Prove Them Wrong: How to Travel Somewhere They Say Is “Unsafe”
Sex attacks, muggings and harassment: World’s most dangerous holiday destinations for women (and some of the places may surprise you)
It’s headlines like this one from the Daily Mail that keep women at home and away from the explorations, adventures, and experiences so many of them want to have.
While the article does include words from travelers who encourage women to go despite the dangers, all in all it’s a pretty fear-inducing post. And paired with comments and warnings from family, friends, and armchair tourists, it can feel like you’re making a bad decision anytime you decide to go somewhere deemed “unsafe.”
Wanderful empowers women to travel and to meet the world with curiosity and responsibility. This means being aware of the realistic challenges they might face in some places. Still, that’s a small part of traveling responsibly and goes hand-in-hand with interacting with locals and environments with respect and a desire to learn, helping people who need it, and providing advice to other traveling women!
To counteract the messages of fear and close-mindedness that often accompany discussions about (specifically female) traveler safety, we gathered responses from women in our community who’ve been to two of the places on the Daily Mail’s list of “most dangerous holiday destinations:” India and Mexico. Their advice about trip preparation and the things they did to make themselves comfortable while in their destinations can translate to any adventure away from home.
We also got some great words of advice from Global Rescue, our partner and crisis management expert. If you’ve read their insight on traveling to Jordan, Honduras, and traveling in a time of terrorism, you know they come from a place of empowerment and responsibility, which is exactly what we sometimes don’t get from naysayers who let fear guide them.
What do you hear before you go?
The information disseminated about certain destinations by the media and people close to us can be enough to keep some of us within the comfort of our familiar four walls.
Wanderful member Laura went to India for the first time for business. As an “avid solo female traveler,” she took the opportunity to extend her trip for a week to explore. Here’s what she heard before she left:
“My parents had luckily been to India before, so they were not as scared as they could have been; however, they checked in with me more than usual on this trip.”
I got comments that I would have to dress conservatively, and be very careful, and not walk around too much. Honestly, this was good advice. I had heard about ‘Eve teasing‘ before, but wasn’t too worried because this happens frequently in Latin America too.”
Wanderful member Karlie Marrazzo reveals the comments people had when they heard she was planning a trip to Mexico:
“My husband and I are avid travelers, having visited over 30 countries together in the past six years. Many of the destinations we choose to visit garner quizzical looks and concerned questions from our friends and families.
“…We decided to go to Mexico City, the largest city in North America, one that claims to have the most museums of any in the world, a mecca of Mexican cuisine, and a city near some of the most important ruins around.
“Mexico is the second most popular vacation destination for Canadians, but we weren’t going to be sitting on the beach sipping sugary drinks…
“I was shocked by some of the reactions I got when I told people I would be visiting Mexico City.
“‘I hope you come back alive,’ remarked one of my best friends.
Mexico City? Why? Do you want to get killed? You’re going to get kidnapped!
“‘But, what is there to do there? Do they have a beach?’
“None of these remarks could have been further from the truth.”
Unfortunately, Janet experienced similar comments:
“Our trip was spontaneously planned because we found cheap, round-trip tickets from Boston directly to Mexico City. When I told friends and co-workers that we were jet setting south for Halloween, people reacted with worry and fear instead of intrigue and excitement. Common questions included:
“‘Is it safe there?’
Are you going to join a drug gang?
“‘What if you get kidnapped?’
“The negative & stereotypical comments encouraged us even more to prove the naysayers wrong.”
Wanderful writer Char moved from Mexico to Moses Lake, Washington when she was three as an undocumented immigrant. She traveled to Mexico for the first time when she was 14 and a U.S. citizen.
“People were initially scared for my safety because they had only heard about the drug cartels on the border, and I wasn’t going to Cancun (which is the type of place most of the people go to).
“The persistent xenophobia that’s portrayed on the news and in the media made me wonder if there was really as much violence as there seemed to be. I’d also heard that kidnappings are common there.
“I was also worried I’d get a terrible stomach virus or bug, but in all of the three times I went there, I never did. Even the street tacos were fine.”
How do you get ready to go?
When you’re traveling to a place that you or others perceive to be dangerous, the most important thing to do is make sure you are comfortable. This could mean staying in at night or traveling with a group instead of solo. Or it could mean doing everything as you normally would!
Take these travelers’ advice for trip prep as something to consider, but, ultimately, make your adventures what you want them to be!
To prepare for her trip to India, Laura did her due diligence:
“…I looked up the blog of a girl who was American and blonde, Hippie in Heels, who had also lived in the city I’d be going to. I also reached out to all solo females I knew had traveled there and got their advice as well. I also asked work colleagues who had been recently, and they helped me a lot.
“The main way[s] I planned to stay safe were to always have an airport transfer set up, I wrote down all my debit cards numbers and made lots of copies of my passport, made sure to print out my India ETourist Visa, and brought along medication I might miss there like allergy medication. I also researched how possible it would be to walk around (not much).”
