Is Solo Travel Safe? Avoiding Crime, Scams, and Injury While Traveling Alone

by wheretheroadforks

During my past 8 years of solo traveling, I’ve seen some breathtaking sites, tasted incredible foods, and met many unforgettable people. I’ve also encountered a number of scams, crimes, and dangerous situations. I was inside of a bar during an armed robbery in Tijuana, Mexico. I was pickpocketed in Tanzania. Many of my friends have asked me ‘Is solo travel safe?’ In this article, I answer that question in an honest and rational way to help you decide for yourself if solo travel is worth the risk to you.

Solo traveler sitting on a bed in a hostel

Table of Contents-Is Solo Travel Safe?

This is a long article. Use the links below to help navigate the page.

Violent Crime: Staying Safe While Solo Traveling

I’ll start off by talking a bit about many traveler’s biggest fear, violent crime. While planning a solo trip to a region that we haven’t visited before, our minds naturally start to wonder. We read shocking news articles of kidnappings, terror attacks, mass shootings, and gang violence and start to rethink our plans. While all of these crimes do happen, the likelihood of being involved is incredibly slim.

As a solo traveler, you are at a slightly higher risk of being involved in a violent crime than if you were traveling with friends or in an overland group tour. A single person walking around is easier for a criminal to target than a group of people traveling together. Below I’ll describe a few violent crimes that you could encounter as a solo traveler and how to avoid them.

mugger

Mugging and Robbery

This is the one type of violent crime that is a real risk to solo travelers. Muggings happen all over the world. Even in developed countries, the risk exists. In fact, I would go as far to say, if you travel enough, sooner or later you’ll get held up and robbed.

In much of the world, people just assume that every tourist is rich. Because of this, muggers often target tourists. They know tourists carry cash and expensive electronics. They also know that tourists don’t know their way around the city. There may also be a language barrier which makes pulling off the crime easier. All of these factors make tourists an easy and profitable target. Solo tourists are at a particularly high risk because they can’t as easily defend themselves, being alone.

For whatever reason, mugging is most common in Latin America. East and Southeast Asia have the lowest rates of robberies. To see where your solo travel destination ranks, check out this interesting chart from Theglobaleconomy.com

How to Reduce the Risk of Mugging or Robbery While Solo Traveling

Luckily, reducing the risk of falling victim to a mugger is pretty straightforward. In my travels, I have never been robbed, knock on wood. I have, however, met a number of solo travelers who have been targeted. Following these tips to help lower your chances of being mugged or robbed while solo traveling:

  • Don’t wear flashy jewelry- Even if it’s not valuable. The criminal doesn’t know that. You don’t want to give them a reason to rob you.
  • Dress down- If you look poor or dirty, you attract less attention. Never wear nice clothes when you’re just wondering around the city.
  • If you’re not familiar with an area, don’t walk around- Take a taxi, Uber, or public transport to your destination. This only applies to high-risk areas. For example, there is very little risk wondering around Oslo. You may want to have a better idea of where you’re going while exploring Tijuana.
  • Avoid walking around at night- Most muggings occur under the cover of darkness. Of course, this is location dependent. Many cities are well policed and are perfectly safe at all hours of the day and night. Some places you shouldn’t leave the hotel after dark. Do a bit of research before you arrive so you know what you’re getting into.
  • Stay in busy, well-lit areas or tourist areas- Muggings are less common when there are other people around. These are usually crimes of opportunity.
  • Leave your important documents locked up at the hotel or hostel- Most of the time, there is no need to carry around your passport and credit cards. Carry copies and leave the originals in your room. Even when you’re legally required to carry your passport, you can usually get away with just a copy.
  • Don’t carry anything valuable that you don’t need to be carrying- If you’re just walking down the street to grab lunch, there is no need to bring your expensive laptop or camera.
  • Don’t carry large sums of cash- Divide it up. Leave some in your luggage or locked up in the hotel safe or locker. You want to limit your loss in the event that someone mugs you.
  • Don’t walk around while drunk or intoxicated- This just makes you an easier target. I learned this the hard way after I was pickpocketed in Tijuana.
  • Be selective of which ATM you use to withdraw money- Occasionally robbers hang around and wait for a target to appear. I like to use ATMs in grocery stores or at banks that have armed security nearby.

Tip: Use a money belt to hide your cash, passport, and valuables

If you do get mugged, this reduces your loss. Most muggers won’t expect you to be wearing one and won’t look for it. I use the Eagle Creek Silk Undercover money belt. I’ve had mine for 8 years and it’s still holding up well. Check out my full review here.

For added security, consider pairing your money belt with a decoy wallet stocked with a few dollars and some expired credit cards. That way, you have something to hand over if you are robbed. The criminals assume this is all you have and leave you with your money belt.

Assault While Solo Traveling

Assaults don’t usually happen out of the blue. Generally, some kind of conflict sets it off. The risk of being assaulted is highest when you are drinking or when around people who have been drinking. If you encounter someone who is looking for a fight, you’re a much easier target if you’re alone. Most people won’t risk attacking or picking a fight with a group.

As horrible as it is, mob mentality exists in many parts of the world. Even subconsciously, people have an ‘us versus them’ mentality. As a solo traveler, you are the them. The outsider. Locals tend to take the side of their countrymen in a conflict, even if they don’t know the whole story. Particularly when they have been drinking. If a fight starts and you’re the only outsider, all bets are off.

