The stigma of a woman travelling alone

Erin Melton discusses her own and others' experiences travelling alone as a woman

Photo: Erin Melton

“Oh, you’re going alone?”

Such was the almost unanimous reaction to my winter break plans. As a visiting student, I had chosen not to return to the States for the holidays but rather to take advantage of my short-term proximity to Continental Europe and spend a few weeks traveling. Each time I was asked what I was doing for the holidays, I repeated my itinerary: Oslo, Budapest, Würzburg, Amsterdam. And each time I recited that scripted list, my excitement diminished in keeping with my rising awareness of just how shocked people were that I would consider travelling by myself, particularly as a young, small, non- travelled woman.

There is a stigma in both the United States and the United Kingdom in support of the norm that a woman, particularly a young woman, must not travel alone. Horror stories range from uncomfortable rooming situations to kidnappings and rape, while the perception of danger is reinforced by sobering articles by women on travelling blogs that emphasise the difficulties they say are inherent to the solo female experience abroad. Even women in small groups are supposedly an invitation for mistreatment; before my year abroad, I was disturbingly frequently warned to “always have a man with you.”

But my friends and I have travelled to cities in the near aftermath of terrorist attacks. Our travels defied others’ expectations and our own for how we could experience a foreign continent, a place that was startlingly new to us but whose inhabitants consistently embraced us with open arms.

Some of us, like Rebecca Wolfe, a fourth-year institutions and policy major from William Jewell College and a past visiting student at Mansfield College, Oxford, found that the way we saw the world and ourselves was reshaped by solitude. That heightened knowledge of risk in foreign environs could sometimes, ironically, foster inner peace.

“Something about having to keep it together ensures that you do,” Wolfe said. “Travelling alone was a much calmer experience than travelling with a partner.”

My mother was the loudest voice of caution in my travel-planning process, terrified that I would be “taken” and upset that I would not be home for Christmas. One friend from high school decided that she would message me every single day to make sure I was “being safe” and “making smart choices.”

I sought to maintain a cheerful, confident attitude, but the relentless negativity was unsettling though the tickets were already bought and paid for. I followed through on my plans and set out for three weeks of navigating the unknown alone.

I was not accosted by lurking men in black overcoats at every street corner. No one asked me to accompany them into a secret room in the airport. My food wasn’t even stolen out of the communal fridge in my hostel. For the most part, I was left completely alone unless I asked for directions or advice, which were kindly and readily given. Nor did I encounter any young women travellers who had found themselves in precarious situations. Though none of my hostels were terribly tightly run, they all had multiple measures in place to keep people who were not customers far from the residential areas. I felt comfortable in my sleeping situation even when I was in a 10 person room with six young Norwegian men and two 18 year olds.

None of this is to say I never felt uncomfortable. But even when I was momentarily unsettled, situations that at first appeared uncertain would resolve themselves in ways that could be rewarding. In Oslo, a group of middle-aged male workers approached me uninvited in the kitchen and joined me for dinner. However, they turned out to be incredibly kind and welcoming and were just concerned at having seen me eat alone the night before. We ended up sharing quite a few meals, stories, and experiences during our stay. Young women like me, inside and outside the Oxford community, have braved this experience and found that worries about risk or peril were belied by a reality that was usually far more friendly and accommodating. Family pressure to take a more conventional route—read: man-in-tow— to visiting foreign shores could be intense. But some women are willing to discard overbearing norms, like my highly adventurous friend Macy Tush, a fellow American from William Jewell.

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Tush devoted an entire year of her life to travel before college, despite sustained and nearly successful efforts by her parents to counsel her out of her long-planned trip abroad. She followed through on her commitment and found that the truth about travelling alone was more positive than she had been led to believe.

“Every time I bought a plane ticket my mom was standing over my shoulder commenting about how expensive it was or how my trip was too long” Tush said. The practical impediments to travel did not dissuade her from an experience that proved to be formative, highlighting the importance of determination to follow through on a desire to travel for women who could otherwise let potentially valuable experiences fall by the wayside. “So if I didn’t have the intrinsic motivation to get out and travel I would have fallen back on my parents’ comments and not gone, which would have been a huge loss.”

This isn’t to say that women travelling abroad are independent from the social spaces whose norms their travels might seem to undermine. A lack of family support still shaped Tush’s experiences of her time abroad dramatically. During her 40-hour trip to Namibia, Tush made herself sick by refusing to sleep out of fear of things being stolen. Tush came to realise that her fears were unwarranted; they were indicative of the mindset so many around her might have shared before her trip but not of the lived reality of a woman abroad in Namibia.

“Nothing went wrong,” she says. It might have been wiser to try to relax and more fully immerse herself in the experience as it happened. “Looking back, if I had not been so worried I might have actually enjoyed some parts of it more.”