Here’s how Karlie prepared for her stay in Mexico City:
I prepared for the trip as I would for any other big city – I was alert, aware of my surroundings, stayed away from dangerous neighbourhoods, and didn’t carry obscene amount of cash.
Janet did her research:
“Mexico City is massive and the world’s fifth-largest city in terms of population. Of course, with that many people, rates of crime and violence will be high. We were aware that petty crime and robberies were common in Mexico City.
In preparation for our trip, we armed ourselves with research by reading other travel blogs, articles, and receiving recommendations on the Wanderful Facebook Group and Twitter.
“We also made lists of sites we wanted to visit and restaurants we wanted to eat at in order to identify the best area to stay in to fulfill our needs.”
So you made it to your destination…
Awesome! Now put your preparation to work to fill your trip with amazing experiences.
Wondering how the women traveling to India and Mexico made themselves comfortable once they arrived?
“In all, I felt very safe in India, but I also heeded the advice not to walk around solo too much. So I tried to meet fellow travelers in my hotels and head out with them, taking a moped in the small towns, which was fun, or just taxis and rickshaws. I actually felt super comfortable in rickshaws because I got the feeling you could jump out easily…
“If you’re thinking about traveling to India, I would say make sure to go to some of the smaller towns, like Pune and Goa, which I really enjoyed, and be serious about not walking around at night or by yourself. Theft did not seem to be much of an issue; I actually felt like I could leave my bag in places, and it would be okay, but I didn’t.
“Safety issues are more like the stares that you can get or getting lost, since you won’t have GPS. On trains, of course, it’s a good idea to lock them up, but I would suggest not using trains and relying more on the short flights with Air India or Jet Airways, which I found were fine, although often delayed.
“When deciding whether to go somewhere ‘unsafe,’ have a plan to be extra social and make friends, and ask locals for advice and help (like good and bad neighborhoods and how much your taxi driver should charge you). You could even have them talk to the taxi driver or people at your hotels. I even asked some people to recommend the next hotel I should stay at, and they would help out.”
“I feel like there are definite safety issues. I would NEVER travel by public transport during certain points of the day (later evenings and nights). Getting stared at is an inevitable part of daily life. I think driving myself to places has greatly reduced my exposure to physical harassment. I remember the unnecessary ‘bumping’ was far more common when I used a lot of public transport. There is a very strong mentality (mostly in smaller towns but doesn’t mean it’s absent in bigger cities) to type cast women based on their clothing. A girl in a skirt (even conservative lengths) is considered ‘easier’ than say somebody in a traditional outfit. But the truth is simple — ALL women across all socio-economic standings face some sort of harassment every day.
“I absolutely avoid wandering around late nights while travelling solo. If you are heading to less touristy spots, just exercise a little caution. Look around. Keep your eyes and ears open. Walking about cluelessly with a guidebook in hand is a dead-giveaway.
“I always prefer my own transportation (renting a bike/car when I can). I find the Indian train system fairly safe and extremely well-connected. Always book the air-conditioned coaches on the train when you can (much safer than the non-ac compartments). I’d just follow any rules you’d follow while visiting a new country. Trust your instincts.
In all my travels through India, I’ve never been a situation I’d deem an emergency. I’ve definitely felt uncomfortable. But most people I’ve met during my travels have been kind, generous and wonderful.
How did Karlie feel about her stay in Mexico?
…I was treated to one of the most vibrant and culturally rich cities I have ever experienced…
We rented an apartment in the trendy Roma/Condessa neighbourhood and melted right into the city life.
“We walked until our feet were numb, day and night. We took the infamous metro. We ate to our heart’s content. I tend to be a nervous person in general, but there was truly never a moment that I felt unsafe in Mexico.
What was Janet’s visit to Mexico like?
“We decided to stay in the Juarez District at the Hotel del Principado. This area is located in the middle of Centro and Bosque de Chapultepec, so it’s a great spot for visiting Mexico City’s main sites and has a “safe” reputation.
“As for transportation, we used Uber, since it was very cheap and convenient for our five-day visit. The Uber drivers in Mexico City are very professional (They wear full suits!) and informative. We always received a mini history lesson as they drove us to our destinations.
“Every Mexican we spoke with at restaurants, in Ubers, at our hotel, or on the street were all very kind and helpful. We never felt as if we were in danger on our trip. We fell in love with the culture, history, food, and energy of Mexico and plan to one day live there in our future!”
Here’s how Char felt about her experience:
“In Mexico, buses in between cities are clean, have reclinable seats, include a small lunch, have bathrooms, and don’t make that many stops between cities at all, from my experience. They give you luggage tags to check your bags and keep tabs on them. In Nicaragua [Char is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua.], if your bag is oversized, they throw it on the roof and keep track of which bag belongs to whom from memory. This leads to lost/stolen items if you’re not vigilant. Of course, the Mexican buses I’ve taken are a bit more expensive (but still much cheaper than U.S. buses would be).”