Not everyone is like this, of course. There are good people everywhere who will help you out if you’re in need. In fact, the vast majority of people are good and don’t want to see a visitor in their country experience violence.

man fighting

How to Avoid Assault While Solo Traveling

  • Don’t get too drunk when you’re alone- Your friends aren’t around to babysit and make sure you get home safe like they are back home. If you’re out drinking alone, take it easy and stay alert. You need to have the presence of mind to avoid conflict and talk your way out of a situation if need be.
  • Know yourself- If you have a hot temper, approach certain situations with care. Walk away if you begin to feel frustrated or angry. I’m generally a peaceful person but I’ve lost my temper on a few occasions when a seller was trying to overcharge me. For example, while checking out of a hotel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the receptionist tried to increase the price of the room at the last minute. I could feel my anger and frustration growing so I just set down the original amount of money owed and walked away.
  • Avoid talking to people who are too drunk- People are unpredictable when they’ve been drinking. You can inadvertently say something they find offensive and suddenly find yourself involved in a conflict. Sober people are much more agreeable.
  • Avoid talking about controvertible topics- Religion and politics are particularly dangerous subjects to talk about with people you don’t know well. It’s easy for an argument or fight to start. Once, while riding in a minibus in Ethiopia, the man next to me started asking me about my religion. When I told him that I don’t have one, he suddenly became less friendly. I never felt in danger in this particular situation, but the whole exchange would have been much more pleasant if I had just told him I was a believer. I could have made a friend.
  • If you see people getting too rowdy at a bar, get out of there– Sometimes local bars get a bit rough. You don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get involved in a violent situation. Just call it a night or move on to another bar if the place doesn’t feel safe.

Overall, the risk of assault is slim. People don’t attack for no reason. There needs to be some type of conflict or provocation. If you’re a peaceful, agreeable person, the likelihood of experiencing an assault is very low. Random acts of violence exist but they are incredibly rare and there is really nothing you can do to prevent them.

Kidnapping While Solo Traveling

Kidnapping rates vary greatly by region. If you’re solo backpacking through Western Europe, kidnapping is basically a non-issue. If you’re traveling through one of these 7 countries outlined in this article from Thrillest, you may want to take some additional precaution.

Unfortunately, kidnappers target tourists in some regions. Criminals know that tourists generally have money and don’t have any connections in the country. This increases their chance of success.

As a solo traveler, the risk increases slightly. Abducting someone when they’re alone is much easier than picking someone out of a group. Even then, the chance of being kidnapped is very low. In general, the crime is much less common than it was in the past. Traditional kidnappings with high ransoms have been on the decline for years. Unfortunately, a new variation has popped up.

Express Kidnapping

In the past, kidnappers only targeted the wealthy and demanded a large ransom. Oftentimes in the millions of dollars. With high profile cases, the police were involved and the crime became a national news story. While profitable, this type of kidnapping carries a lot of risks. To increase the chance of success and profitability, criminals developed a faster, lower profile variation.

In express kidnapping, the criminals abduct average middle-class people or tourists and demand a smaller ransom from their family. This has two benefits. First, the chance of payment increases. This is because it’s easier for a family to come up with a few thousand dollars than over a million. Second, the cases are much lower profile. In fact, according to this article from Quartz.com, it is estimated that up to 99% of kidnappings aren’t even reported in Mexico. Admittedly, most of these kidnappings are drug related and are not tourists. The statistic is still shocking nonetheless, and tourists are occasionally targeted.

In a similar version of express kidnapping, the criminals collect money from the victim themselves. First, they abduct a person. Next, they demand an ATM card and pin from the victim. The kidnappers hold the victim hostage for a number of days while they drain their account through an ATM. This usually takes 48-72 hours.

While these crimes sound terrifying, they are pretty uncommon. It is good to know that they exist so you can take a few precautions to help stay safe while solo traveling.

Some things you can do to lower your risk of kidnapping include:

  • Don’t travel to countries with a high risk of kidnapping- Do a bit of research before your trip to see if the risk is acceptable to you. Every traveler has a different risk tolerance. Some places are just too risky.
  • Avoid walking or driving in areas where you are alone at night- Most abductions happen in the dark.
  • Keep an eye on your drink- Make sure that you nobody drugs you. Kidnappers can slip something into your drink and easily lead you away while you’re not thinking properly.
  • Be cautious when going to the ATM- Find a machine with armed security or in a crowded area. I like to use the ATM in the supermarket or at a bank.
  • Avoid traveling through rural areas at night- Kidnappers sometimes set up fake roadblocks where they can abduct unsuspecting overland travelers.
  • If you must travel through a high-risk region, hire armed security- In parts of Somalia and Northern Nigeria kidnapping is common. Particularly for foreigners. You need to have armed security with you at all times while traveling through these types of destinations. While not too expensive, this is something that you must prearrange.

Rape

Rape is another violent crime that is a real risk to solo travelers. This crime happens all over the world but is more common in some regions than others. In fact, some of the most developed countries have the highest rates of rape. For whatever reason, Scandinavia, in particular, has a real problem with this crime. For example, this article from the Harvard Political Review tries to explain the disproportionately high rape statistics of the region. 

The vast majority of rapes victimize women. If you are a female solo traveler, you must take additional precaution. Men are also at risk of falling victim to a rapist though the likelihood is substantially lower.

