This is a guest post written by one of my readers who wanted to share her experience of traveling solo in Europe as a woman.
My very first backpacking trip abroad was as a three month solo journey across Europe — although I didn’t plan it to be that way. I was actually supposed to go with a friend, but about two months before our departure she had to cancel.
At first I wanted to scrap the whole trip, but I’d been planning this big trip for months (and dreaming about it for years). Plus I’d already bought the non-refundable plane ticket, so I started researching solo travel.
The idea of traveling alone, especially as a woman, never even crossed my mind until that point, but the more I researched it, the more I came to realize that solo travel was something that sounded amazing. I decided throw caution to the wind and just do it.
Ok, I was a little nervous before heading off. I remember having a mini-freakout when I was on the plane, but I was able to pull myself together pretty quickly. As soon as I landed in London I successfully made it to my hotel using the Tube. Success!
After it was all said and done I discovered how much I loved solo travel. Sure, there were some not-so-great times and I made a few mistakes, but I would do it all over again if I had the chance. One of the biggest surprises was that I met a large number of other solo female travelers in Europe — there were probably one or two at every hostel I stayed at!
I’ve gathered some of my best tips and advice for solo women travelers in Europe. These are the things I wish I would have known before I traveled to Europe alone. I urge you all to learn from my mistakes!
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
The first week of traveling solo was the toughest for me. I was still a little timid, and I tended to keep to myself. I would spend all day walking around and then come back to the hostel and not have anyone to talk to.
Then one night I decided to cook a meal for myself at the hostel. I went down to the kitchen and there was another solo female traveler trying to organize a group meal. She asked me if I wanted to chip in a little money, and she would make a big meal for whomever was interested.
There ended up being around 15 people who gathered for the meal. It was a ton of fun and everyone had a great time. I finally met a lot of people, and I spent the next two days hanging out with the girl who organized the meal. And that is when I realized that solo travelers have to put a bit of effort into meeting people. From that point on I had very little trouble meeting people.
And you shouldn’t worry to much about being “alone”. There will always be people to hang out with if you seek them out. I’ve had to eat by myself a few times — which I admit isn’t the most fun thing in the world — but it really isn’t that bad. I think we tend to fear eating alone because we think other people are judging us. But honestly, other people don’t really care that you’re eating alone — plus, you’ll never see these people again, so who cares.
Why Solo Travel is Great
I don’t know why more people don’t embrace traveling solo – especially in Europe. Below are some of my top reasons why I loved traveling solo, but you can read a lot more general advice about traveling solo here.
Freedom to Travel
Any solo traveler will tell you how amazing it is to be able to do whatever you want. Want to spend all day in a museum? No problem. Want to sit in a park for 3 hours? Go for it. Want to eat at McDonalds? Supersize it.
Do whatever you want because you don’t have to ask what your travel partners want to do.
Money is another tricky subject when it comes to travel. Often groups of people don’t want to spend money on the same things. For example, your friend might want to eat bread and cheese everyday, but you want to have one or two nice meals. These differences often lead to one party not being happy.
Meet More People
When I travel with my significant other I end up meeting less people because we often go off to do our own thing. Traveling solo forces you to put yourself out there to meet new people. Plus, solo travel is becoming more popular, and you’re bound to run into a lot of travelers who are happy to hang out with other solo people.
I also found that a lot of groups openly invited me to hang out with them, which I found was great. In fact, I probably got invited along about 4x more than when I traveled with friends.
Traveling alone makes you become more confident and self-reliant. Plus, I feel like it makes you a better person.
Easier to Couchsurf
Couchsurfing is an amazing way to meet locals and save a bit of cash. Most Couchsurfing hosts don’t have a lot of room, so solo travelers have an easier time securing a spot. Some people recommend finding a female host for safety reasons. I’ve stayed with hosts that were a family (husband, wife, and kids) and that has worked out fine. Just be sure to read the reviews to hear what former guests have said. You can read more about Couchsurfing here.
Practical Tips for Successful Solo Travel in Europe
Here are some random tips and advice that will help make solo travel go much more smoothly.
There are plenty of ways to meet other people while you’re traveling. The easiest is at your hostel. There will nearly always be someone looking to meet up. This is also a great opportunity to meet up with other solo travelers.
Most major cities have free walking tours which attract a lot of younger travelers. Additionally, large cities usually have a weekly Couchsurfing meet-up group where people from around the world meet up to just hang out — normally at a bar or cafe. These are open to all people — not just Couchsurfers. You can also check out meetup.com
Start in a Country Where You Know the Language
Traveling is confusing. Traveling in a country where you don’t know the language is even more confusing. That is why I’d recommend starting out in the UK or Ireland because you can always ask someone if you have a question. If nothing else it lets you ease into international travel a bit easier, and it will help build your travel skills.
