Trust as a female traveler: my creep radar, explained

How can you tell who to trust when traveling? Here’s what I’ve learned about trust and solo female travel, with tips to help you stay safe and make better judgement calls when meeting people on the road. Both online and in-person.

 

“How do you know if you can trust someone?” is one of the most common questions I get from female travelers. And paranoid parents. And pretty much everyone else who wants to know how the heck I’m not dead after years of traveling like I do.

It’s a difficult question to answer.

Silhouettes of Alex with a local traveler friend in Sindh, Pakistan

For years, people have watched me stay with locals I barely know, go on adventures with people I just met, share meals with complete strangers. My escapades may look effortless and spontaneous—sometimes they are—but behind the scenes there is serious scrutiny going on when I meet someone new.

I wasn’t always aware of it. It took me time and a lot of questions from followers to understand what really goes on in my subconscious when meeting people while traveling. But after years of trial, error, and bemusement as people continually seek out my advice about this very subject… here’s how I decide if I can trust people as a solo female traveler.

Index: The art of trust and solo female travel

Alex with a family of women in a home in Kolkata, India

In India, figuring out if you can trust someone can be especially complicated. Some people are unbelievably kind and hospitable, others are so conniving they put movies to shame, and Indian men are (deservedly) notorious for online and offline harassment. I’m incredibly careful with men in India, but when Sayani reached out to invite me to her family’s home in Kolkata I didn’t think twice—other women are a safe space for female travelers.

Trusting your instincts: the best defense or totally useless?

Before, when people asked me how I know who to trust when traveling, the answer was a shrug and “I trust my instincts.”

Two problems with that:

  1. Wtf that’s vague as hell Alex
  2. Not everyone has honed their traveler instincts yet

I do trust my instincts, but it’s important to clarify that I’ve had the privilege to practice them through years of travel in all kinds of situations… and even then, things still go wrong.

Before I traveled on my own, I got to travel the world with my family. I watched my (large, white, and stereotypically clueless Western) father be targeted by pickpockets from the Philippines to the United States, and my parents be scammed by salespeople everywhere in between.

Before I even knew what blogging was, I’d floundered through drunken encounters with men in Guatemalan bars, had to literally run away from freakishly persistent boys in Rome, and been molested by a man on a flight from Amsterdam.

Before I began traveling solo, I traveled with a boyfriend who could act as a safety net if men were being difficult. Men I’d thought trustworthy still ended up groping me, assaulting me, asking for sex, etc. Sometimes in front of said ex.

By all means trust your instincts—they exist for a reason—but don’t feel discouraged if your instincts sometimes fail you.

We can’t be vigilant all the time. If something bad happens to you it’s not your fault; guilt lies only with anyone who tries to harm you.

 

Russian man and his son on a boat in Lake Baikal in Siberia, Russia

Juri was my host when I rented a room in a cottage on the shores of Lake Baikal, Russia. I was apprehensive about sharing a remote cottage with a man, but I was instantly put at ease when I met him. He was respectful, gentle, and clearly loved his son above all else—all good signs in my book.

At first glance: how to tell if you can trust a man when meeting in-person for the first time (while traveling) 

It takes less than a minute for me to judge a person I’ve just met.

Luckily for travelers, spoken language isn’t the key. Body language and actions are what matter most, in my experience.

Warning signs to look for when meeting men as a female traveler

Checking out my body. If he’s looking me up and down like a toy rather than a person, time to get the F out of there. Unless you’re purposefully dressing to impress, roaming eyes are, in my experience, the best and fastest indicator that a man’s intentions are not entirely innocent.

Quickly violating local cultural norms between men and women. This could be anything from standing too close while talking, to asking me to sit next to him in a country where men and women sit separately, to gently touching me in countries where men do not touch women. A friendly hand on the back can go south very, very quickly.

Asking if I’m married and looking excited when I say no. Casually asking about marriage is common in some countries. Though it’s off-putting to me, I accept not everyone perceives it that way. However, if a man learns I’m unmarried/single and looks excited about it? Nope, I’m not going to hang out and nurture his fantasies, marital or otherwise.