Tips to stay safe from rape while solo traveling

  • Avoid drinking too much- You don’t want to get blackout drunk alone in a foreign country. If you go out alone, don’t have more than 2-3 drinks. Stay alert. This alone greatly reduces the risk.
  • Watch your drink- It’s easy for someone to slip in some drugs and take advantage after they’ve taken effect.
  • Go out in a group- Just because you’re traveling solo doesn’t mean you have to spend all of your time alone. Make some friends at the hostel and go out together. Having a group of people that you know around reduces risk, even if you’re not close friends. There is safety in numbers.
  • Don’t walk around alone at night- It’s just an unnecessary risk. Take a taxi, Uber, or public transport between your hotel and the bar.

Transportation Safety While Solo Traveling

One drawback to solo traveling is the fact that it makes travel days a bit more stressful. Because you’re by yourself, you have to keep track of your luggage at all times. You also have to keep track of your transportation schedule. There is a lot of going on. This creates an opportunity for criminals to take advantage. While solo traveling, stay alert when moving from place to place. Below, I outline a few examples.

African bus

The bus I took from Moyale to Nairobi

Theft While in Transit

While solo traveling, you don’t have a friend to watch the attendant load your bags while you save a good seat on the bus. You don’t have a friend to keep an eye on your bag while you go buy a coffee. It’s up to you to keep track of your things at all times.

Unfortunately, thieves know this and occasionally operate on buses and trains. It is pretty rare, but I have met a number of solo travelers who have had items stolen while they slept. This is most common in South America.

Another possibility is that someone steals from your bag while it’s under the bus out of your view. Bus company employees and other passengers sometimes have access to your bag while loading and unloading.

How to Reduce the Risk of Theft While in Transit

  • Keep all of your valuables on you- I put my laptop, camera, phone, passport, money, and any other valuable items in my day pack which I carry on my lap while in transit. I never let this bag leave my site. If you pack ultralight, you can carry your entire backpack on with you. 
  • Attach your bag to your body- On a few occasions, I have tied a strap from my backpack to my ankle or wrist. This is only possible when you are carrying your bag between your legs on a bus or when sleeping in a bed on a train. If someone tries to grab your bag, the tugging should wake you up.
  • Use your bag as a pillow- Same idea as above. Nobody can take it without waking you up.
  • Don’t carry anything too valuable- Consider leaving your expensive jewelry and electronics at home. Buy a cheap smartphone to travel with. Carry a cheap point and shoot camera instead of an expensive DSLR. If someone does manage to steal something, you’re only out a few hundred dollars rather than a few thousand.
  • Ask a stranger to keep an eye on your stuff- I like to look for another traveler or a family. These types of people are usually trustworthy.
  • Keep an eye on your stuff as best you can- Never leave your bag unattended.

There is always an opportunity for someone to steal from you somewhere along the way. Sometimes it just comes down to luck. Overall, the likelihood of having something stolen while in transit is slim. I’ve never had it happen in all of my solo travels. I try to keep my valuables close and not worry too much about my clothes and toiletries. It doesn’t help to be paranoid about it.

woman walking alone

Walking Alone as a Solo Traveler

Walking is my favorite form of transport while traveling. If I can walk to my destination safely, I will. Walking is free, healthy, and a great way to explore parts of a city you otherwise wouldn’t get to see. I have been known to walk over 20 miles in a day just wandering around. With that being said, I try to be careful that I don’t wander into a dangerous neighborhood where I could be mugged, pickpocketed, or attacked.

Tips To Stay Safe While Walking Alone

  • Stay in view of other people- Try to avoid areas without other people around. You want to be able to call for help if necessary. Rather than taking a shortcut through a dark alley, take the main streets.
  • Walk with purpose- Act as though you know where exactly where you are going. Try not to look confused or lost. You don’t want to be the classic lost tourist holding a massive map standing in the middle of the sidewalk with a clueless look on your face.
  • Don’t walk in areas you aren’t familiar with at night- During the day, it’s pretty safe to walk just about anywhere. At night, you want to know where you are going.
  • Walk fast- People are less likely to stop you and hassle you if you walk by quickly. Any beggars or scammers trying to talk to you quickly give up when you speed right by. If someone does follow you trying to sell you something or run a scam, they’ll quickly give up and search for an easier target that they can keep up with.
  • Be careful with traffic- Traffic rules vary by country. Some places, cars have the right of way. Some places seemingly have no traffic rules. Also, remember what side of the street cars drive on wherever you’re traveling. Stay alert and look both ways when crossing the street.

Hitchhiking Safety as a Solo Traveler

Hitchhiking safety and legality varies greatly by country. In some parts of the world, it’s perfectly safe and getting a ride is easy. It’s seen as a common mode of transportation In some places, you could wait for days before someone stops to pick you up. People simply fear hitchhikers in some regions.

While hitchhiking as a solo traveler is easier, it’s also more dangerous. People are much more likely to pick up a single traveler rather than a couple or group. An individual just looks less threatening. On the flip side, a driver with bad intent can more easily overpower one person than two.

Having said this, hitchhiking is fairly safe. Most everyone has been told not to hitchhike while growing up. We’ve all heard horror stories and seen violent movies about a ride going badly. This seems to be mostly propaganda. If you hitchhike enough, you may encounter a weirdo once in a while, but the fear is greatly overblown.

