I had just arrived in Amsterdam — unofficially known as one of the safest cities in Europe — and immediately boarded the wrong tram. The sun had already set, and I found myself lost in a totally unfamiliar place, weighed down by my backpack, in the dark. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I had access to WiFi, but I’m a budget traveler and hadn’t purchased an international plan. No problem, I thought, spotting a taxi after I got off at a random stop located somewhere in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go. I’ll just take a cab.
The male taxi driver offered me the front seat and turned on the meter. After giving him the address of my hostel, we were off.
As we began driving toward my destination, I noticed that he wasn’t following the directions on the GPS. In fact, he seemed to be driving farther away from my accommodations.
I began to panic.
I asked the driver to let me out of the cab, but he tried to placate me and tell me that I didn’t need to.
I was more forceful. I told him I could walk — he then replied that it would be too far.
At this point, I was completely convinced that I was in danger. I had my hand on the door handle and was prepared to throw myself from the car, when I finally told him that I wasn’t comfortable staying in the cab with him if he didn’t follow the GPS.
The driver turned toward me, recognized I was panicking, and told me to watch the GPS. It was then that I realized we were heading toward my hostel, but construction had prevented him from following the route precisely. Though it appeared that he was using back-alleys and small roads to confuse me, it turned out that he was just following the bright-orange construction signage.
Despite the fact that I couldn’t read any of the signs or recognize the street names (I don’t speak Dutch and had arrived in Amsterdam just 15 minutes prior), I calmed down enough to realize that we had been passing orange signs.
In the span of thirty seconds, my entire perception of the situation shifted. This taxi driver was incredibly nice, and I was not in any danger. He proceeded to tell me about his family and how safe the area was; then he gave me a list of things I absolutely needed to see in the Amsterdam area and offered me the cookies he’d been eating for his dinner. When he dropped me off at my hostel, he refused to take a tip and very earnestly told me that he hoped I enjoyed his city.
I tell this story not because I like reliving moments of blind panic, but because it depicts a situation that a cishet man would never be afraid of — just as such a man wouldn’t necessarily learn the words for “help” and “fire” in Dutch or memorize the emergency contact number in the Netherlands, as I had done prior to boarding my flight. He wouldn’t weigh the pros and cons of saving money and staying in a mixed dorm, versus spending more for an all-female room. And he certainly wouldn’t read up on modesty norms and safety strategies before going on his next adventure.
The reality is that safety concerns make travel, especially solo travel, different for women. I’m not saying women shouldn’t travel alone — it’s an amazing experience that is just as rewarding as it is difficult. But women simply need to exercise more caution than cishet men when they’re abroad. This means sometimes springing for a budget hotel or a private room, spending a little extra to take a taxi back to your accommodations, carrying your own locks, buying special door jambs that prevent people from entering your room, and sometimes even purchasing fake wedding bands to ward off unwanted male attention. Pepper spray is another expense some women consider when traveling, though different countries have different laws regarding its legality.
The trade-off here is cost: a shoestring budget for a female traveler may not be the same as that of her male counterpart. This is due to the expenses listed above, as well as a variety of others that ensure piece-of-mind, comfort, and safety. For example, when I travel on my own, I tend to only stay in mixed dorms in smaller, family-run hostels with great reviews, rather than large, 30-person dorms. That usually costs me between three and five dollars more per night.
Identifying as a woman additionally restricts your ability to move within certain cultural spaces abroad. And while female travelers may inhabit a more advantageous position than local women due to a variety of factors (including skin color, ethnicity, or nationality), it may be difficult to accept that certain destinations restrict freedoms simply based on gender. For instance, women are hampered in their ability to use the vapor bath in Budapest’s Rudas Baths (ladies are allowed in one night every five days), and they are banned from visiting Mount Athos in Greece. Likewise, it’s common to see signs asking all women who are menstruating not to enter temples in countries that practice Hinduism or Theravada Buddhism. And if you’re visiting a Christian-Orthodox church, certain areas might even be forbidden.
While there are, no doubt, myriad other ways in which travel is different for women, the last I’ll speak to is what we decide to pack in our suitcases. Unfortunately, any and every piece of fabric a woman puts on her body is politicized the moment she walks out of the house, whether that be at home or in Marrakech. Modesty norms are things men rarely need to pay attention to, but women’s decisions on what they wear could be the difference between walking down the street unbothered and being hissed at or followed. Even Lonely Planet tells its female readers to dress modestly in certain countries — something media outlets rarely do for their male audiences.
Despite all of this, the truth is that female solo travel is not so different than what women have to contend with at home: know all of the emergency numbers, keep an eye on your drink, use caution when walking home (or anywhere) at night, be cognizant of the modesty norms, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Overall, be smart, be alert, and trust your instincts. Though this can be hard to do when you’re vulnerable and in a new environment, learning to distinguish intuition from discomfort is invaluable. And although it has its difficulties, traveling as a solo woman is an incredibly enriching experience.
That panicked taxi ride in Amsterdam taught me that my anxiety often confuses blind fear with gut feelings. I spent the rest of my time in the city struggling to get a handle on that difference. Ultimately, I learned to recognize the other physical symptoms that accompany panic and anxiety versus intuition — less of a prickling “not-right” feeling and more sweating, shortness of breath, and tunnel vision — and how to manage them using mindfulness exercises. Overall, this trip also taught me a lot about myself as a traveler. Though I’m typically an unapologetic introvert, while traveling alone, I learned that I can easily make friends when I have the desire to socialize. My experience in Amsterdam is the reason I’m now so comfortable doing things alone now. If I want to see a movie and none of my friends can make it, I take myself out on a date. This also applies to attending museum exhibits and lectures, going to restaurants, venturing out on hikes … the list is endless.
The long and short of it is that adventuring solo taught me more about myself in three months than I’d learned in my whole 22 years of existence. Was it one of the most challenging experiences of my life? You bet. But it was also one of the best, which is why I believe talking about the different challenges that come with female solo travel is important. The reality is that our fear should never get in the way of our desire to explore the world.
Happy trails, ladies.