Miles Away Episode 24: How to Travel Safely as a Solo Female
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This week on the TPG Miles Away podcast, guest host Brian Biros and I discuss my best tips and insights regarding solo female travel. You’ll hear about how I met and made a new friend over a five-minute cab ride in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia; learn about the most dangerous country for women that I’ve ever been in; my favorite safe destination to visit (I’m biased!); as well as one item I think no traveler, man or woman, should be without.
You can listen to this episode of Miles Away above, or listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, including:
Check me out (@KatherineFangirling) on Instagram to follow along my daily shenanigans and global travels. While you’re at it, follow Brian (@biruvia), and keep an eye out for his weekly Points & Miles Backpacker column every Monday morning.
If you have any questions, thoughts or topics you’d like us to cover on the Miles Away podcast, please email Zach Honig at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet him at @zachhonig or find him on Instagram — He’s @zachhonig there as well. And please don’t forget to subscribe!
Featured photo by Katherine Fan / The Points Guy.
Zach Honig: Welcome back to Miles Away, this is your host, Zach Honig. We’re doing another Miles Away takeover this week, again with Brian Biros. This time, he’s going to sit down with Katherine Fan, TPG’s senior travel features reporter. Katherine’s going to talk about solo female travel and she’ll share her advice, things she’s learned along the way, and her most memorable travel moments. Take it away, Brian.
Brian Biros: Thank you, Zach. This is Brian Biros, the Points and Miles Backpacker, and I’m excited to be back taking over our Miles Away podcast. Last time I was on I answered your listener questions about budget travel, and today we are actually going to focus on a topic for which I’m horribly underqualified: female travel. So today we’ve brought in TPG’s senior travel features reporter, Katherine Fan. Welcome, Katherine.
Katherine Fan: Thanks, Brian. And thanks, Zach, for letting us take over Miles Away.
Brian Biros: Katherine, explain what you do for TPG.
Katherine Fan: I cover a variety of breaking news here related to travel and aviation, as well as a little bit of our points-and-miles coverage. But my favorite stories to write are the ones where I get to interview our readers on cool places that they’ve been.
Katherine Fan: As far as the solo travel part goes, my parents came to the States when they were in their early 20s and had a bunch of kids here in the States, but all of their family was still back in Taiwan. So every year, year or two, they would take us back to Taiwan to go visit our uncles and aunts and grandparents there. And my parents actually moved to Taiwan when I was 10, taking all of us kids alongside of them. Pretty much every trip I took from there on out was international, because Taiwan is a pretty small island.
Katherine Fan: My real first solo trip was when I was 17. I was flying back to the States for a two-month conference, and this was six days after 9/11. So yeah, it was a difficult and challenging time for everybody and nobody knew what the rules were.
Brian Biros: So what would you say you’ve learned along the way?
Katherine Fan: I think one of the most important things I’ve learned traveling solo is that life is very, very similar everywhere you go. If you’ve got problems, you end up taking your problems with you all over the world. But if you’ve found kind people in the world near where you live, you’ll find them anywhere you go. I think a lot of times people respond to the energy that you bring with yourself. So if you’re the sort of person who’s curious and excited about new adventures, you’ll find a lot of other people. You’ll find your tribe, if you will, who are also passionate and excited about doing the same things.
Brian Biros: What comes up all the time for me when women ask me if they can travel on their own, is they always talk about safety. What are your tips around safety for the first time?
Katherine Fan: That’s a great question, and I hear that pretty consistently as well. And it might surprise you to know that I have actually been to one of the top 10 destinations that Reuters says is the top most dangerous countries in the world for women. And that would be the US, actually.
Brian Biros: Yes, that was very surprising, that study.
Katherine Fan: It’s an interesting statistic. But to this point, I think safety is very similar to what I was saying about the travel. I think safety is definitely an important concern, whether you’re here or overseas, and I think the best thing I’ve ever learned was just to stay alert and stay aware of my surroundings.
Katherine Fan: You’ve probably seen a lot of the same articles and best practices, but don’t wear your headphones if you’re walking solo, it makes it really easy for people to come up behind you and pickpocket you or just catch you off guard in general. It’s always a good idea to know where your nearest exits are, where you’re headed, have an idea of what you’re planning to do. It’s totally fine to wander down a street and just get lost in the beauty and the scenery, but have a general idea of where you are.
Katherine Fan: Always make sure people know where you are in the world, your parents or trusted contact has a cell phone, knows where you’re approximately supposed to be. Just kind of cover your bases. I would say prepare for worst-case scenarios but always anticipate the best.
