6 Months of Travelling Alone – a Safety Update

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Monk at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Photo by Lily Leung

Monk at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Photo by Lily Leung

Does the idea of travelling alone scare you?

When I started my round-the-world trip 6 months ago, I was paranoid about everything from being robbed of my passport and money, having my MacBook stolen, to getting sick from local food.

After 6 months of travel through India, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore plus three weeks in Turkey, I’m happy to report that travelling alone hasn’t nearly been as scary, unsafe or uncomfortable as I originally imagined it to be.

My biggest fears before I started my trip:

  • Personal safety – getting mugged/robbed, having my passport and money, not being able to find a consulate or call my travel insurance.
  • Health and well-being – getting sick from contaminated food, or bad weather with no one to take care of me.
  • Belongings – having luggage, my precious 15″ MacBook pro stolen or broken on night buses/trains or at hostels.

Fortunately, none of these fears have come true. In fact, travelling alone hasn’t nearly been as dangerous or scary as I expected.

Worst things that have happened so far

Personal safety incidents

  • A scary night cab ride in India – My hotel forgot to pick me up from the airport after my 3am flight to Delhi, India so I grabbed a cab from the airport. A ride that was supposed to be 45 minutes turned into 1.5 hours as we drove through pitch-black alleys and people sleeping on street vendor carts. I was seriously scared the driver was only pretending to be lost. I held my iPhone (which had a photo of the cab’s license plate before I got in) and prayed I wouldn’t have to make an emergency call on the very first day of my trip. Turned out the cab was genuinely lost and eventually I made it to my hotel.
  • Being grabbed by giggling teenage boys in Jaipur, India – While walking with travellers during the daytime some teenagers stuck out their arms out as they walked by and grabbed our chests. We were shocked but got over it in a day, maybe because they were kids it didn’t seem as traumatizing as if it were grown men.
  • Almost losing my passport. On the second last day in India before my flight to Bangkok, I (almost) freaked out because I couldn’t find my passport. Found it after 30 minutes of searching at the bottom of my day bag.

Health incidents

  • Number of times actually sick – None (yay!)
  • Instances I thought I’d get sick – at least once from “Delhi belly” in India (i.e. diarrhea). As my trip progressed, I thought I’d get sick from using tap water to brush my teeth in every country, eating street food daily, especially in Thailand where I ate sushi and even shellfish (clams, mussels) from street vendors; and eating a half-cooked hamburger in Goreme, Turkey (it was a dark restaurant).
  • Times I actually felt sick or got nauseous – 3 times, but all from emotional trauma. Specifically 1.) looking at photos of bloddy civilians with missing limbs, birth defects and more, at the Vietnam War Remnants museum in Saigon, 2.) looking at photos of tortured prisoners and torture devices from the recently Khmer Rouge regime at the S21 genocide museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and 3.) Being told about a complex ordeal about someone I knew who was keeping another wife from the “newer” wife who just had a baby (this was probably the most emotionally traumatizing experience I’ve had the whole trip).
  • Closest thing to getting sick – having a sore throat and a slight cough the last two weeks in Turkey, ironically because Turkey has probably been the cleanest place I’ve been the past 6 months.
  • Other events that could have turned out badly, but didn’t – Having to cross (what seems like) 20-lane streets in India and Vietnam (siliently praying that my feet won’t get ran over); learning to scuba dive in Koh Tao, Thailand which included dives down to 18 metres (that’s 6 storeys!); and riding on the back of a motorbike in the rain in Hue, Vietnam with no helmet because the bus company was rushing to get us to catch the bus after they forgot to pick me up from the hostel.

Lost Belongings

  • Major items lost – None (yay!) My MacBooks, passports and other valuables are all in tact :)
  • Items lost – 2 pairs of flip flops in India and at the beach in Koh Tao, Thailand (cost to replace: <$5). My favourite towel and bikini top in the laundry in Malaysia (hostel gave me a new towel and a receipt that I can hopefully claim on my insurance)
  • Items stolen/attempted thefts – None. Almost surprisingly considering I only have one small lock on my laptop bag and no laptop lock or baggage lock, stay at hostel/guesthouses all the time, and have taken over 20 night trains, buses and boats (which I’m told are prime places for things to be stolen.)

