For Women, Solo Adventure Travel Is the New Vacation

Karen Ng, Crossing
KAREN NG uses photography to explore her love of travel, architecture,
and the beauty of her hometown of Hong Kong. Her work focuses
on living in the present moment and appreciating culture and design.
Crossing
2017.

Women make the bulk of travel decisions—80 percent, according to a Forbes report—and more and more are opting for solo adventures. It makes sense, then, that adventure travel brands are witnessing major growth in female clientele, while travel bloggers are finding new swathes of followers for their globe-trotting escapades. Whether they choose all-inclusive retreats or the cheapest one-way tickets, women are the world’s new adventure aficionados.

The number of women traveling with REI Adventures has grown 60 percent since 2010. Last year, women made up 58 percent of their guests.

But REI Adventure’s growth was foreseeable—according to a 2014 Booking.com study, 72 percent of American women are interested in solo travel and those who pursue it are doing so more adventurously. The Travel Industry Association of America reports that 20- to 70-year-old women make up three-quarters of those embarking on nature, adventure, and cultural journeys.

“We’ve launched a new line of women’s programs and one of the things that inspired us to do it is that we’ve seen our female participation increase year over year,” says Cynthia Dunbar, general manager of REI Adventures.

The recreational equipment and apparel brand introduced 19 “Women’s Adventures” this year to capitalize on mounting evidence that women are forgoing indulgent vacations and choosing explorative travel—from going on safari tours in South Africa, hiking the Southern Alps in New Zealand, trekking Machu Picchu, and kayaking around the islands of Greece to biking Canada’s Whistler Mountain.

Karen Ng, Iceland
Iceland
2016.
Karen Ng, From where I stand
From where
I stand
2015.

“So many women lead busy lives—be that careers or managing a busy family schedule,” says Dunbar. Their clients, 25 percent of whom are repeat guests and most of whom are in their 50s, thus opt for the convenience of taking a pre-packaged adventure trip, traveling with female guides, following itineraries that challenge them outdoors, and immersing themselves in local communities that they wouldn’t likely find on their own.

“When you travel with REI, we take care of every detail, including itineraries, great meals and, with many of our trips, the gear necessary for a successful adventure,” Dunbar adds.

And you don’t need to have experience, either, to have success, she insists. If you’re new to adventure travel, you’re not alone.

“I started with REI about 24 years ago and before that I worked for an airline, so I traveled a lot. But when I took my first REI Adventures trip, it was a really transformative experience.” Dunbar says. “I was apprehensive at first and had to get in shape for it—it was a multisport trip (hiking, biking, and rafting). But if you have the interest and the time to get in shape, you don’t have to be a triathlete. We really try to foster folks getting into the outdoors for the first time.”

For those who want to build their adventure repertoires, REI offers educational seminars through their local stores on a host of subjects, such as backcountry cooking, bike repair, navigating in snow, climbing, and more, all aimed at arming participants with the skills needed for successful and enjoyable independent travel.

 
“Relationships formed with fellow women are cited as almost as important as the destination itself.”
 

But REI isn’t the only company capitalizing on these travel trends. AdventureWomen, a women-owned firm, operates tours exclusively for women 30 and older. The trips range in duration from one to three weeks and are classified by activity level: “easy,” “moderate,” and “high energy.” AdventureWomen’s typical client is between 35 and 65 years old, so the company is appealing directly to whom Forbes says is the average adventure traveler: the 47-year-old woman.

Perhaps it’s for that reason that 70 percent of AdventureWomen’s guests are repeat customers, according to the company’s website. Collectively, the AdventureWomen team has traveled to more than 65 countries across the globe. This year, the company rebranded to boast a broader diversity of destinations, slated to become available in 2018.

The refining of their programs comes after AdventureWomen surveyed more than 7,000 women in a market research campaign. Results indicate that traveling with other women is an entirely different experience than traveling with partners, spouses, and male friends—relationships formed with fellow women are cited as almost as important as the destination itself.

“The dynamic is different,” explains Nicole Wineland-Thomson, a co-owner and director of programming for AdventureWomen. “Women in any culture relish the freedom to experience new things away from limiting societal expectations. We have a unique sense of discovery, an unabashed curiosity, the easy ability to laugh at ourselves, and the capacity to create a non-competitive environment of support and encouragement for each other. Under these circumstances, women feel free to challenge themselves by trekking up a mountain, learning to snorkel or scuba dive, or immersing themselves in an unfamiliar culture. On an all-women’s trip, women tell us that they can be unequivocally themselves.”

Like REI, AdventureWomen promotes a commitment to “women-to-women” cultural exchange opportunities on their trips, allowing guests to meet female leaders in local communities. New to AdventureWomen, however, is the company’s “play hard, rest hard” program, in which guests will be challenged physically by day and spoiled with luxury accommodations by night.

But these guided travel companies that appeal to middle-aged women aren’t necessarily financially feasible for women any younger, such as those in their 20s and early 30s. Instead, for this demographic, there has long been a culture of traveling on a shoestring budget—which in many ways is more adventurous than a package deal.

 
“I thought you kind of had to be really wealthy to travel like I wanted to, but I started reading travel blogs and realized that these people aren’t trust-fund babies.”
 

Take, for example, Kristin Addis, travel blogger at “Be My Travel Muse,” a site that promises to help visitors “live out [their] travel dreams.” Addis, 30, has been backpacking across the globe on her own for four and a half years since quitting her investment banking job in Newport Beach, California, where she’d spent four years.

“I basically decided to not do the cubicle life anymore in 2012,” Addis says. “I thought you kind of had to be really wealthy to travel like I wanted to, but I started reading travel blogs and realized that these people aren’t trust-fund babies. And it’s amazing how in some parts of the world, your money is worth two or three times what it is back home.”