Brian Biros: I think a lot of the tips you’re giving are universal. They’re good for men too. But definitely when it comes to travel safety, there is another element, another layer of caution. I did an article last year where I spoke to Lori Zaino. One point that she made that I think made a lot of sense was knowing the culture that you’re getting into, dressing appropriately, and respecting the culture. And she feels that when you show respect to the culture, that respect is then returned, and then when you have that mutual respect, you feel safer.
Katherine Fan: Absolutely. I think that’s a really good perspective to have, and I think it’s one that we should take into every interaction in life. But I think one of the best ways that I learned how to do that in a practical sense was, for all of you young students out there, studying abroad was one of the very best ways to kind of dip my toe into that solo travel element.
Brian Biros: Yeah, study abroad is perhaps the best first international trip you can do. Because you are part of a program, there is an element of being chaperoned, but you also do have freedom, you’re on your own, you’re in a new place. And the whole study-abroad experience seems to be the biggest no-brainer in college. You ask anyone who did not study abroad in college what their main regret in college is, and they will tell you that they regret not studying abroad.
Katherine Fan: I agree. I barely got into study abroad. I managed to sneak it in my senior year summer, but that still counts.
Brian Biros: That was the same with me, actually.
Katherine Fan: So it’s not too late, seniors. If you need to stay in school an extra semester, it’s worth it. But again, one of the things that’s great about studying abroad is a lot of times they’ll have student-specific discounts available to you. Everybody’s really nice to students, especially overseas. Most of them either have done it themselves or they had family members who were overseas. So that adds an additional layer of, not just the respect, but people are more willing to help you and care for you a little bit when they hear, “Oh yeah, you’re a poor student, you’re here by yourself,” so you can get a lot of food discounts, travel perks.
Katherine Fan: You’ll meet a lot of other students along the road. And I think that’s also a really great way that I learned who I enjoy traveling with. The best thing about traveling solo is you get to meet people in a very different setting where you’re cutting a lot of that, “Oh, how’s the weather? What are you up to?” small talk, and you get right to the really juicy, meaty stuff like, “In my culture, we do this. In your culture, I’ve noticed this. Tell me kind of the history or the traditions behind why you react and believe and act the way that you do.” You get to the heart of things very quickly, whether it’s in fun, or in food, or in travel, or language. I highly recommend it.
Brian Biros: Yeah. The connections you make when you’re traveling solo, they tend to be not artificial, and they tend to be deeper. I think the groundwork has to be laid that, yes, there are safety precautions you can take, but it’s not as dangerous as you may think based on media portrayals, or Hollywood, or whatever the influences may be.
Katherine Fan: Of course. And I think that’s a really good point as well. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about … Where your focus goes is kind of the experience you end up having. And while I think it’s fantastic that we’re all learning to take better care of ourselves, and to be safe, and make the right choices, half the time you learn from making small but fixable mistakes. And, I would really love to talk more about some of the amazing surprising adventures I’ve been able to have by not planning everything, or not having an agenda or a mindset of what I was going to experience going into a place.
Katherine Fan: For instance, I met a really good friend on a five-minute taxi ride from a bus stop to our separate hotels actually, when I was traveling with another friend in Malaysia. We managed to spend the next 24 hours together, she fit in really well with me and the woman I was traveling with at the time, and we’ve kept in touch.
Katherine Fan: I’ve subsequently gone to visit her in South Korea and now she lives in Rwanda. She’s married to a Pakistani man that she met while she was traveling. A lot of the best people in the world are going to be on this global journey to find themselves and better the world, and you only find these people when you’re kind of off of the beaten track.
Brian Biros: Or when you’re doing that too.
Katherine Fan: Exactly. You’re not going to see them if you’re doing your standard …
Brian Biros: The bulk of my serendipitous interactions have happened when I’ve been off exploring the world on my own without any general routine, where I’m off just doing solo travel.
Katherine Fan: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean again, in the same kind of way, if you see someone out and they’re by themselves, they’re more approachable, but if I see someone already standing with their friend, regardless of gender or identity or nationality, I’m less likely to go up and just say, “Hey, you guys look like you’re having fun. Can I tag along?” It’s just a lot easier to break in when you seem approachable.
Brian Biros: Yeah. The bulk of my longstanding friendships that I’ve formed when traveling were when I was traveling on my own, and also other people traveling on your own. You’re forced into meeting other people, you’re forced out of your comfort zone, and you’re forced into these deeper connections that you might not make otherwise.
