There’s a lot of advice out there for women who travel solo–but not nearly as much for male travelers.
“Yeah, but isn’t travel way more dangerous for women?”
It certainly is. Women are not only at high risk of sexual assault, but are also expected to conform to additional social norms and customs that don’t apply to men (e.g. having to cover up in Muslim countries).
Nevertheless, I see guys getting themselves into all sorts of trouble and shenanigans. After years of traveling solo myself, I figured it’s time to give some advice.
Guys: I’m not telling you what to do. Or ordering you how to behave. These are just tips that I feel are at least worthy of your consideration.
#1. Don’t be a hero
If they have you at knifepoint against the wall, don’t do anything stupid. Just give them the wallet and phone. Your life is more valuable than that, and you’ll recover. If you’re dealing with people who have nothing to lose, it’s best to act calm, make slow movements, and comply.
Of course, it’s better not to get into these situations in the first place (more on that in tip #2 below). But you should always be prepared for the worst.
Another thing: do not try to interfere in other people’s disputes. If you see a guy yelling at his girlfriend, leave it be. If there’s a disagreement at the bazaar, don’t insert yourself into it. While it’s tempting to be the hero and defuse arguments and confrontations, it’s also not your job to be the vigilante. More often than not, all parties involved will team up on you instead. Unless it’s a matter of life and death, stay out of it.
If you do get mugged, don’t delay. When the coast is clear, get out of there. If you’re not injured, head back to your hostel/hotel/etc and call your banks(s) to freeze your credit and debit cards. Ask locals for advice regarding your chances of recovering anything. If there is rule of law in the country, file a police report–even if it doesn’t help you, it may help future travelers. I personally never travel without a backup phone (stays in the room), physical photocopies of my passport photo page, and emergency cash reserves (they stay in the room, and I keep very little cash in the wallet when I go out).
#2. Take risks, but don’t be reckless
Want to ride a scooter in Thailand? No problem, scooters are awesome. Just wear a helmet.
Want to go trail running through the jungle of Bali? Sure, it’s a lot of fun. Probably best to go with a friend, though.
Want to take gritty street photos in Medellín? Go for it, but tell someone where you’re going (and maybe don’t go at night). Probably best not to show off an expensive DSLR, either.
I’m stating the obvious here, but it’s just a reminder. We guys are notorious for doing crazy things and pushing ourselves physically. But there’s a fine line between recklessness and calculated risk. Know the limits of your abilities, and don’t be pressured into doing anything just because “everyone else” is.
One of the best examples from my journeys was biking down North Yungas Road (the “Death Road”) in Bolivia. If you follow directions, maintain speed, and signal before overtaking, you’ll be just fine. But try to do anything creative (e.g. racing someone, or using one hand to film yourself with a selfie stick), and there’s a very strong chance you’ll go over the edge–as many others have. You’re not invincible–be careful.
#3. Try not to fight anyone
No matter how many hours you’ve trained in martial arts, it’s almost never a good idea to get into fights. At best, you’ve asserted dominance over something minor. At worst, you’re dead.
Guys will try to start fights over the dumbest things. Maybe you looked at their sister for a second too long. Maybe you said something to insult their politicians (more on this later). Maybe you’re just a foreigner, and they want to prove that they’re “tough” in front of friends. Some even start fights out of sheer boredom.
Here are some good reasons to avoid fighting during your trip:
- Once you start fighting, you’ve drawn the line. You’ve established that you’re willing to get hurt, and the other guy has no choice but to oblige. If you run, he can point and laugh. But once you throw the first punch, you’ve left him with no choice. He may be willing to do something extra stupid just to defend his reputation.
- Don’t expect a fight to be clean. There are no rules in a street fight, and the other guy may have brass knuckles, a knife, or something else. You could be knocked unconscious (or worse) in a split second.
- Never underestimate your adversary. You may be a big guy, well-trained, and in peak physical condition. But the other guy could be tougher. How much are you willing to risk to find out?
- A fight that starts off one-on-one doesn’t have to stay that way. In many cases, you will be ganged up on. This isn’t a Van Damme movie–they’re not going to line up to take turns fighting you.
- If the police get involved (and there’s a good chance they will), who do you think they’ll believe? The locals, or you? Don’t expect your local embassy to come to your rescue.
Finally, isn’t the purpose of your trip ultimately to enjoy life? Why risk ruining it all over something silly?
If you think there’s a chance a fight could start, don’t engage. De-escalate, and walk away. Run if you need to–you’ll live to fight another day.
Caveat: if you’ve got no other way out, then it’s a different situation entirely. When left with no choice, defend yourself. Do not hesitate. If you need a reminder of effective self defense, check out this video on street fighting by Bas Rutten. Don’t get fancy with bicycle kicks–the goal should be to end the confrontation as fast as possible (every second counts). Be an animal, so that everyone else there will think twice before engaging.
