A single woman friend of mine who works in the travel business called me up in high dudgeon last week. Given her job, she ends up staying in hotels an awful lot, and given her standing in the travel trade, she always gets VVIP treatment. Of course despite all this, she is still full of complaints about the many five-star properties that she stays in – but that, I guess, is the nature of the beast.
Even so, I was a bit taken aback by her latest grouse against luxury hotels. “Why is it,” she asked, “that wherever I go these days, people ask me if I want to stay on the ladies floor? Just because I am a woman travelling alone, does it mean that I want to be shut away in some all-female ghetto?”
As she raged on in this manner, firing rhetorical questions in my direction, without any attempt to pause for an answer, I began to wonder just why she was so angry. Surely, it was an innocuous enquiry made by solicitous staff who only wanted to ensure that her stay was as comfortable as possible. If she didn’t want to stay on the all-female floor, then all she had to do was say no.
But when I ventured to suggest this, I was met with a further tirade. I had missed the point completely. Didn’t I see that this was completely unacceptable? Why should women be stuck away in a floor all by themselves? Did these hotels think we couldn’t look after ourselves? Were they suggesting that they couldn’t ensure our safety if there were any men around? Was the purdah system alive and well and flourishing in the five-star circuit?
Okay, I can see that my friend has a valid point of view. But the truth is that while I am no fan of sexual segregation – no, not even the kind that ensures that all the men are huddled together in one corner at dinner parties while the women sit around in another large, glum group – I can see the point of having women-only floors in hotels, run by an all-female staff.
If I am travelling alone, there is a certain comfort in knowing that if I order room service late at night, I will be served by a female waiter. And that I can sit around in my shorts and T-shirt while housekeeping services the room without worrying about covering up for their benefit.
So, what exactly is the problem here? I still have access to all the other facilities of the hotel. I can sit and have a drink at the bar, I can hold business meetings in the lounge, I can meet my friends in the restaurants. And then I can retire to my room, secure in the knowledge that only female staff will have access to it.
No, I am not suggesting that all men are mad rapists and that women need to live in fear of them. But equally, every woman who has ever stayed alone in a hotel will have experienced that odd moment of complete vulnerability. Walking down a long, endless corridor to your room can be an unnerving experience in the early hours of the morning, especially when the key card fails to work and you have to call housekeeping to rescue you. In those circumstances there is a peculiar sense of security in knowing that only women staffers can access your floor.
Surely, in the scale of all the many problems that women travelling on their own have to face, this is a small, inconsequential matter? At the end of the day, it’s a matter of choice – and every single woman traveller is free to exercise hers. And if you take into account the kind of daft advice that is given to women travelling on their own, this seems like the acme of good sense.
God knows I’ve had enough of this thrown in my direction over the years. The most priceless morsel was delivered to me by a female merchant banker (who really should have known better). Always travel with a man’s shirt and tie and hang it up in your closet the moment you unpack, she told me. That way hotel staff won’t think you are on your own.
Yeah, right. That will put them off the scent. Never mind that I’m paying for a room with single occupancy. Or the fact that only one side of the bed is slept on. Or even that all my room service orders specify service for one.
But jokes aside, what would I advise the single woman travelling alone, whether for work or for pleasure?
Well, quite honestly, it wouldn’t be very different from what I would tell a male friend who was headed out alone.
Make sure you have a photocopy of your passport somewhere safe. Don’t travel with too much cash. Don’t venture into unsafe neighbourhoods alone at night. If you are mugged, don’t play the hero. Just hand over whatever you have. It’s better than ending up dead. Keep emergency numbers pre-programmed in your mobile phone (and keep the battery charged at all times). Keep an eye out for dangerous situations. But don’t let paranoia spoil your fun.
Because when you think about it, the rules of travelling safe are not that different whether you are a man or a woman. The only difference is that women travelling alone are perceived as softer targets. Which is why those all-women floors aren’t such a bad idea.