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Travel & Holiday

One for the road

More women are plucking up the courage to travel alone for spa retreats and sightseeing trips
The Straits Times - November 1, 2011
By: Huang Huifen
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One for the road Lone female tourists include Ms Mariana Ahmad at Mont St Michel in France. -- PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MARIANA AHMAD

As a 30th birthday present to herself, freelance television producer Mariana Ahmad went on a six-month backpacking trip last year across Europe. But instead of asking her friends along, she decided to do it by herself.

'It's so liberating to travel alone. You have no itinerary to stick to and do not have to put up with someone else's behaviour and emotions,' she says.

It was not her first time travelling alone. She went on her first solo trip in 2005 to Hong Kong, where she spent a week touring the city with her host from CouchSurfing, a social networking site which allows members to stay at one another's home for free.

Ms Mariana is part of a small but growing trend of women who prefer to travel solo. Many of them do so because they cannot find someone to travel with or simply because they love the freedom of sightseeing at their own pace and having quality me-time.

Travel agencies tell Life! that in the last four years, more female travellers have been travelling on their own to wellness retreats in Asia, Europe and the United States on 'flashpacking' trips - a term for backpacking but with a bigger budget for better accommodation and food.

Indeed, greater financial independence has given rise to this trend, says Ms Lisa Chua Puay Hoon, a senior lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic's hospitality and tourism management programme.

ASA Holidays has seen a 15 per cent increase in the number of free-and-easy trips booked by women travelling alone since April last year. Its spokesman says what gave rise to this trend was the movie Eat Pray Love, starring Julia Roberts as a recent divorcee who travelled around the world on a journey of self-discovery. Though the movie was released in Singapore in October last year, the buzz generated before its release led to many women here booking holidays on their own.

'These trips are usually to Bali, Vietnam, Cambodia and Spain. From what we know, most of these trips are for self-actualisation and a form of respite from bustling city life,' the spokesman says.

Women travellers are becoming more independent, too.

CTC Travel's senior vice-president of marketing and public relations, Ms Alicia Seah, says that five years ago, solo female travellers tended to join group tours for safety. But in the last three years, female travellers have been asking for free-and-easy or customised itineraries to beauty and wellness retreats in Korea and Thailand.

The trend is reflected online, where many solo women travellers buy air tickets and accommodation from online travel agencies such as Zuji Singapore.

Zuji president Roshan Mendis says the number of such travellers who use Zuji to buy travel products has tripled since 2009. Popular destinations include Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Bali, New York and Sydney. 'Solo female travel now makes up almost 10 per cent of our total bookings,' he says.

Many first-timers or busy professionals engage the services of niche travel agencies to arrange trips. Quotient TravelPlanner, Adventure Quests and Shangrila Adventure offer customised or private tours.

All have seen an increase in the number of women travelling alone. Quotient's head of media and marketing, Mr Rufus Tan, says the company has seen a 50 per cent increase since it opened in 2007.

A large percentage go for yoga retreats to India, Bhutan and Nepal, while the rest do sightseeing trips to Eastern Europe, Tibet and South America.

However, female travellers are still a minority and sales from this group make up just about 5 per cent of Quotient's total sales each year.

This is why Ms Nur Zaidah Boon Yadi, 33, who works in the finance sector and travelled alone to Europe in March, says that travelling alone is a great ego-booster.

She says: 'Whenever people found out that I was travelling alone, they would be in awe and it made me feel good because it takes lots of courage and determination to travel alone.'

She adds that travelling alone has taught her to be more independent and resourceful. 'I am usually shy and reserved but have become braver after having to muster up the courage to approach strangers for help. It's a journey of self-discovery.'

Business development manager Christine Tan, 31, who goes on solo trips every year, agrees.

'The trips are a constant reminder that the world is so big and there are so many people who are worse off or better than I am. The best part about travelling solo is that I get to understand myself and challenge myself each time,' she says.

Last January, she went cycling, trekking and sightseeing in Bhutan for 12 days and she has just returned from a week-long hiking, diving and snorkelling trip to Kota Kinabalu. Next year, she will be going to a 12-day safari camp in Tanzania.

