“Are you by yourself?”
Solo Traveler community member Charlene recently wrote to me to say this is the one question she is frequently asked when traveling alone that she doesn't know how to answer. She said she worries about safety and doesn't trust easily.
Much has been written about solo female travel safety, some of it very useful and practical, some of it seemingly designed to incite fear. We have written a lot about staying safe while traveling alone, but have generally avoided focusing only on the safety of women because our safety tips apply equally to everyone. Essentially, they boil down to 5 fundamental principles.
In this case, the question was asked by a woman and when I took the question to the Solo Travel Society, and asked our actively engaged group of travelers on Facebook, “How would you respond to this question?” the vast majority of responses came from other women. So here we are.
There were well over 100 responses, which generally fell into the following categories.
- Never Answer the Question
- Assess Each Situation Individually
- Trust Your Instincts
Never Answer the Question
A number of people took the position that one should never tell a stranger that they are traveling alone. They offered a variety of alternative responses, including making up fictional companions, answering the question with a question, or avoiding it altogether.
Tricia shared how she gets ahead of the question by giving the impression that she is with others.
Never answer that. A person asking you that straight away is suspect. With certain people like taxi drivers or others I don’t feel comfortable with knowing I’m alone, I have done a couple of things. One is I make clear before they even ask or wonder that I’m on my way to meet my husband or a group of friends. I make up a story. Sometimes I say I need to make a phone call and step away just far enough that they can hear the pretend conversation or if I’m in a taxi I will talk to this fictional person on my phone for the remainder of the ride, discussing how excited I am to see them in a few minutes. Never advertise that you are alone. Never announce it. And if need be, pretend you are not.
Bonnie takes her cue from the professionals. She said, “I have been practicing the art of responding politely without answering the question asked, as seasoned politicians and other public figures often do in interviews. It seems like a useful skill.”
Marcy found it interesting that the majority of respondents felt obligated to give a yes or no answer. Instead, she makes a statement that leads people to give her more information so she can judge the relative safety of answering the question. “Anytime someone asks me a question I feel is odd or “off” in some way, I say with a smile, “that's an interesting question.” I don't say anything else. I just look at them. Everyone offers an explanation for why they asked it. Then, you know more and can respond as you see fit.”
Olivia prefers to respond with a question. By asking, “Why do you want to know?” she gets a better read on the situation. “Their response, whether verbal or non-verbal (facial expression or gesture), will give you a hint on how to answer or not answer at all.”
Linda’s handling of the question about whether she is alone has evolved over the years. “When I was younger, I traveled solo and I was determined to say I was alone. I had a lot of offers of companionship, and also got told off in Italy by concerned older people. In other countries in Asia and South America, or in Saudi Arabia, I told them I was married. At the end of the day, safety comes first here, there, with others, or solo. Saying you have company is not taking your independence from you.”
Assess Each Situation Individually
Many people feel that in each case you need to assess the situation by taking the circumstances into account. There isn't a “one size fits all” strategy to ensure solo female travel safety. There may be times when you feel perfectly safe to say that you are alone and other times when your assessment of the person asking, the surroundings, or something else dictates a different response.
Deidra said that it “depends on the location, the circumstances, and who is asking. If it is a fellow traveler on day tour or your B&B hostess, that is one thing. If it is a taxi driver or random person approaching you as you shop, then no. But I am never ashamed of it and proudly enjoy traveling solo.”
Stephanie agreed, adding that if you tell other travelers or hosts that you are traveling solo, it might just lead to a conversation that could give someone the courage to try it themselves.
“It depends where and who is asking,” said Pat. “You can say you are traveling with someone who is currently not there. You can still meet someone and have a conversation, unless of course the other person is only interested in you if you are alone.”
Patricia shared this story:
I agree with everyone that it depends on the circumstances. That said, I was shopping in Torremolinos a couple of years ago, and the young, nice and friendly shopkeeper asked me if I was traveling alone. I said yes, and after some more chatting, he said: “I'll marry you! I already have a wife and children here, but I can buy you a house in Morocco where I can have more than one wife. I'll also get you 100 camels. They are worth 1000 each, and you can sell one when you need cash.
The things that went through my head! I politely declined, of course, and spent the rest of the week pondering what was that all about. My family and friends had a lot of fun with that one, too. In the end, I decided that he thought I was lonely and was trying to make me feel wanted. Maybe, maybe not. But hey, that is a shopkeeper and an adventure I'll never forget!
Caroline also feels that it depends who is asking. “If I feel insecure, I say I’m with friends who are (insert what they’re doing depending on how safe you feel, e.g., just in a shop over there and I'm due to join them when I finish my coffee). But mostly, I feel okay saying I'm traveling solo to other women or wait staff, etc.”