Hitchhiker

To stay safe while hitchhiking you should:

  • Pass on a ride if you don’t like the looks of the driver- Just say no thanks and wait for another ride. Sometimes you can sense if someone is up to no good. If you’re a good judge of character, that will come in handy while hitchhiking.
  • Take a photo of the car and license plate before getting in- Text it or email it to a friend so they have something to show to the police if something bad does happen.
  • If you’re in the car and feel uncomfortable, ask to be let off at the next gas station or rest stop- You can just make up an excuse. For example, you could tell the driver that you need to use the restroom. Or that you want to buy some food. You can seek help once you get out of the car. 
  • Carry pepper spray or some type of weapon- Check the legality of this first. Of course, avoid using it at all cost.

Remember, most of the negative stories that you hear are probably made up. I’ve never met a solo traveler who had any trouble while hitchhiking. The worst that usually happens is you end up in an awkward conversation for a couple of hours.

I really like the idea of hitchhiking. It’s a free way to get around and gives you the chance to meet some locals along the way. With that being said, I don’t do it too often. I, personally, only hitchhike when it’s the only way to get to where I’m going. For example, I hitchhiked through the Kalahari from Botswana to Namibia on a semi when there was no bus available which operated the route. That ride turned out to be a great, memorable experience.

For more excellent hitchhiking tips, check out this excellent article by Matt Karsten on Nomaidmatt.com.

Dangerous Vehicles

Sometimes, the most dangerous part of your trip is the ride from one destination to another. Motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of death all over the world. Buses, minibusses, and motorcycle taxis are particularly dangerous. Common causes of accidents include:

  • Driving too fast- For whatever reason, bus drivers are speed demons. No matter where in the world you are, they like to drive fast. This increases the likelihood of an accident.
  • The vehicle is not properly maintained- I’ve ridden in beat up old vans that had to be push started to get going. Who knows when someone last serviced the brakes.
  • Careless driving- Some drivers only concern is making it to their destination as fast as possible. I’ve seen bus drivers pass on blind corners and plow through massive potholes without a care in the world.
  • Other drivers- Even if your driver is doing everything right, accidents still happen. Drunk driving is an epidemic in some regions.

A Safety Note About Motorcycle Taxis, Tuk Tuks, and Rickshaws

Oftentimes, motorcycle taxis, tuk-tuks, and rickshaws are the cheapest and fastest intercity transport option available for solo travelers. They are small enough to filter through traffic and can take you anywhere in the city. As a solo traveler, you don’t need a whole taxi to yourself, after all. The only problem is that small vehicles are significantly more dangerous than riding in a car or bus. You just aren’t surrounded by enough iron to protect you in the event of an accident. For example, in the United States, motorcyclists have a fatal crash risk 35 times higher than passenger cars.

I still ride in these vehicles while I travel. I also ride motorcycles at home. It’s just a matter of accepting that they are dangerous. Once, while riding a motorcycle taxi through Nairobi on the way to meet a date, I watched as my knee passed within a centimeter of an oncoming car. All I am saying is, know that you are taking a risk when riding in these vehicles.

Rickshaw

How to Reduce the Risk of Injury While in Transit

  • Choose the safest seat- In a bus this is an aisle seat in the middle of the bus sitting on the opposite side of the oncoming traffic.
  • Ask your driver to slow down if he’s driving too fast- It doesn’t matter if it’s a taxi, bus, or rickshaw. He probably won’t but it doesn’t hurt to ask if you feel unsafe.
  • Travel with the biggest, most reputable company- You may be able to save a few bucks by riding in a second class bus but the danger is also higher. Larger companies may have higher safety standards that their employees must follow. This varies by country. In some places, regulations are strict and safety is the same for all buses.
  • Choose the newest vehicle- Newer vehicles include modern safety features. Chances are, the owner maintains the vehicle better as well. It doesn’t cost you any extra to hire the cab driver with the newest car.
  • If you’re feeling really unsafe, you can just get out of the vehicle at the next stop- I’ve done this on a couple of occasions while traveling in Africa. It’s a hassle and I had to pay for an alternative mode of transport but changing vehicles is better than putting my life at risk.
My Scariest Taxi Ride: Across Zanzibar in the Back of a Truck

The scariest ride I experienced happened in an open-air truck taxi on Zanzibar. I was on my way to Nungwi beach across the island with a couple of friends. The passengers sat in the back of a truck with a metal structure above for hauling luggage and transporting goods across the island. The driver packed the back of the truck full of passengers and loaded up the roof and we set off. Every seat was occupied.

As the ride continued, more passengers kept climbing in the back and more goods piled on top. They turned no customer away. The back of the truck was crammed so full of people we were literally piled all over each other. The roof was stacked high with massive sacks of rice and whole banana trees.

My claustrophobia began kicking in. My friend, who worked with metals, began to feel concerned about the structural integrity of the metal beams holding up the roof. After all, hundreds of pounds of rice sat just above our heads.

At the next stop, my friends and I looked at each other and agreed to get the hell out of that truck. We crawled over a dozen people and clawed our way out of the vehicle. I felt myself beginning to panic and just had to get out. I didn’t know where I was but I would have preferred to walk the next 30 miles than spend more time packed in the back of a truck. It was that bad.

I have ridden in many uncomfortable minibusses in Africa but this was next level and just felt dangerous. We ended up hitchhiking the rest of the way to the beach. This ride was just one of the reasons why I’ll never return to Tanzania.