But with the positives come the negatives.

For example, travelling alone can result in unwanted attention from the opposite sex.

Ms Mariana says she was propositioned a few times during her trip in Europe, including by a retiree in his 50s who was hosting her stay at a farm in Bulgaria under a programme called Help Exchange, where travellers volunteer at farms, ranches and hostels in exchange for free food and lodging from the owners.

He got drunk and asked her for sex. 'I said no and locked my door and slept with a knife under my pillow that night. The next day, it was so awkward. Thankfully, he sent me to stay with a woman who owns a farm nearby,' she adds.

From fending off advances to feeling unsafe in unfamiliar territory, most women whom Life! spoke to say that at the end of the day, they go with their gut instinct if something does not feel right.

Ms Mae Ang, 59, who went on a month-long solo trip to China last year, cancelled her hotel booking in Nanjing because she did not feel safe walking back to her hotel at night.

'The taxi driver refused to drop me at the hotel's doorstep and I had to walk a long way in from the main road. I reckoned that it would be very dangerous at night, so I hunted for another hotel along the main road,' says Ms Ang, who does part-time administrative work.

Thankfully, hotels are doing their part to cater to the safety needs of this group of women travellers.

Hotel-booking websites Hotels.com and HotelClub.com have seen an increase in the number of hotels offering women-only floors or rooms with added security features such as key-accessed level for female guests and staff only, CCTV-coverage, double-locks and spyholes.

Another downside of travelling alone is loneliness. Says Ms Nur: 'Overcoming unfamiliarity in a new environment can be especially hard when you don't have anyone to depend on.'

Calling or texting family and friends at home helped. She says: 'My friends would give me encouragement and help me to look at the situation in a different light - that I should enjoy the moment and make the most out of my time there.'

Ms Pauline Wee, 31, a senior manager in capitability development, says some of her best travel memories were of the times when she travelled alone.

'People tend to approach you more when you are alone and sometimes it can be a blessing and a curse,' she says.

One incident she counts as a blessing was on her recent trip to Copenhagen where she met English chef Paul Cunningham during a meal. The Copenhagen-based chef invited her to dine at his own restaurant The Paul for her birthday the next day.

'He took a Polaroid with me and even picked flowers from the restaurant's garden and placed them on my table. This will be a birthday memory I will keep for a long time to come,' she says.

Tips for women travelling alone

  • Wear a ring on your ring finger to ward off unwanted attention from men.
  • Dress modestly and avoid wearing expensive jewellery.
  • Book accommodation near the train or bus stations, or in a busy area.
  • If you are arriving late at night or early in the morning from the airport, train or bus station, arrange for a taxi or private car to pick you up and take you to your hotel or hostel.
  • When booking hotels, request for a room near the lift lobby and not in a secluded corner.
  • Go to www.maiden-voyage.com for a list of women-friendly hotels. Some have female-only floors with tighter security features.
  • If you are staying in hostels, ask for a female-only dormitory and make friends with room-mates so that you have company when going out.
  • If you are using CouchSurfing, a social networking site which allows members to stay at one another's home for free, check the host's profile to ensure he or she has valid testimonials from other members who have stayed with him. Make sure he has a separate sleeping arrangement for you. If possible, meet him for drinks or a meal first to suss him out before going to the house.
  • When going out at night, carry a pepper spray, penknife or shrill alarm to protect yourself. Avoid dark or quiet alleys or walking near bushes. Ask the locals which areas to steer clear of.
  • Do not leave your drinks unattended at a bar. Be wary when accepting food or drinks from strangers as they could be laced with date-rape drugs.
  • Do not make eye contact with or smile at men if you do not want them to approach you.
  • When you are approached by men who want to chat you up, be firm and say no if you do not wish to engage them.
  • Do not reveal to strangers that you are travelling alone. Instead, tell them that you are visiting family and friends.
  • Always trust your gut instinct. If you do not feel comfortable about something, do not do it.
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