Katherine Fan: Agreed. And to that point, some people have asked me what are some spots I would recommend for first-time female travelers. And of course I’m going to be biased, I spent nine years growing up in Taiwan during very formative times, but Taiwan is one of my top suggestions normally. Because if you really want an overseas, international experience, it’s pretty far from the US, but just about everyone there will speak English or be able to read it or direct you to someone who can.
Katherine Fan: And Taipei has become a very globalized city in the last decade and a half or so. It has a metro system that’s modeled after Japan’s, so it’s incredibly clean and efficient. Everything’s in both English as well as in Chinese. It’s very affordable. And also one of the best things is there is a zone specifically designated for women, where it’s set in the most-lit area of every single station, and that’s specifically where women can stay and know that they have extra security cameras, everything looking out for them when they have to commute home alone at later hours of the night.
Katherine Fan: So it’s just really a city that has built-in security and protection for its citizens and visitors directly into its infrastructure, and I really appreciate that. So you’ll see that same level of care and attention to general public safety throughout the nation. You’ll see a lot of cameras, you’ll know that lights are very organized, and hotels are very safe overall. It has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
Brian Biros: The female-only zone, I experienced that also in Rio de Janeiro, during peak travel times. They have female-only cars on the subway. And one of my first days there, I remember running down to try to catch the subway and just barely made it in, and I walk into this car, wasn’t sure what was going on. And then I look at a police officer, and he looks at me and he tells that I’m very confused, and he just points one car over, and I stepped off. So I didn’t get a fine or anything ’cause I think …
Katherine Fan: Welcome to an occasional women’s experience. I think we’ve probably all felt that more often than not.
Brian Biros: Right. When it comes to packing, gear, backpacks, what kind of tips do you have?
Katherine Fan: Yeah, when it comes to traveling solo, I would say the first rule of thumb I learned very early on was, don’t pack more than you can carry because you have to carry it all yourself. And I think it’s kind of a point of pride for solo travelers to be able to say, “I’m self sufficient.” It kind of cuts into that whole self-sufficient vibe if you have to have someone else help you carry your suitcases.
Katherine Fan: So honestly, I work out a good amount. I joke, but it’s for real, I work out so I can lift my own suitcase and do my overhead bins. Sometimes they get heavy, but I generally try not to check in anything. I won’t check in anything I can’t afford to lose because it probably will get lost at some point. I also make sure I pack as lightly as I possibly can. I try to make sure that every single item I bring with me is multifunctional or at least if it’s not super multifunctional, it’s very cute and I’m fine wearing it multiple days in a row.
Katherine Fan: And this one is very specific, but if you use tampons, bring the tampons you like and prefer, because most of the world does not use the same types of tampons, or they might not even use tampons, period. So if you want them, make sure you have them.
Brian Biros: I have heard this. This is not particularly my expertise, but I grew up with four sisters, so don’t worry, I’m not squeamish about this. I did have a friend who recommended the cup, I believe. She raved by that. She would travel for months at a time, using that.
Katherine Fan: You know, it is something I’ve heard a good amount about in the solo female travel world. It tends to be polarizing. You either love it or you hate it. I personally just am not quite sure how the logistics would work in a public bathroom, and washing. Or if you went somewhere more remote and rural … You did say you weren’t squeamish.
Brian Biros: I wasn’t expecting to contribute to this part of the conversation-
Katherine Fan: But you did.
Brian Biros: There we go.
Katherine Fan: I will actually say this, for guys who want to be supportive of their female friends who are traveling with them, it’s really nice if you carry a couple of tampons with you, you never know when somebody is going to need it. I think it’s just a nice, courteous gesture in general, if it makes sense in your life and practice of course. But every now and then, you could be hiking and you will be a lifesaver. You’ll probably end up on Reddit or go viral on Facebook or something. If you want to be supportive of women, this is a very practical way to do it.
Brian Biros: OK. Let’s talk about some more destinations, and we have a question from Sarah on Instagram. Destinations that you thought would be difficult to travel solo, but actually weren’t, and vice versa.
Katherine Fan: I don’t have a really good answer for difficult right now, but I will say one that surprised me, or I didn’t really know what types of expectations to carry into it, was Cape Town. So I went to Cape Town this year on a complete whim, I found a sub-$600, round-trip flight last year and just booked it for the week of my birthday. And I was really pleasantly surprised. I want to put out the caveat that Cape Town is actually one of the places where I’ve been heckled the most in recent history. So between Cape Town and New York City, surprisingly enough, it definitely felt a little more gritty than usual.
