Samantha McMahon took her first solo trip in 2014 when she was 22. She had just completed a two-year nursing graduate program at Royal Perth Hospital, and was unsure about her next step in life.
After saving enough money to buy a house, she impulsively decided to travel around the world instead. Like most beginner solo travellers, McMahon was very anxious. But that soon changed.
“You might feel scared in the beginning, but once you realise that hey, I’ve just navigated my way through Paris, I’ve just booked myself a hotel in Hong Kong. I did that all by myself, nobody else did it for me. That confidence just builds, and you discover that you’re capable of more than you thought,” she says.
McMahon is now married with two children and living in Perth’s south. She says travelling alone was the best decision she ever made.
“It ended up being one of the most exhilarating and eye-opening experiences of my life,” she says.
“As a woman, solo travel empowered me to recognise my own strength.”
Travel has historically been restricted for women. It was predominantly considered dangerous and inappropriate for women to travel in general, let alone travel by themselves.
However, during the 18th and 19th centuries, numerous travel writings were produced by women, confirming that the taboo surrounding women travellers was slowly shifting.
In fact, one of the worlds earliest surviving travel texts was produced by a Spanish woman traveller named Egeria in the 380s AD, documenting her travels in the Holy Land. Most of the beginning and end of her writings are missing, however the middle part which detailed her travels in Jerusalem and Constantinople survived. Her writings are regarded as the first travel memoir.
Travel writing has continued to this day, with an increase of female writers. Renowned texts like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild continue to inspire women all over the world to embark on their own journeys.
Growth of female solo travel
According to the Adventure Travel Trade Association, solo travel and women-only itineraries were two of the most popular trends in 2018. Hostelworld, a popular booking website, found bookings by female solo travellers have increased by 45 per cent since 2015 compared to a 40 per cent increase for men.
Adelle O’Shaughnessy, a travel agent at Flight Centre Noranda, says she books trips for solo travelers all the time.
“Europe’s a big one for people travelling alone. Europe and Asia. They’re just really easy for solo travellers, especially for first timers.”
Groups on social media have also played a major part in solo female travel becoming one of the biggest trends of this century. The Facebook group ‘Girls Love Travel’ was created in 2015 by female solo traveller Haley Woods and is described as a global community of active and aspiring female travellers providing resources and empowerment to one another through safety, socialising and support.
According to the 2018 Travel Trends Report, Google Trends recorded that interest in solo travel has been growing steadily over the past 10 years, while interest in female solo travel began to increase from 2013.
The report also found that a search for ‘solo female travel’, returned more than 2.45 million results on Google, while the average monthly search volume for the term grew by 52 per cent between 2016 and 2017.
For women who are wary of travelling alone, O’Shaughnessy recommends going in a group first.
“There are so many tour groups and companies available now, like Contiki, Intrepid and Top Deck, for solo travellers that may not want to be completely alone, just in case something goes wrong,” she says.
One of the biggest women-only travel companies in Australia is Adventurous Women, founded by 55-year-old Perth solo traveller Sue Hile.
After 10 years of working in the public service, Hile found herself becoming depressed.
“I was starting to lose my soul,” she says. “I had long service due, so I decided I wanted to travel. My husband was fine with it, but he told me he preferred it if I travelled with other women,” she says.
“But 11 years ago, there was only one other female-only travel company on the East in Australia.”
Hile went on to travel by herself, backpacking to South-East Asia where she shared a room with an American girl she met online. She says it not only helped her personally, but was also good for her marriage and for her sons to see their mother as independent.
“They were able to see that Mum still has many roles in her life, she’s not just a Mum. She’s a person who has passion.”
After six months of travel, Hile came back happier, quit her job and started Adventurous Women.
“I started it because I was looking for travel companions,” she says. “I realised a lot of women don’t feel necessarily comfortable with travelling completely alone, so I really wanted to use my story to help them. I’m not only passionate about travelling, but I’m passionate about introducing travel to women in a safe and secure environment.
Starting from Hile’s tiny lounge room, Adventurous Women now has thousands of clients from all different backgrounds and demographics.
“It’s there for any woman that’s travelling alone; single, married, widowed, divorced,” she says. “They choose to travel with us because they feel comfortable, they feel supported and they feel safe.”
With a lack of companies and itineraries catering to female travellers, Hile says it was difficult to encourage women to go on solo trips. However, a recent survey conducted by America’s number one female travel expert, Marybeth Bond, found a 230 per cent increase in the number of women-only travel companies in the last six years.
“I’m seeing that women have suddenly become braver because there are so many more companies throughout Australia and the world now that are giving them these opportunities,” Hile says.
“The growth in this sector has equated to a growth in women feeling more comfortable because now there’s more going on for them so they understand that it must be okay.”
Why do women travel solo?
There are many reasons that have contributed to this growing trend of females travelling solo. One of the biggest factors is undoubtedly social media.