Asking for my phone number or other personal details too soon. Men sometimes come to me offering help… then say they can help further if they have my phone number/Facebook/whatever. Sometimes I give it to make them go away—like I said, I’m not perfect—and 9 times out of 10 it ends in the man perpetually calling, texting, and being increasingly creepy until I block him.

Note: This is specifically about men who ask for your number too soon. Some men genuinely want to help, but usually they won’t demand your details early on.

Young and cocky men. Not to say old men can’t be creeps—they definitely absolutely can, ugh—but young men are hornier. It’s fact. I’d trust an old man over a young man any day. At least I know I can outrun him if things get weird.

Not referring to me as “sister” when speaking. In some countries, it’s common to refer to men and women around your age as “brothers” and “sisters” in the local language—a subtle way to establish social boundaries. If a man my age isn’t calling me sister, I’m suspicious.

Rickshaw driver on a street in Rawalpindi, Pakistan

The first time I visited Rawalpindi, Pakistan with my ex, a seemingly kind taxi driver invited me to sit next to him even though there was space in the back—a very unusual request in Pakistan I later learned. He put a bag of food he was eating into my lap, then proceeded to finger my crotch while pretending to eat. A situation I could’ve avoided if I rejected his offer to sit by him in the first place… or if he learned to behave himself.

Uncomfortable decisions in the middle of nowhere

If warning sirens are blaring, I make an effort to distance myself and shut down conversations before they go further… if possible. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible.

Last year I spent a week at a homestay in Shaimak, a remote village in Tajikistan. The hostess? Golden (literally). Her son? A creep… but a necessary one.

Though he gave me all the bad vibes—staring at my body, standing too close, asking about my dating life—he had knowledge of the area, a motorbike I could use, and he handled some homestay logistics. I needed to interact with him.

Local man at a lake in the Pamir Mountains of Eastern Tajikistan

He ended up fondling my legs and bum while we drove around on his motorbike, and I had to reject his advances—in Russian, an interesting challenge—the whole day… but there weren’t many alternatives in the middle of nowhere, and I didn’t want to leave just because of him. And I wanted to drive his motorbike. I made a decision to grin and bear the creep for a few days, and simply avoided him as much as possible.

You’re not wrong if you would do differently. Everyone has different priorities and tolerances. I’m just here to explain my own experiences and thought processes to illustrate the complex nuances of trusting locals on the road.

 

Imran in Nagar, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan in autumn

I first met Imran through Instagram. He always left particularly poignant or thoughtful comments on my posts, and we messaged from time to time. I ended up meeting him and his wife, Sumbal, to have chai and watch the sunset from the hills over Islamabad, Pakistan in 2018. Since then, I’ve met up with him on each of my visits to Pakistan, and we even traveled together with some friends for a week while enjoying autumn in the mountains last year.

Sliding into DMs: How can female travelers tell if they can trust someone online? 

The digital world is another realm entirely.

It has its perks. Couchsurfing is a fantastic way to meet both locals and other travelers. Personally, I’ve met hundreds of people through Instagram and Facebook groups over the last few years.

But, as I’m sure you already know, you can’t trust everyone online.

Screenshot of a random man sending multiple hello messages on Instagram

Nothing good ever comes of this.

If you’re tech-savvy enough to find me and read this blog, I assume you already have a basic understanding of the internet and social media. Imma avoid How To Not Get Catfished 101 for now, and stick to travel specifically.

Warning signs female travelers should look for if someone online wants to meet

Immediately asking me to meet them. No name, no background, just Hi I’m here let’s meet. Nope, nope, nope. At best, they’re an entitled tw*t who presumed I would meet up with them because they told me to. At worst… who knows? Trustworthy people recognize the importance of introductions and interaction before invitations.

Only posting selfies. Happy, organic selfies with (ideally female) friends? Sure. But nothing good ever comes from a man who posts selfies all day, errday.

Weirdly empty social media profiles. People hide behind fake accounts. If someone is savvy enough to message to strangers online, they should have a robust social media presence. Don’t trust people with empty profiles. This especially goes for Couchsurfing as a female traveler—do not stay with men who don’t have any testimonials from surfers. I try to only stay with men who clearly have families or positive feedback from female surfers.

