4 Big Lessons from Traveling Solo to the Middle East

Solo traveler Priyanka Juneja explores Philae Temple, Egypt
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This series is a set of firsthand anecdotes from a seasoned solo woman traveler who has traveled to 50 countries in the last decade. Priyanka Juneja is also finishing up her MBA and a Masters in International Studies from Wharton and is the founder of @hera.travel, a platform to empower women to travel fearlessly.

1. You will stand out

I distinctly remember my flight from Cairo to Bahrain. It was late. I was beyond tired and I had already flown across Egypt earlier that day. I was looking forward to curling up in my cramped airplane seat and trying to get some rest. After all, I still had one more flight from Bahrain to Muscat. Sleepily, I boarded the flight and instantly felt my blood run cold. Walking on to the plane, I noticed that not only was I the only woman traveling alone, but I was also the only woman not wearing a niqab. It’s difficult to put the exact feeling into words but knowing that all eyes were on me as I walked to my seat made my skin prickle. I stood out and everyone knew it.

Once I got to my seat, no less than three men jumped up to help me put up my suitcase. The second I sat down, the man next to me gave me a kind smile and reached over to buckle my seatbelt for me. I politely told him that I was fine and would be able to manage. He looked like he wanted to protest but ended up turning away from me.

After everyone settled down and the flight attendant came on the intercom to give the normal pre takeoff instructions, I spent some time trying to understand why I was so rattled. Knowing that I was the only woman on the plane traveling alone made me feel uncomfortable but there was more to it. I finally realized I was experiencing cognitive dissonance where two parts of my brain were colliding and struggling to find a resolution. 

On one hand, I understood the situation from a cultural context and that the man next to me who tried to buckle my seatbelt for me meant no ill intent; yet on the other, as a solo woman traveler, I had always been taught to be aware of my surroundings, keep an eye on my personal belongings, and to be skeptical of anyone trying to approach me. How was I supposed to reconcile these two contradicting notions?

2. It won’t be without its challenges 

The fact of the matter is that traveling as a woman in the Middle East is not without its challenges. First of all, depending on where you’re from, you may feel completely out of your comfort zone, given that culturally it’s likely different than what you are used to back home. Second of all, as a solo woman traveler, you will stand out. 

All throughout Egypt, I attracted attention. It was challenging to find someone I trusted and somewhere I felt comfortable, though I did have a couple of tour guides that went out of their way to ensure my safety. Interestingly enough, there were plenty of locals who thought I was Egyptian (I am of Indian descent) and that attracted extra stares. I could see people trying to figure me out when I shook my head that no, I don’t speak Arabic. The extra attention added another layer of discomfort to the trip. There were moments where I was exhausted from being on my guard and times where it was almost too much to handle.

3. It will ignite your senses 

I recount these challenges not to dissuade you from traveling to the Middle East but to highlight some of the unique situations women may face when traveling to different regions. Despite its challenges, there are so many incredible reasons to travel to this area. It’s a chance to be immersed into a world that’s likely to be completely different than your own. It’s an opportunity to ignite your senses, from air thick with unknown spices and snippets of conversations in dulcet Arabic to music that envelops you to your core. There’s a chance to experience the very history you read about in textbooks, food that will push your palette to a whole new level, and other vibrant cultural components that will only make you want to explore more of the region. 

There’s places like Dahab, Egypt’s hidden gem with some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever done and some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. 

There’s Beirut which on top of having so much to offer has some of the most mouthwatering food that I still think about (manakish, knefeh, and falafel). 

There’s even Dubai, an interesting juxtaposition of modern and traditional, and a fascinating opportunity to observe the evolution of a society. 

4. Find a trusted local guide 

With such a wealth of experiences to be had in this region, countries should make it a priority to focus on how they can improve women’s safety and comfort and in turn, be able to attract more solo travelers. For example, having two tour guides in Egypt that I could trust was invaluable for my experience and allowed me to relax a little knowing that they were looking out for me. Both of these guides were recommended by the hotels I was staying in, but not all hotels necessarily have this option. For some travelers, this is the key differentiator between a good trip and a trip that stops them from returning to the region. 

There’s an opportunity to provide key safety information for women such as trusted tour guides to make it more easily accessible to future travelers. There is also a need for more women-focused initiatives and the ability to connect women traveling to the same cities. This is exactly why I founded Hera. This women-only travel platform seeks to provide detailed safety recommendations and connect travelers that are visiting the same place at the same time.  

This serves two purposes:

  1. It ensures that women feel more comfortable traveling 
  2. It allows for a more elevated and trusted travel experience

Women consistently say that when they are traveling alone they do not feel comfortable doing anything after the sun goes down. As such, we are missing out on a variety of experiences when we travel. There is an opportunity to change that not just in the Middle East but across the travel industry in general. 

Despite its challenges, there are so many incredible reasons to travel to the Middle East. It’s a chance to be immersed into a world that’s likely to be completely different than your own.

Pro Traveler Corner

This section is to provide you with tips for traveling solo in the Middle East. The most important thing is to do your research in advance. This is absolutely necessary.

  1. Pack according to cultural norms
    In general, women dress conservatively in the Middle East, but it is important to understand what the specific country you are traveling to expects and accepts. 
  1. Know what areas of the city are safe for tourists
    It is important to do your research around specific areas because some can be more politically charged and unsafe for tourists.
  1. Be prepared for a male-dominated society
    Knowing and being prepared for the power imbalance between men and women is important to keep in mind. 
  1. Stay alert but enjoy the hospitality
    The Middle East is known for its incredible hospitality, and that is sure to be one element of your trip you’ll enjoy. Still, you should always be cautious. Do not accept anything from someone you don’t know on the streets or get into any cars that are unfamiliar to you.

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