I, personally, can’t wait for self-driving vehicles to hit the road. I believe they will greatly increase safety and reduce transit time. Until then, try to try to travel with reputable bus companies with high safety standards.

Self Driving Safety as a Solo Traveler

Many solo travelers choose to rent or buy vehicles to travel around a region. For example, I bought and rode a motorcycle through Vietnam. This turned out to be one of my most memorable solo travel experiences. While self-driving is a great way to see a country, it also carries a bit of extra risk for solo travelers. For example:

  • Police are more likely to bother you as a solo traveler- It’s easier for them to intimidate an individual than a group. In some regions, police stop tourists and solicit bribes.
  • You must drive and navigate by yourself- As a solo traveler, you don’t have anyone to look at the map or GPS while you drive. It’s easy to get distracted or lost.
  • Road conditions are unfamiliar- For example, if you are used to driving on the right side of the road but the country you are visiting drives on the left. You simply can’t be as safe of a driver when you’re just learning the rules of the road.
Motorcycle

My Honda Win 100 that I rode through Vietnam

I don’t really like driving too much so I rarely rent a car. In fact, the only place that I have rented a car was while visiting Sossusvlei in Namibia independently. By self-driving, I saved a significant chunk of money. I much preferred just taking a bus if it cost less.

Sickness and Disease: How to Stay Healthy While Solo Traveling

While solo traveling, you aren’t at a greater risk of getting sick. You are, however, at a greater risk if you do get sick. This is because you simply don’t have anyone else to rely on for help. If you need to see a doctor, you must take yourself to the clinic. If you’re stuck in your hotel room with the flue, you need to go out and get your own food. Nobody is there to care for you. While traveling with a friend, you have someone that you can rely on to take you to the hospital or bring you food if you’re unable to make the journey yourself.

As a solo traveler, you need to pay extra attention to your health. Minor sicknesses and diseases are unavoidable. If you travel enough, you’ll experience some health issues sooner or later. Of course, in the event of a catastrophe, emergency services are available in most countries. I’ll outline a few common sickness and diseases to be cautious of while solo traveling below.

For more info, check out my complete guide: How to Stay Healthy While Traveling: Tips for Diet, Exercise, Sleep, and Avoiding Sickness. 

Mosquito

Mosquito

Malaria

This is one of the scarier diseases for a solo traveler to catch. Malaria is most commonly transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito. It is particularly common in sub-Saharan Africa. A bad strain of malaria comes on fast and can incapacitate you within a matter of a day or two if left untreated. Imagine being stranded in your hotel room delirious with a severe fever. The best thing you can do about malaria is to prevent getting it in the first place.

To Reduce the Risk of Malaria you should:

  • Take malaria prophylaxis- Malaria pills are very effective. They lower the likelihood of contracting the disease significantly.
  • Wear mosquito repellent- I like Repel 100 Insect Repellent. It lasts up to 10 hours per application and one bottle lasts for several months.
  • Cover up during peak mosquito time of day- Even if it’s hot, wear long sleeves and long pants. Especially during the evening when mosquitoes are at their worst.
  • Sleep under a mosquito net- I like The Friendly Swede Mosquito Net. It’s easy to set up because it only requires one mount. It also packs down pretty small.

For more info on malaria, check out my Traveler’s Guide to Malaria Prevention, Treatment, and Tablets. Here, I go into detail about each type of malaria pill and explain how to go about getting treated if you do catch the disease.

Travelers Diarrhea or Food Poisoning

This is another health issue that you’ll experience sooner or later if you travel long enough. It’s unavoidable. Food hygiene standards around the world are probably lower than back home. While traveling, you expose your body to unfamiliar bacteria.

As a solo traveler, you need to take care of yourself if you eat something bad and end up with a case of travelers diarrhea. You’re on your own if you get sick, after all. Most food poisoning clears up on it own as long as you take it easy for a few days. If you catch a bad bug, it can last for weeks, cause dehydration, and overall make you feel weak and unhealthy. As a solo traveler, it is particularly important to be careful about what you eat.

Tips to avoid catching travelers diarrhea or food poisoning

  • Only eat foods that are hot and cooked all the way through- Undercooked meats are particularly dangerous.
  • Avoid foods that have been left sitting out- Exposed foods may not have been kept at the proper temperature, allowing bacteria to grow. They are also exposed to bugs and other contaminants from the air.
  • Wash your fruits and veggies- Make sure all dirt, pesticides, and other contaminants are washed away. E. coli is also a concern.
  • Prepare your own food- This is the only way to know for sure that it is safe to eat.

If you do happen to get food poisoning while solo traveling, don’t just try to wait it out and pray that it goes away. While most travelers diarrhea goes away on its own, there are a number of simple ways to reduce the duration and intensity of your sickness including:

  • Drink lots of water- Diarrhea dehydrates your body quickly which can lead to more severe problems. Buy some bottled water that you know is safe to drink and stay hydrated.
  • Go to the pharmacy and get some medication- Imodium and Pepto Bismol will help ease the symptoms. Also, consider purchasing some rehydration salts if you have a severe case.
  • Watch your diet- I like to stick to the BRAT diet when my stomach is upset. Brat stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. These foods are available almost everywhere. They are bland and easy on the stomach.
  • If you haven’t seen any improvement after a few days, consider taking some antibiotics- Depending on where you are solo traveling, you may require a prescription. In most countries, you can visit a doctor in a small clinic at a reasonable price. I hate taking antibiotics, but sometimes they are necessary to get back to health.