Considering I’ve been away for 6 months, I feel grateful and lucky to have had such an “uneventful” trip so far.

If you’re entertaining the idea of travelling alone, here are some things I’ve done to stay safe and health.

Practical tips to stay safe for solo travellers

Personal safety tips

  • Online updates of your location – I regularly update Facebook and Twitter with my location (virtually every hostel/guesthouse I’ve stayed at has WiFi); my tweets are also geo-tagged which generally seems accurate to 10 metres. (This is more for the peace of mind of family and friends back home, in case I actually go missing!)
  • Take the business card of guesthouse – Before leaving the hostel/guesthouse to go out, take a business card, just in case you get lost or get into any trouble you have local number to call.

Belongings

  • Leave valuables in a safe or with the front desk when going out – especially when staying in dorms, ensure there is safe, locker to lock your things in when you go out, or leave valuables with the front desk. I book the majority of my hostels/guesthouses on hostelworld, which tells if the accommodations has security/lockers.
  • Multiple copies of documents – I have copies of my passport, ID, travel insurance and bank cards in both my bags (luggage and laptop bag), plus photos of them on my iPhone (taken with the iPhone camera) and on email which I’ve sent to myself, family and trusted friends

Health tips

  • Rest and sleep well – If you have any doubts about not feeling well (whether that’s physically or emotionally), stay in and rest. If you feel tired or just plain cranky, there’s nothing wrong with taking an “un-travel” day and doing whatever you feel like, including drinking Starbucks, eating McDonald’s or whatever makes you feel at home.
  • Eating street food – If in doubt, just eat the cooked food, don’t eat food that’s been out a long time, doesn’t look fresh. Eat at places where you see lots of other people eating.

After over 6 months of travel in India, Southeast Asia and Turkey, I look back and feel relieved that I took the leap to travel alone. It’s been an empowering experience, I’ve met more travellers than I can count, and far less uncomfortable than I originally anticipated.

>> What scares you the most about travelling alone? If you’ve travelled before, what’s your #1 tip on staying safe?

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  • Shellz

    Hi there! I would just like to know when you were traveling in Vietnam and Cambodia, how did you handle your iPhone? It may seem like a silly question I know but I’m thinking of traveling there and bringing my iPhone as my only photography tool instead of lugging the more conspicuous DSLR. Did you have a small pouch? A strap of some sort? Do enlighten me! Thank you :)

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Shellz,

      I had my iPhone in a protective snap-on case (no strap). During the day, I kept the phone in my shoulder/messenger bag, and if it was a travel day the phone was in my backpack. I also carried my phone in the front pockets of my pants/shorts if I regularly had to reach for it, like if I was using it for directions. I didn’t have any problems with people trying to take the phone from me. On that trip I also had my small DSLR (Canon XS) and didn’t have any problems with that either.

      I just came back a few days ago from a 7 week trip to Europe/Indonesia and I took the same approach with my iPhone and DSLR with no problems :) Good luck!

  • Dee

    Thanks a lot for this! You’re really brave esp when you have to take a cab at night in india to get to ur hotel! Who knows what might happen! Gosh! I gotta applaud u for that! I reallly really one day I have the guts like u to travel alone.

    Peace,
    Dee

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  • Joanne

    Hi Lily, thanks for the safety tips. It’s great to have a female’s perspective on traveling solo around the world. I’m hoping to embark on my own personal adventure soon!
    PS: It’s good to hear you didn’t get robbed in Malaysia, my native country!

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  • Phil from WorldNomads.com

    Great article and great advice Lilly. It’s something I always try to get across to travellers, you need the right attitude and to take sensible precautions.
     Loving the blog.

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  • http://twitter.com/grachececilio Graciel Cecilio

    Lily I always wondered about leaving valuables in hostels. I’ve never done it. One guy I knew always carried a small backpack wherever he went. Glad to know that the front desk/safe work. Are there extra fees involved?

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Graciel,

      Most of the hostels I’ve been in have lockers for free and only if they don’t I leave them with the front desk (also free). I use a small day pack as well, but I only carry a photocopy of my passport and the money I need for the day in that bag. I leave valuables (laptop, passport, cash) at the hostel/guesthouse in my locked laptop bag. You can never be sure, but I think I’m more likely to be robbed than the guesthouse stealing or losing my entire laptop backpack – in which case I’d try to file a police report or get a receipt from the hostel so I can claim it through my travel insurance.

