This week, as I was reading about the graduate student who went missing at Yale, the article noted, as an irony, that the missing woman wrote an article only a few months ago about campus safety. We all usually know when something seems suspicious on our home turf - like when a door is open that shouldn't be - but when we venture out, we generally don't know usual from unusual, or safe from strange.
In ten years of solo travel, I have never had anything happen that surprised me - and I knock on the biggest piece of wood in my vicinity when I say that. I feel that my biggest keys for that, however, have little to do with luck.
First - I don't smile at people, generally. I set my jaw, look ahead, and send out a "go away" vibe. Granted, it might be easier for me to look more intimidating because I am taller than the average woman, but nonetheless, I note my surroundings, I note who I don't want to talk to, and I set my face to look like I am the most unapproachable woman on the planet.
Second - I am very aware that the strongest point on my body in a close situation is my elbow. While I may have a backpack slung over my shoulder, I don't weigh down my arms with bags. I've seen women walking through airports weighed down with luggage all over their arms. Don't be that woman. Keep your arms free so you can swing your elbows out from yourself easily.
Third - You don't need to be bigger or stronger than an attacker - you need to be smarter. There are several weak points on a person - eyes, nose, throat, solar plexus, groin and knee. I carry my rental car key in a clenched fist with the key sticking out from my hand. If someone tries to approach me from the front, I can punch with that fist and strike with the key. And I don't wear heels when I travel, because I would be less steady, so I can always strike with my feet, too. The tops of the feet and the knees are especially sensitive areas. You only need to strike hard enough to create enough time and room to get away. If you want to brush up on safety before you venture out, check out self-defense classes in your area.
Fourth - use everything you have when you scream. Scream as loudly as you can.
Fifth - If someone wants your wallet or purse, throw it as far away from you as possible, and run as fast as you can in the other direction. I would highly recommend if your travel plans include a walking tour of an unfamiliar city that you don't carry a purse if you can help it. And always leave at least a credit card and emergency cash in a hotel safe or other safe location, in case the worst does happen. What I do recommend taking is a walking stick or umbrella - both can be used to defend yourself against someone.
Sixth - use common sense - and your Sixth Sense. If something doesn't feel right, don't go. It's that simple.