As a professional travel writer I've traveled solo from Antarctica to Zanzibar. In fact, in 2005 I wrote a book called Solo Traveler, and ever since have written about and talked up the lasting, liberating joys of traveling on your own.
The recent tragedy of Sarai Sierra, the 33-year-old American photographer found dead in Istanbul on her first solo vacation outside the USA, has brought forth a stream of warnings about women traveling alone. Details are still unclear.
Millions of us travel safely and happily throughout the world on our own. But yes, solos are vulnerable, especially in certain cultures, and need to be especially aware of local customs and laws. For example, in Laos it's illegal to invite Lao nationals of the opposite sex to one's hotel room. And foreigners in Saudi Arabia have been arrested in the past for "improper dress." Even a friendly smile can be misinterpreted in many countries.
The U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs provides general information for women traveling solo, which I've adapted here to remind you of ways to remain safe and secure:
Passports and Visas: Be sure your passport is still valid, or apply for a new one long before you plan to travel. Have the correct travel documents and visas for your destinations. (For information on individual countries' entry and exit requirements, refer to the government publication Foreign Entry Requirements.)
Your Destinations: Learn about the locations you plan to visit, and any problems that might be occurring there. (The Bureau of Consular Affairs constantly updates its published and online information to reflect developing situations in each country. http://travel.state.gov)
Exciting and exotic destinations may have conservative views about women. Being a foreigner makes you stand out; a woman traveling alone can still be an oddity in some places. Learn about the culture and make sure you will feel comfortable conforming to the customs.
What to Leave Behind: Leave a detailed itinerary and a copy of your passport's identification page with a friend or relative at home. Include names, addresses and telephone numbers where you will be staying. Leave a copy of your flight and ticket information with them as well.
Leave any valuables, extra credit cards and jewelry -- even fake jewelry -- at home. Thieves often won't know the real from the fake until after they take it, so why risk your personal safety?
Health: Make sure you have adequate health insurance coverage while abroad, and that your coverage includes medical evacuations. Your policy might not cover you overseas and you may need to purchase traveler's insurance. (See the publication Medical Information for Americans Traveling Abroad.)
If you have any condition that might develop complications -- especially if you're pregnant -- check with your doctor before you go abroad. If you experience complications, a medical evacuation might still take several precious hours to arrange.
Get precautionary meds and shots, and stay as healthy as possible before leaving.
If you take prescription medication, make sure you have enough to last the duration of the trip, including extra medication in case you're delayed. Carry your prescriptions in their labeled containers as many countries have strict narco-trafficking laws and might be suspicious of pills in unlabeled bottles. Bring your prescription information and the names of their generic equivalents with you just in case.
Safety and Security: Use common sense and be alert and aware of your surroundings. If you're unsure in general about the local situation, feel free to check with the American Citizens Services section of the local U.S. Embassy or Consulate for the latest security information.
Carry a cell phone and know how to use it and how to get an emergency number. Email, text and Skype to stay in touch. Establish certain check-in times and dates when you will contact others to let them know that you're all right. (But remember that if you miss a check-in, your loved ones may assume you're having a problem or are in trouble.)
Don't announce that you're traveling alone. Consider wearing a wedding ring if you're single.
If you feel like you're being followed, step into a store or other safe place and wait to see if the person you think is following has passed. Don't be afraid or embarrassed to ask someone to double check for you to see if all is safe.
Display confidence. By looking and acting as if you know where you're going, you may be able to ward off potential danger.
Ask for directions before you set out. No matter how modest your lodgings are, your hotel concierge or other hotel staff should be able to help. If you find yourself lost, don't be afraid to ask for directions. Generally, the safest people to ask are families or women with children. Getting the right information may save you from ending up in a potentially unsafe area.
Hotels: Choose a hotel where security is good and transportation is readily available and nearby. Check that all doors and windows in your room have locks, and that they work. Stay off the first floor, if you have a choice. If you feel uncomfortable, ask hotel security to escort you to and from your room at night. Always use your peephole and common sense about letting strangers into your room.
Clothing: What you consider casual clothing might be seen as provocative or inappropriate in other cultures. Thieves might choose you over another potential target based on your style of dress or the amount of makeup or jewelry you're wearing. Others might single you out for harassment or even physical violence because they find your clothing offensive, based on their cultural norms. By taking your cues from local women, or at least by dressing conservatively, and acting conservatively you could save yourself a great deal of trouble.
So when traveling solo, tune it back and remain cautious. You should prepare well, blend in, use your head, trust your gut and watch your back. But most of all, don't let others dissuade you from venturing forth. The joys and benefits of solo traveling remain huge, and worth the extra care.