Tip: Carry a water filter with you when you travel so you always have access to clean water to drink. I like the Sawyer Mini. Check out my full review here.

Minor Cuts, Scrapes, Burns and Infections While Solo Traveling

If you sustain a minor injury while solo traveling, it’s important that you stop what you’re doing and treat it. Even a minor cut can get infected and turn into a serious infection if left untreated. I always carry a small first aid kit to treat minor wounds.

I like the First Aid Only 299 Piece All-Purpose First Aid Kit. It includes a lot of supplies for a reasonable price and comes packed in a nice soft case.

 

How to Treat a Minor Injury

  1. Wash your hands- You want to prevent bacteria from making its way into the wound.
  2. Wash out the wound- Make sure you use clean water. If it is a burn, run cool water over it.
  3. Apply antibiotic ointment- I always bring a little tube of Neosporin Antibiotic Ointment with me when I travel. This helps kill any bacteria that got into the wound and help prevent an infection from forming. 
  4. Put a bandage on the wound- This helps the wound stay clean and prevents any bacteria from entering. Usually, when I get a cut at home, I don’t bother with a bandage. When I’m solo traveling, I always use one.

In my experience, cuts tend to get infected much more easily while out solo traveling. I don’t know why that is. I believe it has something to do with a lowered immune system. Travel is exhausting and hard on the body. Lack of sleep and poor diet also contribute.

While traveling in South America, I cut a few of my fingers somehow. The cuts were so minor, I didn’t think anything of them. Instead of taking the time to treat the wounds, I just continued on with my day. Of course, I ended up with a bad infection in my fingers. I began cleaning the wounds every day and applying bandages but they just weren’t healing. I ended up going to a pharmacy to get some antibiotics to help kill the infection. These eventually took effect but the damage had already been done. Three of my fingernails fell off.

If I just took the time to properly treat the small cuts from the beginning, they would have healed up in just a matter of days. Instead, I decided to ignore them and had to deal with pain and infection for over two months.

Avoiding Petty Theft and Pickpocketing While Solo Traveling

Most crime that you may encounter while out solo traveling will be non-violent. These are usually crimes of opportunity. If a criminal sees something of value that they can easily take from you, they will.

The risk is higher as a solo traveler. Because you’re alone, nobody is around to help you keep an eye on your belongings. Thieves are also more likely to target solo travelers because, if they get caught and end up in an altercation, it’s easier to fight off a single person than a group. A few common types of these petty crimes that you could encounter include:

Snatch and Run Theft

The criminal grabs one of your belongings and runs away with it. They could grab it when you’re not looking or right out of your hand if you’re distracted. The most common items to lose this way are backpacks and cameras. You set them down for one reason or another and next thing you know, they’re gone. This crime is most common in South America, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Pickpocketing

money sticking out of pocket

Don’t carry your cash like this

This classic crime happens everywhere in the world. The most common place to encounter a pickpocket is anywhere tourists congregate. For example, walking streets, museums, plazas, monuments, etc. Busy public transit is also a good place to get pickpocketed.

A good pickpocket can reach into your pocket and take your wallet or phone without you feeling a thing. Some can even slip your watch right off your wrist. Many times these guys work in teams. One distracts you while the other separates you from your belongings.

For more info, check out my extensive guide: How to Avoid Pickpockets While Traveling.

In my travels, I’ve been pickpocketed twice. Both times, the thief got my phone out of my pocket. Miraculously, I got it back both times and still use the same phone as I’m writing this. To read the stories, check out my articles:

Slash Theft

The criminal uses a knife to cut open your bag while you’re wearing it. The contents fall out and they take whatever was inside your bag. You’re stuck holding a ruined bag.

I have heard about this crime forever but never met anyone who has seen it or experienced it. I almost feel like it’s a bit of a myth. Having said that, many companies sell slash-proof bags with a metal mesh between the fabric. If you’ve seen or experienced this crime, comment below. I’m interested to hear about the experience.

How to Avoid Petty Theft and Pickpocketing When Solo Traveling

  • Carry your important documents, cards, and cash in a money belt- These are fabric wallets that you strap around your waste. The idea is that they can’t be pickpocketed and thieves can’t see them. I recommend the Eagle Creek Silk Undercover money belt. I have carried mine to almost 60 countries over the past 8 years and it’s still in great condition.
  • Keep an eye on your belongings at all times- Never leave your belongings unattended. Don’t give criminals an opportunity to snatch and run.
  • Stay alert- Try not to get too distracted by the sites and sounds of your surroundings. When distracted, thieves can prey upon you more easily.
  • Wear your backpack on the front when walking through crowded areas- I know it looks dumb but it reduces the chances of pickpocketing or slash theft.
  • Only carry enough cash for the day- limit your loss if somebody robs you.
  • Consider using an anti-theft backpack or purse- These models strap to your body in some way and include a metal mesh lining. This makes the thief’s job more difficult.
  • Keep your phone and wallet in a pocket that zips or buttons closed- This makes it harder for pickpockets to swipe them without you noticing.
  • Don’t carry anything that’s unnecessary- For example, there’s no need to bring your expensive camera when you’re just walking to the convenience store to buy a soda. Why risk it?
  • Don’t wander around while drunk- It makes you a target for all sorts of crimes.

