(WOMENSENEWS)–This Labor Day weekend, a new kind of travel will be taking the roads and crowding the airports: solo women travelers, sometimes in pairs and groups, but definitely not with spouses and kids.
Take Jill Yesko for example. When the 43-year-old Baltimore free-lance writer and yoga instructor decides to travel, she doesn’t wait for adventure to come her way. She packs her bags, gets on a plane and goes hiking through Spain, mountain biking in Death Valley or touring the Caribbean.
"I have always been a solo traveler," she said. "I have traveled with people and ruined friendships because of it–I spent all the time trying to get away from them."
Four years ago, Yesko decided to travel abroad for a year–at her own pace.
"At 40, it’s harder to fit into the context of a place. I’m not 23 with a backpack and a ‘Let’s Go’ attitude," she said. "It was more like ‘Let’s Go … Slowly.’"
After traveling through Curacao, the Caribbean and Mexico, she landed in Spain and stayed for five months. Although she contracted hepatitis along the way, she describes it as "the best year of my life."
Yesko may travel solo, but she is far from alone in her desire to set her own travel agenda and go where she pleases when she pleases.
Solo Woman Travel Now Significant Market Niche
Whether it’s a woman traveling on a business trip, taking off on a hike through Colorado or joining a women-only group for horseback riding through a Canadian national park, the solo woman has carved out a significant niche in the travel world.
Although industrywide statistics on solo women travelers are not available, a recent survey completed by an all-women tour company, "Women Traveling Together," found that, of more than 500 women surveyed, 68 percent of the respondents said they had traveled alone at least once in the past three years.
Although many solo women travelers fit the stereotype of the young backpacker, travel experts said they are seeing more older women, including those in their 70s, taking to the road, as well as mother-daughter teams and women-only adventure groups.
Just ask Evelyn Hannon, creator of Journeywoman, a Web site devoted solely to women travelers and specializing in solo trip advice and suggestions. She took her first solo trip to Belgium 18 years ago when she was 40 and recovering from a painful divorce. At that time, she had difficulty finding information geared toward women travelers. Two decades later, it’s a whole different story:
"A woman traveling alone isn’t a novelty anymore, except in those countries where women aren’t allowed out alone." Hannon said from her home in Toronto, Canada. "The young women who are traveling today are the daughters of the women who started the feminist movement. They grew up believing they could do anything."
Hannon, voted one of Time magazine’s "innovative thinkers of the century" in January, first offered Journeywoman as a monthly newsletter and started the Web site in 1997. Less than five years later, more than 30,000 women subscribe to the newsletter, and more use Hannon’s newer site, Hermail, in order to connect directly to women in other countries for advice.
Some Women Travelers Prefer the Company of Women
Hannon believes that solo women have secured their place in the travel world, and the trend is toward women and younger children traveling together. The same is true for the opposite end of the spectrum–older travelers. And mothers and their adult daughters are also traveling together.
"There are a lot of women who are 70, many of whom are happily and luckily married, and their husbands are taking their retirement and want to stay home," Hannon said. "Now, the grandma and former mama really has already been there and done that. She wants to go with her girlfriends on a shopping trip to Italy."
Hannon, planning a trip to Vietnam with her daughter, is designing a space on her Web site for both those niches–older women and mothers and children–and she hopes seasoned travelers will offer advice to the newcomers of all ages.
While a solo backpacking trip through Europe might be commonplace for travelers such as Yesko, it can be a bit intimidating and a bit lonely for others.
Bonnie Wayman, 42, a Denver nurse practitioner, prefers the company provided by AdventureWomen, which organizes trips of varying degrees of physical demand worldwide–exclusively for women over 30.
Wayman found the company when she wanted to go on a horseback riding trip but couldn’t get any of her friends to join her. Since then she’s been on about 12 trips, ranging from walking through Australia to hiking–and eating–her way across the Provence region of France.
Next up, a trip to the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador in March.
Wayman prefers the group dynamic, as well as the safety of traveling in numbers.
"When you come across something particularly interesting and you’re by yourself, you don’t have anyone to share it with," she said.
Susan Eckert, 55, president of AdventureWomen, started the company 20 years ago for exactly that reason. Eckert had just returned from the Peace Corps and wanted more adventure and people with whom she could share them. She started by offering weekend adventure trips canoeing and hiking to Chicago-area women.
Now she offers more than 25 different trips, attracting women of different ages and skill levels, from trekking in Nepal in November to whale watching in February in Baja California, Mexico.
"About half of them come by themselves, others bring a sister or a friend; there have been a lot more mothers and daughters coming," she said from her home base in Montana.
And not all of the women are single, she said.
"Twenty years ago, the thought was ‘You’re traveling alone, what’s wrong with your marriage?’" she said. "Now it’s, ‘Traveling alone is such a good thing for your marriage.’"
Wayman said the women-only groups focus on travel, as distinct from some co-ed groups that are more about pairing off. And she enjoys the shock impact a large group of women can have on a relatively quiet place, like Australia’s Outback.
"In Australia, we went to a place called Wee Jasper, which had five men and one woman. And here come 15 women who are staying in a sheepshearer’s hut and eating in the pub," Wayman said. "The men were told to leave us alone while we were eating, so they all pulled up their chairs to the door and just watched us eat, like they were amazed to see so many of us. And afterward we talked with them and it was great."
Dawn Fallik is a full-time reporter in St. Louis. She took her first solo trip through Colorado last year at the age of 30.
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