In addition to the option of not answering the question at all, many people suggested some version of “Yes, but…”
Sereina said, “I have said that I am alone before but depending on who is asking the question, I may add that I talk to my family every day. This gives the asker the knowledge that I might be physically alone, but I am not lonely and have scheduled check-ins.”
Patricia wears a ring. “Obviously, it depends on the situation, but I always wear an eternity ring on my left hand and if the need arises, I will pretend my friend is at the hotel or out doing something different to me at this moment.”
Karen was asked this question on a recent trip. “It was early in the morning, in a relatively quiet area in northern Greece. I did not feel intimidated, but I did invent a partner and commented that said partner had just phoned to arrange to meet nearby. He left. I have no idea whether it was an issue or a poor attempt at a chat-up line! I had never felt the need to use this approach before, but it’s well worth having something similar in mind.”
“I almost always say, “No. I’m meeting my mother at the so-and-so right around the corner.” Said Jaylynn. “I was followed back to my apartment more than once by the same street vendor/hustler in Florence on my first solo trip abroad. I felt extremely unsafe and ever since, I have my imaginary mom traveling with me. Something about saying “mother” to strange men really backs them off. I haven’t had any trouble since. When I get older, I plan on telling people that I’m traveling with my adult son or husband. I figure it will have the same effect.”
“I second everyone else’s comments about basing my answer on the person asking and the circumstances we’re in,” said Christine. “Usually I say yes, but I have never felt bad lying if I feel the intent of the questioner is less than good. You never should feel bad for lying if it’s for your safety. You don’t owe being nice to anyone at your own expense, and if being honest or polite makes you feel like it’s putting you in a bad position, then you don’t have to do it. Luckily, I’ve found most people who ask are just interested in solo traveling or are just wanting to chat with someone.”
Solo Female Travel Safety: Trust Your Instincts
A common thread running through all these responses is what I think is the most important point of all: trust your instincts.
LaDell shared, “I went to Africa by myself to meet up with a tour group. During some unscheduled time in Victoria Falls I went to the public market on my own. A young vendor said he would like to go home with me. I laughed and said my husband wouldn't like that. He asked where my husband was, and I told him my (imaginary) husband was back at the hotel. This was not likely a dangerous situation, but I believe in following my instincts when traveling. It is really no one's business whether you are alone. A lie doesn't hurt.”
Ullatiana says, “I have a general trust in people’s good intentions and trust my gut feeling, so I normally tell the truth, that I am traveling alone. So far, it has served me well and supplied good company for a meal or some hours.”
Shelly has an interesting technique. “I trust my intuition on this one. Sometimes I say yes, other times I say I am waiting on someone. There have been times when I have just given them a blank stare and not answered, and they walked off.”
Ilona keeps this one in her back pocket: “It depends on the situation. Listen to your gut. When you feel uncomfortable, make up a boyfriend who stayed back in the hotel because he didn't feel well today.”
Julia always says yes, “but I also make it clear I am in regular contact with friends and family back home. This is far more believable these days in the age of social media and mobile phones, of course. I've traveled solo for 33 years since my first trip at the age of 17 and I have never had an issue doing so, but I do trust my gut instincts.”
Lauren made an excellent point: You aren’t obligated to give any personal information to strangers. Trust your gut.
Sometimes, there is no malintent, but the question is rooted in the local culture. Bobbi Jo lived in India for a long time and people asked her this question a lot. “I realized it was mainly because the thought of a woman traveling anywhere alone was such a novelty.”
“As everyone has said, it depends on the place, person, and time,” said Francie. “I found that in a few more traditional countries I traveled in, they couldn't understand why someone was alone. They thought it was quite strange and that people who traveled alone had no friends.”
Mandy recommends also reading the local norms. “In some places it is not uncommon to share a table with people that you don't know, so by saying no, you are denying someone a seat. Be cautious but be courteous as well, if that's the local custom.”
Sometimes, “are you by yourself?” can be a welcome question. In her experience, Cathy has found that “the people who ask me this question the most are other women travelers. They think it’s awesome I travel by myself and they are sometimes envious they can’t ditch their partners or families and run away too! Trust yourself and be sensible.”
Leanne agreed, saying, “I’ve met some great people and had opportunities by saying, “yes, I am.”
And finally, Katharine raised an excellent point.
What comes through as I read these comments is the extent to which we are so conditioned to answer a question, that we feel obliged to answer, and even to answer honestly. For me, therein lies the dilemma. And I wonder if this might be particular to women? I really appreciate those comments that toss out these notions, or at least invite me to enquire into myself: why do I feel I have to answer anyone's question? And, of course, the wisdom in sensing into the context.
How do you respond when asked, “Are you by yourself?” while traveling solo? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.