Good morning. Over the past few weeks I’ve been speaking to a small but growing tribe of women who want to travel solo. What is their motivation, and what are the pitfalls to avoid? I have this and the gender developments of the week. Read on...
The Big Story
The irresistible charm of solo travel
At 60 she learned to cycle. At 62 she became a long distance runner, running 50 km+ distances. And at 64, she took her first solo holiday to Kashmir.
Pushpa Bhatt, now 67, says she has a “good 25 years ahead” to go to places she’s never been. In the past, she’s travelled alone on work trips or with her daughter or in groups. But now the single mother who’s worked hard and invested wisely, has her priorities sorted—like running 72 km through the Khardung La mountain pass in Ladakh last year with plans to run again this September.
Representational Image (Source: Unsplash)
For Bhatt, like many other women who travel solo, the value of travel became irresistible during the pandemic. Then, she spent two months by herself in Manali at a homestay; her daughter accompanied her for eight days before heading back to Mumbai. When restrictions eased, Bhatt packed her bags for a 10-day holiday to Kashmir, staying at Airbnbs, travelling by car to Pahalgam, where she hiked, Gulmarg and Sonmarg and having the time of her life. “Of course I ran everywhere I went in shorts. Nobody batted an eyelid.”
A post-pandemic desire to see the world after months of restricted or no travel, the growth of short-term home-stays, and the spurt of women-focused travel companies have all contributed to the rise of the solo woman traveller. Many opt for it also because of the flexibility it offers.
Solo domestic travel grew by 120% in the second quarter of 2022 compared to the same period in 2019, points out Garima Pandey, co-founder of Wandering Jane, a Bengaluru-based company that curates group and individual trips for women.
So strong is the trend towards solo travel globally that Airbnb, which found that over 50% of nights booked for long-term stays during the first quarter of 2022 were by solo travellers, launched a safety product aimed specifically for this traveller in June 2022.
Pandey, a former banker with engineering and MBA degrees, saw an opportunity in starting a company that would cater to women who are financially independent and feel no guilt about spending on themselves, whether it’s buying a car, a house or a holiday. These women are ready to travel alone, but have concerns, and rightly so, about safety. “So we said, what if we could provide women who travel solo with local experts who could take her around?” says Pandey.
Wandering Jane’s clients have included a visually challenged woman who wanted to visit Ooty and a woman whose company had given all employees time off to rest and recharge to avoid burnout.
Why travel solo?
For personal growth and to become self-sufficient, says chef Priyasha Saluja who has been travelling solo since she was 19. “Traveling solo has made me stronger as a person,” she says. “When you travel alone, you’re forced to make an effort to get to know other people, to get out of your bubble and interact with people from all over and from all walks of life.”
Starting with her first solo trip to Goa, Priyasha has spent six weeks backpacking in south India, been all over Kerala and returned to Goa several times.
Former journalist Priyali Sur’s first solo trip was to Vietnam at a time when, she says, she was going through a personal crisis and wanted time alone to think. “I loved it,” she says. What followed were solo trips within India—Dharamsala, Shillong and Pondicherry. Her experiences have so far all been good, she says.
In March this year, Deepika Verma who runs a luxury homestay in Uttarakhand took her first solo trip, a five-day trek, around Binsar where she stayed at homes in different villages. “Amazing,” is how she describes the experience. “I’ve lived in hostels all my life so I get along well with people.” The trip was organised through Village Ways, a company that invites you to “see real India through village eyes”.
The safety factor
Representational Image (Source: Unsplash)
Safety is a chief concern of women who travel alone with 65% of female travellers worldwide worrying about personal safety, according to Statista.
With good reason. In April, a man in Jodhpur flashed his genitals to a Korean blogger while she had her camera out. She put up the video on social media, leading to the arrest of the man. Earlier, in March, videos of a Japanese tourist surrounded by a mob in Delhi wanting to play Holi went viral. And in December another South Korean blogger was harassed by two men on a motorbike in Mumbai.
Travel writer Shunali Khullar Shroff who travels alone for work and fun, has some common-sense do’s and don’ts. Do not venture out at night, unless it’s with a trusted local. A good taxi driver can make all the difference—but do not hire one without proper checks and references. Let your hotel staff know when you’re going out, where and when you expect to be back. And carrying a book can be useful if you are self-conscious about eating alone at a restaurant or want to fend off unwanted conversation.
In addition to not venturing out alone at night, Priyali adds: Choose hotels or homestays that have good reviews. Make sure it is located in a safe neighbourhood. Do not engage with people who are forcefully trying to engage with you (and this holds true for women as well as men). And though she’s never needed it, she does carry a pepper spray just in case.
Be mindful of the local culture, carry a list of local contacts, if you’re planning to hike, make sure you have an offline map in case you lose network coverage, carry basic medicines and first aid, says Pandey.
In a country where it’s still uncommon to see a woman eat alone at a restaurant, or even go to the movies on her own, the sight of a women travelling alone for fun is uncommon. “We’re still not a country where we let women be free,” says Priyasha. “But when you travel alone you see how people are good and will go out of their way to help you. It changes you as a person.”