Photo (cc) by erin leigh mcconnell
My hometown, New Orleans, has a bit of a reputation.
Travel and Leisure recently asked their readers to rank 35 U.S. cities for their America’s Favorite Cities list. My city ranked No. 1 for things like the music and party scene, drinking, and people watching, but near the bottom – No. 33 – for safety.
That explains why I meet so many tourists worried when they visit. Funny thing is, I don’t find New Orleans unsafe, nor do I worry about being a woman alone.
Part of the reason is knowledge of my hometown, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I frequently travel alone, have never had problems, and have always had fun. It’s not luck; it’s because I know how to stay safe and have a good time.
Here’s how I pull it off…
1. Read reviews before you visit
Check out sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp! to find a hotel that’s clean, safe, and within a reasonable distance to the places you want to explore. If the cheapest hotels are farther away, you may be taking cabs and ultimately spending more, not to mention being in a seedy area. Make sure you won’t end up feeling unsafe in some isolated motel by looking for reviews mentioning safety and the surrounding neighborhood.
Check sites like Crimemapping.com to see what type of crimes, if any, have been committed in the area.
And don’t forget to check out our story 8 Tips to Save at Any Hotel – Even the Nation’s Trendiest for some money-saving ideas.
2. Plan ahead for public transportation
Many cities have efficient and cheap public transportation, but make sure you know how it works. Know where the bus routes go before you get on one. Keep a note of what times the buses, trolleys, or subways start and stop running. And if you have a smartphone, search for local public transportation apps. They’ll show you routes, prices, and running times.
3. Plan some of your meals ahead of time
It’s fun to just wander on vacation, but you’ll save some cash if you pick a few dining spots ahead of time. Check sites like UrbanSpoon, Zagat, and Yelp! to get an idea of restaurants’ pricing and required attire, if any. See if you can score a cheaper meal by using a site like Groupon. And check the tips in our story 15 Ways to Save on Eating Out for more frugal ideas.
4. Learn a few key phrases
If you’re traveling out of the U.S., know how to say a few key phrases in your target destination’s language without a guidebook, in case it goes missing. For example, phrases like “Where is the train station?”, “How much does this cost?”, and “I need a police officer” are good ones to know.
5. Make a wish list
The first time I traveled alone I thought of everything – getting to the airport, checking in, staying safe, saving money. I was so busy being practical I forgot fun. I didn’t plan any activities or look for any sights to see. Don’t do the same. This is your vacation and it’s all about you. Make a wish list of everything you’d like to see and do before you leave. Once you land, start marking them off.
6. Pack light
Packing light has two advantages. One, most airlines now charge baggage fees for checked luggage: According to Airfarewatchdog, those fees can cost up to $100 per bag for international travel. Two, since you’re traveling alone, you’ll have to carry your own bags at some point, so pack less and you’ll have less to haul around.
For advice on packing light, see How to go to Europe for 10 Days With Just a Carry-On
7. Use the virtual buddy system
Designate a friend or family member to keep in contact with while you’re away. Before you leave, photocopy your driver’s license, passport, flight itinerary, and hotel information. Give the information to your contact so they’ll know where to start looking should the unthinkable occur.
8. Protect your valuables
It’s best to leave your valuables at home, but if you want to travel with a few pieces of jewelry, don’t store them in plain sight in your hotel room. Instead, use the in-room safe, or if your hotel doesn’t have one, ask the concierge to use the hotel’s safe.
9. Dress to blend in
There’s an old joke in New Orleans: You can always spot a tourist, because they’re the ones wearing beads after Mardi Gras. Problem is, those flashy beads make tourists an easy target for muggers and other predators, especially if they’re alone. And while other cities aren’t known for their Carnival beads, you can still stick out if you don’t look like everyone else. The solution: Dress to blend in. Wear jeans, neutral colors, plain T-shirts – whatever you’re comfortable in that doesn’t stick out.
10. Stash your money in a safe place
A cop friend of mine told me many thefts happen because tourists keep their money in an easily accessible place, like a backpack, or they leave their purse unattended on a table. To keep this from happening to you, keep the cash you carry to a minimum. It isn’t insured if it gets stolen, and it’s no fun to get robbed.
Store your cash in your front pocket where it isn’t as accessible and watch your purse or laptop bag. If you set them down, use the hooks underneath the bar or put the bag under a table.
11. Determine your safety zones
To prevent getting lost and ending up in a bad neighborhood, on my first day in a new place I find one or two 24-hour coffee shops in safe locations and peg them to the virtual map on my smartphone. That way, if I get lost or feel in any kind of danger, I know how to head to an open public place at any time.
12. Curb your drinking
Once on Bourbon St. I ran into a tourist who was so drunk he had no clue where his hotel was. Unfortunately, he was headed in the wrong direction and toward a sketchy neighborhood. Fortunately, he ran into me. I called him a cab, waited for it to arrive, and sent him safely to bed.
You might not get so lucky. It’s fine to have a few drinks on vacation, but keep your wits about you or you may end up a stumbling target.
13. Call ahead for a taxi
A recent story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune reaffirmed this point for me. A woman hailed what she thought was a taxi, but it wasn’t. Sadly, the man who picked her up abducted her.
It’s a terrible story but there’s a lesson in it. When you get to a new city, ask the concierge for the name of a reliable cab company, then program the number on your cell phone. When you need a cab, call ahead and ask them to pick you up. Don’t get in unless you’re sure it’s the right cab. If you’re not sure, call back and ask for the number of the cab they sent.
14. Ask a local
Don’t hesitate to talk to the locals; they’re a great source of both conversation and valuable insider info. When I’m home, I have no problem helping a tourist with directions, pointing out a cheap place to eat, or suggesting a sight to see.
Locals usually know what’s good, safe, and clean. As an added bonus, this is how friends are often made.
Let’s hear from some lone travelers out there, male or female – any tips I left out? Tell me yours on our Facebook page.