Katherine Fan: But it also was beautiful, and fascinating, and it was just crackling with a lot of raw potential. And I found that really fascinating. So I think I took more precautions than I normally do. I have no idea what Cape Town looks like out at night on foot solo because everybody from bellboys to locals told me, “Don’t go out alone at night. Take an Uber.” It’s kind of fun when you hear Uber is your safest bet in the evenings.
Katherine Fan: But I just loved the culture, the people, the stories, the food. Every single Uber driver I had, I asked them where they were from, what they were doing in life, what were they excited about. And a lot of them were not from South Africa, actually. So I got so much local flavor and firsthand experience just by speaking with people that I was interacting with on a daily basis.
Brian Biros: Yeah, I remember that with Cape Town. And people told me the same thing, don’t walk around at night. It was such a beautiful city, but there are precautions you need to be taking.
Katherine Fan: Right. And having taken care of the precautions, I was just floored by everything there was to learn there. I realized I only knew the bad and I didn’t know much of the good. And it was right around the time when Trevor Noah was coming out with his latest Netflix special, so everybody was so excited to talk about this South African guy that people in America knew. It was just a really good little bonding moment where we had something in common.
Katherine Fan: I think a lot of time we don’t know a ton about the continent of Africa. There still are people who call it a country. Experiences like travel give you that firsthand knowledge of, “OK, this is what people are like there, this is where we overlap and have similarities, this is where we differ wildly.”
Brian Biros: When you find yourself in other countries, other cultures, are there societal stigmas that you encounter, or do you feel that you’re looked at oddly for walking around by yourself or being a traveler on your own?
Katherine Fan: Sometimes. In case it’s not obvious over a podcast, I’m Asian, so I do hear a good amount of the time, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” And I don’t mind that because I know people are … This whole concept of globalization can still be really foreign in a lot of places. People just want to understand. They’re used to people looking a certain way and appearing a certain way, and it’s really cool to expand their horizons as well, just by being who I am and sharing who I am as authentically as I can.
Katherine Fan: And I’ve found the same to be true elsewhere. If I don’t know how to interact with someone, or I’m a little bit ashamed or embarrassed because I don’t get something, the best thing I can do is just to ask. I try to do it as respectfully as I can and leave it as open-ended without trying to solicit a specific response. But at the end of the day, everybody just wants to tell me who they are and share in their life experience with me.
Brian Biros: And I’ve also heard that sometimes you might have to risk offending someone. Someone might just be genuinely nice, but if it makes you feel uneasy, you might just have to remove yourself from the situation. And your safety is more important, you might end up offending someone, but you have to take care of yourself.
Katherine Fan: I think a good rule of thumb here is, a good person will always understand when something’s a misunderstanding. If someone doesn’t make you feel like they’re giving you that grace, they’re probably not a person you want in your life anyway. So I would say, if you’re ever in doubt and you can’t tell if somebody’s legitimately trying to be nice or trying to hit on you, or you feel threatened in any way, it’s totally fine to say, “You know what, thank you for that. I’m going to go take care of this.”
Katherine Fan: Again, find someone safe near you, walk next to another traveler, whatever it takes to get rid of a creep.
Brian Biros: Just remove yourself from the situation, whatever it is.
Katherine Fan: Right. I would say definitely err on the side of safety, and again, anticipate the best-case scenario. If you’re not sure how you’re going to react under alcohol, or with sudden illness or something like that, just always take the precaution of not doing something too extreme.
Brian Biros: Thank you so much, Katherine, for all of your expert tips and if someone wants to follow along to your travels, where should they find you?
Katherine Fan: You can find me on Instagram, it is @katherinefangirling.
Brian Biros: Thank you again to Zach Honig for letting me take over the Miles Away podcast. He’ll be back next week. Thanks again to our producers, Margaret Kelley and Caroline Schagrin, and Alex Schiff for our music. I am Brian Biros …
Katherine Fan: … and I’m Katherine Fan.
Brian Biros: Safe travels, everyone.
Zach Honig: Thanks, Brian and Katherine. Be sure to follow Brian and Katherine on social to keep up with their travels and adventures. Thanks again to Brian Biros, our TPG backpacker, for his awesome takeover. I’m your host, Zack Honig, and thanks for listening to Miles Away.
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