Demanding information without giving their own. Kind of like phone numbers in real life situations. If someone demands information without offering their own, that’s a big red flag.

Not communicating well. I don’t expect everyone to master the English language, but if someone tlks 2 U lyk dis all the tym… be wary. I only meet people with whom I’ve developed a rapport, and I sure as hell can’t discuss anything interesting if we R msging lyk dis.

Male Couchsurfers tasting watermelon in Jazan, Saudi Arabia

I used Couchsurfing to meet up with local men (and one woman!) several times while traveling in Saudi Arabia. I made sure to only send messages to people who had at least 3 meaningful reviews (as in, something more than “He was nice” or “he showed me around”) from other travelers. Bonus points if the reviewers were women!

More like guidelines than actual rules

Of course, there are always exceptions.

I met one of my closest friends in Pakistan through a recommendation from another traveler. I soon learned he’d utterly fail that last texting test… but I would trust him with my life. By now, I’ve spent months at his place, we’ve traveled together, and I recommend him to both male and female travelers.

Conversely, one well-spoken Pakistani man reached out to me with all kinds of fascinating historical information that I’d have trouble finding elsewhere. He only offered assistance after extended discussion. He was pleasant in person… then ended up propositioning me for sex in my DMs soon after. Multiple times.

My warning signs are not an end-all list. Often they’re enough, but sometimes men slip through the cracks. Which brings me to my final point…

Trust yourself to do what’s right for you.

Cliché and self-help-ish as it may sound, trusting yourself to do what is necessary is even more important than learning to trust others while traveling. Having the confidence to say no is by far the most important thing a female traveler can learn.

No matter how prepared you are, travel enough and something will eventually go wrong. There are creeps everywhere in the world; sooner or later, you’re going to encounter one.

You might feel pressured to be nice. I certainly do. Though it’s easier said than done… don’t.

If a man scares you, move away. If a man does something to you, punch him or tell him to f*ck off. If a man is giving off bad vibes, even if you can’t figure out why, leave ASAP.

It doesn’t matter if he let you stay in his home, paid for your tickets or your food, saved you from unsavory situation. If a man is making you uncomfortable or unsafe in any way, you owe him nothing. He is the problem and it is NOT rude to leave.

Don’t worry about judging him wrongly—it’s better to be safe than sorry, right?

Homestay family in Misgar, Pakistan

When visiting the remote village of Misgar, Pakistan, this kind local family offered me a place to stay. My original intention was to stay for several days, but that night, one of their sons tried to make moves on me. Rather than try to awkwardly avoid interacting with him for days, I decided to leave after one night. Everyone was disappointed and I felt bad for letting them down, but that’s what I needed to do to feel comfortable.

A final word on dealing with creeps

When women ask me about how I stay safe while traveling, how I know to trust locals, if anything bad has ever happened to me, I always explain… then follow up with a final comment.

The unfortunate reality of solo female travel—or any travel, really—is that eventually, something bad will happen to you. If it doesn’t, you’re incredibly lucky.

What’s important to remember is that bad experiences don’t have to be the end of your journey. If you want to keep traveling, don’t let men stop you from doing what brings you joy.

It’s easy for me to say; my bad experiences pale in comparison to some other women I’ve met. There are women who have been r*ped, kidnapped, or violently assaulted while traveling… but still, with time and healing, many found the strength and confidence to try again. Because that’s what they want to do.

Not everyone is so strong, and that’s okay. You do you. But the next time a friend tells you solo traveling is too dangerous, or that little negative voice in your head suggests it’s safer not to travel… remember one thing: though others have the power to harm you or scare you, you’re the only one with the power to say f*ck it, I’m going to travel anyway.

 

What are some things you look for when deciding if you should trust someone while traveling? Tell me in the comments!

 

How can female travelers tell who they can trust and who might be unsafe? How to avoid harassment and meet locals who will keep you safe? Here's a guide from a solo female traveler who's dealt with men—good and bad—all over the world.

