Solo Travel Safety: who to trust

I hiked and camped with Noemie who I met on the Navimag Ferry. We spent the first night in the campground below the Towers.

I hiked and camped with Noemie whom I met on the Navimag Ferry on the way to Patagonia. We spent the first night in the campground below the Towers.

Who to trust?

In absolutely every question about solo travel safety that I’ve put put to the community, some of the responses inevitably include “trust your gut”.

But what if you don’t know your gut?

What if it’s not working?

What if your gut is a stranger?

You can trust your gut.

In a recent Guardian article, “Don’t tell kids not to talk to strangers — encourage them to trust their instincts,” psychotherapist Philippa Perry reported that experimenters found that children as young as three can evaluate trustworthiness accurately. And that by the time they are seven that can do so as well as adults. In other words, knowing who to trust comes naturally.

A University of California, Berkeley research study “suggests it can take just 20 seconds to detect whether a stranger is genetically inclined to being trustworthy, kind, or compassionate.”

The studies confirm that we can and should trust our gut.

But maybe you haven’t tested it much. Maybe you need to reacquaint yourself with this stranger of yours. Let’s to take a moment to unpack what and how your gut processes.

I traveled with Penny in India. Here she's learning the art of solo photography.

I traveled with Penny in India. Here she’s learning the art of solo photography.

Knowing who to trust as you travel solo.

As a solo traveler, I have often picked up and traveled with another person for a day or three or more. I have camped with a new traveler/friend in a small tent in Chile. I’ve shared a bed with a new traveler/friend in a hotel in India. I’ve picked up cyclists and driven with them for hundreds of miles.

In each case I decided that the person was trustworthy before I did so. How did I make this decision? What informed my gut that each person was safe? I have some ideas but I also went looking on the net for more scientific theories on this matter. I hope these thoughts help you make your “who to trust” decisions wisely.

  1. Your in-group. Based on simple things like clothing, age or interests, people will determine whether a stranger is part of an in-group or an out-group. An in-group consists of people with things in common and its members are automatically considered more trustworthy. However, when you have only limited information such assessments are more stereotype-based than value-based and certainly not enough on which to make a decision.
  2. Listen. While it might be exciting to meet someone new and you want to talk lots, it’s better to spend more time listening than talking. By listening you learn about the other person from them rather than by drawing conclusions about them based on what you see – the in-group factors.
  3. Listen more. Listening more than talking protects you from sharing too much about yourself. In a Dr. Phil article on Oprah’s site he writes “You can always learn something when you’re listening. But as soon as your lips start moving, you’re disclosing, and whenever someone knows what you’re thinking or doing, there’s risk involved.” It’s a rather fearful way of looking at things but it is also true.
  4. Eye contact. Trustworthy people make eye contact. Of course, not all trustworthy people make eye contact and not all untrustworthy people have trouble doing so but, on the whole, research says eye contact suggests that a person is trustworthy.
  5. Body language. Trustworthy people engage. They demonstrate that they are listening and understand you by nodding their heads, smiling if appropriate and holding an open body posture.
  6. Open conversation. Listen to the specificity of  your acquaintance when they talk about where they’re from and what they do. Listen to the energy in their voice. It should be natural. Trustworthy people aren’t hiding anything. Their story should be consistent and believable.
There are cafes and small restaurants for lunch or a snack.

A view of New Jersey from the High Line in New York City.

Snap decisions for solo travel safety.

If you are suddenly unsure of yourself and need help from a stranger quickly, you’ll have to make that 20-second decision about whom to trust. In this case:

  1. Use stereotypes. Look around for someone that fits your stereotype of a safe person. Perhaps it’s a person with a family. Perhaps it’s an older person. Whatever works for you.
  2. Approach them. Be proactive. Rather than wait for someone to help you, approach your person of choice to get help. It’s unlikely you’ll make a mistake whereas if you look vulnerable the wrong person could approach you.
  3. Explain your needs clearly.

I did this in New York City once. I came out of a theater alone and got turned around. I wasn’t sure which was north and which south – I just knew that I didn’t want to go south. I chose a couple in their thirties who were talking about the play. Yes, in my mind theater goers are safe. I approached them, asked which way was north and got on my way.

A few posts on solo travel and trustworthy strangers.

Travel Solo and Yes, Talk to Strangers

Solo Travelers Enjoy the Kindness of Strangers

Hike with Me in Patagonia – 18 pictures. (shows Noemie in the tent we shared)

Please share your tips in the comments.



  • David C. Maness

    Another time, and I won’t go into specifics on this one, I learned a lesson the hard way. If your new contact suddenly changes plans, like the meeting place or activity, that is a serious red flag.

  • David C. Maness

    Last March I was solo traveling in Africa when a man approached me in the middle of the day. He was too well dressed; dark suit with a vest, faux designer shoes and accessories, briefcase. Who wears suit vests and carries briefcases anymore? But when he got close enough, the booze on his breath told me he was too close. I suspect he was trying hard to get the “international executive” look. I was silent until he left. Twice.

  • Vaibha

    You can travel solo when you are having proper training in Self Defense..

  • Janice Waugh

    Thanks Carola. Good points about cultural differences and, yes, pro scammers are pretty good at acting as part of an in-group. I wasn’t just thinking about con artists in this post. Your comment is valuable here. Thanks.

  • Janice Waugh

    The pro scammer certainly does have their story down. Thanks Deborah.

  • Deborah Fortuna

    In my experience, scammers will talk a lot at first. I understand inquiries about where you’re from, etc. I never tell anyone where I’m staying. Scammers usually start with a “story”. I’ve been lucky so far. Been traveling solo for 30 years.

  • Carola

    One little thing about eye contact, that is something that in many asian societies/cultures is considered impolite to make direct eye contact. So you can’t really rely on that one. The in group thing etc makes sense but crooks know that, too and will try to fit a certain stereotype. So the advice about being proactive is very good. It is really unlikely that you on your own will pick the scammer, but it is very likely the scammer will pick you the stranger.