Solo women’s travel surges in popularity

Despite what the much over-hyped film (not the book) Eat Pray Love would have us think, solo female travelers did exist before Elizabeth Gilbert. The difference, I think, is that now that Julia Roberts is starring in a movie about it, it’s suddenly viewed by mainstream America as “okay.”

And that’s okay. I may be a bit annoyed by the fact that Hollywood is responsible, but at the end of the day, who cares? It’s just great that experienced independent travelers will get less grief, and women who might not otherwise attempt a solo trip are now inspired to do so. The sheer volume of women-oriented travel companies has been steadily rising over the last five or so years, and now it looks like we’re hitting the tipping point.

While traveling alone is never easy for a woman, it’s comparatively a piece of cake now, compared to what women of even my mother’s generation must have endured. Yet, as a 41-year-old American female, I’m often amazed by how concerned other people are about my marital status (or lack thereof), my plans for my uterus (or lack thereof), and how I can afford to travel/who’s going to take care of me when I’m older/when am I going to grow up? I can handle these questions when there are cultural differences involved (sometimes with gritted teeth, like when I was 32, and a young Israeli male told me I’d better “find someone to marry quickly,” before I was “too old and ugly.” Sweet.).

I’ve never been one to give much of a hang about what others think, or else I wouldn’t have been able to put up with the comments denigrating my lifestyle. I hear them less now that I’m somewhat older (read: approaching end of child-bearing years), and because travel writing is now my profession. Unlike countries such as Australia or New Zealand, where a “gap year” of travel before university is a rite of passage, most Americans still tend to be constrained by what they view as adult, or gender-related, responsibilities.

Things are changing, of course. But the release of a book-turned-movie appears to have done more for the advocacy of independent women’s travel in one summer than I’ve experienced in a decade of travel journalism. A recent CNN article citing Eat Pray Love as inspiration profiles two women: a widow taking an early retirement, and a 32-year-old, now-frequent traveler who bit the travel bullet after being laid off in her late twenties.

I should hasten to add that I don’t consider myself a feminist (for a multitude of reasons that have no place on a travel blog), and I’m fond of describing myself as “spiritually bankrupt.” I don’t travel to be a “strong” woman, or find enlightenment. Travel is a highly personal thing, and everyone has their own reasons for doing, or not doing, it. I don’t care why other people travel; I just applaud the fact that they do, as long as they’re respectful of other cultures and the environment. I travel because it’s the thing I love most: it’s what motivates and inspires me, both personally and professionally, and I find it endlessly fascinating, even when things are going awry. I love learning about different cultures, trying new foods, seeing new landscapes. I love riding a bus for 24 hours, because it’s part of the experience. And yes, I prefer to travel alone.

Am I running away from something? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Will I ever settle down and stop traveling? Um, no. Am I ditching adult responsibilities? Nope. I have a home base, pay my bills on time, work a couple of “stationary” jobs, because travel writing isn’t lucrative. I’m in a long-term, committed relationship, I have plants. Sometimes I get burned out on travel, or have a disastrous trip. But within a day or two of arriving home, I’m always ready to plan the next adventure, and get on the road again as soon as possible. I do gain confidence from traveling alone, and thrive on its challenges. It’s a reminder that I can accomplish the goals I set for myself, For some, that might be called self-empowerment. For me, it’s just a lifestyle choice.

Not everyone is programmed to live the life society dictates, and plenty of people living so-called conventional lives, including mothers, find ways to make travel a part of their lives. Here’s to a national cultural shift that supports the exploration of the world outside our own bubble. Whatever set of gonads you happen to possess.

Himalayan High: guided vs independent trekking

For many adventure travelers, the Himalaya represent the ultimate destination. A visit to those mountains combines physical challenges, stunning landscapes, and spectacular cultural experiences. But whether you’re making a trek to Everest Base Camp, hiking the Annapurna Circuit, or simply strolling to Namche Bazaar, you’ll have to make an important choice before you go – whether to hire a guide or travel independently.

If you have never gone on a trek of this nature before, the choice is a simple one. You should definitely hire a guide for your first long distance hike. But if you have even a moderate level of experience backpacking, then you should consider the choices quite carefully, as both have their advantages and drawbacks, which can have a direct impact on a number of aspects of your trip.

