If women travel more often than men, why do travel guides treat us like babes in the woods?
by Gabrielle Sierra
Any woman who announces her plans to travel alone will inevitably be faced with some form of the following helpful suggestions.
“Make sure to check in.”
“Watch who you give your information to.”
“Don’t get Taken, or I’ll have to use my special set of skills.”
Friends and family, who know and trust your ability to live and exist in the world every day as an adult female, suddenly revert back to giving advice that should only be delivered to a child walking alone to school. Gone is the faith that you wouldn’t take an open drink from a stranger in your hometown let alone a town halfway across the globe. It is as though as soon as you pick up your backpack and a ticket you suddenly lose all ability to tell right from wrong, adventure from stupidity, bright street from dark seedy alley.
This impulse to give safety and planning tips to quivering helpless waifs is a strange one, especially because women are leading the way when it comes to travel. Eighty percent of all travel decisions are made by women, even when accompanied by a group or a big strong man. Additionally, according to research performed by the George Washington School of Business in 2016, nearly two-thirds of travelers are women. Closer to home, a 2014 study by Booking.com found that 72 percent of American women are actively taking solo trips. And those numbers are only on the upswing, as seen by the 230 percent increase in the number of women-only travel companies created in the past six years.
What’s more is that these traveling women aren’t necessarily in their twenties or thirties: in the UK solo female travelers with an average age of 57 are currently dominating and driving the travel industry.
Yet this need to, above all else, highlight safety and security tips in women’s travel guides persists, often to the point of being downright insulting.
A listicle aimed at women traveling alone on a blog called Nomadic Matt opens with this passage: “Traveling the world as a solo female? Worried something might happen? Nervous? Think your friends and family might be right about the world “being dangerous”? Not sure where to begin? Fear not. Many women travel the world alone and end up fine.”
(Well I am glad “many” of us end up fine. The rest are, obviously, fucked.)
Sadly, Nomadic Matt isn’t the only author offering adventurous women safety guides instead of destination guides.
A quick internet search brings up a plethora of similar results. Typing “woman traveling alone” into Google surfaces a never-ending scroll of content created to “help” women travel safely. Articles like “Best Places for Women to Travel Solo” and “26 Best (And Safest) Places To Travel Alone For Females” and “46 Incredibly Useful Safety Tips For Women Traveling Alone” are a dime a dozen, offering advice and guidance not based on the most beautiful or unusual or friendly places, but the safest. These lists don’t focus on helping you select the best backpack to take for an eleven day journey, but instead on which tool is best when fighting off scary strangers.
“Mace (which you can’t bring on the plane, but you can put in a checked bag) or a whistle or a cat keychain all work for self defense, just in case,” advises Buzzfeed.
A quick Google search for “man traveling alone” is pretty much the opposite story. Solo Traveler advises men to wear a condom when having sex with women abroad. Some lists advise solo males to keep an eye out for pickpockets, which seems to be the extent of safety and fear-based tips given to men.
(A fun aside: Googling “man traveling alone” also surfaces this piece by Elite Daily which is an actual guide on how to find yourself a man while traveling alone as a woman, and features the statement, “Don’t just bring your athleisure and sneakers… break out the flirty dresses and espadrilles while you still can. And if you’re planning a trip in winter, bring some cute booties and skirts with tights.”)
Other articles either aimed at men or written without a specific gender in mind offer general travel tips and list the exciting aspects of spending time by yourself, such as this piece by Smarter Travel that promises, “People who have never traveled alone often describe their first solo trip as an almost religious experience. To take in new surroundings unfiltered by the prejudices, tastes or preferences of a traveling companion can be heady stuff. Traveling alone gives you the chance to indulge yourself fully.”
Where were these articles when I was searching for “woman traveling alone”? Five pages in? Six? How many bullet points of “dress modestly to minimize attention from men” and “wear a real or fake wedding ring, and carry a picture of a real or fake husband”, must I scroll through before I find the tip that tells me the best sneakers for hiking or the best city for off-the-grid art museums?
Look, life can be scary, and women are not always safe. We have all seen Taken and Brokedown Palace. We have read the articles about women who disappear while traveling alone, or are assaulted or kidnapped. We know there are places we probably shouldn’t go, alone or otherwise, due to unstable governments, violence, trafficking, or high rates of terrorism. The world is not always easy or kind, and women in particular have to be aware of where we go and what we do. Safety tips are sometimes really smart and great, and it is nice to know that people probably have your best interests in mind when they provide that sort of content.
But leading women’s travel guides with fear-based tips is simply ignoring the obvious: women already know how to exist in the world. We know how to dodge catcalls and avoid shady men and extricate ourselves from shitty situations right here at home. Women already know what it is like to have a guy follow us down a block or attempt to lull us with drinks. We know.
Adventurous women who decide to travel alone or with a female friend or a mother or an aunt or a sister are already confident in their ability to exist without the “protection” of the familiar. Check the stats buddy; leading with the antiquated notion that we are helpless is not recognizing our dominance in the world of travel. The underlying message of every, “Be careful walking into your hotel room” is “Are you sure you want to do this?”, and the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”
Yes, yes we do. We considered the safety aspect within the first few minutes of this decision, and have come to the conclusion that we are capable of undertaking this journey. So thank you for asking.
It is time for the travel journalism industry to catch up to the times, and cater to their prime market. So next time instead of a sweet tip warning about stranger danger, just let us know where to get the best cheese, tour the most incredible architecture, or join the best mountain climbing tour. We can take it from there.