Going it Alone
Published: April 2009
By Xander Kaplan
Whether you're headed to India or Vietnam, traveling alone doesn't have to be a daunting experience. <em>Xander Kaplan</em> assesses six countries where a little extra legwork and careful planning makes all the difference
In an informal poll, we asked women travelers to tell us about their concerns when they're on the road on their own, and the places around the globe they find the most appealing—despite the risks. We then consulted Travel + Leisure A-List agents about how best to navigate these destinations.
Given its enormous size, there are a multitude of diverse experiences you can have in India—anything from ayurvedic spa treatments in Kerala to walks through bustling urban Mumbai. The sensory overload can be overwhelming at times, and it's impossible to underestimate the importance of planning ahead. Julia Gregor, a New York City filmmaker, went to India alone on business earlier this year. At first, she was put off by "the haggling with rickshaw drivers and cabdrivers who follow you in hordes." But after she got her bearings, Gregor was compelled to stay on for five months to explore.
T+L Tip "I'm Indian, but when I go to southern India, I, too, need a translator," says travel agent Pallavi Shah. "It's so easy to feel threatened when you can't understand the language." While people's friendliness borders on aggressive, it's rarely malevolent, Shah notes. "You might be strolling along and someone will invite you to a wedding party or a meal in their house. As long as it's a woman or a family asking, it's generally safe to say yes."
After befriending a group of North African students in France, Tricia Dowhan was inspired to travel to Morocco in 1998 to design a specific itinerary geared toward women for Country Walkers. The tour is called Morocco: Women's Adventure and is led by a female tour guide. In general, traveling has also gotten easier for women, thanks to progressive King Mohamed VI, who has been strongly pushing to prohibit hassling in the marketplace (to bolster tourism). This doesn't necessarily mean hassling won't happen at all.
T+L Tip "While wandering the souks alone isn't dangerous, men can be suggestive," says agent Karen Harris. Dress modestly in more conservative areas, such as Fez and Ouarzazate in the desert—wear clothing that covers the legs, arms, and collarbone. Casablanca and Marrakesh are more cosmopolitan, though it's always wise to err on the side of conservatism.
President Alan Garcia's reelection in June, after a 16-year gap, has ushered in a period of tentative optimism. New laws require official guides to accompany hikers along the Inca Trail from Cuzco to Machu Picchu—a bonus for solo women. It's least expensive to sign up in Cuzco's main square, but it's worth looking for a reliable guide to tour other parts of the country, too.
T+L Tip "Labor-related strikes can hit without warning in Peru, and they happen fairly frequently," says travel agent Melissa Harrison Hiatt. "I recommend going with a backup plan and taking out a trip-insurance policy through a company like Travel Guard, whose policies cover some strikes."
A history clouded by racism and unemployment puts many first-time visitors on guard. "I didn't think I would be comfortable walking around Cape Town," says Kelly Parisi, vice president of communications at the American Foundation for the Blind, who recently returned from a trip to South Africa with her twin sister. "I was infinitely surprised."
Women should feel secure staying in the large hotels, such as Cape Grace, near Cape Town's Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, or in Johannesburg's wealthy suburbs. South Africa's bountiful wine region and extraordinary coastal routes invite solo or small-group travelers. Safari lodges, many of which also have excellent spas, are ideal for women on their own.
T+L Tip "I always rent a cell phone," says travel agent Judy Udwin. You can pick one up at the airport in Jo'burg, or it's also possible to order a phone in advance through CellularAbroad.com, and it'll be shipped to you before you depart.
On a trip to Turkey last summer, artist Jil Nelson was surprised when her cabdriver took a detour: "When we protested, we found out he was giving us an informal tour. He had heard us commenting on how beautiful the Old City looked. When does that ever happen?"
Smooth traveling in Turkey requires little more than proper etiquette, awareness of local habits, and common sense. Women in Istanbul—especially in trendy nightclubs such as 360 and Reina—dress no different from women in New York. In mosques, people are required to remove their shoes, and women must cover their head with a scarf.
T+L Tip "Women traveling alone should avoid certain areas of Anatolia, such as Konya (the home of the whirling dervishes), where a woman might feel strange walking into a restaurant by herself," says travel agent Ellison Poe. "People are extremely orthodox. Even in Cappadocia, where people are accustomed to tourists, women travelers should take precautions: Dress modestly and stay in a small group."
With an eye toward foreign investment and virtually no threat of terrorism, Vietnam has improved its infrastructure, and the arrival of hotels like the Park Hyatt has raised its tourism standards. Exploring Vietnam's diverse landscape—from sweeping rice fields to idyllic beaches—is fairly uncomplicated. "I rode a bicycle to school in Hanoi. I never felt threatened," comments graduate student Naomi Greenwald, who spent four months there as a student in 2001. If you're at all nervous about eating alone, one fun option is to take a food tour, such as Vietnam Cookery Center, which offers a half-day cooking class that includes a market tour (www.expat-services.com).
T+L Tip "When renting a motorbike, beware of a scam in which the bike's owner supplies a lock he has a key to. Someone follows you to steal [back] the bike, forcing you to pay," says travel agent Diane Embree. One way to avoid this is to buy your own lock. She also recommends keeping your belongings out of range of the many street children and thieves on bikes, especially in the touristy D Dong Khoi and Pham Ngu Lao areas of Ho Chi Minh City.
Hire a guide and driver through your travel agent or hotel; costs vary from $200 per day in Mumbai to $80 in rural areas. When taking a rickshaw, be prepared to haggle. If the driver gets angry, your price is probably too low. A bowed head or whisper can mean you're being hustled.
Within cities, explore on foot or take a petit taxi (which you can pick up from queues outside hotels). Grands taxis and privately chauffeured cars are a good option for small groups. Negotiate all prices beforehand. Expect to pay around $250 for a full day in a chauffeured car booked through your hotel.
In Lima's burgeoning Barranco quarter and the suburb of Miraflores, hire cabs through the concierge; expect to pay $15 from downtown hotels. Arrange ecotours of the countryside with a company like Tropical Nature Travel's Manu Biotrip (www.tropicalnaturetravel.com).
Be sure to take officially licensed taxis. The country just launched Tourism Radio, a service that is installed in rental cars and uses GPS technology to track users for safety purposes, and also gives updates on attractions, traffic, and the weather.
Taking buses and taxis is generally safe and easy. Taxis are required to have meters, and there are preset fares between towns and the airport, which should be posted in the cab. For a particularly scenic way to cross the Bosporus from one continent to the other, take a water taxi for only $3 (one way).
In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, ride on the back of a moped or cyclo to experience the city like a local. Expect to pay around $5 for a cyclo trip across town. For longer distances, hire a driver and guide through the hotel for approximately $75 per day.