The first element of your journey that will be impacted by this choice is the cost. Going independently will certainly be a cheaper option, as you won’t be paying for a guide and possibly porters as well. While on a day-to-day basis, a guide doesn’t seem all that expensive, his fees can add up quickly over the course of a trek that can last anywhere from 10-30 days. But even this isn’t necessarily so cut and dried either, as a guide might also work closely with some of the teaouses and restaurants that you’ll visit along the way, earning you discounted rates. Those discounts could end up saving you a substantial amount of money, although certainly not enough to make up the difference in price for hiring the guide.
Speaking of accommodations, that is another area that will be directly impacted by your choice of going guided or independently. On the one hand, if you travel on your own, you can bring a tent, and camp out in specified areas. This will, of course, save you more cash, but be sure that that the tent is a warm one, and that you also bring a very warm 4-season sleeping bag. Even during the warmer months, it can get quite cold at altitude. Teahouses are always available as an option of course, even when traveling independently, but during the busier seasons they fill up quite quickly and you could end up paying a premium. When traveling with a guide, you’ll likely have reservations for the lodges in advance, and you won’t have no wonder whether or not you’ll have a comfortable bed, with a roof over your head, on any given night.

Traveling independently also allows you to go at your own pace, which means that if you’re not feeling well or want to spend an extra rest day in one of the villages along the way, you can. You’ll also be able to pick your own route, and there are multiple paths for reaching Everest Base Camp for instance. On the other hand, the guides usually have a planned out itinerary designed to get you to and from your destination in the time that you have allotted. They also have built in rest days to make sure you’re acclimatizing properly, but they want to see you up and back down the mountain on an orderly schedule, which helps them to run more treks, and gets you back in Kathmandu in time for your flight home. There are times when a well regulated schedule does prove to be handy.

Having a guide along with you does provide a measure of safety however, as they generally know what to watch out for in terms of altitude sickness. They also know the best routes to take through the mountains, and can provide information on the surrounding peaks, the villages you pass through, and various other sites that you’ll come across along the way. Your guide will probably also come with a porter or two, who will carry your larger backpack, freeing you up to travel lightly with just a day pack. if you’re not use to carrying a heavy pack over uneven and demanding terrain, this alone can be worth the added expense of hiring a guide.

On my recent Himalayan trek I joined a guided trekking group in Kathmandu, and I personally feel it was the best decision for myself. I did indeed have a limited time in the country and I wanted to take advantage of that time to the best of my ability. Having a guide helped greatly in that department. It didn’t hurt that our guide was also very knowledgeable, had a great personality, and was fun to be around either. Going in a guided group also meant that I was meeting new people and sharing the experience with others. In this case, we had members of the group from all over the globe, making it a multicultural affair.

There were a variety of times when I was very happy to be a part of that group. For instance, just getting a flight from Kathmandu to Lukla could have been tricky on my own. The weather was less than stellar the day we were making that trip, and we were forced to wait in the airport until the skies cleared. But being part of an organized, guided trek, meant that we already had our tickets and reservations, before we even arrived at the airport. Had I gone independently, there is a good chance I’d have gotten bumped, throwing my schedule off completely.

Later in the trek, while we were descending, there was a sign in one of the teahoues that we were staying in that said that they were booked for the next four nights. We had reservations to stay for the night that we were there, but that “no vacancy” sign made me very happy that I wasn’t arriving in the village, at the end of a long day on the trail, hoping that I could find a place to stay.

After a few days in the Himalaya, I did notice how easy it would be to make the trek independently. The infrastructure is in place to make it as simple as possible. The trails are well marked and easy to follow on your own and there are villages every hour or two along the way. For experienced trekkers and backpackers, the option is there and it is an attractive one. By going independently, you’ll certainly save some cash and have some freedom to explore the mountains at your own pace. But should you elect to go with a guide, you’ll find that the benefits likely outweigh the costs, and you’ll find plenty of reasons that it is a good option as well.

Both options are viable and it is important to pick the one that bests fits your style of travel.

Next: Preparing for the Trek

How to decide if a tour is right for you

For some travelers, the mere sight of a tour bus is enough to make them cringe. Heck, I don’t enjoy seeing large masses of humanity spilling out of a humongous vehicle and mucking up my “unique” travel experience. But that’s not to say that all tours are wastes of your time and money.

There are some phenomenal tour operators all over the world offering myriad types of guided excursions. Many are even geared towards seasoned travelers who don’t need their hands held the entire time. So, rather than discount all tours as wretched experiences best left to novices, spend more time finding a tour that meets your needs and you may be surprised to find that you, too, can enjoy a guided experience.

Finding a tour that matches your travel aesthetic is easier than you think. You simply need to ask a few important questions.