 

Alex Reynolds profile picture

Alex Reynolds

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

42 thoughts on “Trust as a female traveler: my creep radar, explained

    Claire Roberts says:

    Hi Alex
    Funnily enough (not funny at all) I too had a similar encounter in Misgar. I have had several along the way and I too try to put them down to experience and not let them spoil my love to travel. Encouraging to read your advice and see it’s pretty much like my own.
    Thanks for your tips on the trains in Pakistan section, I’m about to take my first in this country (I’m usually on my bicycle), great to know there’s a women’s carriage!
    Safe travels and keep on keeping on! x

    Oh no, I’m sorry that happened to you, Claire. Bah, I hope it wasn’t the same person… but regardless, power to you for carrying on anyway and not letting it spoil thing. Hope your bike trip went well 🙂

    Colonel Maneesh V Joshi (retd) says:

    Dear Madam,

    Absolutely brilliant advice. Almost identical to that which I give to my young college-going daughter who is interested in travelling round the world.

    I landed on this site while prep for my long and solo motorcycle ride to Northeast India. And went from tab to tab till I reached here. And felt the rage building up inside me as I read accounts from you and from other visitors of this page, of the behaviour meted out by the lowest members of the human male species.

    Your advice on instinctual reactions is spot on. Women have superb intuition and in my experience, it is when they ignore that hair rising on their neck that they fall prey to such @#$%^ predators. May advice to such women is: your instincts have been honed by millions of years of evolution into the finest tuned sensory organ ever. Ignore them at your peril. (Say, predator is too decent a noun for such creatures; predators in the animal world hunt for food, the lowlife human men hunt for lust…pathetic losers…)

    As a veteran Colonel of the Indian Army, may I recommend you to undergo some training in unarmed combat. Krav Maga is very good as it deals with situational awareness all the time. Simple judo is also good. Knowing the alternate and deadlier use of common ladies’ purse articles will also give you a sense of security; there are many such items on sale that look like what they are supposed to be but are not so in reality. You can get them thru most borders without any trouble. Non-lethal but serious trouble for the aforementioned @#$%^& men.

    In conclusion, don’t let filth stop your wanderlust. It is everywhere, but so also is beauty. Do make your way around the cesspools, with trained confidence and a positive approach. God bless. You are a real inspiration for young women. Clap clap clap.

    Sounds like your daughter has a good, thoughtful role model to look up to 😉 The most supportive parents are the ones who enable their children with the skills to survive, not the ones who try to shelter their children from the world…

    I’ve thought often about learning krav maga! If it weren’t for the pandemic I probably would’ve signed up for a course in the last year, I realized I really need to have some more official skills under my belt. I could also do better with carrying items for self defense, several women advised me to carry hair spray as it’s also painful to the eyes without being illegal like pepper spray. Problem is I rarely carry purses 😛

    Shreyas Muralidharan says:

    Very well written indeed. Reached your blog through a google search for ‘Theyyam Origins’ and have been enjoying reading post after post. Do keep it going, post covid!

    The only place I would disagree is the ‘men addressing you as ‘sister’ part; this I think is different in every region and is purely subjective, and shouldn’t be taken as a sign or red light, in my humble opinion.

    By the way I’m an architect from Calicut, Kerala and I’m trying to compare ( mostly guesswork) ancient folk/ tribal cultures’ reverence for ecology as seen through the Theyyam rituals here, to present-day ideals of eco-sensitive & ‘good’ architecture — sustainable, eco-sensitive, responsible, carbon-neutral and ‘green’. Through travellers/ writers like you here’s hoping that such intangible cultural traditions be more widely understood (even among the local populace there’s apparent widespread ignorance in this regard especially when it comes to Theyyam).

    Like I said, your posts have been great reading so far. Cheers & keep up the good work!

    Thanks Shreyas! Ha, yes, I hope there is a post-COVID where I can keep this up… I miss the road! Your thoughts on the “sister” thing are appreciated, indeed it varies from place to place and depends on the local culture (this post was definitely written with South and Central Asia in mind as that’s where I’ve spent the most time in recent years).

    I love what you’re doing with your work! So many important connections to be made between the way we lived ‘before’ and now—I like to say we humans had it all figured out decades ago, then managed to mess things up from there. Do you collect your findings in a blog or website somewhere? Would love to see 🙂

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