Solo travel can be exhilarating and also terrifying. Instagram and YouTube are great resources for travel inspiration, but they often only show the glamorous side. With misogyny being a global problem, women face many barriers when solo traveling. Yet on top of worrying about strange men, women of color often have to face racism and bigotry. Therefore, community is so important when it comes to solo traveling. This might sound like a contradiction, yet the concept of community has become a part of the solo travel experience. One person who understands this importance is Sheldon Louis. As featured in TravelNoire, he created the Solo Traveler Group on WhatsApp. An invite-only group with over 150 members is a virtual space where travelers from all walks of life can give each other support as they cross the globe.
Born in Florida and of Caribbean descent, traveling was something Louis grew up with and is an integral part of his life. Through an exchange of emails, Sheldon and BGN discussed the conversations around safety he’s seen in his travel group.
Tell me about your WhatsApp group. How and why did you start it, and how have you seen it help travelers, particularly female travelers?
I started this group because I felt there was a need for a real-time community for solo travelers, and I didn’t see one for us. I’ve seen the group help travelers in a multitude of ways, especially for female travelers. The idea of traveling alone might be uneasy or scary for women, and this group has helped eliminate some of that fear. For instance, someone in the group created a super useful doc where people can voluntarily share their upcoming travel plans to connect and meet up with other travelers.
What makes your group different from other Facebook groups, Telegram groups, etc.?
The main difference with this group (compared to other travel groups on Facebook and Telegram) is that real-time interactions and conversations are at the forefront of the Solo Travel group. This makes communication among group members seamless, despite them being in different regions or time zones. Other platforms and groups focus on content, while this one focuses on communication.
What are some common challenges you’ve seen addressed in the group, especially for WOC?
One common challenge I’ve seen addressed in the group, especially for WOC, is the discomfort that comes with traveling alone. A perfect example is when one WOC solo traveler openly asked if anyone wanted to go to India in the spring. She shared that she was kind to head to India alone as a woman. Her openness led to another woman in the group saying that she’d be interested in joining along. This is what it’s all about with creating a community like this, open communication, and making solo travel easier for everyone.
Tell us about some of the conversations around the safety of female-identifying solo travelers?
There have been some valuable conversations as it relates to overall safety, especially for female-identifying solo travelers. One recurring conversation, in particular, is the hotel vs. Airbnb question. This topic was brought up when someone asked if booking an Airbnb as a first-time solo traveler was the right move.
Some WOC solo travelers share their personal travel experiences, both good and bad. One solo traveler, in particular, shared how much harassment she faced in a country she traveled to as a WOC traveler, and it helped shed light on the topic and country. This resulted in people sharing recommendations, like hiring a trusted tour guide and getting a driver. On the contrary, other solo travelers have shared positive experiences they’ve had in countries as well.
There are conversations centered on tips when traveling solo especially as a WOC, such as being aware of your surroundings, not having tons of flashy jewelry or an expensive smartphone, not hanging out of a window while you’re in a vehicle, etc.
Going beyond the information that Louis has shared, having a place for female travelers to share the ugly side of traveling alone can be incredibly healing. When a scary or even traumatic moment happens abroad, it can be easy to slip into isolation. Thinking you’re the only one that moment has happened to. Knowing you are not alone in a struggle is the ultimate source of empowerment.
What are some common safety tips you’ve seen shared in the group?
- Don’t tell people you’re traveling alone.
- Know a few different routes to/from wherever you’re staying
- Know where emergency services are, especially hospitals/pharmacies.
- Always check the license plate before getting in an uber.
- Make connections with the host or hotel personnel and ensure you meet them during your trip.
- Consider using the STEP program for US citizens abroad.
- Get travel insurance for the year or for an upcoming trip.
- Look up the address and area of your hotel or Airbnb accommodation. Reading previous/recent reviews.
What are three of the most important things WOC should remember when they take a trip?
(1) Do your research. It’s important to ask yourself questions like, “Has this country/ location been a problem for other WOC in the past? Are there any current safety risks happening in this particular location? Is dress code a factor in this country, or does it not matter as much?”
(2) Be visible/vocal. Always let someone you trust know what your plans are and where you’re going.
(3) Basic is sometimes better.When you dress too fancy or extremely different from the culture or population, you can become an easy target for scammers. I am guilty of being sometimes “too fresh or flashy”, and I have to remind myself that it’s better to tone it down. Avoid appearing like a tourist and leave the valuables at home.
What’s been the best part of creating and managing your Whatsapp group?
The best part about creating and managing my WhatsApp group is the discourse and the growing companionship. I love how the solo traveler group has become an open forum where people start conversations on numerous topics or ask general questions. For instance, some people ask for recommendations about upcoming countries they’re planning to visit, some people share their upcoming travel plans to see if anyone else will be in the area. The group really has taken on a life of its own.
Overall, I want people to know that this group is an open space and a judgment-free zone. The idea of traveling alone can sometimes be daunting and a barrier for people, especially for those who are WOC and/or LGBTQ+.
My goal with this group is to make that idea or decision a “not so hard one” for current and aspiring solo travelers, especially those who identify as WOC. The group is invite-only, but if anyone is interested in joining, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Instagram, @swipeszn!
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Kiersten is a freelance writer and coach. As a writer, she has written for Travel Noire, Passion Passport, BAUCE mag, and various travel and lifestyle blogs. As a writer, her goal is to write content that inspires others to take action. As a coach, her goal is to empower women to be their most authentic selves. In her free time, you can find her dancing to any song any where.