Do you know anyone who recommends this tour?
You can read reviews on sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp, but there’s no way to know for sure that you’ll share the same opinions as the commenters on those sites. But you know your friends. You trust them. Reach out to family, friends and colleagues to see if they can recommend tours before you book anything. Twitter and Facebook are great ways to crowdsource opinions from people you know and who know what you like.

Will the tour help with a language barrier?
Sure, you can point at menu items and gesticulate your way to the bathroom, but, at some point, your inability to speak the local language may inhibit your ability to see something that you truly want to visit. That’s why finding a reputable tour operator can become the difference between having the trip of your dreams and going home disappointed. Gadling’s Darren Murph has mentioned in the past how a tour in Central America was his favorite guided travel experience. One key reason was his guide’s ability to expedite his border crossing – something Darren would not have been able to do on his own. Darren told me that the tour “literally made the impossible, possible.”

Does the tour solve transportation problems?
In the developed world, even novice travelers feel comfortable renting a car and heading off on their own adventures. Sure, driving on the left may feel awkward at first, but awkward is better than dangerous. In the developing world, transportation can often be the single biggest challenge that you will face. Whether it’s because the roads are dangerous, difficult or non-existent, it’s perfectly respectable to prefer that someone else do the driving. Other times, a car is not even an option. Paying for the boats, camels and helicopters needed to reach a remote location can be prohibitively expensive. Booking yourself on a tour can mitigate that problem and cut your transportation costs immensely.

Does the tour operator share your ideals?
While traveling should expand our minds and challenge our beliefs, there may be nothing worse than being on a tour led by someone who operates their business in a way that truly offends your sensibilities. When Janelle Nanos, Special Projects Editor at National Geographic Traveler and Intelligent Travel, was planning a trip to Morocco, she sought out tour operators who shared her “same ideals about sustainable and authentic travel.” This is particularly important if you are seeking out cultural tourism. Forced cultural experiences can leave you feeling uncomfortable, which is a topic we have covered before on Gadling. Finding a tour that meshes with your ideals will prevent you from wanting to jump out of a moving bus at any point on the trip.

Does the tour offer more than your guidebook?
Sometimes wandering on your own and supplementing your own knowledge with a guidebook is all you need to immerse yourself in a place. However, guided tours can often provide a deeper understanding and local expertise that no amount of self-directed research could unveil. Gadling’s Tom Johansmeyer took a free walking tour in Reykjavik with a guide who predicted Iceland’s economic problems well in advance of the news hitting the front pages of newspapers around the world. Whether it’s an Art Deco tour in Miami, a private tour of the Vatican or a prophetic walk around Reykjavik, a guide will be able to tell you much more than a book or pamphlet.

Who is the guide?
Darren Murph’s Central American tour was led by the owners of the tour company. Small operations like that have more of a vested interest in creating a positive experience because they can’t afford to develop a bad reputation. Massive tour operators with transient, part-time staff may be cheaper, but they probably don’t care about their product as much as a small business owner does.

How big is the tour group?
When it comes to tours, size matters. Small groups allow for personalized and intimate experiences. Large groups keep costs down and allow you to meet more people. Janelle Nanos wanted to avoid being part of a herd. She chose an operator in Morocco who kept the groups small. “That meant no big buses, no crowded tourist restaurants, no walking through a city like a group of four-year-old soccer wannabees following a ball.” Know your preference before you put down that non-refundable deposit.

How much free time will you have?
Even travelers who always prefer tours to independent travel want some time to themselves. Before booking yourself on a tour, find out how much free time you’ll have to explore neighborhoods, wander through ruins or just have a meal by yourself. Local knowledge and expertise are wonderful things, but so are customizing your trip and hearing your own thoughts.

Where will you be staying?
If your tour will involve overnight stays, investigate the level of accommodations. If you want to rough it, be sure that you won’t be at hotel chains every night. If hostels aren’t your thing, avoid finding yourself on a budget tour.

Many of you will continue to eschew tours and that’s certainly your prerogative. But, that may not always be an option. Some parks and historical sites only allow people to visit if they are part of a licensed tour group. Gadling’s Kraig Becker noted that hiking the Inca Trail is limited to those who are members of a guided tour. There are plenty of places with similar policies and even the most stubborn independent travelers will have to suck it up and ask themselves the above questions.

What questions do you ask yourself before booking a tour? What has made your tour experiences positive (or, unfortunately, negative)? Do you agree that it’s OK to take tours? Share your tour tips and tales in the comments to help us all get the most out of our travel experiences.

Special thanks to Janelle Nanos and all of the Gadling writers who shared their advice.