I love to travel. I’m the kind of person who’ll work five (sometimes six or seven) long days a week to ensure I have enough leave and money to travel a few times a year — both domestically and abroad.
Not everyone can do this. Which means that sometimes, I’m out there on my own.
There are a lot of things I love about solo travel: I’m not on anyone else’s schedule. I can do what I want, when I want. It helps me to get to know myself.
And there’s also a lot to keep in mind when planning a solo trip, especially as a woman of color. Here’s what you need to know.
Planning & Packing
I’m pretty Type A in all areas of my life. Sure, sometimes it’s great to go with the flow. But when I’m alone, I like to be extra prepared.
When I travel, I like to research the climate and culture as it relates to people like me. Is the country female-friendly? Do the locals treat people of color the same as others? Which areas are safe? Here are a few of my favorite digital resources.
Nomadness Travel Tribe “is an urban, travel, online social community of over 13,000 members. We’re the edgy, under represented demo in the international travel industry, and we’ve formed our own Tribe,” says their website. Nomadness is a great group that is super active on Facebook (it’s closed, so you’ll have to join) and offers many helpful tips and conversations for travelers of color. It’s an excellent place to get “the real deal” when asking questions about whether a country is brown- and black-friendly. And it has, on a personal note, opened my mind to going to countries I would never have found welcoming before. As a result, I’m currently planning a trip to Iceland!
Will Drink for Travel is a woman travel blogger of color who I follow. She gives great tips on travel, both domestic and abroad, from the perspective of a black female solo traveler.
Travel Noire is an informative site for the black traveler. Its photos on Instagram of travelers — both groups and solo — really inspire me to get out to countries I would not normally think to visit. Travel Noire also offers group travel experiences, if you’re looking for a solo adventure on which you won’t be entirely alone.
Oneika the Traveller is “an award-winning travel blog dedicated to inspiring, encouraging, and empowering both women and people of color to see the world.” Oneika will also be keynoting at Wanderful’s Women in Travel Summit in April of 2017!
The biggest takeaway I have from all my research (and personal experience) is this: Though I may stand out in less-diverse countries, I’m not necessarily being stared at because I’m not welcome, or because the locals don’t like me.
In western Germany, for instance, I was stared at a lot, but the people were very sweet to me. In Thailand, many people stared, and some tourists even snapped pictures (I tried not to take offense). The reality is that in certain rural areas of this world, residents have only seen black people on TV. So I was kind of like a celebrity (or an alien — though I prefer celebrity)!
The one thing I never take for granted while traveling as a woman of color — especially solo — is my beauty products. I have no expectation that I’ll have access to makeup in my shade or hair products made for my hair if I mistakenly leave them at home, so I always come prepared.
A special note on hair: The easiest travel hair to have, I’ve found, is braids. They’re practically no maintenance. You don’t need a curling iron, flat iron, or blow dryer. Some oil for your hair is pretty much it.
If braids aren’t your thing, going natural is another alternative that requires low maintenance. I rock natural curls though — while it’s easy — I am paranoid about my products being lost and me being out of luck and looking like Sideshow Bob for the duration of my trip.
I keep airplane travel-sized containers of my products, as well as larger amounts, in my checked luggage, just in case I run out. You don’t want to run out of your curling cream while in Thailand; you won’t find a replacement at the local drugstore there.
In a worst-case scenario, the following products can work in a pinch for natural gals: Conditioner mixed with water as a leave-in conditioning treatment, lotion as a hair moisturizing cream, and any oils (shea, olive, coconut, argan, Morrocan) — which are common in products in most places (even for body and face) as a moisturizer.
If you dare to go with straight hair, make sure you have hair oil and a silk or satin scarf to wrap your hair at night to keep it smooth. I went to Italy for a little over a week with straight hair and brought my flat iron. Sadly, I was never able to get that flat iron to work, but my blowout stayed silky the whole time with use of my products and nightly hair wrapping.
If you want to go out for dinner or drinks, or listen to music, check sites in advance to know where you should go and what kind of environment it is. Exploring is always fun, but if you’re going solo it’s important to be prepared and know what you’re getting yourself into. I remember a particularly scary venture down a dimly-lit alley in one country where I came across a spray-painted swastika next to a lounge I was searching for. Decided to take a pass on that one.
In addition to the websites listed above, there are many other sites you can check to find nightlife suited to your interests.
I use Yelp, in particular, to search by area and narrow it down for places with keywords like R&B, Jazz, Live Music. I also love TimeOut for finding fun things to do for my particular interests and music likes. These don’t exist in every country, and I also recommend always checking TripAdvisor — especially their forums. You can search the forum for keywords associated with your interests. Just make sure to check the dates of the discussions that pop up, to ensure that they are still relevant. If you can’t find your interest, you can always pose a question for the forum as well.
Most importantly, be open minded. You’re there to experience the people and the culture, so stepping out of your comfort zone is part of the fun. Not only will you end up having a good time, but you might open some minds of the locals around you as well.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned as a black traveler is that our vacation has a dual role.
We are going to learn and relax, but we are — whether we like it or not — also representing a culture of people. Sadly, with the spotlight on us, the things we do can impact the experience the traveler after us has in a way that other travelers will never know.
Safety in numbers is a cliche for a reason.
This may sound a bit counterintuitive, seeing as you are going on your own, but it’s true. And for those a bit timid at stepping out alone: Try going with a tour group!
Personally, I prefer groups with less structure, so that I can truly have the benefits that come with solo travel while still having a built-in network on the adventure with me. A few tours with some free days is best for me.