      - Lily

  • http://www.micamyx.com Micamyx

    Practical post you have here :) Bookmarked!

  • http://twitter.com/swgraphic Sarah Wu

    Wow, this is a great overview of your trip. Glad you’re safe and having fun. Speaking of cab. I would be scared too if it was 3am taking a cab along at the country I never been before. Glad he was just lost : ). I don’t know why the boys did that to you girls on the st. Maybe they were just playing 

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      I was relieved the cab driver was just lost as well. Otherwise it would have been a tough way to start my trip, phew. At least I would’ve had my phone, cash and passport on me!

      - Lily

  • http://twitter.com/Ayngelina Ayngelina

    Yay so happy to hear this. I always try to arrive in cities during the day because it can seem really scary at night. 

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      That’s a good point Ayngelina. I noticed that travel guides often recommend taking overnight buses and trains to save money on accommodations, but when they arrive really early in the morning like at 4:30am when it’s still pitch black, I’d rather have paid for an extra day of accommodations and take a day train instead.

      - Lily

  • http://twitter.com/mukuba2002 zablon mukuba

    am really happy you have no major incidences

  • http://twitter.com/fotoeins Henry Lee

    Great article, Lily – I think you’ve maintained a positive and healthy approach, and it seems to have worked well!  Happy traveling!

  • http://www.onmywayrtw.com Megan

    Sounds like you’ve been having a great run :) I particularly agree with the regular online updates tip – I tried to keep at the very least my parents updated with my location so that if anything happened they’d know where I was last. I also left them all my online passwords in a sealed envelope so that they could access my accounts straight away if something went awry – I’ve read about it taking weeks for authorities to get access to email/FB accounts etc. Maybe it’s overly paranoid but better to be safe than sorry.

    I would have been scared during that cab ride, too. I HATE taking taxis alone in Sydney, let alone overseas. I didn’t mind rickshaws in India though – you can always jump out :D I think my biggest tip for dealing with cab drivers – and anyone, really – is being as confident as possible. If you act like you know what you’re doing and you’re aware of your surroundings, I think you’re much less likely to be targeted. 

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      “I also left them (my parents) all my online passwords in a sealed envelope so that they could access my accounts straight away if something went awry” <– That's a great tip that I didn't think of! Goes along very well with sending soft copies of your ID and documents to family and friends.

      I agree with your comment about being confident. You attract less negative attention and being calm is helpful to resolving problems in the case of honest misunderstandings.

      Thanks again for the online password tip.

      - Lily

  • http://twitter.com/Technosyncratic Christy & Kali

    Wow, you seem to be fairing pretty well!  Can’t believe you haven’t gotten sick yet – I get sick all the time, so pretty jealous on that one.  :) 

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      I think I’ve been quite lucky with staying healthy on the road (knock on wood). Interestingly, I’ve felt healthier from travelling than when I was back at home just being inside working all the time!

  • http://twitter.com/StruxTravel Michael Figueiredo

    I hope you didn’t jinx yourself! :)  Very good list of tips too…. especially the ones about personal safety. I never knew about geo-tagging twitter updates. That is awesome.

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      I hope I didn’t jinx myself either – it’d be ironic to get sick in clean/tidy Europe after not being sick from eating street food in India and Southeast Asia! I love my iPhone for geo-tagging Twitter updates (or getting your geo-position in general), though I’m certain other smartphones can do the same. Before my bus/train journeys, I also roughly plot the route before hand on the Maps app that comes with the Phone and during the ride I double-check to confirm that I’m going in the right direction and roughly how far I am from the destination.
      Very helpful this iPhone GPS!- Lily

  • http://vagabond3.com Jade

    take the business card of your guest house is a great tip- definitely helps to know someone in the area you could call if an emergency happened!

  • http://myexpatgermany.com Laurel

    Great tips and glad that you’ve had mostly an uneventful 6 months.  I was scared of being lonely, but I found that this made me reach out more to other people than I normally would, which was a good thing.

