As a newspaper reporter, I'm constantly on the road—alone. When I travel for pleasure, I've always shied away from big groups of women: too loud, too frantic, too reminiscent of the clique I loathed in junior high. So it was somewhat unexpected that earlier this year I found myself taking two all-women trips within the space of six months. The first was to Austin, Texas, with three colleagues. We had come from four corners of the country and planned little in advance, knowing only that we wanted to eat barbecue, listen to honky-tonk music, and splurge on massages at the Lake Austin Spa. We stayed up all night, and with the help of too much red wine we debated whether we might solve the problems of work-life balance by sharing a child between us.
The second trip was far more structured, but no less indulgent. Michelle Peluso, the 32-year-old CEO of Travelocity and a friend of a friend, had organized a weekend gathering for 15 high-powered women at her parents' condo on Amelia Island, Florida. Amy Ziff, Travelocity's editor-at-large, sent out spreadsheets indicating who was in which rental car, what spa treatments had been booked, when we would play golf, and—should any of these well-laid plans go awry—how to reach each other by cell phone. One friend suggested that next year we assign required reading for discussion groups. Type A, for sure, but this trip also featured plenty of red wine and bonding.
These days, women are on the road and in the skies in record numbers. Some experts estimate that women comprise 50 percent of frequent fliers and make 70 percent of all travel decisions. "The industry looks at women and sees one big pocketbook," says Marybeth Bond, editor and author of seven travel books—including Gutsy Mamas, which is full of tips for on-the-go mothers. Her groundbreaking 1995 book, Travelers' Tales: A Woman's World, was an instant hit. Bond got a letter from a grateful flight attendant who recalled a visit to Paris in the seventies: a maître d' planted an American flag on her table as she dined alone one night "so people would know I was a tourist and not a hooker." But when Bond began proselytizing to the travel industry, saying that this was the set to watch, the response was lukewarm—some hotel companies told her they wouldn't care until women made up 50 percent of their properties' loyalty programs.
A decade later, people are finally listening. Hotels that once did little to cater to this set are now dreaming up cheeky packages like the PMS (pralines, martinis, and shopping) weekend at the Fairmont Waterfront in Vancouver or the Oh My Goddess special at the Hotel Monaco in Denver. Under Kimpton's Women in Touch program, in-room yoga amenities are provided on request. Local tourism bureaus—New York's Finger Lakes and Warren County, Ohio—are promoting their regions as female-friendly retreats. Outfitters such as Adventurous Wench, Chicks With Picks (for ice climbers), and Luna Tours are ubiquitous. Even adventure companies that are geared toward both sexes—Backroads and Butterfield & Robinson among them—say women make up the majority of their clients.
In 1971, women accounted for only 1 percent of business travelers. Today, according to a 2003 study sponsored by the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management at New York University, that number is closer to 40 percent. Hotels are responding to these solo travelers by adding safety features. In Denver, the Teatro offers its concierges as jogging partners (if you prefer to run alone, they'll lend you a two-way radio). Boston's Nine Zero Hotel developed an iris-recognition system that will eventually replace all room keys.Many hotels avoid booking single travelers in rooms with adjoining doors; others send female staff to deliver room-service orders.
But perhaps no chain has gone as far as Wyndham. As a young company—started in 1981—it was looking for ways to attract customers, and many male travelers were already locked into older hotels with points programs. In the mid-1990's, Wyndham created an advisory board to find out how to win women over. Receptionists began writing down guests' room numbers, rather than announcing them aloud, and calling ahead before delivering room service. The company also began the Women on the Way program, with a Web site that features special tips for female travelers. When Wyndham originally began tracking its demographics, in 1997, women made up 22 percent of its business travelers; now, they make up 50 percent, and generate $300 million a year for the chain.
Predictably, women-owned inns have also made safety a priority. During her many years on the road, Sally Deane, chair of the Boston Women's Health Collective, took mental notes about the limitations of male-designed hotels. She created Boston's Charles Street Inn—which opened in 2000—with these observations in mind. "When you pull up to a hotel, it should feel secure and warm," she says. Her inn has only one entrance, several unobtrusive security cameras, and a staff that greets you by name when you return at night.
The idea of creating security features for only one gender has been controversial, however. "We are highly attuned to our guests regardless of whether they are male or female," says Elizabeth Pizzinato, spokesperson for the Four Seasons. "Our staff keeps track of who enters and leaves the hotels—in an unobtrusive and casual way." At Kimpton, a proposal for women-only floors was vetoed, says COO Niki Leondakis, "because that would be segregating."
When I started my company, twenty-three years ago, if somebody was coming on one of my trips her friends would ask, 'What's wrong with your marriage?'" says Susan Eckert, founder of Adventure Women, one of the first travel agencies of its kind. Now her single-sex getaways have become a fixture in women's lives. Five years ago, full-time mom Claire Eckert (no relation to Susan) went with six close friends to the Golden Door Spa to celebrate her 40th birthday. Since then, the group has taken an annual trip—leaving husbands and children behind. Last year, they went biking in Puglia; next, they're planning a visit to Alsace. Eckert has been surprised by how much she enjoys this time alone with her girlfriends. "I went to grad school mostly with men; I worked mostly with men. I don't consider myself a 'girl person,'" Eckert says. "It's really nice to realize the value of your female friendships."
After her divorce in 1985, Sharon Wingler, a flight attendant and the author of Travel Alone & Love It!, felt safer traveling in a group. However, she later realized that she'd see more of each destination without an entourage. "I was riding on a bus through Italy with twenty other Americans, and I saw this train go by," she says. "I so wished I were on it, with the Italians." Since then, she has vacationed in 22 countries by herself, even after remarrying (to a man who likes nicer hotels than she does—and golf). Women, she says, are getting braver, and the sight of them touring solo is less unusual. Surprisingly, Wingler says, married women are increasingly traveling alone—and not just for business. "Not every couple has the same vacation time—and they don't always have the same taste in travel, either," says Wingler.
New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean, author of the newly published My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere, is also married but says she still appreciates the freedom of journeying alone. "When you're traveling with someone," she explains, "it's like being in your own virtual caravan, it's a psychological Airstream that doesn't force you out. When you travel by yourself you can pick up on the serendipity of travel; you're truly there."