Travel smart: A girl's first big trip

Even experienced women travellers get the jitters before embarking on their next solo trip, so how do you prepare if you've never travelled alone before?

Knowing that hundreds of women go it alone every year doesn't make the thought of buying your first ticket, strapping on a backpack and heading off into the world any less daunting.
But it doesn't have to be intimidating.

Although some would argue that it helps, you don't need balls to travel alone - just a little forward planning.

Do your homework

Before you head to the travel agent, the first thing to do is research, and lots of it. Ask yourself what kind of trip you're ready for. Are you prepared to jack in your job and head off around the world, or would a couple of weeks suit you better?

Are you after a cultural, sight-packed trip, or a relaxing, laid-back break on a beach? Do you want to experience completely independent travel with all its ups and downs, or would you prefer a hassle-free, organised trip?

Once you've answered these questions, there's the big one - where do you actually want to go? This is one aspect of solo travel that is slightly more important for women than men. Well-heeled women travellers will of course tell you that they'll go anywhere and indeed have been to most places without any problems.

But if this is your first trip away, will you really be prepared for being dropped into the midst of a completely alien culture and being the centre of attention as a lone female? You might want to start by being kind to yourself and head somewhere that you'll feel less conspicuous.

If you're thinking about setting off around the world, for example, why not begin in Western Europe, Canada, the US or Australia and get round to the culture-shock destinations when you've got a little on-the-road experience under your belt?

It may be that you already have a destination in mind, rather than reacting to the simple "I have to get out of here' reflex. If you're unsure that you'll be able to handle travelling in your region of choice, or if you simply don't know where to begin, one of the best things you could do is to log onto a forum for women travellers.

Two of the best are run by Lonely Planet and Rough Guide and both give you the chance to ask women where they have been and what it was like for them. Even just a quick browse through the countries already under discussion may provide you with some inspiration.

Once you've made your decision, the next thing to do is to prepare yourself. This can be as detailed, or as simple, as you like. Get a guidebook; ask as many people as you can about your destination, work out where you want to go and what you want to do when you get there.

Invest in some good maps (getting lost on your own is never fun), pack light, and make sure you tell at least one person where you're off to and when you plan to be back.

The rules of the road

Travelling as a lone woman is not exactly difficult - it's just that it throws up some of its own challenges, and you'll find that these vary from country to country.

Reading your guidebook or contacting other travellers is one way of answering region-specific questions, such as the availability of tampons in Malaysia, or whether you'll be safe alone in Pakistan.

But there are some rules that will apply to your travels no matter where, or for how long, you go.

Personal safety will be of the utmost importance when you're on your own. Many of the rules you would follow at home apply - talking to strange men, walking around in the dark, or accepting lifts from strangers are always going to be bad ideas.

Although use your common sense; the difference between a group of Russian sailors attempting to ply you with vodka and an elderly Chinese man wanting a chat should be obvious.

The difference is that at home you can rely on friends to help you out of sticky situations.

When you're alone and abroad, you'll need to be resourceful.

Getting yourself informed will pay off; talk to as many local women as you can, copy what they wear and how they act, and you'll instantly look and feel like less of a vulnerable tourist.

If you speak nothing else of the local language, learn the terms for "No', "Help' and "F*** off'. If you feel uneasy about a person or situation, make out that you are in fact not alone and are about to meet a friend.

Even wearing a wedding ring (bear in mind that these are worn on different hands in different countries) can help ward off any unwanted attention.

Ask the people you are staying with what areas of town you should avoid, and always, at the slightest hint of trouble, head towards the first group of women you can find.

If you're not quite ready yet…

If a huge trip sounds out of the question at first, a very good and sensible plan is to dip your toe in the water.

It is perfectly possible that you won't like travelling alone, and there would be nothing worse than saving up for a big trip, having a goodbye party and then returning two weeks' later with your tail between your legs, hoping that nobody will notice you only got as far as Paris.

Short trips away, a weekend to whichever city the budget airlines are offering the best deal to for example, are an excellent way of giving solo travel a go. Spending a couple of days in a new city - using a map, finding accommodation and eating alone - will give you a taste of how a day on the road during a longer trip will be.

It's far better to spend a hundred quid on a solo trip you don't enjoy than a thousand on what could turn out to be a protracted nightmare.

Another good first-time option is to book a women-only holiday through a tour operator. This is a great way of liberating yourself from the grind of daily life as an only person, with the added bonus that, unlike mixed-sex tours, you won't be the only lone woman in a group of romancing couples.

Of course, this will not involve travelling alone for any length of time, but it will give you the chance to get away and see how you cope on your own in an entirely new situation. For that reason, such trips can act as a good spring board for fully independent solo travel later on.

Further information

www.travel.roughguides.com and www.lonelyplanet.com both host excellent women's travel forums. These are great places to swap tips and find information about travelling alone.

For even more specific questions, direct yourself to www.hermail.net

This email service will put you in contact with any of the 11,000 women registered all over the world, who are ready to answer questions about their home towns and countries (i.e. - your destination). This is an invaluable way of getting local information before you leave, and it's completely free.

www.bootsnall.com/tk/women is a great web page dedicated to the kinds of problems that arise if you're a woman travelling alone. Find out about ways to stay safe, how to get over initial nerves and actually book your trip, and how best to cope with your period as you travel.

www.oculartravel.com is a comprehensive site aimed at backpackers, with lots of sound advice specifically for women.

www.journeywoman.com is a decent American website concerned primarily with women's travel - solo and otherwise. Here you can pick up advice from other women on subjects such as what it's appropriate to wear in which country, and there's also a section of listings of women-only tour operators and holidays.

www.onebag.com is an invaluable guide to packing light. It's easier to be confident, carefree and mobile when you're not carrying your entire life about on your back.

Seminars, one-to-one advice and travellers' clubs

Marco Polo Travel offer invaluable one-hour confidence building sessions and day-long seminars on how to travel as a lone woman. You'll get heaps of practical advice ranging from how best to pack and keep yourself safe, to how to relax and really connect with the culture you are travelling in. Tel. +44(0)117 929 4123 www.marcopolotravel.co.uk

Planet Wise offer one and two day travel training courses all over the country. These aren't aimed specifically at women, but they'll provide you with all sorts of advice about how to stay healthy and safe on the road. Tel. +44(0)870 2000 220 www.planetwise.net

Wanderlust has listings of UK-based travellers' clubs on their website. Meeting other travellers of either sex can be a great way of boosting your confidence before you set off on your own. www.wanderlust.co.uk

Accommodation and tour operators

5W will put you in touch with over 3,500 women all over the world to arrange home stays. It costs £25 to join, and you'll be sent a list of all the host women in different countries, complete with your own entry as it also means that you could end up acting as a hostess yourself. Tel. +44(0)1494 465 441 www.womenwelcomewomen.org.uk

Walking Women is one of the only UK-based women-only tour operators. They offer walking holidays all over Britain and Europe. Tel. +44(0)8456 445 335 www.walkingwomen.com

Women's Travel Club is an American-based organisation also open to women from the UK. There's a small membership fee, and trips are offered all over the world, ranging from four days in New York to tours through Borneo. www.womenstravelclub.com

You'll find a full run down on some of America's most popular women-only tour operators at the very useful www.womentraveltips.com

Unfortunately, similar companies in the UK are few and far between, but this should provide you with a good starting point.