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Laurel,

      I was worried I’d feel lonely from travelling alone too, but surprisingly I haven’t felt lonely at all. It’s been empowering to realize I can feel whole just by myself, and being solo has encourage me to be a bit less shy and to connect more with other travellers I cross paths with.

      - Lily

  • Anonymous

    Great post Lily – such good tips and that top photo is just stunning :)

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Thanks Shannon :)

  • http://www.thetravelchica.com The Travel Chica

    Personal safety is my biggest worry about traveling alone, but it’s not enough to prevent me from doing it.  You just have to be smart.  Remember that bad things can happen anywhere.

    I always make sure I am very aware of my surroundings when I am traveling alone.  Know where you are and where you are going and what is going on around you.

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      You’re right about the potential for bad things happening anywhere. When I feel like I’m getting too paranoid about bad things happening to me from going out and exploring, I think about the Walmart worker who stayed inside and died from getting trampled on by overly enthusiastic customers (http://bit.ly/m1gk9g)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16301711 Jonathan DePrizio

    This is a great post!  Really informative and practical advice.  Thanks, and hope that the last leg of your journey will be as great as everything has been thus-far!

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Thanks Jonathan for your good wishes. It was nice getting your “unsolicited” update the other week, I’m happy for your change. Oh, I’m still patiently waiting for a new article on your blog… you write well! :)

      - Lily

  • http://twitter.com/RTWsomanyplaces Kim

    Lily, so glad that things have gone smoothly for you and thanks for the great safety tips. 

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Kim, 

      I feel really lucky and grateful for how smooth things have gone. (Knock on wood) I hope the next 6 months goes just as well :) 

      - Lily

  • http://twitter.com/JacknJillTravel Jack and Jill

    Good general safety tips and congrats on being 6 month on the road as a solo traveller. Here’s to many more. Safe travels!

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Jack and Jill, cheers to safe travels and happy adventures for us both! Congrats to *you* on starting your round-the-world trip. It’s been great getting your Twitter updates on your South American adventures.

      - Lily

  • http://www.nomadicnotes.com James Clark

    So far so good, well done :)

    I have had the same concerns pre travel as well. I have lost important items and gotten sick while travelling, which was something I feared, but it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be, just a hassle.

  • http://www.nomadicnotes.com James Clark

    So far so good, well done :)

    I have had the same concerns pre travel as well. I have lost important items and gotten sick while travelling, which was something I feared, but it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be, just a hassle.

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi James,

      I agree with your point on the distinction between incidents being scary vs. being a hassle. Now that I’ve travelled for a few months, I can’t think of many worse case scenarios I couldn’t recover from, which a pretty empowering realization.

      - Lily

  • http://stophavingaboringlife.com Rob Bloggeries

    You’re sailing through, I got swine flu my first week!

    Wishing you continued luck and success.

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Same to you Rob. It was great meeting you in Bangkok and safe travels through Turkey and onward. BTW, love your blog photos, I’ve been re-living my Turkey experience through them!

      - Lily

  • http://twitter.com/pgvildys Paul Gvildys

    In Europe, pick-pocketing is supposedly crazy big, but I didn’t see it.

    That said, you hear lots of stories (you should look it up before going) and the techniques are region specific.  You see a lot of people following the advice of all these websites and travel guides (backpacks worn in front, physically holding onto purses, etc).

    I wore this: http://www.scottevest.com/v3_store/lightweight-wind-jacket.shtml much of the trip, and even though I had no problems, it helped my confidence that my stuff was secure inside my jacket, and not easily accessible by people other than me.

    Also, if people ask for ID, show them photocopies before physical copies if you can.  A popular technique is apparently people posing as police officers, asking for IDs, and then grabbing and running with the IDs once you pull them out.

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for sharing the link to the jacket, I was expecting it to look clunky, but it’s actually quite nice! Maybe for my next trip ;) 

      Great tip on showing photocopies of ID first. I stopped carrying around ID when I go out (not even photocopies), but maybe I should start again, just in case. There were a lot of warnings about bag/purse snatching while I was in Southeast Asia, specifically by people who drive by on motorbikes. Fortunately, it didn’t happen to me or anyone I met, but I was cautious enough I didn’t even carry a bag with me at night and put the bare minimum of what I needed in my pockets.

      I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the rest of my trip :)
      - Lily