#4. Know the local drug laws
I get it–everyone’s situation is different. Maybe you never touch any illicit substances–in which case this point may not apply. But there’s a fair to good chance that you will be offered to partake in drug use during your travels, so it helps to be in the know regarding what can happen.
Drug laws greatly vary by jurisdiction. For example, Many Westerners consider marijuana to be a relatively harmless substance, and are surprised when they find out about the penalties for merely possessing–much less importing–cannabis in a place like Singapore (spoiler: the punishments are severe). In fact, just about all drugs are taken much more seriously in Asia than they are in the West. Wherever you’re going, read up on the law before you get there.
My advice is to be on the right side of the law. If it’s illegal, don’t do it. It’s not worth ruining your entire trip (or risking your life) for a high, no matter how much your mind may be “opened” as a result. It’s one thing to risk doing it in your home country (where you understand all the possibilities)–it’s a whole other matter to roll the dice abroad, where you will have to navigate an entirely different legal system (and that’s if there is a legal system in the first place).
Pro tip: there’s a very good chance that the person selling you drugs is an undercover cop (happens all the time to Full Moon partygoers in Thailand). If you’re busted, they will ask you to pay a fine (a.k.a. a bribe). When faced with the choice of paying a steep fine or taking your chances with the legal system, my advice would be to pay the fine. At the party, it’s just you and the cop; at the police station, a whole lot more people are going to want a piece. When you’ve been convicted of a crime, there’s little that your embassy will be able to do for you.
#5. You don’t have to finish that drink
Alcohol is an important part of many cultures.
The British like to wind down over a pint at the pub. Ireland practically runs on Guinness and Jameson. Vodka gets plenty of Eastern Europeans through the week, and Chinese business deals are often decided over a bottle of rice wine. While the type of alcohol (and quantity imbibed) varies, the concept remains the same–it’s a substance that loosens everyone’s inhibitions, encourages bravado and bonding, and provides plausible deniability for the day after (“oh, I don’t remember a thing!”)
As a male traveler, you may find yourself in situations where drinking is expected. If you’re invited to a party or local wedding, you may feel strong pressure to keep up with the other guys. Just know this: you’re under no obligation to match anyone shot for shot. Decide what your limits are going to be, and stick to them. Decent people everywhere will respect your decision, even if it’s unusual in their culture.
A common example: I often get asked about drinking in Russia. Lots of guys think that they’ll have to down half a bottle of vodka during every night out in Moscow… while the reality is very different. Ironically, it’s the people in countries like Russia that will be most understanding when you declare that you “don’t drink anymore” or “need to watch your intake.” Rather than seeing you as some kind of weakling, they will assume you’ve already had a history of alcohol–and don’t wish to go back to those times.
It’s not a binary decision, either. You could simply make the choice to drink slowly, and pace your intake over the course of the night. Some common tactics are:
- Sip slowly
- For every shot you take, drink a glass of water afterwards
- Dilute the liquor (e.g. with soda water)
- Don’t mix drinks in one night (“beer before liquor, never been sicker!”)
- Try to stick to one drink per hour
You don’t have to drink to prove your manliness. Instead, show that you’re a man by sticking to your guns. You may have to weather some lighthearted insults, but you’ll earn their respect.
#6. You’re an ambassador now – so act like one!
Our world isn’t one big happy Kumbaya–it’s still very much divided along racial, cultural, and national lines. Don’t expect anywhere to be nearly as diverse, multicultural, and tolerant as your home country. When it comes to jokes and stereotypes in everyday speech, don’t expect nearly the same level of political correctness or restraint.
Whether you like it or not, you’re automatically an “ambassador” of your home country when you’re abroad. You don’t have much control here–the reputation of your home country precedes you, and everything you do will be evaluated against those expectations. You have only choice: to let this fact affect your behavior or not.
On one hand, no one is going to be surprised if you live up to some “traveler” stereotype. Think you’ll be the first Australian to get drunk in Bali? Or the first American to raise his voice at a Parisian waiter? Or the only Chinese guy to leave your trash lying around? Not a chance–there have been thousands before you. (Obligatory disclaimer: I’m not saying everyone from these countries does these things. Just pointing out stereotypes as they exist.)
On the other hand, your visit to this country is an opportunity to change stereotypes–or at least get people to question their preconceived notions about an entire group of people. If you act like an ambassador would–with respect towards others, dignity, and patience–you will be part of the solution. Nothing will change overnight, but the world might just become a little bit more tolerant and open to others.
The choice is yours. I personally enjoy messing with people’s stereotypes, as it completely shatters their programming and world-view. The calm, polite traveler? They’ll never see it coming.
Pro tip: it helps to have an alibi for random people you meet on the trip. Some might not accept “solo traveler” as a sufficient reason for your visit. Many will assume one of two possibilities–business man or sex tourist (and anyone younger than 40 gets quickly bucketed into the latter). It might help to say that you’re a photographer, or visiting local friends. Just a suggestion for those 10-minute interactions (e.g. with a curious cab driver) that would go a lot smoother if they associate you with something positive.
