“If you see smoke, fire, or anything else alarming on the outside or inside of the plane, please bring it to our attention.”
Holy shit what am I doing?
This was the standard message Ukrainian International Airlines had for its passengers on flight 893 from Kiev, Ukraine to Minsk, Belarus. Needless to say this was a bit startling, especially considering the recent Boeing plane crashes. Deep breaths, deep breaths…I kept reminding myself that the probability of my plane crashing, statistically, isn’t actually that high (Over 1 in 5 million actually, per The Economist). Nonetheless, a plane crash still remains one of the numerous risks I face as a solo female traveler, and talking down my anxieties 100% of the time just to make myself feel better won’t prevent worst-case-scenarios from happening. Which brings me to my previous statement…
Holy shit what am I doing?
I left behind my (incredibly) cozy life in Southern California to explore what are considered fairly bold travel destinations by most Americans. I am trading my loving parents and supportive boyfriend for the possibility of forging new friendships with perfect strangers. Exchanging my cozy beach town and year-round sun for post-Soviet city life and below-freezing temperatures, you know, below 65 degrees Fahrenheit!
All this to say that my life was being deliberately turned upside down, so why was I so nervous when I’d been planning this move for years? I had to have seen at least a bit of this coming. And I guess I did. But what began as a crazy idea, a “why the hell not” start to my 20s, was slowly transforming into a “what if I die” narrative in my head.
What in the world? When did this happen, and why?
Diagnosed anxiety aside, it began once I started to share my plans with others. Their reactions generally began with the obvious “what are you doing to your poor parents?”, the “are you sure you should be going alone?”, and the “…but it’s Russia?!”. Of course I considered the ramifications of my travels and how they might affect my loved ones, but , ultimately, I knew this was something I wanted to pursue. The more I heard these questions, the more I began to question how much my opportunity for adventure was really going to be an enormous emotional burden on my loved ones. Suddenly I was plagued during the weeks leading up to my departure by fear and guilt rather than excitement and anticipation. I fully understood their concerns and I also knew that they came from a place of love.
While I appreciated the concern for my safety and the burden that my family would carry while I’m living across the world, I had to remind myself how hard I have worked to prepare for this very adventure. I studied Russian intensively for four years in college including two summers abroad in post-Soviet countries so that I could have the confidence and ability to live in a post-Soviet country after graduation. I studied extensively so that once I arrived, I would have the peace of mind knowing I wasn’t throwing myself into an environment I was completely unprepared for.
So after addressing that and digging a bit deeper into what is really causing me to worry, I realized that my fears are less “Big, bad Russia”-based and more “solo female traveler”- based. I don’t think anyone reading this right now would disagree that solo female travelers can be relatively vulnerable. Human trafficking, sexual assault, kidnapping, and murder are among the top concerns that come to my true-crime obsessed mind. And although these tragedies don’t exclusively affect women, it’s important to be well-versed in their red flags because these threats do pose, unfortunately, a heightened risk for females. And that in and of itself is a scary reality to consider. These tragedies really could happen. These tragedies do happen. However, it is also important to consider that they do not only happen if you travel abroad. These crimes occur in our hometowns in North America, Europe, and other continents alike.
I don’t mention this to scare you, but it is imperative to consider because there, unfortunately, is evil in this world, and being aware of these issues is pertinent at all times, not just when you’re traveling. But when abroad as a solo female traveler, we don’t perceive the same safety nets we do when we’re at home. This is what is so intimidating about solo female travel. But this is also something that we can prepare for in the event that a scary situation arises.
And that preparation is the difference between fear and empowerment. That preparation is why the answer to this article’s question, “Is solo female travel too dangerous?” is a big, hearty NO!
So what exactly does prepared, solo female travel look like? It means that you have a back-up plan for your back-up plan. You don’t need to necessarily plan your trip down to the minute, but knowing the information below for the entirety of your trip is essential. Check out my 5 safety essentials for prepared, solo female travel below!