As a woman of color, this can be a comforting option when going to a country where I’m a minority. It helps to have a supportive base of travelers with me in case I encounter situations where I stand out or are treated unfairly.
I’ve traveled with a group to Spain, England, and Italy, and I found it easier to have a guide to speak to when trouble arose. During one of these trips, I was called hurtful names by locals. It was helpful for me to have a fellow traveler to talk it out with and lean on.
Sadly, as we travel this world, not everyone is going to be as open-minded as we’d like. But sometimes we can find support with strangers on the journey with us.
Share your itinerary.
Even when I’m going with friends or on a domestic trip, I always let my family know my flight information, tell them where I’m staying, and give them a heads up about any places I plan to visit (including nightlife).
My dad does not have a special set of skills (ala Liam Neeson), so if I do get Taken, welp, I need to at least give them some places to start checking. Plus, since I don’t blend in with the crowd in many countries, I want to make sure that I have everything in order.
On my first visit to England years ago, I was stopped before I even got to customs by personnel who asked me a litany of questions, including proof of where I was staying and what I would be doing on my trip. It did not escape me that I was the only one from my plane who was stopped.
I realize that many countries have random stops like this. But not every stop is really random, if you know what I mean.
Racial profiling or not, it’s always good to have someone back home who knows where you are and what your plans are.
Check in with your country’s embassy.
This is another thing you should do, regardless of color or travel status. And the best part is that you can do it online.
If you’re from the US, alert the Department of State via their website before you leave. You can input information about where you plan to stay and when. You can also give them your contact information, in case a dangerous situation arises and you need to be alerted and get to safety. State.gov will also list any warnings you should know about for any country you plan to visit.
Check the CDC.
Visit the CDC’s website to get health information about the country you are visiting. No point in making yourself vulnerable to local diseases! And, on the other end, no point in paying hundreds of dollars for vaccines you may not need.
My favorite thing about the CDC’s website is that it breaks down what vaccines all travelers should get vs ones that only some travelers should get based on where you’re planning to go or what you’re planning to do.
Get travel health insurance.
A vaccine can’t prevent you from other health incidents, like breaking a leg or contracting food poisoning. If you have to go to the hospital, having travel health insurance and a travel risk management service like Global Rescue can put your mind at ease, especially if you’re alone and aren’t in the mindset to figure out payments.
As always, do some research. Some countries offer free care to travelers. If you’re not going to a country that generous, check your own health insurance plan and see what you may need to supplement with travel health insurance.
When I travel abroad, my passport is like fine jewelry. I don’t want to be caught out there and not able to get out of the country because I don’t have my passport.
Keep it locked up when you are out, and make sure you have a hard copy of your passport information on you. I also make sure my family has a copy, just in case they had to help me out.
Have a phone.
The one thing you want when solo traveling is not stand out too much. Even if you can’t blend in, looking like an expat or someone working there is better than looking like someone who has the makings of being a mark.
When I’m wandering about, I have my phone and earpiece or earphones in, and have Google Maps give me directions through them. I don’t want to walk around looking at a map. I want to look like I’m comfortable and know where I’m going. I do this in my hometown as well. When I don’t have wifi and don’t want to use up my data on the streets, I take screenshots of directions or take photos of maps before I leave.
In some countries, I have found that traveling as a black woman can make me more noticeable than others. You might get some race-related catcalls, or even grabs, based on the some locals’ limited experience around people who look like you, and harmful stereotypes that oversexualize black women. If this happens, maintain street smarts as you would in any city and just don’t engage.
Not every country is culturally- and racially-aware, but my hope is that this will change as more people of color travel abroad to less popular destinations.
One of the best parts about traveling is meeting people. But talking to strangers can be a challenge, especially when you are on your own or the only black person for miles around. Sometimes, having built-in places to meet people can help.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with not preparing in advance to meet people on any trip. Just be street smart about who you talk to. I’ve had to sidestep a few strangers pulling up next to me in their cars and asking to “show me around” on my travels.
Yeah, no thanks…
If you do want to plan to meet folks in advance, here are some options.
Going with a tour group of course makes it easier to meet people, but I also love to try online groups set in the location you’re visiting.
Meetup is an international site where groups with differing interests hold events. So, if you’re visiting Amsterdam for a week and want to meet some locals who have shared interest, join a meetup group there. Meetup also has a ton of groups with a focus on the black diaspora or on women.
Facebook is a great tool to find out about events that might interest you while traveling. Plus, you never know if someone is going to a particular country the same time as you and would like to link up!
The Wanderful Members group is an excellent way to meet people (or ask for suggestions) in the city you’re visiting. And there’s always the Nomadness Facebook group. But there are so many other travel interest groups out there that you can find and communicate with via Facebook.
My sister is part of an African dance troupe, for instance, and when we planned to visit Dublin, she managed to find an African Drum Circle group to hang out with by searching Facebook using keywords and location.
When I visited Malaysia, I searched online for expat groups in that area and reached out. The organizer of one group in particular was very friendly, and told me about events they were having during the time I’d be there.
Contacting expats is the perfect way to find out about getting around in a country for a visitor’s perspective.
Traveling solo as a woman of color can be intimidating. But it’s also incredibly rewarding.
I’ve found most of my travel experiences in other countries to be wonderful, with great encounters with the locals, even in places where I was the only black person around.
Sure, we may have more on our shoulders, in terms of paving the way for other black travelers to be treated well in certain countries. And we may have to encounter some situations where we must teach others about our particular black American culture.
To me, the future reward of this world being a more diverse and open-minded place is well worth it.