encountered this time and again. One of the locals at the coffeeshop I worked at in San Diego pulled me aside during my last week.

“I don’t think you should go.”

“Why not?” I asked with amusement and a slight smile. I thought she was joking. She wasn’t.

“Because there’s a good chance you could get kidnapped or worse if you go to Asia. That’s happening all the time over there to young females, you know”

“Don’t worry, I’ll be traveling with my friend as well,” I said trying to assuage her and break free from her intense stare and firm grip on my arm.

“But you’re friend is a girl as well, right?”

“Yes.”

“Exactly. It’s not safe. I really don’t think you should go.”

I’ve had various similar conversations with other, usually older adults, who have the same views and feel the need to make them heard to discourage my sex from finding their independence through travel.

Solo female travel in Florence, Italy
The lux life of a solo female traveler in Florence, Italy.

Don’t travel alone as a female, it’s dangerous/stupid/you’re asking for something bad to happen to you.

That week I traveled by myself in Paris was one of those life altering moments, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I spent most of the week anxious and nervous about the fact that I was by myself, and that I didn’t even speak the local language very well.

On my first full day in the city, a Frenchman followed me for eight blocks persistently asking me to get coffee with him, until he finally got the hint that I wasn’t interested. I locked myself in my room when I got back to my little hotel, and thought, why did I think I could do this?

But then I realized how ridiculous I was being. Would I act this way, if I was back home? No. It’s just because everything was foreign and new, it was unfamiliar and it scared me.

It scared me because I had it in my mind that solo female travel was yes, a daring adventure, but also a dangerous one.

I’d been told since I was very young that the world isn’t safe for females, both overtly and subconsciously – through the news & media, family and friends, and even subtly in my local hippie culture of Santa Cruz.

As a female, it is instilled in our minds almost from birth that we should constantly be on defense, thinking about how to protect ourselves, not from the world persay, but from men.

But instead of running away from that fear of being alone, I very gradually learned to embrace it.

The thing is, and I’m sure you’ve probably heard this before, bad experiences can happen to you anywhere in the world, unfortunately.

Hitchhiking in Costa Rica, Latin America - Female Travel
Hitchhiking in Costa Rica, my first trip abroad. Thankfully the experience was a positive one.

I’ve been aggressively groped in Malaysia, had a guy lift up my dress in public and twirl me around laughing in Ireland. I’ve been catcalled, honked at, whistled at, verbally abused, and even slurped at abroad.

In the same token, the first time I was ever sexually assaulted was when I was eight years old, at my local Boys and Girls Club that I grew up going to after school.

At 13, a guy grabbed my crotch on a crowded dance floor at my friends bar mitzvah and smirked. I immediately grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back until he yelped out in pain and called me a bitch under his breath.

That was my first instinct, it was already ingrained at 13.

As a bartender in San Diego, I had my fair share of sexist and inappropriate comments, even from my bosses, and I rarely trusted walking home by myself when my shift ended. Not because it was a dangerous area, although there were regular sexual assaults on and around campus, but more because there was no one around on the streets.

I would’ve been opening myself up to attention from the odd male that would be out at 2am, and there would be no one around to call for help if I needed it.

Solo female travel in Ireland, Cliffs of Moher - Europe Travel
Ireland – my second time traveling alone.

And that’s not even including the unwanted advances and casual sexist stereotypes that happen more regularly.

My last night in Greece, for instance, I went out with a Greek guy I had met a few days before, as friends, or so I thought. I made no indication before or during the night that I was interested in anything more.

There was no flirting on my part, zip, zilch, nada. I just wanted to have a few beers to celebrate my last night in the country.

And yet, at some point in the night, he got it in his head that we were going to sleep together, unbeknownst to me. By the time I had to say goodbye, he made his move, and not only acted offended that I didn’t want to kiss him, but blamed me for leading him on. Playing into the stereotype of me just being an “attention-seeking” female.

At first I felt bad for hurting his feelings, I started thinking, hmm maybe I had accidentally led him on in some way. I started blaming myself.

But then he kept chiding me, and I realized that it had nothing to do with me. By that point I was just angry and annoyed that I felt the need to explain myself or to even apologize for something that I never asked for.

Solo female travel in Melbourne, Australia
My time solo living abroad in Australia was one of the best things I ever did for myself.

This is what we deal with on a daily basis as females. My experiences are not uncommon, if anything, they’re tame compared to the many stories that I’ve heard from other women.

This is why I will always encourage women to hold their own, to go out and embrace their independence, and to act how they want to be treated.

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After my summer in Europe and my two short stints of solo travel, I was hooked. That was all I needed. I knew that I could go anywhere in the world and not have to wait for someone to come with me to do it.

It was one of the most freeing realizations I’ve ever had in my life. It changed my whole perspective about what I could truly do with my future, without the limitations that we as females tend to put on ourselves.

I’m not saying that solo travel brings this kind of big epiphany to everyone. Maybe it’s more subtle, but there’s no doubt that solo travel can change you.

And I believe it can change you for the better.

Wine tasting in the Yarra Valley, Australia
Solo travel makes me jump for joy…or maybe that’s just the wine.

It makes you independent yet humble. It makes you believe that you will always be able to take care of yourself. And I think that’s still an important lesson to learn as a woman, even as a millennial.

When I was in Greece for the summer, I mainly stayed in a female dorm in Heraklion. I met countless fascinating and strong women from all different backgrounds.

I had a girls weekend with four other solo female travelers who were staying in the same dorm as me. We realized how rare and cool that was, that we were from all over the world and all traveling by ourselves.

Girls weekend in Crete, Greece - Europe Travel
Girls weekend in Crete, Greece with all solo female travelers.

I met other women in that same dorm who told me that they could never travel by themselves, after I told them that I’m a full time solo traveler. Others told me they hate being alone, they just can’t do it. And still others claimed they could never eat at a restaurant by themselves because of the stares they would get.

I understand where these women are coming from. When you hear the news about two female travelers who were murdered, and you see how the victims are blamed for their lack of common sense because they had the audacity to travel alone, it doesn’t necessarily make you want to run and pack your bags.

Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - The Atlas Heart
Batu Caves, Malaysia

It doesn’t make you want to embrace being alone. Or to go against what some cultures (read: men) deem as “appropriate” choices and actions for a woman to make. Victim-blaming is rampant when it comes to violence against women, after all.

But it makes me sad that many of these women don’t see that independence is not always as hard or as scary as it seems.

That stepping outside of your comfort zone only takes a moment of courage and the rest will fall into place.

That the world is sadly still a dangerous place for women sometimes, but that’s the case worldwide, not just in an unfamiliar culture.

Because when I dug a little deeper and asked those same women if they’d ever actually done the things that they claimed they couldn’t do, the majority said no or only once.

Most didn’t even want to attempt solo travel because they thought it was too dangerous.

Of course, we’re all different people and not everyone enjoys traveling solo, regardless if you’re male or female. But, I do believe that everyone should give it a go and embrace being alone at least a few times in their life, especially if it’s something that you’ve always wanted to do but were too afraid to try.

Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays, Queensland, Australia
And solo travel definitely doesn’t mean it has to be lonely – there are plenty of friends to meet on the road.

All I want to say is, I believe in solo female travel because it’s another way to break down barriers and limitations that females put on themselves.

I believe in solo female travel because one day I hope we won’t have to differentiate between male vs. female travel, but for now we still have a lot of work to do.

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Why I Still Believe in Solo Female Travel | The Atlas Heart

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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