What does the expert say?
Global Rescue, one of Wanderful’s partners, just happens to do a job that has a lot to do with “unsafe” places. They provide medical resources, security, and more to help travelers avoid crises. They also provide information, which is what they’ve given us!
Research is key.
“Before you travel, do your research. In many instances, a country, such as Mexico or India, can be generalized as unsafe as a whole, which is not true. There are plenty of resources out there that can help you gain insight.
Government and embassy websites offer up-to-date alerts and warnings, separating areas in a certain country that are safe and unsafe to travel according to their guidelines. It is also important to get a ‘ground truth,’ which can be found on ex-pat blogs, travel websites, and hotel reviews online.
Lastly, companies such as Global Rescue can help in researching certain areas and providing expert opinions on how to best mitigate the risk.”
When it comes to India and Mexico (and “unsafe” places in general)…
“Usually, in countries such as Mexico and India, there is a risk for all travelers when traveling off the beaten path. However, for females, the risk is higher because criminals or opportunists will see them as an easier target. Whether this is true or not true, cultural norms drive this way of thinking.
“Advice for women travelers includes:
Avoid traveling alone in these areas.
Dress conservatively in line with the local population.
When utilizing public transportation, such as trains or buses, a good rule of thumb is to spend the extra money for a higher class ticket. This will add separation and privacy to your journey, both during travel and at the station.
‘Paying up’ also pertains to lodging as well, and it’s best to avoid hostels and guesthouses where multiple people share the same room. Higher-end hotels tend to offer better security, both as a service and in the physical infrastructure such as security cameras and door locks.
“One of the largest misconceptions is about female travelers heading to Muslim countries and the challenges they may face. However, countries such as United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Qatar, Jordan and even parts of Lebanon offer a more moderate view toward Western females. Of course, attire should be kept conservative in nature, especially when traveling away from tourist areas, and every effort should be taken to respect the local culture and social norms. Females should avoid traveling alone in these countries, as unwanted attention from strangers is a possibility. If not married, wearing a ring on your left ring finger may help to ward off unwanted advances and simplify explanations if traveling with a male companion.”
When you don’t feel safe
…if a traveler feels that she is in a bad or dangerous situation, the best thing to do is quickly remove herself from the area. Avoiding these situations as much as possible and practicing safe habits will open up a great number of new and exciting travel destinations.
Empowered to go!
The number of women in the Wanderful Members Facebook group alone is proof that we females will travel where we want to. Your trips and what you make of them are up to you! With advice from other travelers and experts like Global Rescue, you can decide to boldly go wherever calls your name.
Laura’s advice for traveling to places others deem unsafe:
“If we were to avoid every country people deemed ‘unsafe,’ we would never travel. After all, to put that logic into perspective, many people think America is unsafe because of the gun violence here, but, of course, I live here.”
“Fear stops you from truly experiencing a place. [mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#36adaf”]Exercise caution, not fear. [/mks_pullquote]
“The real beauty of India lies in its in hamlets and villages. It’s an unbelievable experience. The architecture, culture and diversity is inexplicable. I’ve lived here all my life and still haven’t scratched its surface.”
Karlie’s advice about traveling to Mexico City:
…absolutely go for it! You will never eat so many delicious tacos in your life. And you won’t regret it.
Janet knows the importance of empowered traveling:
“This is the main reason we created our travel blog — to discover uncharted destinations and to advocate others to experience them as well.
My advice to women interested in traveling to Mexico or who are receiving similar comments about other destinations is to do your research before the trip, communicate your plans with concerned family members and friends, trust your gut, keep an open mind, and prove the doubters wrong.
Char’s advice applies anywhere:
“Any place or situation can be unsafe, especially if you have never experienced it for yourself. That shouldn’t be a reason not to travel to Mexico.
“I’d recommend tapping into your networks to meet people who live there who could show you around and who you’d feel safe with. You’d see that life goes on in Mexico just as it does in the states [sic]. People are walking to work, going to church, or meeting up with their friends for coffee, just like they would in your country.”
Global Rescue’s final tips:
In today’s climate, it is easy to cross many destinations off your list and categorize them as “unsafe.” However, it is important to first do your research and study the area you wish to travel to. With proper planning and precautions, travelers can enjoy many destinations they never thought possible.
Almost any place could be deemed “unsafe” for a woman. Just consider that two of the general warnings, “Stay away from large cities,” and, “Beware of remote places,” happen to be about opposite environments. The women here prove that the label “unsafe” is in the eye of the beholder. Take on your travels to an “unsafe” place with preparation, understanding, and care; after all, you can’t judge a book until you read it for yourself.
Have you traveled somewhere that somebody told you was “unsafe?” Did you prove them wrong? Share your experience in the comments!