Scams Targeting Solo Travelers

Unfortunately, scammers are more likely to approach you as a solo traveler. The risk is overall lower for them. Running a scam involves some sort of trick or con. It’s much easier to trick a single person into believing something than a group of travelers. A solo traveler is also less likely to start an argument or altercation after they realize the scam.

Below, I’ll outline a few of the more common scams you may encounter as a solo traveler. To read about some more elaborate scams, check out my guide: 19 Common Travel Scams, How They Work, and How to Avoid Them.

Overcharging

This is a simple scam but probably the most common all around the world. Sellers almost always try to overcharge tourists. They assume that we don’t know the going price so they try to pull one over on us. Oftentimes they are successful.

You can be overcharged for almost anything including bus tickets, restaurant meals, taxi rides, street food, clothes, etc. Even something as simple as a cup of juice. Maybe the going rate is $1 and the seller tries to charge $2 just because you’re a tourist.

How to Avoid Overcharging

The best things you can do are ask what others are paying, shop around, and negotiate hard. If I see that I am being overcharged, and I have an alternative option, I walk away and take my business elsewhere. Sometimes, as a solo traveler, you just have to pay a higher rate, unfortunately. Tourist pricing exists everywhere.

Once, while waiting for a minibus to fill up in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia, I was quoted a rate for the ride of about 3x what the locals pay. I argued and complained but they wouldn’t budge. Only one minibus made this route per day and I’m guessing the same guys operated it every day. The only other option was to take a motorcycle taxi which would have cost even more. In the end, I paid it and moved on with my day. They probably only scammed me out of $2 or less but it was the principle of the situation. They blatantly ripped me off because I was a foreigner.

Fast Talkers and Hustlers

These guys approach pretending to be your best friend. They ask about your trip, offer to show you around the city, or help you find whatever you’re looking for. After you open up a bit and become friends, they run a number of scams. Unfortunately, solo travelers are easy targets for these scammers. Traveling alone gets lonely and sometimes you just want to talk to someone. These guys know that. A few scams they run are:

  • Bar or restaurant scam- The scammer takes you to a restaurant where they receive a commission from bringing in business. Sometimes they run a more sinister variation of the scam. They take you to a bar that charges you a predatory rate for drinks. For example, maybe you order a few beers and receive a bill for $700.
  • Sob story- After being friendly for a bit, they start telling a sad story about their sick kid or mother. They claim that they need money for medicine or some kind of medical treatment. It’s all BS. They are just trying to appeal to your emotions and fish for cash.
  • Some of these guys have deals with the police- They could sell you drugs then turn you into the police for a reward. They could also be working with a friend who steals something from you. Your ‘friend’ then gets the police to help you find the stolen item (which the friend already turned in). For their help, you are expected to pay a bribe which is split amongst the police and criminals.

How to Avoid Fast Talkers and Hustlers

These guys are fairly easy to identify. They speak excellent English in non-English speaking countries. This is the biggest giveaway. Women can also operate these scams or a variation. If a woman who is out of your league approaches you, she is either a prostitute or scammer. I’ve encountered this scam mostly in Latin America and Africa but it happens all over the world. When someone approaches you on the street:

  • Don’t follow them to a bar or restaurant of their choosing- If you feel like chatting for a while, it’s fine. Just make sure you choose the place.
  • Don’t walk outside of the tourist zone- These guys operate in places with a lot of tourists. Just stay within the general vicinity of where you met. You don’t want to get lost or lured into a bad neighborhood where you could be robbed or worse.
  • Don’t give them money- It just gives them a reason to keep scamming other tourists. If their scam business becomes unprofitable, they’ll do something else. Hopefully something legitimate.
  • Don’t tell anyone you meet on the street where you’re staying- They may wait outside your hotel and bother you every time you want to go out. I made this mistake once in India. I let the guy walk with me to my hotel without even thinking about what I was doing. He was pretty harmless, just very annoying. I changed hotels the following day to get away from him.

I actually enjoy chatting with these scammers occasionally. They can give you some good information about the city and often have some crazy stories. After they start the scam, it’s time to get away from them.

My Experience With an Ethiopian Hustler.

In Addis Ababa, I met a particularly interesting scammer. He approached me speaking perfect English with a slight Irish accent. I was curious about his story and had nothing better to do so I went and had a coffee with him (a cup of coffee in Ethiopia only costs a few cents so it wasn’t a major investment). He told some wild stories about working as a driver in Somalia and running a minibus business in Addis Ababa with his brother.

Pretty soon he started with the scam. He gave some sob story then invited me to go to a museum. At this point, I called him out and told him that I knew what he was doing. Surprisingly, he was fine with it.

We ended up having some street food and a few beers later in the evening. Once he got a little tipsy, he began telling me about some of the scams he had pulled. Nothing too elaborate. He made $20 here and there from scamming foreign tourists. He seemed pretty proud of this though.

In the end, I guess you could say that the guy scammed me out of about $5 in food and drinks. In return, I received an afternoon of entertainment. Hearing about this guy’s life and the scams he pulls was actually pretty fascinating.

Hanging out with guys like this isn’t the safest thing you could do as a solo traveler but he sure made my day more interesting.

