Women who travel - especially solo women travellers - often enjoy some particular benefits. However, they also encounter some particular challenges and risks. This article contains some general tips concerning safety, health and travel practicalities that are of special interest to women. Tips for women at individual destinations (such as, say, appropriate dress when visiting a temple, especially safety issues) are addressed in those articles.
Every year, millions of women set out to travel the world, with a companion or alone. While the great majority experiences little or no serious threats, and while the choice of destination can make a huge difference, the risk of unwanted attention and sexual assault is always significantly higher for women travellers than it is for men. Also, women are often considered easier targets for bag snatching, robberies and other crimes. A bit of extra preparation, tips and awareness can go a long way in making you feel at ease and staying safe while travelling.
Being scared takes all the fun out of travelling, and it doesn't help in making good decisions either. Don't be embarrassed to take some extra precautions, even when there's probably no reason to, if they make you feel safer. While you shouldn't be scared, it's good to always be aware of your surroundings and to act accordingly.
- Trust your instincts and put safety first when your gut tells you something is wrong. When approached by strangers and you somehow feel threatened, don't worry about being rude. Also, don't be afraid to be loud or make a fuss when you are somehow targeted. Harassing solo females is social taboo in most countries and drawing attention from the people around you can save you from a range of unpleasant situations.
- Count on some extra budget for safer transportation. Reading up on your next destination and knowing what the common scams are is a good idea for men and women alike. Especially as a solo female traveller, however, grabbing a taxi instead of wandering through a bad neighbourhood or a dark alley is sometimes the best choice. When planning your trip, make sure budget will not keep you from choosing the safer option if you want it. On a long overnight train, it's sometimes possible to ask to share a compartment with other females or a family. If at all possible, avoid arriving at new places at night. In a sleeper train with multiple beds in a compartment, opt for the upper berth. Keep in mind that smaller more expensive compartments may give more privacy, but they're not always safer, as there's no crowd around to keep bad things from happening.
- Dress appropriately and mind your body language. It should be self-evident, but often enough women travellers underestimate the impact proper dress can have. In many countries, it's a sign of respect which will make it easier to connect with local women and make it more likely for strangers to help when you need it. At the same time, being dressed immodestly makes you a more likely target of unwanted attention and harassment. In some places a certain type of dress is even mandated by law or strongly enforced local custom. Be aware that physical contact or even simple gestures that may be perfectly normal at home can be interpreted as something quite different in some conservative countries. Err on the side of caution and keep your distance with strange men.
Man or woman, solo, couple or group; making new friends en route is always fun. As a woman, especially when travelling solo, investing a bit of effort into finding like-minded people may not only make for a memorable exchange of stories, but can make exploring feel a bit safer. Especially in places you know or feel to be risky, mingle. Looking for fellow (solo) travellers? Head for a hostel rather than a large, anonymous hotel. Take a local cooking or language course. Join an organized day tour to a nearby attraction. Don't be shy about starting a conversation with other (solo) travellers; one of you has to be the one to start it.
Of course, remain vigilant and don't give out your hotel name or room number to strangers you just met on the streets. Be especially wary of locals who single you out asking for help or wasting no time to invite you to parties or their home. Keep in mind that smart thugs know not to dress the part, and petty crimes are often enough carried out by children, mothers and other people you wouldn't suspect.
For the most part, precautions to stay healthy apply to men and women alike, but there are a few health issues women travellers should be particularly aware of.
Unfortunately, urinary tract infections (also known as bladder infections or cystitis) are a common issue among women. A simple infection is easy enough to treat, but can develop into a harder to treat infection of the kidneys (known as pyelonephritis). Keep in mind that cystitis can be made worse by dehydration, so make sure to keep up your fluid intake when you experience any symptoms. Common symptoms include a strong urge to urinate without much urine being produced, a burning sensation when urinating and strong-smelling or cloudy urine. Healthy women who catch symptoms early may be able to manage the infection by drinking a lot, but if symptoms don't start to diminish in 24 hours, it's wise to seek medical attention. If you are prone to bladder infections, and know how to recognize it, discuss with your doctor if it's wise to take a simple course of antibiotics with you.
- While it's usually best and easiest to follow your usual contraceptive measures, you might find it hard to obtain the contraception of your choice (or in some countries, any contraception at all!) en route. In conservative parts of the world, women or even unmarried couples may encounter resistance when trying to get doctor's prescriptions and supplies, while in other places it might just not be available. Inform yourself beforehand and consider taking adequate supplies from home if possible. With hormonal contraceptives, keep storage instructions in mind when travelling to regions where it gets hot. Take them with you in the original packaging with a copy of your prescription. Women who need to visit a doctor regularly for a dose, such as women who receive contraceptive hormone injections, might consider switching contraceptive methods for a long trip, or might want to make arrangements before leaving home.
- Oral contraceptives may lose their effectiveness if you become ill and vomit or have diarrhea. Time zone changes may also make it difficult to take each dose 24 hours after the last dose. You need to use a backup contraceptive measure, such as condoms, for 7 days after any interruption in effectiveness, which means either a late or missed pill or illness that might have affected the absorption. Check the information packet that comes with your pills for details of exactly what affects the absorption, and bring condoms from home for areas where they may be hard to find or may lack in quality. Hormonal contraceptives that are delivered at a constant dose, such as by injection, by implant or by vaginal ring, are not affected by illness or time zone changes.
