Category: travel

Personal Safety at Scientific Conferences

safe travels

Considerations about my personal safety always influence my conference travel, accommodation, and eating plans. This statement probably is not surprising to other women or female-identifying/presenting people. Why is this the case? I am always worried about getting harassed, attacked, or murdered.

It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Right up until we hear about cases such as the murder of Dr. Suzanne Eaton. She was attending a conference on the Greek island of Crete, took a break by going for a run, and did not return. The police are piecing together what happened next and have a man in custody.

I have attended many conferences during my career thus far and I want to talk about how safety considerations play out in real life terms and provide some examples.

Disclaimer: I am talking about my experiences and your mileage with my advice may vary. I am not looking for alternative ideas or comments on how I could have solved or prevented these problems. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to think or worry about these issues and I ask that you believe me when I say that the logistics of conference planning takes up a lot of time and emotional energy that I do not believe is experienced by my male colleagues.

When I first hear about a conference that I’d like to attend, my first thoughts are about the location and travel logistics. I ponder the following questions about the location:

1) In general, is the conference in a country, city/town, location that is relatively safe to travel to and travel within for a petite woman travelling alone? Do any travel advisories exist for the destination?

2) What options are available for travelling to and from the conference site? Can I take a direct flight, or do I have to deal with one or more flight connections?

3) Once I land at the airport, how do I get to the conference location? Is there public transit? Are local ground transportation options plentiful, safe, and regulated? Has the conference made arrangements for ground transportation?

I find travel exhausting and stressful. In an ideal situation I take a direct flight from my local airport to the conference city and pre-book ground transportation through a reputable and insured company that meets me at the airport and directly delivers me to where I’m staying.

Story time: The most stressful conference travel experience that I ever had (in terms of getting to a destination) was a small meeting in Europe. It involved a 7 hour flight to Switzerland, catching a 1.5 hour train, transferring to another train for 30 minutes, a 1.5 hour conference arranged bus ride, sending my luggage ahead on a ski lift, continuing the bus ride for another 15 minutes, and a snowcat ride up a mountain for 30 minutes.

Next up is investigating the conference venue and accommodation options. I ask the following questions:

1) What kind of venue is being used to hold the conference? Is it on a university campus? At a conference centre or hotel? What services are available at the conference site (e.g. food available, safewalk service available)?

2) Is the venue in a decent neighbourhood/relatively safe part of town? Is access controlled and secured, or is it a public or open site? How are things after dark?

3) What is the distance between the conference venue and accommodation options? Can I walk the distance? Is a car or public transit required? What do parking options look like? Any safety concerns with any particular accommodations?

4) Are any special events (e.g. conference banquet, pub night, etc.) being held at another location? What are my options for getting to/from these events?

Story Time #1: I remember a meeting at a university on the east coast of Canada where the conference was held in a main university building and the accommodations were residence buildings further up the hill. This was neat and pretty during the day, but terrifying at night. The options for walking back up to the residence at night were to either walk up a busy road with no sidewalk, or take the exceptionally dark path through the forest. Women arranged with each other to walk back up in pairs or in groups; no way in Hell was anyone willing to do that walk alone.

Story Time #2: A conference in a major Canadian city. One night I wanted to leave the pub night early, but no one else was leaving at the same time or staying at the same accommodation. It took me 20 minutes to walk to the pub (in daylight) and 10 minutes to speed walk back to my hotel. At the same conference a few nights later, we had returned to the city after the banquet on a bus at about 12:30 a.m. I was very grateful when a friend offered to walk me back to my hotel before returning to his own accommodations.

Some general guidelines that I’ve made for myself based on prior experiences of scientific conferences:

1) Whenever possible I travel during daylight hours and always stay alert to my surroundings. I don’t try to travel for lengthy periods of time all in one go. If I’m travelling across an ocean, I’ll aim to arrive 2 days before the conference and do the travelling in stages to try to deal better with jet lag and exhaustion. I don’t make good decisions when tired. Once I’m at my destination, I plan the route that I’ll take ahead of time and if I’m walking I wear comfortable shoes and never wear earphones.