Plan Ahead to Avoid Confusion
I always recommend having your accommodation arranged before you arrive in each city. This way you’ll know exactly where to go the second you step off the train or plane. I also recommend spending a little time studying how to get to your hostel before you arrive. If you’re familiar with how the public transportation works or what route to walk, you’ll remove much of the stress of traveling. Additionally, planning ahead keeps you from wandering around aimlessly — which thieves pick up on very quickly.
I also try to find out where the more dangerous parts of town are so I can be sure to avoid them.
Take it Easy on Yourself and Relax
Traveling is stressful. You’ll make mistakes. Things will go wrong. You’ll feel defeated at some point. It is natural, and all travelers go through it. I hit a wall after about 3-4 weeks of traveling, but I powered through it and I felt better after having a few bad days.
I recommend doing something nice for yourself or doing something “normal.” Go see a movie. Have a bit of retail therapy. Sign up for a cooking class or a wine tasting. It will help rejuvenate you.
Do an Open Top Bus Tour
I know it sounds corny, but I like to use one one of those hop on/hop off bus tours the first day I arrive in a major city because it allows me to get a better idea of how the city is laid out. Then when I’m exploring the city by foot I have a little better idea of where I am in relation to other sights.
Ask People to Take Your Picture
ASK PEOPLE TO TAKE YOUR PHOTO! I have a thousand photos of Europe, but I’m only in about a dozen of them. I didn’t even realize it until I got back home and started looking through my pictures — I still regret not having more. People are more than willing to take your photo, but you just have to ask.
The more stuff you drag along with you, the more difficult traveling becomes — especially when you’re traveling alone. Check out this traveling Europe packing list for women for tips on what to pack.
Safety Advice for Solo Women Travelers
The main reason why females don’t travel alone usually boils down to safety concerns and it is smart to be vigilant when you’re traveling alone. European cities are much safer than most US cities. I know I felt safer walking the streets in Europe than I do in the US. The advice in this section are all pretty common sense things, but it is a good idea to read through them so they’re fresh in your mind.
The best safety advice I could give a solo traveler, or any traveler for that matter, is to simply be aware of your surroundings. That doesn’t mean you have to be paranoid about everything, but it is important to have an idea of what is going around you.
Protect Your Bag or Purse
Probably the biggest threat to traveling women is getting your purse or bag snatched. I suggest keeping your bag in your lap. If you have a larger bag that is uncomfortable to keep in your lap then make sure you loop the shoulder strap around the leg of your chair so someone can’t run by and snatch it away.
Find a Buddy (or a Group) When Going Out at Night
It might not be fair, but women need to be more vigilant when they’re out at night. That is why I always went out with other people — usually from my hostel. Remember… safety in numbers.
Act Like You’re Supposed to be There
It seems that timid travelers are the ones who usually get taken advantage of. Their fear and timidness show through, and predators can pick up on this. That is why you need to always act like you belong. Act like you know exactly where you are going. Exude confidence! Walk with purpose — even if you are lost. As a female traveling alone this is an important thing to remember.
Listen to Your Gut
When you’re traveling alone it is important to listen to your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t.
Personally, I had the most difficult time listening to my instincts when I was with a group of people. I felt a little uneasy about speaking up to a bunch of people I’d just met a few hours before in the hostel. But that is something I just had to get over.
Avoid Dangerous Situations with Alcohol
We’ve all done some dumb things while drinking, but we’re usually around friends. I don’t have to tell you that getting really drunk in an unfamiliar city with a bunch of people you don’t know very well isn’t the best idea.
Don’t Flash Money/Valuables
It is always smart to be careful about not flashing money and valuables around for people to see. Leave fancy jewelry at home, try to not use your phone alone on the street (especially at night or on public transportation), and if something feels wrong you should try to hop into a store or get close to a group of people. The main thing is to not make yourself a target.
Pickpocket Proof Bags
I’ve never used them, but a lot of travelers like these pickpocket proof bags from Pacsafe. They have features like puncture proof and lockable zippers, steel mesh sewn into the bag’s fabric the bag can’t be cup open, and a few other anti-theft features. For more information about pickpockets read our guide to pickpockets in Europe.
Be Careful When Using the ATM
As a solo traveler one of your most vulnerable moments will be when you’re withdrawing money from an ATM because you don’t have anyone to watch your back.
For example, when I was in Paris I was approached by a group of 3 gypsy kids while I was using the machine. They started tugging at my shirt and putting a paper in front of the screen to block my view. Just then I saw one of them press the button to withdraw 300€. Luckily, I knew what was going on and was able to grab all the cash from the machine before they had a chance to get it.
