Every year, thousands of women, young and old, travel to Europe on their own. You can, too, by using the same good judgment you use at home. Begin with caution and figure out as you travel what feels right to you. Create conditions that are likely to turn out in your favor, and you’ll have a safer, smoother, more enjoyable trip.
Theft and harassment are two big concerns for women. If you’ve traveled alone in America, you’re more than prepared for Europe. In America, theft and harassment are especially scary because of their connection with assault. In Europe, you’ll rarely, if ever, hear of violence. Theft is past tense (as in, “Where did my wallet go?”). As for experiencing harassment, you’re far more likely to think, “I’m going to ditch this guy ASAP” than, “This guy is going to hurt me.” Here are some tips for safe and pleasant travels:
Use street smarts. Be self-reliant and well prepared, so that you don’t need to depend on someone unless you want to — carry cash, a map, a guidebook, and a phrase book. Walk purposefully with your head up; look like you know where you’re going. If you get lost in an unfriendly neighborhood, be savvy about whom you ask for help; seek out another woman or a family, or go into a store or restaurant to ask for directions or to study your map.
When you use cash machines, withdraw cash during the day on a busy street, not at night when it’s dark with too few people around.
Be proactive about public transportation. Before you leave a city, consider visiting the train or bus station you’re going to leave from, so you’ll know where it is, how long it takes to reach it, if it feels safe, and what services it has. Reconfirm your departure time. If you’re leaving late at night and the bus or train station is sketchy, ask your B&B owner if you can hang out in their lounge or breakfast room — generally untouched in the evening — until you need to head for the station. Cafés, including busy Internet cafés with long hours, are also a safe and productive place to wait.
When taking the train, avoid sleeping in empty compartments. You’re safer sharing a compartment with a family. If available, rent a couchette for overnight trains. For a small surcharge, you’ll stay with like-minded roommates in a compartment you can lock, in a car monitored by an attendant. You’ll wake reasonably rested with your belongings intact.
It’s possible to ask for a female roommate on overnight trains. (You’ll have better luck if the train isn’t crowded.) Some countries, such as Spain, are better about accommodating these requests than others. On France’s night trains, a one-bed compartment closest to the conductor is set aside for women, but it’s the most expensive type of accommodation. In general, ask what your options are, make the request to bunk with other women, and hope for the best — but don’t count on it.
Unless you’re fluent in the language, accept the fact that you won’t always know what’s going on. Though it might seem worrisome, there’s a reason why the Greek bus driver drops you off in the middle of nowhere. It’s a transfer point, and another bus will come along in a few minutes. You’ll often discover that the locals are looking out for you.
Learn how to deal with European men. In small towns, men are often more likely to speak English than women. If you never talk to men, you could miss out on a chance to learn about the country. So, by all means, talk to men. Just choose the man and choose the setting.
In northern Europe, you won’t draw any more attention from men than you do in America. In southern Europe, particularly in Italy, you’ll get more attention than you’re used to, but it’s usually in the form of the “long look” — nothing you can’t handle. But be aware that in the Mediterranean world, when you smile and look a man in the eyes, it’s often considered an invitation. Wear dark sunglasses and you can stare all you want.
Dress modestly to minimize attention from men. Take your cue from what the local women wear. For young women, even wearing a shapeless sack and sensible shoes may not ward off unwelcome advances. Try to stay with a group when exploring, and avoid walking alone at night, particularly in unlit areas with few people around. Don’t be overly polite if you’re bothered by someone; it’s important to create boundaries to protect yourself. Use facial expressions, body language, and a loud firm voice to fend off any unwanted attention. If a man comes too close, say “no” firmly and loudly in the local language. That’s usually all it takes.
If you feel like you’re being followed or hassled, trust your instincts. Don’t worry about overreacting or seeming foolish. Start screaming and acting crazy if the situation warrants it. Or head to the nearest hotel and chat up the person behind the desk until your would-be admirer moves on. Ask the hotelier to call you a cab to take you to your own hotel, hostel, or B&B.
Wear a real or fake wedding ring, and carry a picture of a real or fake husband. There’s no need to tell men that you’re traveling alone, or whether you’re actually married or single. Lie unhesitatingly. You’re traveling with your husband. He’s waiting for you at the hotel. He’s a professional wrestler who retired from the sport for psychological reasons.
If you’re arranging to meet a guy, choose a public place. Tell him you’re staying at a hostel: You have a 10 p.m. curfew and 29 roommates. Better yet, bring a couple of your roommates along to meet him. After the introductions, let everyone know where you’re going and when you’ll return.
By using common sense, making good decisions, and above all else, having confidence in yourself and your ability to travel on your own, you’ll be rewarded with rich experiences — and great stories to tell your friends.