2) I spend a lot of time looking at Google maps of the areas that I’ll be staying in so that I can situate myself in the location well before I arrive (e.g. I know the locations of major streets and landmarks). I identify several options for the following well in advance: food (grocery stores and restaurants), bank machines, pharmacy, transit stops, all conference venue locations, hotel location, parking locations; I use TripAdvisor ratings to identify good options.

3) I use the campus/hotel fitness centre. I am not comfortable jogging or running in unfamiliar places outside.

4) I don’t use ride-share apps (e.g. Uber, Lyft) and attempt to avoid taxis if possible. I’ll usually opt for public transit or pre-book a towncar/limo with a professional driver. I am done having to listen to offensive opinions, sexist comments, drives through sketchy neighbourhoods to rack up the fare, etc.

5) I stay at hotels or university residences. I don’t use AirBnB/VRBO for travel if I’m by myself.

5) I make use of room service, meal delivery apps, and grocery stores for meals and snacks. If I’m ambitious I’ll plan to meet friends for lunches or dinners on certain days of the conference before I leave to attend.

I’ve been very fortunate that most of the negative experiences that I’ve had during conference travels have been very minor. I hate that I have to invest so much time in proactively attempting to keep myself safe as a woman travelling alone.

Commiseration about awful or dangerous conference and academic travel experiences are welcome in the comments. Stay safe out there!

Service Review: AirBnB

I will admit to being very late to the game in using AirBnB as an option for looking for housing for either personal or conference trips. The number one issue that I had was safety and security which included my personal safety during interactions with the provider and financial security when it came to payments. The second concern that I still have (in some markets) is the lack of regulatory oversight and some of the horror stories that I’ve seen in the media from both sides of the service interaction; things like bed bugs, trashed houses, inconveniencing neighbours, fraud, etc.

I used AirBnB for the first time this past summer during a sabbatical trip and a family vacation in Europe. Our first order of business was to find housing in Palma de Mallorca, Spain for 3 weeks for the research portion of our trip. We wanted housing that would house 2 adults and 2 children fairly comfortably. We ended up finding a two bedroom, one bathroom apartment in Old Town via AirBnB, but then contacted the rental office directly to make arrangements. The apartment was perfect for our needs. The only issues that we had were that the company wanted payment in full up front (the other option was to pay in cash upon arrival) and that the representative was 45 minutes late meeting me at the apartment to give me the keys. A few bumps, but once we got into the apartment it was clean, tidy, and great! Overall, a pretty positive experience and value for our money. A “family” room at an apartment hotel 15 minutes outside of town cost the same for 1 week as what we paid for the 3 weeks at our rental apartment in town.

Our next bookings were all for personal travel in various cities. First up was Paris. We found an initial booking that was great, but it was cancelled a few weeks later by the host and the reason given was that their last guest had been awful and antagonized the neighbours all around the unit and the host was being threatened with eviction if any other AirBnB rentals took place. This example speaks well to the numerous legal/financial/regulatory issues that can arise with this business model. AirBnB notified us that the funds that we had paid could be used on any other booking and we had no problem securing another apartment. The location of that booking was in a neighbourhood that had seen better days, but the unit was secure, clean, and worked for us. The only issues here were that the hosts had changed the locks that afternoon and had difficulty getting into the unit later that day (our kids found the swearing in French highly entertaining) and the bathroom was tiny and a strange configuration. The price was great, but this unit would have been a no go for anyone with mobility issues. Getting our heavy luggage up 4 flights of curving stairs was a challenge.

Next up was London. We booked a great place in a Southbank neighbourhood that was handy to transit and many of the sights around Westminster. This one was quite spacious and had a great layout. The renter’s partner had to meet us to give us the keys and this involved us trying to find each other for about 30 minutes. This apartment was noisy at night due to sirens etc. as we were located right behind a police station. It was very clean, tidy, convenient, and one of our better rentals.

Our next rental was in Edinburgh. We were able to pick up the keys on time and the location was pretty good; both for walking and for parking our rental car. This turned out to be the worst rental of the lot unfortunately as cleanliness was an issue, there was a bug problem, and they were addressing a sewer problem in the unit. They were quick to respond to our concerns, but it put us off during the rest of our stay.