- If you're travelling for a long time, contraceptive injections (effective for about 3 months), hormone releasing implants (effective for about 3 to 5 years) or intrauterine devices (effective for about 5 to 10 years) are worth considering. Keep in mind that all of these require a medical professional to apply them.
NOTE: If you want to change your contraceptive for your trip, do so well in advance — not only because you'll need to make the relevant doctor's appointments, but also because switching contraceptives can cause some temporary irregularities in effectiveness and in your menstruation.
There are a number of health issues that women who are planning to travel while pregnant should consider, and discuss with their doctor or health provider as needed:
- Risk of pregnancy complications, miscarriage or premature birth varies between pregnancies, and pregnant women might want to consider their own risk when planning travel where they will be away from their own medical practitioners, or away from medical facilities of the kind they are used to. Statistically, the safest weeks to travel are between the 18th and 24th week.
- Many vaccines (specifically, live ones) are not considered safe for pregnant women (or often even women who are planning a pregnancy) to receive due to a risk to the health of the fetus. You might not be able to travel to destinations which require vaccinations you haven't had before getting pregnant. A waiver for the yellow fever vaccine can sometimes be obtained, depending on the prevalence of yellow fever at your destination. Some inactivated vaccines are considered safe, including varieties of the influenza vaccine and Hepatitis B. Even if you don't normally get vaccinated for influenza, some doctors may advise you to take this precaution as the disease can be more severe in pregnant women. In any case, consult a medical expert at least 6 weeks before travel.
- The mosquito-borne Zika virus can cause severe damage to a child in the womb. There are defences, such as long sleeves and mosquito repellents, but there is no vaccine and no cure. Although the WHO has indicated that the epidemic has ended, the risk is severe enough that the US government still advises pregnant women not to travel to countries with active transmission.
- Malaria, in addition to its danger to the woman, can also cause miscarriage or premature birth. Not all anti-malarial drugs are safe to take during pregnancy.
- Air travel is not recommended for pregnant women beyond 36 weeks (earlier for complicated pregnancies or multiples), and most airlines impose restrictions on pregnant women close to term. You may need to present a letter to the airline from your doctor stating that you are less than 36 weeks pregnant and that it is safe for you to fly. Inquire with your airline. Also keep in mind that pregnant women have an increased risk of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or blood clots. If travelling by air, get up and walk around to stretch regularly. Make sure to fasten the seat belt below your belly.
- Some travel activities are not safe for pregnant women, particularly alpine and water skiing and scuba diving. Unaccustomed strenuous activity, hottubbing or saunaing might also cause complications. Check with your health provider, but in general the guideline is to maintain about the same level of activity that you did before pregnancy.
- Travel at high altitudes is not advised.
Check that pregnancy related illness, childbirth itself and medical care for a baby born while travelling are covered by your travel insurance if you're outside the reach of your normal healthcare arrangements. Pregnancy is usually considered to be a pre-existing medical condition that you must disclose to your insurer, and which will have limited coverage, particularly after the 30th week. Pregnancies that you don't know about at the time of application might not be covered. Read your travel insurance documents carefully.
No policies cover expenses associated with a full term birth. Some may cover a very premature birth but then may not cover the baby's healthcare costs (which would likely be considerable).
Most travel insurance policies do not cover multiple pregnancies (twins, triplets etc) or any pregnancy that is the result of medically assisted conception (fertility drugs, IVF etc) even with an additional premium. If you do get cover for a higher risk pregnancy it will not extend as far into the pregnancy as cover for a naturally conceived or singleton pregnancy; it will probably only extend to 15 or 20 weeks. It is close to impossible to get cover for any pregnancy that has already had complications.
Remember that you can't just "fail to mention" pregnancy (or any other information) to an insurer: failing to disclose relevant information invalidates the policy.
Pack enough supplies of your usual menstruation product (tampons or pads), particularly if you are going to a less developed country where they might not be available easily. Tampons are especially hard to come by in some places due to "moral" objections. Modern pharmacies in large cities are often your best bet. If you still have trouble finding what you need, discretely asking female pharmacy staff will usually help. If you use any pain killers for cramps, take them along after checking their legality at the destination. If crossing international borders, leave them in their original packaging so that customs can determine what they are.
For women doing extended travel in areas where obtaining and disposing of normal menstrual products is annoying, reusable menstrual products might be a useful alternative to consider. The primary products in this category are the suction cups: the silicone Diva Cup and the rubber Keeper. These are non-absorbent, reusable and do not even need to be rinsed before re-insertion every time.
Some women travellers might consider using the contraceptive pill to postpone or skip a period. Extended cycle pills such as Seasonale (one period every three months, rather than every 28 days) are approved for use in some countries, however normal monophasic pills can be used to skip periods as well, by skipping the pill-free period or the different coloured sugar placebo pills. Discuss this use with your prescribing doctor.
Waxing is a popular and often relatively cheap method in developing countries where this is the primary form of removal. When seeking cheap locations in countries with substantial Indian minorities, try to inquire about a "Little India" in major cities. This is a part of town where most of the shops, including salons, are owned and shopped at by Indian people, where waxing can sometimes be considerably cheaper.