Rebekah is a solo female traveler and digital nomad working her way around the world with nothing but a laptop and a dream (and one giant backpack). A closet nomad for most of her life, Rebekah put off travel to focus on her career as an actress in Los Angeles.
But when she got the opportunity to start travel writing, she ditched her unfulfilling actor lifestyle, got on plane, and never looked back. I wanted to find out how Rebekah overcame her fear of solo female travel, why she chose to travel long-term, and how she managed to score an ocean-front hotel room in Vietnam for just $3/night.
Here’s how she did it:
I love the “Quick+Dirty” feature on your blog – what’s the “Quick+Dirty” version of your travel story?
I signed a contract to teach English in Taiwan back in 2012 but ended up hating it. While I was there trying to decide what to do with my life, I started freelance travel writing through Elance.com.
Eventually that turned into full time self-employment back in the States.
I started traveling back and forth between Los Angeles and my hometown in Wisconsin, and soon I thought “If I can work from anywhere, why not work from anywhere in the world?”
I planned a three month trip to Europe for the fall of 2013, but then a travel writing assignment sent me to Nepal – as you know – so plans changed and I’ve been in Asia for the past 4 months [Rebekah and I met while traveling in Nepal].
How did you find a hotel room for $3/night in Vietnam – and is it really right on the ocean?
Yep! Right now I’m staying on the 6th floor of the Alibaba Hotel on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam. I got the $3/night deal because I’m staying here long-term, and also because it’s my second time staying here and I made friends with the owners.
So could someone else get that price or is the discount only because you’re friends with the owner?
Well, the “real” price is $5/night, so even without a discount I think most people would be pretty happy. But everyone should do what I do if they want budget accommodation – stay somewhere long-term, at least a month, and make friends with the locals.
Speaking of budget accommodation, what about CouchSurfing? Do you recommend it for solo female travelers?
I’m actually devastated because I haven’t had a chance to CouchSurf yet! It’s on my bucket list as much as going to Norway or living in Vancouver. I think it’s great for solo female travelers, I’ve had a lot of friends who’ve used CouchSurfing to see entire continents without paying a dime for accommodation. They’ve also developed meaningful relationships with their hosts.
A big concern with solo female travel is safety. How do you stay safe when traveling solo?
I’m really glad you asked about that because it’s actually a point of contention with me – I can’t stand the fact that the main thing, sometimes the only thing that people think of when they hear “solo female travel” is safety.
Why is that? The issue of safety is practically a non-issue when we talk about solo travel for men, so why is it the only thing we talk about when it comes to women?
Well, I’d say that in general women are more vulnerable when traveling alone.
See I’d have to disagree with you there, and luckily we’re friends so I can.
First of all, safety is one tiny, tiny aspect of solo female travel and I hate that all of the wonderful things about it get overshadowed by the safety thing.
Second, I’d argue that women traveling solo are safer than anyone else because everyone you meet goes out of their way to protect you.
What do you mean, who protects you?
Complete strangers. When people find out you’re a solo female traveler, they have the exact same response your family has – which is usually ‘Yikes!’ – and they go out of their way to make sure you’re safe.
They’ll give you a ride home, offer their place to stay, tell you which neighborhoods to avoid, even defend you when other locals try to scam you.
I’ve lived in some of the biggest and most dangerous cities in the U.S. and I’ve never felt as safe as I’ve felt while traveling abroad.
So you’re saying solo female travelers just… shouldn’t think about safety at all?
Not if it’s just going to needlessly freak you out. If you have basic common sense you’ll be fine.
Women have incredible intuition – we can feel it when something’s amiss. We know if that guy walking towards us on the street has dubious intentions. We know when we should turn around and walk the other way, or duck into a café, or call for help.
What if you’re in a really dangerous city or country? Is your intuition enough to protect you then?
Like where? There are maybe 10 cities in the entire world that solo female travelers should avoid, but those are the same cities that every traveler should avoid. The intuition comes into play when you decide to not go there in the first place.
Do you feel, then, the world is a pretty safe place for solo female travelers?
Yes. Most places in the world aren’t just safe – I’d say they’re much safer than many if not most U.S. cities. I walk around alone at night all the time. I break all the rules. I’m not saying everyone should engage in risky behavior like that – you simply have to trust your instincts and question the rules.
What are you thinking?
I’m the one asking the questions here!
You feel it’s okay if solo female travelers walk around alone at night, get into cars with strangers, and leave their valuables unattended at all times?
[laughs] Yes! But if – and only if – you have good instincts. Take a look at your life back home. If you’re the kind of person who’s always getting into trouble and getting taking advantage of, you should be extra careful when traveling because you’re probably not very in tune with your instincts.
But if you have that “spidy sense” – and you know it if you do – you can rely on that to keep you safe. The key is listening to it, though – if something in your gut is screaming “get out of here!” you’d better listen or pay the consequences.
What other rules do you break besides “don’t walk alone at night”?
I don’t lock valuables up in my hotel room. I take rides from people I’ve only just met. I leave my purse lying around for anyone to grab…
Are you nuts?
[laughs]…and I haven’t had anything stolen yet, I haven’t been mugged or hurt or had anything bad happen, knock on wood.
So are you just lucky or is there a method to your madness?
If I don’t lock valuables up, it’s because I have a strong degree of trust with the hotel staff and have made friends with them. If I take a ride from a stranger, it’s because they’re a friend of a friend, or because I get a good vibe from them and it’s a normal thing to do in the country I happen to be in.
But leaving your purse lying around?
If I leave my purse out, it’s because I’m in a café or restaurant where I’m friends with the staff and everyone else leaves their purse/phone/valuables just lying around.