“It’s all peer influence,” says Dr Fang Liu, a marketing and tourism research expert at the University of Western Australia.
“When you see someone else do something, you want to do it yourself.”
With our social media feeds being filled with content about solo travel, Liu says it’s only natural for people to have a fear of missing out.
“You see all the beautiful and amazing photos that people post from their travels by themselves and sometimes, it just makes you want to experience the same thing,” she says.
“That’s why we see more women traveling independently now. It’s become the norm.”
Instagram, in particular, is considered to be one of the main contributors for this growing trend.
In 2015, a tourism organisation in Wanaka, New Zealand, began hosting Instagram influencers to attract more tourists. This led to a 14 per cent growth in guest nights which case study officials attributed to the towns increased presence on the social media platform.
So what does solo travel offer to women? Primarily, it offers freedom.
Although women are considered to be freer than ever before, there still remains a female-male dichotomy that exists in society, restricting some from acquiring the freedom they’re entitled to.
In Sue Hile’s case, leaving her husband and children to go travel alone, was something that was frowned upon by the community.
“If my husband chose to travel by himself, it would have been totally fine. It’s always been okay for men to travel, there’s never been a stigma,” she says.
“But when I decided to go, people around us were like; what’s wrong? Is your marriage in trouble? How could you do this to your kids? Just all that nonsense.”
However, Hile now believes there is less of a gender bias in society surrounding the roles of each parent.
“I think there’s far more equality now because men are taking on the role as house husband,” she says. “When my children were at school, my husband would take them, and he was one of very few.
“Whereas now, you see lots of Dads taking on those duties, while the Mums are off working, or they could even be travelling and that’s become acceptable.”
Economically, women today control more money ever before. In fact, according to Bloomberg, women drive 70-80 per cent of all consumer purchasing, through a combination of their buying power and influence.
Fang Liu believes income is one of the main reasons why women choose to travel solo.
“If women can earn their bread themselves, they might look at travelling by themselves as well because they know they have the foundation to travel alone,” she says.
Women are no longer pressured to settle down and have a family immediately, says Samantha McMahon. “They’re taking their time about life and really figuring out what they want.”
She believes women travel solo to develop themselves and their personality.
“It’s more prevalent in Western culture, but I think women go to find themselves,” she says. “They go to develop their outlook on the world and try to give themselves a more rounded view on things.”
Travel is an inspiration for many people to discover themselves and to live their lives according to their own terms.
“If you have the confidence to travel by yourself, you have the confidence to do anything,” Adelle O’Shaughnessy says.
“It not only provides the opportunity to see and learn new cultures and lifestyles, but also to meet new people and share each other’s stories.”
Despite the benefits of solo travel, the question of security still remains.
In a recent article by The New York Times, women shared their personal stories about the dangers they faced while travelling alone.
These stories of women who have fallen victim to crimes such as rape and murder while travelling alone are one of the main causes that trigger fear in other women. They also prompt certain family restrictions, with most families, specifically from more diverse background, encouraging the accompaniment of a male which they view as a symbol of security and safety.
The article received a large response from women, both criticising and supporting it. One woman poignantly commented “this is a terrifying reality,” while another condemned the article for victim-blaming and said, “reading this makes me want to stick my hand into a blender.”
One of the male reader’s wrote:
A majority of the feedback claimed violence against women was not directly tied to solo travel at all, but instead was likely to happen to women in any place. “Whether home or abroad, the most dangerous creature a woman can encounter is a man,” one reader commented.
The unfortunate reality is that women do experience danger in their own communities.
Samantha McMahon is proof of this.
She travelled for nearly one year to India, Vietnam, Thailand, Europe and the United States. Despite it being her first solo trip, McMahon decided to travel to Kashmir, in northern India; a place that is generally viewed as unsafe due to the political climate and large military presence.
She says there were moments where she did feel worried and fearful, yet she felt much safer there than she did back home in Perth.
Shortly after returning from her trip, McMahon had an argument with her sister which left her storming out of the house. The last thing she expected was to be stalked by a stranger in her own neighbourhood.
But that was exactly what happened.
“At home I don’t act with the same sort of wariness that I did when I was travelling. I made sure I had my phone on me at all times and that I knew where I was going,” she says.
“But at home, I was so relaxed, I didn’t think twice about it.
“And now I’ve learnt that it’s better to have that travel mindset even at home and to be mindful of what goes around you.”
Sue Hile blames the media for the negative aspects surrounding solo female travel. She says most of her client’s opinions on Africa or the Middle East are derived from the media.
“It makes everything horrible when in fact it is not,” she says. “And those people who have that negative perception either haven’t been educated in travel or they’re afraid, and it’s their own fears that they’re passing onto someone else.”
But the fact is, every traveller should take safety precautions, regardless of gender. Therefore, any attempts to restrict women’s movements solely based on their gender essentially feeds into the idea that violence against them is inevitable, instead of tackling the issue.