Taxi Scam

Taxi cab

Taxis, tuk-tuks, and rickshaws are a great place to meet scammers. These guys run a number of cons including:

  • ‘Broken’ meter- The driver tells you that the meter isn’t working but he’ll give you a better rate anyway. This is a lie. They are just looking for an excuse to overcharge.
  • The meter runs faster than it’s supposed to- This one is rare, but cab drivers have been known to tamper with the meter or use a different meter or tourists.
    The driver changes the price after the ride- This one is particularly irritating. You agree on a price then, once you reach your destination, the price suddenly increases.
  • The bar, restaurant, hotel, or attraction that you are going to is closed- The driver offers to take you to an alternative destination where they receive a commission from the owner.

How to Avoid Taxi Scams

  • Demand that the driver use the meter- If they won’t, just find another cab. I’ve gone through 5 or more taxis until I find one that wants my fare.
  • Negotiate the rate before getting in the taxi- In some cities, taxis legitimately don’t have meters. In this case, you must negotiate before accepting a ride.
  • Insist that the driver take you to your initial destination- Don’t let them take you to a different hotel, restaurant, etc.
  • Take another form of transportation- If Uber or public transportation is available, use it. The likelihood of getting scammed is much lower.

Overall, I hate taking taxis. They are expensive, unfriendly, and often scammy. I avoid them at all cost. I’d rather walk a few miles than get into a taxi.

Additional Solo Travel Safety Tips

Have a Plan for Where You Are Going to Sleep

The most dangerous time of day for solo travelers is the night. This is when criminals are most active. Make sure you have a safe place to sleep at the end of each day. It doesn’t matter if you’re camping, Couchsurfing, or staying in a hotel or hostel. You don’t want to end up having to spend a night sleeping on the street. Your risk goes up exponentially in that case.

You don’t even need to make a reservation but you should at least know the address or location of a few possible places that you could stay. If you have a confirmed booking, you have nothing to worry about.

Tip: I recommend you always travel with a tent so you have a shelter in case you find yourself in a situation where you have nowhere to sleep and need to camp. It comes in handy more often than you’d expect and gives you more accommodation options. 

Tent camping under a starry sky

Don’t Start a Fight

If someone mugs, robs, or pickpockets you, it’s best to just let it go. Starting a fight in a foreign country is incredibly dangerous. Even if the fight starts as one on one, other locals can quickly join in. You could easily get seriously injured or killed.

In many parts of the world, the police can’t really do anything to help unless they catch the crime in action. Most of the time, the bad guy gets away, unfortunately.

Don’t Get Too Drunk While You’re Alone

Alcohol bottles on a bar

Sometimes it’s nice to walk down to the local watering hole and have a few drinks. As a solo traveler, oftentimes your only choice is to go alone or not go at all if you haven’t made any friends at the hostel. I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t mind going out alone once in a while but I am sure to be extra cautious when I do. When you are noticeably drunk, people can take advantage. To be safe:

  • Don’t have more than 2-3 drinks when you’re alone- Your friends aren’t there to babysit you if you get too drunk.
  • Keep a close eye on your drink- Make sure nobody slips anything in. Both men and women need to be cautious of this for a variety of reasons.
  • Don’t walk back to the hotel or hostel while drunk- Take a taxi or public transport.
  • Don’t get too friendly with anyone you meet in the bar- The bar is an excellent place to meet local people. Just use your best judgment. Most people you meet are genuinely friendly and just want to chat.
  • Stick to more crowded or mainstream bars when you are alone- You don’t want to be the only foreigner in a rough local bar. 99% of the time it will be fine but you don’t want to go where you’re not welcome.

The thought of going out alone seems kind of depressing at first but it can be good fun if you have the right mindset. I’ve met some real characters at local bars. As long as you take the above-listed precautions, you’ll stay perfectly safe.

Don’t Be Overly Paranoid About Safety

I’ve met fellow travelers who are so preoccupied with safety concerns that they end up missing out. While you do need to take security into consideration while solo traveling, don’t let it dictate where you go or how you travel. If you feel like going for a walk downtown, go. If you feel like going out for a beer, go. As long as you take the simple safety precautions outlined in this guide, chances are, you’ll be fine.

If you do get scammed, mugged, or pickpocketed, it’s certainly a bummer, but it’s also part of the adventure. After it’s all over it will either make for an interesting story or teach you a lesson that will help you out next time you find yourself in a similar situation. Solo travel isn’t always fun and relaxing. It’s pure adventure.

Have Travel Insurance

Even though solo travel is pretty safe, it’s a good idea to have travel insurance to cover you just in case you encounter any problems during your trip. Travel insurance can cover you in the event of theft, injury, or medical emergency. It also gives peace of mind. for Travel insurance, I like World Nomads. I have bought their insurance for most of my international trips and am happy with their service. For more info, check out my travel insurance page. 

Final Thoughts: Is Solo Travel Safe?

Yes, solo travel is safe. Don’t miss out on what the world has to offer out of fear. While it is true that some parts of the world are dangerous, the vast majority is full of friendly people, fascinating culture, and delicious food. Don’t be afraid to go out there and see it even if it means going alone.

While all of the scams, crimes, and dangers you just read about exist, the likelihood of actually encountering them is fairly slim. If you know the risks and take a few simple steps to avoid them, you can have a safe, healthy solo adventure almost anywhere in the world.

If you’re still on the fence about committing to a solo trip, check out my solo travel vs group travel pros and cons list to help you decide. You can also read about my first solo trip here.

Have you found yourself in a dangerous situation while solo traveling? Is solo travel safe? Share your experience in the comments below to help other solo travelers stay safe!

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