One morning a few years ago, Ellen Shuman was up before sunrise, as usual, finished her workout at the gym by 8 a.m. and walked down New York’s Madison Avenue to her office, where she’s the vice president of a large foundation.
Exhausted by her frenetic work schedule, which often goes until well after sundown, she was looking forward to her 50th birthday as an opportunity to unplug and have a real adventure. So she rounded up her sister and several tennis partners and booked a 13-day oar-boat trip with an adventure travel company, starting at Lees Ferry below Grand Canyon Dam in Arizona.
They invited their husbands and partners, but as it turned out, the guys either couldn’t or didn’t want to go. No problem for Shuman, who swiftly turned her birthday bash into a girlfriends-only trip. Her recently retired neighbor Jean, married with two sons in their 30s, joined the group to celebrate her 60th birthday. She was ready for a big trip to jumpstart the transition into the next phase of her life.
The women rafted down the Colorado River, hiked up canyons and slept on the sand, listening to the roaring river as they gazed up into the pitch-black night sky. “Being in nature puts things in perspective,” Shuman says. “And the camaraderie that forms on a trip like this fosters a lot of personal conversations about life and relationships.”
In the Company of Women
Through my own experiences and the hundreds of women I’ve interviewed for 11 travel books, it's clear that increasing numbers of older American women are choosing new paths of self-fulfillment and exploration, often challenging themselves with new travel adventures. Being in the company of other women is a powerful way to ground ourselves in female strength, humor and resilience. When we don’t have to worry about husbands or children, a different dynamic emerges, one that's supportive, comfortable and relaxing. We escape the pressure to take care of everyone else and do things just for us. Sometimes that act alone can feel like a vacation.
A driving force behind this trend is women's increasing independence, both financial and cultural. We're spending more time in our lives single: before marriage, after divorce or after the death of a husband. Women earn more, own more and spend more money on themselves than in decades past. Many women have told me that traveling with a group of girlfriends fulfills their desire for companionship and gives them an added sense of security. "Women are natural nurturers," says Alison da Rosa, a retired travel editor from San Diego. "We take care of one another."
She recalls an invitation she once got to go on a weekend getaway: “There were nine of us: all women, all strangers. One friend knew all of us and decided we’d make a good team. We threw our duffels into a pair of vans, piled in and headed for a weekend in a rented cabin in the mountains. By the time we were smelling pine on that crisp fall afternoon, remarkable friendships had already begun to form.”
That was 25 years ago, and it was such a hit that the group has been doing something similar every year since. “No matter where we go, the getaways are gifts to ourselves and one another,” she says. “Our purpose is to unwind, catch up, refocus, renew and nurture ourselves and each other. And it’s much cheaper than therapy and a lot more fun.”
Don't know anyone you can go with? No problem! There are plenty of companies that cater to all-women travel, whether solo or organized tours (see list below). Some of these trips are all-inclusives (one-price packages that cover airfare, lodging, food and activities) for the traveler who wants to make just one decision and be done with it. These group trips are a good way to meet like-minded people, who often become travel buddies for future trips.
It's Like Group Therapy
AdventureWomen, a women-only travel company since 1982, reports that more than 70 percent of its business is repeat customers. “After they get home from one of our vacations, they tell us they feel great about themselves: more confident, productive and adventurous,” says Susan Eckert, who founded the company based in Bozeman, Mont.
Peggy Coonley, founder of Serendipity Travel, in Rockport, Mass., notes that women offer one another something that their partners often can’t. “I have learned so much traveling with women,” she says. “We all need cheerleading to live our dreams and women make the best cheerleaders,” she says.
Margee Monson, a retired businesswoman from Seattle, was trying to adjust to life after a crushing divorce. “I wanted to do something daring, scary and exciting,” she says. So the armchair Francophile got her first passport and booked an all-women’s trip to Paris and the Loire Valley. She walked all over Paris with her tour companions, visited historic sites and museums, learned how to ride the Metro, and even stayed in a castle in the Loire Valley.
"That lighthearted trip opened a window to a new life for me," Monson says. “I learned that I could travel without a man and that I like being with myself. At this time in my life I can do what I want and I love it.”
Bonds Form More Quickly on the Road
It didn’t take long before Monson and the others, mostly married women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, coalesced into a gaggle of girlfriends. "That lighthearted trip opened a window to a new life for me," she says. "This first trip with women led me to a whole new group of friends.” Her favorite part: laughing “until my face ached” and being able to talk about anything and everything.
“I treasured the conversations that didn’t center on husbands or kids,” she says. “I found out who I was. For many years I was a mother, a wife. I discovered that I could travel without a husband on my sleeve or in his shadow.”
One issue for women traveling together to always be mindful of, of course, is safety. In my books, I advise female travelers is to apply the same common sense they use at home: Trust your instincts, stay alert and when in doubt, ask questions or for help.
Here’s a safety checklist of things to make a habit of doing when traveling, whether alone or with a companion of either gender.
- Protect your privacy. When you check into a hotel, ask the desk clerk to write down your room number, not announce it out loud. Anyone in the lobby could overhear this and approach you, pretending to know you.
- Verify the identity of anyone who knocks on your hotel room door. Call the front desk if necessary. If the person is a hotel employee saying he or she needs to come in and you didn’t request assistance, ask him or her to come back after you’ve left. Don’t let a language barrier or forceful person weaken your position.
- Study your map or directions before you leave your lodging or car to avoid struggling with a map, thus looking like a tourist and vulnerable.
- Pack a small rubber doorstop that you can jam in the door if there isn’t a safety lock. (You can get them for under a dollar at hardware stores.)
- Keep hotel room curtains drawn if you are on the ground floor so no one can look in to see you or an unoccupied room.
- Be sure to return or destroy your hotel key card when you check out. It pulls and stores personal data from your credit card. Some hotels now offer safe "card key drops."
Women Travel Companies
- Adventures in Good Company
- Adventure Associates
- Backcountry Babes
- Serendipity Traveler
- The Women’s Travel Club
- Women Traveling Together