Women may travel by themselves, but they do not travel in isolation, and contact with the broader social world surrounding them is inevitable. These moments where the veil of seclusion is lifted can range from uplifting to mundanely irritating. While I was in Würzburg, I went to a bar on New Year’s Eve and two slightly older men asked me to join them. I was hesitant; bars are where young, foreign women are kidnapped and last seen alive. Despite the fear I have been taught to have of every stranger, I sat with them. They turned out to be simply sympathetic that I was spending a holiday alone in a bar. I ended up bar hopping with them and their friends we joined later. At the end of the night, I was left alone with no resistance.

I was sometimes left to my own devices, required to undertake active outreach if I wanted to socialise. In Amsterdam, the only people who talked to me on the street were three Americans whom I approached myself, excited to hear a familiar accent after almost three weeks of unknown languages.

Perhaps unavoidably, there were less enjoyable interactions: moments where I was reminded that those around me could be just as human and grating as people everywhere are at their worst. In Budapest, a man approached me, again in the kitchen, and struck up a conversation. While I definitely did not enjoy the talk—he had an elitist attitude, would not let me get a word in, repeatedly told me how much he is paid annually in rent, and is a Trump supporter—the worst thing he did was be incredibly irritating.

Travelling in a country where fear has pervaded the social fabric of daily life, even if only temporarily, can also leave a decisive imprint on the travel experience of a solitary woman. Rebecca Wolfe flew to Brussels in historic circumstances one week after the March 2016 bombings, months into a spate of attacks on the Continent, she felt a palpable atmosphere of distrust and unease upon arriving.

Suspicions against anyone coming into the country were high; military officers were deployed in the streets, and general hostility and tension were in the air. Like anyone else might after touching down in a nation on edge and in arms, she felt apprehensive.

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“Forget being a woman, it was scary to be there as an American, as a human, as anyone alone,” Wolfe said. She remained concerned about the specific threats she was potentially vulnerable to as a female traveller.

“I had a lot of additional fears because of being a woman, but none of them were realised.” But in the final analysis, regardless of the circumstances of Wolfe’s trip, she does not believe that being a woman ended up exposing her to any more actual danger than she would have faced as a man. Alone with two men in a hostel about to permanently shutter its doors in France, she ended up with two friends with whom she is still in touch.

Wolfe acknowledges that being a woman, especially a woman alone, makes one be seen as and feel more physically vulnerable. Her travels, though, made her feel more autono- mous, safer, and stronger than she did before.

“Overall, I would do it again the exact same way,” she says. Total independence was one of the chief appeals of solo travel to her. “I liked having the freedom to spend my days how I wanted without having to compromise.”

Some compromise might be unavoidable, or at least prudent. Some women like Brianna Steiert, a visiting student at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, and a third-year biology major also from William Jewell, might not look forward to travelling alone at all. In fact, our original plan was for the two of us to travel together, but to her chagrin I decided that being alone would be a more formative experience for me. Despite not having high expectations, Steiert ended up enjoying her solo trip to Dublin.

“I expected to be lonely or bored because I really like to discuss the things I’m seeing with other people,” she said. She was still able to have those kinds of exchanges, but instead she was speaking to new faces from entirely novel backgrounds. “I’ve met other people and have been able to share my experiences with them.”

Steiert noted that she exercised some caution—she didn’t go out alone or stay out incredibly late. Fears about safety did not materialise. “I feel the same as when I was travelling with a friend or with my mom,” she said. Steiert, like me, found that she was more than capable of directing her own excursions even in a society in which she had never before stepped foot.

The fact is, though, that despite these being well-known, largely American-friendly destinations, I was still met with incredulity when I explained that I was going alone. Even when I had arrived safely back in Oxford with no terrifying experiences to share, people reacted with shocked relief. My experiences and those of the women I know tell us the value of encountering new perspectives while being prudent.

If Macy and I had listened to our parents, we would have missed out on experiences that have moulded who we are. Getting lost in a strange place and having to rely on yourself to get back comes with a magnificent feeling of accomplishment. Like Rebecca, I became more sure of myself as reliable and responsible. Even Brianna, who had hoped to find a travelling companion, feels that she has grown thanks to travelling solo: she has realised her own strength and has had much more fun than she expected. I knew that being a small American woman would increase my risks when travelling, but I also know that being a small American woman increases my risks all the time.

I think the red eyes and half-drunk smiles of my newfound German friends from one chance encounter in Würzburg are testament to just how meaningful travelling alone was for me, and could be for anyone: three strangers sharing beers on a midwinter night, brought together by opportunity, friendliness and no small degree of daring.