Right now I’m spending a lot of time at a local restaurant here in Cat Ba. The entire staff feels like family, and the restaurant itself is “home.” Most of the staff lives upstairs, so everyone’s stuff is just out for the taking. But it’s also protected, because everyone looks out for each other.
It sounds like it takes some time to get to that level of trust with people while traveling.
Definitely. I wouldn’t roll up my first day and think I could be this relaxed and not have something bad happen. Trust develops over time. What about getting lonely on the road? Do you find it difficult to be in another country without friends or family for so long?
Again, I think this is another huge misconception about solo female travel, and about solo travel in general. People have this idea that it’s dangerous and that they’re going to be alone. The truth is that you’re totally safe and you’re never alone. You actually have to make a concentrated effort to find alone time while traveling!
Tell me more.
People are very open when they travel – they’re excited to meet new people and connect. It’s easy to meet other travelers in your hostel or guest house. If you’re CouchSurfing or staying in a hostel, it’s actually hard to find any “alone time.”
What if you’re not CouchSurfing or staying in a hostel? How can you meet people then?
I’m a big fan of meeting people in restaurants. When I eat alone, I’m almost always invited to join someone at their table, or someone pulls up a chair and joins me.
Sounds like you’re always meeting locals, and that you end up saving a lot of money because of that. How do you do it?
It’s all about the restaurants! Bars and cafes are great too, or anywhere you might go frequently, where you can chat with the staff and see the same people every day. Some of my most wonderful friendships have been formed by picking a local café or restaurant and going there every day at the same time. First you become a ‘regular,’ then you become a ‘friend,’ and before you know it you’re getting invited to weddings and being treated as ‘one of the family.’
It seems like it’s really easy for you to travel alone and to make new friends. What about people who are shy, or even terrified of solo female travel?
That’s a great question. I have to admit that I’m the kind of person who doesn’t think twice about seeing a movie alone back home – if there is something I want to do, I’d never skip it simply because I didn’t have someone to do it with.
I’d argue that most people do not fall into that camp.
You’re totally right, I know a lot of people aren’t like that. I think if you’re terrified of solo female travel, that’s all the more reason to give it a try. Many people use relationships with others to distract themselves from their own issues. If you’re constantly surrounded by others, you never have to face what’s going on with you on a deeper level. You never have to face yourself.
I think that’s what people are most scared of – it’s not being alone that’s scary, it’s what you might find out about yourself once you’re alone that’s terrifying.
So why do it, if solo travel is just going to bring up all of these personal issues?
Because it gives you a way to finally work through those issues and heal what needs to be healed.
When you travel, you’re always present and in the moment. You’re not thinking about the past or future because what’s right in front of your face is so new and different and enthralling.
When you’re in that place, you can examine your life and yourself in a completely different light. You get a new perspective on old problems, and begin to see how you’ve been contributing to your own unhappiness.
Is solo female travel just for spiritual seekers or women facing life challenges?
Absolutely not! It is not only great for spiritual seekers, but also for women who need to ‘get their groove back’ or are just looking to have a great time and be selfish for awhile.
I hope I’m not crossing a line but the idea of solo travel always begs the question – what about love? Romance? Dating? Sex?
Yes. It’s a very good question. Obviously the answer is very personal for everyone, and every situation is different.
Some women may want to take time to truly be alone while traveling – that means no dating, no romantic entanglements, even no sex. Others may want to take a new lover in every city, and to them I say g’head, girl!
And what about you? Do you take a new lover in every city?
[laughs] Rashad! Don’t you know me at all? I’ve got a guy in every province in Vietnam.
I knew it!
I’m totally kidding. I fall in love every other day. There are so many wonderful people in the world. But I’m very happy traveling solo and it would take a very special person to change my mind about that.
I’m kind of a lone wolf – I like being free to go where I want, when I want. I recently met another traveler who was exactly the same way, and we joked that we could have a wonderful relationship seeing each other once a year.
How can you afford to travel long-term?
I’m also a travel cheerleader for solo females, which means I help them plan their dream trips and overcome any emotional and psychological blocks that come up before, during, and after they travel.
What’s a typical day like for you as a digital nomad?
It depends on whether I’m in “travel mode” or work mode. When I’m in travel mode, I’m hitting a new city every week. During those times I’ll spend 3-4 hours working in the morning and then spend the afternoon and evening exploring.
When I’m in work mode, like I am now, I hunker down in a city I love and work full time from my guest house. I actually love times like these because they allow me to make friends and feel more like a local than a tourist.
Right now you’re in Vietnam. Where will you go next?
I don’t know! I’ll be here for another few months working on a book, but after that it’s up in the air. I haven’t been to Thailand yet, so that’s a must. I’d also like to go to Indonesia and Malaysia while I’m still in Southeast Asia. India is on my short list too, and Turkey. I’m also obsessed with the idea of roller skating Europe.
What?! [Editor’s note: couldn’t stop laughing for about a minute. The fact Rebecca laughed along didn’t help.]
Phew. I broke a sweat there. [chuckling]
Backpacking Europe is so played out. My friend cycled Europe, and this other guy I know is bagpiping his way around the world. I’d like to do something like that, something different and exciting. And I think the roads in Europe would be smooth enough for roller skating!
What advice would you give someone who wants to do what you’re doing but thinks they can’t?
Ditch the idea that you’re supposed to be comfortable all the time. As Americans we’re obsessed with comfort – every appliance and gadget and piece of technology is designed so that we never experience boredom, or pain, or discomfort of any kind.
My advice is to throw all that out the window and get comfortable with discomfort. If you’re afraid of solo female travel, that’s exactly what you should do. If you’re terrified of being alone, move deeper into that feeling. Things like fear and anger are little red flags that say “Hey! You need to deal with this and you won’t be happy until you do!”