Amelia Earhart lost her life in a bid to fly around the world in 1937. Valentina Teresh-kova piloted the spacecraft, Vostok 6, in 1963. Centuries ago women had taken to the seas too, some disguised as men, while others had excelled as pirates. In the early 16th century, Sayyida Al-Hurra ruled the western Mediterranean, and the King of Morocco travelled from Fez to the coastal town of Tetouan to marry her. In 1978 Krystyna Chojnowska- Liskiewicz single-handedly circumnavigated the globe. The 21st century heralded the golden era of the woman traveller. No longer wanting to tag along with their husbands and families women have begun to venture out alone. They’re taking road trips, bike expeditions, cruises and coach tours. They’re trekking, mountain-climbing, sky-diving, bungee-jumping, river-rafting, hot-air ballooning and deep-sea diving. And they’re having a whale of a time.
Today the real dilemma of the woman wanderer is not about choice of destinations or cost or even safety. It’s whether to go solo or with a couple of friends or to join a group tour. And the niggling question on her mind is: Should I prefer a women-only group? Leading travel agencies offer trips intended only for women, while a few operators cater exclusively to women. But women travellers lament that these journeys leave them high and dry. Travel is often more expensive when the group is all-female. Do tour operators overcharge women? Perhaps there’s a misconception that women don’t make cost-benefit analyses and comparisons. Dr. Tanuja Reddy, a dermatologist in Chennai, says: “I was on the verge of booking an Antarctica exploratory trip with a Delhi-based women’s tour operator. On second thoughts I looked up another agency from Mumbai and compared the rates. The women-only group was charging a Rs 200,000 more for a lower deck room, whereas the other agency was offering an upper deck with a balcony, as well as the internal tickets from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia and back.”
Vibha is not averse to women’s groups, but after a recent trip to Siberia she’s disillusioned. “I’ve never come across a more callous and haphazard method of planning a trip,” she says. “It was a disaster from start to finish. On the train from Irtutsk to Ulan Baatar I met a pair of friends who had made the same journey at one-fourth of the cost and twice the comfort. That’s when I realized how I’d been looted.” Alka Agarwal, a granite exporter from Bengaluru, and Uma Rao, a banker from Thrissur, have this advice to offer, “If your flight or train arrives in the morning, make sure you get hotel accommodation first before you embark on sight-seeing. Penny-pinching tour operators try to avoid morning check-in because an extra day is charged. They don’t care about the discomfort of the travellers.”
The ladies certainly have a point. A 2017 brochure sent out by a travel agency reads: “Day 5: Irkutsk to Listvyanka – Arrive Irkutsk 7-18 am Irkutsk time. We disembark at Irkutsk station and leave for Listvyanka. Today visit the Baikal Museum and experience the Baikal Lake cruise. Visit the souvenir market and the Nerpinary. Later check into the hotel and relax.” The imperceptible catch is that check-in is only in the evening! What’s more this follows two nights and one day on a rickety train on the trans-Siberian railway. No need to brush your teeth, perform your morning ablutions, take a shower or anything. Ladies, come on, live up the gay hippie lifestyle! You’re free and footloose in the middle of nowhere! Geetha Deo, a business person from Bengaluru, has toured a great deal with her family but ventured to South Africa and Zimbabwe with a women’s group recently. She says, “Travelling with unknown women was really an adventure in itself. The trip helped me unwind - and I made some real good friends. Once in a while everyone should come out of their shell and experience new people and new places with an open mind.”
Uma Rao recalls, “A couple of years ago I travelled with a woman friend to Hampi, Badami and Bijapur, and it was far more satisfying and cost-effective than a conducted tour. Wherever it’s safe to travel I’d prefer to go with my husband or a close friend. I wouldn’t pick a travel agency if I could possibly help it. And no, I’m not enamoured of women-only groups.” Radhika Shastry, author, cafe owner, and travel industry veteran from Coonoor, says solo travelling is both challenging and exciting. She has travelled to Malta, Hungary and even the Sahara all by herself. She points out that the risks are the same for solo men.
“It’s not a gender thing,” she emphasizes. “Men can also feel lonely when they are alone. They too can be robbed or assaulted. But in most places people are friendly and helpful. Yes, there may be a few guys who think a lone woman is a possible hook-up but that perception affects males too.” Radhika went alone to the Kumbh Melas at Ujjain and Allahabad, and spent several days roaming around and mingling with the Naga babas, the Aghoris and even kinnar sadhvins. She has even written a book about her tête-à-têtes with the Nagas, a reclusive Shaivite sect that resides in Himalayan caves, practices celibacy and strict social isolation, and emerges only during the Kumbh melas, presenting an eye-popping spectacle with their ash-covered bodies and matted locks. She feels they would never have spoken to her had she been in a group. When Radhika first announced her intention to go to the Kumbh Mela unaccompanied, everyone was scandalized and declared she was crazy.
Today there are at least 50 persons wanting to accompany Radhika to the next Kumbh Mela. As a parting shot, Radhika opines, “solo travel is easier than travelling with a women-only group. They’re all pulling in different directions.” So lovely ladies on the go here are some pointers: Go it alone if you’re a pro. If you have friends to accompany you, don’t bother with groups. If you’re insecure and seek safety in numbers, go ahead and sign up for a group tour. But don’t neglect your research. Do read online reviews and ask questions before you sign up.
Read fine print
“There’s a world of difference between promise and performance,” says Vibha Jain, a much travelled entrepreneur from Hyderabad. “Some agencies issue two or more brochures or itineraries, one at the time of booking and another ‘final itinerary’, shortly before departure. The latter casually omits some conveniences mentioned in the former. So reading the fine print is important. It may be too late to opt out because cancellation charges will kick in, but at least you can insist on getting what you paid for.”
Vibha, an enthusiastic couch surfer, often travels alone. She recently visited North Korea despite dire warnings from well-wishers. She observed that the locals were fearful and cautious, and no one dared to worship any being other than the head of state. The tour guide was afraid to answer questions. There were ghost cities where no one lived but posh buildings were displayed just to impress visitors. An unwary traveller who forgets his bible or any other religious book in his hotel could expect to be arrested before reaching the airport. Vibha remained undaunted - and is glad she made the trip.
Ensure all-meal package
Lakshmi Rajgopal, a Delhi-based healthcare professional Delhi, says: “I can’t imagine men travelling in men-only groups. Women seem to bond more easily with strangers. But the real danger of women’s groups is that some people are more interested in shopping than in sight-seeing or interacting with locals. Moreover, I’ve noticed that women-only groups do a lot of time-killing. And on a whirlwind tour time is really precious.”
Lakshmi spent many years in England and travelled extensively with overseas travel agencies. She has a word of advice for women bitten by the travel bug. “Make sure at least one meal other than breakfast is included. If you’re leaving the hotel early expect to get packed breakfast. Most hotels offer this free of cost, so if you’re not getting it, chances are your tour operator has struck a cheap bargain – at your cost of course. It’s a good idea to pick agencies that include meals. That way you know exactly what your tour will cost. And you’re saved the trouble of carrying foreign currency or multi-currency travel cards.”
(Author is an IT professional and travel enthusiast)...