This might sound incredibly obvious, but all nightly accommodations should be booked ahead of time for the entirety of your trip. You’d be surprised at how many people whose game plan when traveling is just to ‘wing it’ when finding a place to stay in a new city. If, for some reason, you are not able to make a reservation ahead of time, be sure to research multiple hotels/hostels in the area so that you have options in case one is full or out of your price range.
Not only is this necessary to ensure that you have a reserved spot somewhere in case a hotel/hostel fills up, but it is also helpful when going through border control. An itinerary that reflects the cities you are visiting and the number of days you are staying for is helpful for border control agents to confirm your intentions in their country (i.e. not violating visa regulations, overstaying the maximum number of days without a visa, etc.). And, it gives loved ones some peace of mind that you can be found and contacted if something arises at home.
*Pro Tip: Before your trip, make small reference cards with your accommodations’ names, addresses, phone numbers, and reservation numbers.
This section can be broken down into two parts: 1) intercity transportation and 2) intracity transportation.
Intercity transportation refers to methods of transportation between two cities. Depending on the remoteness of where you’re traveling #onthebloc, intercity transportation may be quite limited in regards to the mode and frequency. This is particularly true if you’re traveling to or from a smaller city where demand for a particular route is low. So if you are traveling to a city and only one marshrutka heads that way per day, you need to know exactly what time it leaves, from where it departs, and where/how to pay for it. Because if you miss it, then you need a backup plan so that you’re not stranded at a bus station.
Intracity transportation refers to methods of transportation within a city. This is less critical to know before your trip, but still important. After spending time in Minsk, Belarus I went straight to Naroch, Belarus – a significantly smaller city. When I stayed in Minsk I used Yandex (Similar to Uber or Lyft) when the bus or metro wasn’t convenient, and just assumed that Yandex would be available everywhere in Belarus. After arriving in Naroch, I realized that this was not the case, and I ended up at the bus station with no backup plan of how to get to my hostel! So let this be a lesson to never rely on Yandex, and always research intracity transportation thoroughly.
*Pro Tip: If you find yourself in a situation where you have no idea how to go from point A to point B, find a local, or better someone working the front desk of a business, and ask them to call you a taxi. They will call you a taxi, instruct the driver where to go for you, and give you descriptors of the taxi so that you can just get into the correct taxi and relax.
Always, always, ALWAYS have your passport (or a copy of your passport) with you at all times when traveling. This is so important to remember because it is a) the law, and b) a way for others to confirm your identity in any sticky situation or emergency. This is especially important if you’re visiting a country that has not-so-amazing diplomatic relations with the country your passport was issued from.
This point also extends to other types of paperwork as well such as your travel insurance card, health information card, and other “in case of emergency” (ICE) documents that could get you out of a sticky situation. You should always prepare ICE information before your trip that specificies phone numbers to call or addresses to visit should an emergency arise, including, for example, local embassies or consulates.
Do NOT keep all of your cash/cards/bank information in one bag because if that bag gets stolen, you WILL be SOL. Rather, distribute it among all of your baggage so that you always have the ability to pay for an emergency flight home. It is also a good idea to keep copies of debit/credit cards so that you can easily cancel them if stolen.
Additionally, do not assume cities and businesses accept credit/debit card. A good rule of thumb is to always exchange currency ahead of time so that when you encounter a situation where only cash is accepted, you’re prepared. Be sure to always have enough cash on you to a) call an emergency taxi to your nightly accommodation and b) top off your phone.
Which leads me to my final section.
Do NOT rely on finding wifi wherever you go. Especially if you’re traveling in a former Soviet country, wifi availability is simply not as widespread as it is in the west. Please, please, please just don’t do it. Things will go wrong when you travel – this is just something you need to accept now – and plan for. Whether your wallet gets stolen, your taxi drops you off in the wrong area, or you need to call your bank because your account got blocked, being able to connect to the internet or call for help is something you should never choose to do without.
“But Melissa, international phone plans can be sooooo expensive….”
