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Between 35 years of banking experience and her own leisure travel, Nancy Collum is on the road or in the air at least four times a year on major trips, not to mention weekend professional trainings.
The vice president and credit administration manager at First Volunteer Bank says she has never worried about personal security over the years, but there is one situation that could make her uncomfortable and have her glancing nervously about: dining alone.
“It’s when you walk into a restaurant, ask if there is a table available, and the hostess asks (with surprise), ‘Just one?’ or ‘Do you want to wait for the rest of your party?'” explains Collum.
“Sitting down to a meal by myself feels awkward, and I thought people would look at me and think ‘Isn’t that pitiful? That woman doesn’t have anybody to eat with her.’ But eventually it hit me: Nobody was paying that much attention. In fact, now I find a lot of times the wait staff is more friendly and talkative because you are by yourself.”
The growing number of women traveling solo has caused the decline of such stereotypes. A woman checking into a hotel by herself or dining alone doesn’t merit a second glance. No more knee-jerk reactions such as “Do you want a seat at the bar?” when a lone female enters a restaurant for dinner.
In fact, women traveling alone comprise 11 percent of all U.S. adult leisure travelers, according to the U.S. Travel Association. The boom in this travel demographic has caused a 230 percent increase in the number of women-only travel companies in the past six years, says travel analyst Marybeth Bond, author of The Gutsy Traveler blog.
Intrepid Travel website reports that, of 100,000 travelers booking trips in 2012, 63 percent were females between the ages of 25 and 39 — its biggest market.
“In the past, women have kind of been afraid to travel alone. This year, I’ve got several women traveling alone, but some are leaving from here and meeting up with a scheduled tour,” says Chris McSpadden, owner of Travel by Air, Land and Sea. “It’s across the board in ages. One is in her late 60s, her husband travels a lot for his business, so she just goes on her own. Then there are younger girls out with their girlfriends. Girlfriend travel is increasing; I see more and more of that.”
Shelda Rees, director of tourism for Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the bureau began marketing travel packages aimed specifically at women four years ago, one year after the state of Tennessee launched its female travel promotions. In the industry, such trips are known as “girlfriend getaways.”
“Our girlfriend getaways include spa treatments, art/jewelry makers for an arts weekend, winery visits, local dining, and shopping on the North Shore, Southside or Hamilton Place,” Rees describes. “They are always about local tourism but with a little behind-the-scenes added for a more special trip.”
Area hotels are jumping on the girlfriends bandwagon as well.
Richard Pauley, director of sales and marketing at The Chattanoogan, says it offers a Ladies Day Out package for up to four women that includes a suite and choice of two spa services each.
“If we have a group of ladies checking in, we try to keep their rooms together; first, to enhance that sense of community and second, it makes them feel more secure to know their girlfriends are in the room next door,” says Pauley.
The Gutsy Traveler’s Bond reports that girlfriend getaways have already grown to represent 4 percent of all U.S. travel spending — about $200 million annually. AAA’s Girlfriend Travel Research found that 24 percent of American women have taken a girlfriend getaway in the past three years, and 39 percent plan one in the next three years.
Travel professionals find women are traveling for a variety of reasons.
Some are newly divorced or fresh off a broken relationship. A change of scenery helps them make a clean break as well as temporarily removing them from locations that carry “couple memories.” The home page of the Chicks Unhitched website — which books travel specifically for such women — says: “Divorce was tough … you are tougher.”
“Post-divorce travel therapy is often the ideal dose of momentum people need to deal with life challenges and changes,” says McSpadden. “There are many single accommodation options available where you can rebound from a bad romance. The first step is identifying what’s right for you.”
Other reasons women are traveling alone, according to Travel Guard Worldwide, a company offering travel insurance, are: A desire to follow their own schedules (17 percent), they have more time to travel than their friends (15 percent), traveling to pursue a specific interest (14 percent), widowed or divorced (43 percent) and traveling to reconnect or “find themselves” (4 percent).
McSpadden notes that singles travel is prompting changes in the cruise industry. Previously, a single traveling in a double-occupancy cabin would pay a “single supplement,” or surcharge, for the privilege of privacy. Supplements could be anywhere from 10 to 150 percent of the standard rate to cover revenue lost from that empty bed.
“Now more cruises have single cabins, even European river cruises have accommodations for singles, which makes cruising more accessible for single travelers,” says McSpadden.