#7. If you want to blend in, don’t wear shorts
Europeans always say that they can “spot an American” instantly–the iconic cargo shorts and white socks are a dead giveaway. Likewise, you’re immediately a gringo (until proven otherwise) in Latin America if you’re in shorts. In many cultures, men rarely wear shorts other than when playing sports.
This “rule” (if you can even call it that) is not universal. There are plenty of ways to look dapper and stylish in shorts. It’s just not typical of men to do so, unless you’re in a particularly fashion-forward place (e.g. Italy).
Stick to dark jeans, or tailored slacks, and you have a greater chance of blending in with the others. Benefits of looking like a local include: not getting ripped off on every quoted price, not being an obvious target for muggings, and so on.
There are lots of other items that could give you the tourist “look”: cargo pants, bright colored backpacks with dangling straps, fanny packs, any kind of hiking accessories, camera backpacks (with large DSLRs in them), t-shirts with the Red Bull logo, worn out sneakers, and so on.
In the end, however, what you wear may not even matter that much–if your physical appearance (skin color, height, etc) is obviously different from that of the locals, they’re gonna know anyway. And they’ll know as soon as you say anything.
#8. BYOC (Bring Your Own Condoms)
Yes, you should bring condoms on your trip. Overly optimistic? Nah, it’s all about being prepared.
Guys waste a lot of time abroad trying to find their favorite brands, or even a size that fits them (e.g. it’s practically impossible to find large condoms in South East Asia). Just bring your own, and you’ll save yourself the headache.
Pro tip: if you’re having sex on your travels, get tested regularly. On a long trip, this means going for an STD test in a local hospital. You don’t have to get home to get a check up–there are proper, modern facilities just about everywhere these days. You could even consider getting a “full checkup” abroad (all the tests and scans), as it may be significantly cheaper than back home.
#9. Don’t bring up politics (or the Pope)
This is actually a common piece of advice that I feel is worth repeating.
Unless someone explicitly brings it up, it’s generally a good idea to avoid “sensitive” conversation topics such as religion, sex, and politics. You simply don’t know who you’re going to offend. Religion, for example, is a big part of many people’s lives–and they won’t take kindly to a foreigner dismissing it as unimportant (or criticizing certain aspects of it). You’re a visitor, not an advisor.
Get deep enough into a conversation, and you’ll often hear locals openly criticizing or trash-talking their own government. While you may feel it’s OK to join the fray, know that your opinion will forever be that of the “outsider”–and it’s very much not OK for outsiders to criticize (“if you don’t like it here, the door is that way”).
I keep it simple–I don’t bring it up until prompted. And if they do ask me, well, they better be prepared to hear my unvarnished opinion!
#10. Protect your passport
Your passport isn’t just a way to keep track of all the places you’ve been. It’s your way in and out of the country–and you must do everything you can to keep it safe and undamaged.
When traveling, I keep my passport in a protective case–and take it out only when absolutely necessary (e.g. at the border). It rarely leaves the hotel room. If I need ID to get into a bar or club, I take my driver’s license. I also try not to bend the passport too much–the last thing I need is for the bio data page strip to be unreadable.
In countries where everyone is required to carry their passport around, I suggest only carrying around a photocopy of the photo page. This way, local police cannot use it as leverage in any way (otherwise, they could just confiscate it based on made-up charges and require you to go on a long adventure to the station and possibly pay a “fine”).
Pro tip: all travelers should travel with a copy of their passport photo page. I bring multiple, as they come in handy at random times (like when applying for a tourist visa abroad). I also keep a scanned copy of this page in a Dropbox folder, ready to be printed out in case I lose my passport and have to apply for a replacement at the local embassy (the whole process usually goes much faster if you can supply them with a photocopy of the original).
#11. Start a journal
Journals (or diaries) aren’t just for teenage girls.
Many travelers and explorers through the ages kept a journal, and I recommend it for anyone on a long adventure. Even if you have a great memory, there will be funny or interesting moments that you’ll eventually forget. If you have a journal, you’ll be able to relive all the good times long after the trip.
A journal doesn’t have to be lengthy, or even comprehensive. Consistency is perhaps the most important thing–a few sentences every 1-2 days is all you need to capture the most important things.
If you don’t want to carry around a notebook and pen everywhere, there are plenty of electronic alternatives. Even an Instagram account could technically suffice–upload a photo a day, and add a few sentences. You’ll be surprised at how quickly the entries accumulate.
#12. Call your mother
She misses you, and wants to know where you are. You’re a long way from home, and she’s probably not on Instagram. Call her once in a while!
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Well, that’s it for now! I’ll try to keep this list updated if/when I think of more. As always, please feel free to leave a comment.
For more useful tips, check out our article on how solo travelers can save money.
PS. If any solo-travelin’ ladies are reading this: I’d love to hear from the other side, too! If anyone is interested in writing a guest post from a woman’s perspective, please don’t hesitate to reach out and we’ll make it happen.