Well do I have good news for you! Countries in the former Soviet Union know what’s UP and make it incredibly easy to purchase a local sim card and always have the ability to top up your account so that you never find yourself with a low balance. The best part is that it is a very cheap and easy process. I 110% recommend making getting a local sim card the very first thing you do in every country you travel to rather than constantly searching for wifi. Not to mention, 99% of places that do have wifi require you to put in a phone number you can verify (i.e. If you don’t have a phone number that works, you can’t connect to wifi anyways).
For more information on how to get a sim card and local phone number for traveling #onthebloc, see my article Why You MUST Purchase a Local SIM Card Wherever You Travel & How Exactly To Get One.
Note: Local phone companies require passport verification to sell sim cards, so don’t forget to bring your passport.
CHECKLIST OF MUST-HAVE ITEMS FOR SOLO FEMALE TRAVEL
Accommodation – Hotel/Hostel reservation, reservation number, address, phone number
Transportation – Knowledge of intercity and intracity transportation methods, departure times, addresses of necessary bus/train stations, and ability to pay cash if they don’t accept card
Identification – Passport/Copy of passport, migration card, medical history/information, proof of travel insurance, and other forms of ID
Financial Flexibility – Copies of all of your credit/debit cards in each of your bags, enough local currency for an emergency taxi to your nightly accommodation
Internet Availability – Local sim card
One week before I left to travel the former Soviet bloc alone, I was cuddling my boyfriend in a hammock on a hazy day in Toronto. I was wearing fuzzy socks drinking a London Fog (earl grey + vanilla + steamed milk… you can thank me later). My mind was flooded with anxious thoughts, 99% of which stemmed from the influx of “what are you doing to your poor mother?!” questions, and I began to consider changing my travel plans. I mean, why was I risking my life and my family’s emotional well-being to go and visit these countries? Could I really not attain fluency any other way? I was already considering getting my Phd in Russian Studies – that could certainly get the job done.
A week later, I wrote this article on the aforementioned Ukrainian Airlines flight as my plane began to descend to my first destination – Minsk, Belarus. I spent the first half of the flight silently crying because saying goodbye to my friends and family was so emotionally draining, and the second half planning my funeral arrangements via Google Docs “just in case.” It wasn’t until I got off the plane, exchanged currency, got my sim card, found the bus to the city center, and sat in my seat that I realized how well prepared I was.
With ease I was able to ask questions and find my way around in Russian, I knew to exchange currency because my bus and hostel only accepted cash, and I had the address and phone number of my hostel so that I could take a taxi to my hostel from where the bus dropped me off. This was when I was truly able to confront these worst-case-scenario fears, deconstruct them to see them for what they really were, and realize not only how well-prepared I was for this trip, but also how fortunate I was to have this experience. I don’t mean this paragraph to come off as a “hey look at me, aren’t I smart and prepared,” reading, but I wanted to share this because it was empowering.
All of these unanswered “What if?”s almost made me cancel my long-awaited adventure, but only after actually answering them was I able to change my mindset from a place of total fear to one where I was confident and excited to explore again. The worst-case scenarios that arise from the “What if?” questions can be paralyzing and frightening, but confronting them before your trip is so important. Answering these “What if” questions allows you to think through exactly how you can best prepare for the worst-case scenarios and gives you the confidence needed to travel solo knowing that you have resources to help yourself in a disaster situation. The empowerment that I felt after sitting down in that airport bus was 100% connected to my preparedness.
I recently moved my life to St. Petersburg, Russia and plan on staying here indefinitely as I teach English and travel to other post-Soviet countries. Living alone would be a big life adjustment on its own, but living alone 5,000+ miles away from friends and family brings a whole new set of challenges. This will not be a walk in the park by any means, but I know that it will be worth it. I know that my solo female travel is NOT too dangerous because I am prepared. I am prepared and I am empowered to seize this experience for all that it’s worth.
So… Let’s do this thing!
As of right now, I have not hit my goal of traveling to all 15 former Soviet republics - I'm a working girl, cut me some slack! In the meantime, however, I am doing a ton of research to plan these future trips. Interested in seeing what online resources I use to create an itinerary to ensure my travels are educational, thorough, and, most important of all, safe?
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