I knew about this scam as I read about it before when I was researching my trip, but it still took me off guard — especially since this happened in the middle of the day on a street with a lot of foot traffic. (Tip: Try use an ATM that’s inside a bank.)
Pay Attention in Confusing Situations
Thieves rely on creating confusion in order to make you let your guard down. They’ll do things like putting a newspaper in front of your face while someone else takes things from you bag, or a group of people will all push onto a metro car at the last minute while they try to pickpocket you or a cashier will purposely give you the incorrect change back. There are all kinds of things thieves will do. Your best defense is keeping calm and making sure you know what is going on.
Write Down the Address of Your Accommodation
It is a good idea to write down the name and address or take a business card to the hostel, hotel, or apartment where you’re staying. This is important because it is pretty easy to get lost in many European cities — their streets don’t use the grid system, so finding your way home isn’t always easy. Plus, good luck trying to tell your taxi driver to take you to 27 Scheepstimmermanstraat (yes, this is a real street name).
Arrive to New Locations During the Day
Whether it’s at a train station or an airport, one of the most confusing and frustrating moments of traveling is when you first arrive in a new city. But things get much more difficult when you arrive at night. Help desks are often closed, most other travelers are gone, and people seem a little more sketchy. That is why I try my best to arrive during the day.
I made this mistake once when I visited Bruges for the first time. I arrived around 11pm (mainly because I missed a train connection earlier in the day). I knew the address of my hostel, but didn’t have map of the city, so I didn’t know where to go. I decided to just start walking until the found the city center… well, I went the wrong way. So I came back, finally found a map posted outside the train station and headed into town. I think I wandered for about an hour (which is terrible when you have a heavy backpack on), but I finally found the hostel. And it was locked for the night and there was no one at the front desk.
So I was stuck. I walked down the street a bit and found a hotel but they wanted like 150€ for the night. It was already almost 1am so I thought I would rather sleep in the train station than pay 150€ for a hotel that I had to be out of by 10am. And that night I found out how much sleeping on a bench in a train station sucks.
If I would have arrived during the day I would have found the hostel in about 15 minutes and could have spent the night enjoying a great Belgian beer.
Make (Digital) Copies of Passports, Credit Cards, and Other Important Documents
You’ve probably already read about the importance of keeping a few photocopies of your passport. Additionally, I like to email myself a scan or save a copy to my Google Docs. That way you have a copy of it easily available if you somehow lose the physical copies. This also works great with any other important documents or credit cards.
Choose Accommodation in a Popular Area
As a solo female traveler I always feel safer when my hostel is located in a fairly popular part of town. I’d much rather be walking around alone in a busy neighborhood than totally alone. This is something to watch out for when booking accommodation because some of the cheaper options are in less desirable locations.
Know Your Neighborhood
Before you head out for the day, take a look at a map to get familiar with your route, the areas you’re visiting and the neighborhood you’re staying in.
Female Only Dorms (Optional)
Most hostel rooms are mixed gender, but many offer a few female-only rooms. Personally, I always felt completely safe in hostel dorms because there was always a pretty equal mix of both sexes. But if you feel safer in a female only dorm, you should choose that option.
Getting Hit On by Men in Public
As a solo woman traveler you will get hit on by men — more so in some countries than others. It is inevitable. It is usually pretty harmless (some might even find it flattering), but some men can take it too far. If you don’t want to deal with it there are a few precautions you can take to ward off those unwanted advances.
Put a Ring on It
The most common piece of advice is it wear a fake wedding band as this will deter most would-be Rico Suaves.
One thing that took me a while to realize is that looking a stranger in the eye is often a sign that you’re interested or flirting with them. Even an accidental glance gives many guys the impression that you want to chat. The easiest way to avoid these situations is by wearing sunglasses… but you’re on your own when you’re inside or at night.
Cut the Chit-Chat
If some guy starts talking to you (and you’re not interested in talking to him) then you should simply ignore him. When I first arrived in Paris guys would nonchalantly talk to me on the Metro and I would respond mainly out of courtesy. The fact that I responded was their “foot in the door” and they would continue trying to chat me up. If you’re not interested then I suggest just completely ignoring them — most will get the hint. A lot of women I’ve talked to suggested wearing a pair of earbuds (without music actually playing) while on public transportation as this is a clear sign that you don’t want to chat.
Final Thoughts About Women Traveling Solo in Europe
If you can find friends to travel with then that’s great, but don’t let the lack of a travel buddy deter you from taking the trip you’ve always wanted to take. You just have to take a few precautions and you’ll be safe. If you’re still uneasy about traveling Europe alone and don’t have a travel partner, you can use a tour company like Contiki Tours, Busabout, and a few others that cater directly to younger travelers.