MNN blogger Robin Shreeves is headed to Guatemala. She hasn't traveled solo for awhile — she'll be part of a group but will get some time off to explore on her own, too — and she asked me for some tips for doing so as a woman. Here's my advice, garnered from years of experience. (I love to explore new places with my boyfriend or family, but solo travel will always be part of my bucket list; you never see as much or meet as many new people as when you are on your own.) And most of this applies to guys, too!
First and foremost, carry yourself with assurance:
I think your own internal attitude is hugely impactful and more important than anything else. Acting afraid or suspicious will lead to people treating you less respectfully. Walking tall in sensible shoes, wearing an attractive, but not overly body-conscious outfit (most cultures show more respect for well-dressed, but not flashily dressed people), and conducting yourself with a smile and confident demeanor goes further than anything else. Walking and acting like you fit in will make you less interesting — and therefore less of a target.
If someone is pestering you, a loudish, definitive, "NO, GRACIAS!"(Or whatever "No thank you" is in the local language) is usually enough. Women can be less likely to speak loudly or stand their ground, but taking a firm stance and looking someone directly in the eye, (rather than avoiding their eyes or trying to slump away) is a better tack. It conveys power and assurance, without being insulting or making it seem like you are afraid or unsure.
Secure your bag and then don't worry about it:
I always carry a large bag that zips or closes, usually slung across my body — which gives me room to get into the bag without taking it off (convenient) and also deters anyone from even thinking about ripping it off as they zoom by on a motorcycle or on foot. Less fussing and worrying over your bag is always a good thing. My grandma, a solo traveler herself, taught me this. She would also keep a file card with exchange rates pinned to a convenient place in her bag so she wouldn't be taken advantage of when shopping!
Nix the fancy jewelry:
Obviously, expensive jewelry is always a no-no; basically look at what the locals wear and try to mimic it so you blend in visually to the local vibe. I have often done this so successfully that locals speak to me in French, Spanish, Portuguese or Italian, which is the ultimate "fitting in" test! In most countries, a wedding band is plenty to keep men from hitting on you overtly, though I've never worn one since I'm not married, and never felt like I was treated disrespectfully. (Some solo women travelers swear by the wedding band though, whether they're married or not.)
Walk with others at night:
Traveling with at least one other person at night, whether a man or woman, should be enough to make everyone feel safe and to keep away the crazies (who are — let's be realistic — everywhere). I've never felt uncomfortable walking places solo in the daytime, and while I've never been to a war-torn nation, I have visited those places where Americans weren't exactly favored, and I've never had a problem as long as I was dressed appropriately for the locale and was walking confidently.