Addis bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok where she says she knew her money would last. Upon landing, she changed tack and headed for Cambodia, planning to return to Thailand when diving season hit. With the freedom and the funds at her disposal, she went to tour the sacred wonder Angkor Wat, kickstarting a cumulative year and a half of adventure in Southeast Asia.

Solo travel is now Addis’s unabated addiction. She’s done it all: bungee jumping in South Africa, paragliding in Nepal, sandboarding in Namibia, and a weeklong scuba trip in Indonesia’s Komodo National Park. She completed a two-month hike through Patagonia and recently returned from a road trip through Uganda and Rwanda. In what she describes as the most life-altering of her travel experiences, Addis hitchhiked from Yunnan, a province in southwestern China along the Tibetan border, to the province of Sichuan.

“I was really low on money and I started out with a Chinese girl who was so enthusiastic about it that my worries melted away,” she remembers. “I did it a few times with her but then I continued to do it by myself because it worked.”

Addis stuck to rural roads where she was also able to train for a hike in Nepal. Besides hitchhiking, she found other ways to afford her landloper lifestyle: hopping aboard cargo ships instead of spending money on ferries and even crashing with locals.

“I didn’t pay for accommodation half the time I was in South Africa. I’d meet people and then they’d want to host me,” she recalls. “It’s pretty surprising how many people you meet on the road and how often you wing it.” “Winging it” has worked out well for Addis.

She parlayed her travel success into a popular blog that pulls in more than $25,000 per month in sales of products and services via affiliate links. The blog notched more than 1 million visitors in 2016, and Addis has more than 190,000 followers on her social media accounts. She has even published a book: “Conquering Mountains: How to Solo Travel the World Fearlessly.” Her growing popularity has enabled Addis to more than double the earnings she made at her corporate gig. As a result her means of travel are much different than they were when she started out.

Nevertheless, Addis says she saved $20,000 before she left California—just in case.

“That’s what I had in cash. The rest was in huge retirement funds that I can’t really touch without huge penalties,” she says. “I made sure that I had what felt like a comfortable buffer so that I’d at least have something to fall back on if I did come back to California.”

 
“Last year, she traversed the globe for about five months, and this year she says she anticipates spending eight or nine months traveling.”
 

Of course, not all women are keen to quit their jobs or have a nest egg like that of Addis. Instead, some have discovered cheap travel methods while working, like Sally Elbassir, the self-described “multicultural mutt” and 26-year-old foodie behind “Passport & Plates.”

Elbassir, the only Arab-American Muslim solo female travel blogger out there, says she caught the bug when she spent six months traveling after college. She vowed to one day be location-independent.

“A couple of years later, my quarter-life crisis was in full swing and my lack of success in finding my dream job led me to create it,” she explains. “I took my first solo trip in August 2015 and have been blogging ever since.”

Today, she’s a “digital nomad,” working part-time as a social media marketer for a small Los Angeles-based ad agency and part-time writing posts about “the intersection between culture and food” for travelers with budget constraints. Elbassir calls her method “slow-travel”—she’ll rent a place for a couple of months and explore while working online. Last year, she traversed the globe for about five months, and this year she says she anticipates spending eight or nine months traveling.

“I’ve solo traveled in Spain, Indonesia, Egypt, Jordan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore,” Elbassir says. “My most memorable experience was my first camping trip, which I did this year in the White Desert in Egypt. I subsequently did another camping trip in Jordan and slept on a felucca (a traditional sailboat in Egypt) for another night … There’s seriously nothing like falling asleep under a sky full of stars.”

She’s been able to afford traveling by booking flights with “error fares” (mistakenly underpriced flights on third-party booking sites), using rideshare apps like Blablacar or Share Your Ride, and booking alternative accommodations through sites like Airbnb and CouchSurfing.

Globetrotting is becoming more accessible and safer for budget-conscious travelers like Elbassir. In addition to the aforementioned accommodation platforms, new kid on the block Wanderful—a startup that offers meet-ups in more than 25 cities worldwide, online forums and Facebook groups, a blog with travel tips, guided adventure travel tours, an annual Women in Travel summit for influencers, and a series of retreats for enthusiasts called Wanderfest—just launched the first women-only homeshare network.

“Obviously we can never say that something is definitely safer, but there’s just this feeling that you get when you know somebody is part of the same community that you’re a part of, and you know it’s another woman,” says Beth Santos, the founder of Wanderful, who got the itch herself while traveling solo in the African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe in 2005. “You just feel a little bit more secure.”

In a survey of 150 of their 15,000 members, Wanderful found that 54 percent stay in hotels when they travel alone, almost half doing so for reasons of safety. Moreover, 74 percent said they’d be more likely to seek accommodations with an all-female homeshare network when traveling solo. Within a week of launching the network, 50 of the 300 paying Wanderful members signed up to be hosts.

 
“We’re not just traveling for the sake of travel—we’re traveling to have this broader concept of the world, be engaged, and help other women.”
 

Increasingly, women are looking to get more engaged in all aspects of the travel community, Santos says. With regard to adventure travel in particular, she credits social media—including blogs like Addis’s and Elbassir’s—for bringing women closer to alternative destinations and more audacious experiences.

And while content is great, says Santos, Wanderful is committed to fostering a global network of women who will continue preserving and shaping adventure travel trends by helping each other.

“Even though the questions are always the same, the answers are always changing depending on where you’re going or when you’re going or the political situation at the time,” Santos says. “We’re not just traveling for the sake of travel—we’re traveling to have this broader concept of the world, be engaged, and help other women.”

Karen Ng, BnW
BnW
2015.

This feature originally appeared in the Madness issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Madness issue here or read Travel Blogger Randi Delano’s Guide to Traveling on a Budget.

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