Our final booking was in Dublin and it was great. A very spacious apartment that was tastefully decorated and professionally maintained. We had notified them of a late arrival due to flight delays and they were still able to have someone wait at the unit with the keys. The location was great and we enjoyed our time there. The only weirdness was some feather art on the wall that was housing a large number of tiny moths. When told about that issue (which we thought was fascinating and didn’t find distressing during our stay) they indicated that it was pretty common given the dampness of Dublin and thanked us for bringing it to their attention.

Overall, the bulk of our experiences were positive and we avoided any complete disasters or horror stories during our trip. I do have a few tips to offer based on our experiences.

1) Do your homework and due diligence before making a booking. This includes investigating the neighbourhood where the apartment is located, transportation options to get to/from the apartment (e.g. transit, taxis, airport shuttles, etc.). Be sure of the number of bedrooms, beds, bathrooms, layout, and appliances available before you commit and ensure that the booking will suit your needs.

2) Read each and every review on the AirBnB site for the booking. We did not book any places with no reviews and tried to only book places with >10 positive reviews. You will sometimes need to read between the lines of the reviews. For example, 2 reviews on the Edinburgh apartment said that issues were addressed quickly. This is the polite way of saying that there were issues and we should have picked up on that prior to our booking. We also did not book anything where the host had cancelled a prior reservation on someone else.

3) AirBnB properties come in three varieties: people’s homes that they are renting out sometimes to earn extra income (they may be on vacation or staying somewhere else in town while you rent it), timeshares or vacation homes that would otherwise sit dormant, or entrepreneurs who own several properties and rent them out all of the time. Our best experiences were with the latter group as we found the properties to be professionally cleaned and maintained. You can often tell what type of rental you are dealing with by looking at the photos; if it’s fairly spartan and staged it’s likely more professionally managed, if you can see toys, knick-knacks, and personal effects it’s likely someone’s home.

4) Key pick up is often a weird experience and if there are any problems it’s a bit of a crap-shoot as to whether they will get addressed to your satisfaction. This was the aspect of the experience that annoyed me the most. This in my opinion is the major disadvantage vs. a hotel where someone is always working the front desk, although that being said I’ve had some nightmare situations happen during hotel stays also.

Hope that these tips are helpful! Feel free to share your experiences using AirBnB in the comments!


Good-bye to 2016

All in all, 2016 was a good year for me. During the first semester of the year I taught a course, mentored several students, and found out that my NSERC Discovery Grant was renewed. I also hit 100 followers on Twitter which I thought was pretty cool. In February I started Bullet Journaling as a system of time management and I really like it. The part that I think that I like most is that it’s a written record of everything that I was able to accomplish this past year and that the system can be modified to suit your individual needs.

The second semester during the summer saw me switch gears significantly as I was preparing for my first sabbatical in July. I attended two conferences in cities where I did my post-doc and Master’s degrees respectively, so it was a bit of a homecoming for me which was neat. At the end of June I left for Italy to attend a conference and then my family and I spent 3 weeks in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. That trip was a conscious effort to push myself out of my comfort zone, but I need not have worried as my hosts were wonderful! While I was working with a collaborator, my family explored the city and the island’s beaches. We then took a family vacation in August to Paris, England, Scotland, and Ireland which was fantastic!

The fall term found me getting a new groove and I was able to be much more proactive rather than reactive due to being on sabbatical. The biggest success that term was finally publishing a manuscript that was the result of 6 years of laboratory work. That was a huge win for me. I was happy to watch the Blue Jays in post-season baseball for the second year running; unfortunately they were eliminated by the team from Cleveland. The year rounded out with time spent with family and friends over the holidays.

I hope that your 2016 was productive and that you are looking forward to 2017!


The Sabbatical

I started my first sabbatical in July. It began with an international conference in Italy and then a three week research collaboration and visit to a colleague’s lab in Spain. It was a wonderful start to this academic year. I am discovering that a sabbatical allows one to be reflective rather than reactive. I am using the time to think, plan, discover, recharge, and appreciate aspects of this job that I have tended to take for granted.

My hiatus from the blog this summer was due to my travelling schedule in July and August and a September that saw me settling into a new routine afforded by my sabbatical. I hope to post more regularly in the upcoming weeks as I reintroduce blogging into my schedule.