Women are increasingly dominating the solo travel scene, so we called in two leading ladies who know a thing or two about setting out on their own. Paula Froelich (@pfro), from “A Broad Abroad,” an award-winning adventure travel website and Nicole Wineland-Thomson, from travel and tours company AdventureWomen dish practical tips and hilarious stories. Jordi Lippe-McGraw is a freelance travel and wellness writer for CN Traveler and guest hosts this episode.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: The numbers are in and the women have taken the leap. Recent figures from the Travel Industry Association of America say an estimated 32 million American women traveled alone at least once in 2018. And how about this one, The Huffington Post reported a 230% increase in the number of women-only travel companies in the last six years. Go ahead, Google solo female travel to peruse from the approximately 400 million results. So why the spike in women’s solo and adventure travel, and what’s the best way to get the most out of these trips safely? My guests today have some surprising answers. I’m Jordi Lippe-McGraw filling in for Nisreene Atassi and I’ll be your guest host for this episode of Out Travel The System.
Joining me today are two intrepid women who have been traveling the far reaches of the world for years now. Nicole Wineland-Thompson is an adventure traveler and the director of programming with AdventureWomen, a travel company that she co-owns with her mom and sister. Paula Froelich is a travel journalist and a creator of abroadabroad.com a travel and lifestyle website with an emphasis on solo female travel.
Nicole, I’m going to start with you. What kind of trip are we talking about when we refer to an adventure trip or vacation?
Nicole Wineland-Thomson: What we’re really aiming for is to show people parts of the world that have an appeal to getting off the beaten path, to explore far reaches, to find perhaps even part of yourself in this journey. At AdventureWomen, we’re specializing specifically in female adventure travel so we’re gathering groups of women to go off to these places to help empower them to see things they may have never thought were possible before.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: What sparked your passion for making these types of trips possible for women?
Nicole Wineland-Thomson: That’s a great question because it really came from my mom. I was raised with the amazing opportunity of having a global passport. Even when I was a little baby, my sister and I would be hauled all over the world. It became our oyster and we had this role model as a mom growing up to be able to see places that none of my friends were even going to. We’re talking about Morocco and Tanzania, and my father’s from New Zealand so we went there quite often, Egypt, the list goes on. It was such an inspiration for me to grow up without boundaries when it came to different cultures and different destinations. As I continued to venture across the globe, I realized that I was seeking more of that, especially with my mom and then of course with my sister, who at the time was hiking virgin mountains in Pakistan.
In recent years, my mom went to Oman and she had this idea of going into the middle of nowhere, to this amazing camel breeder. Many women in Oman couldn’t have that experience because women and men are separated and she got to stand in front of all of these women and finally they’re able to reveal themselves in a really intimate environment. That transformation of meeting these women who could shed light on who they really were in a safe environment was such a captivating experience for me to hear about that it made me realize we needed to do this more often — to allow a safe environment where women could meet each other for who we are and for what we believe in and share intimate stories without anything hanging over us. To be able to shed those layers and expose ourselves to each other.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: That sounds absolutely incredible. Paula, I want to bring the conversation over to you for a second. Like Nicole, you’ve taken a ton of solo trips. You’ve been to Africa, you’ve traveled to Iraq during wartime, you’ve skied in Afghanistan. How did you get into travel and decide to travel to some pretty unusual destinations at that?
Paula Froelich: Well, I grew up in Ohio and Kentucky, so it was always a case of either stay there or get out. Just kidding to my family and friends in Ohio and Kentucky.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: But the opposite of Nicole’s upbringing it sounds like.
Paula Froelich: Yeah, I was born technically in England and we moved to Saudi for a little bit when I was about two, but since I was three I’ve lived in Ohio and Kentucky. I just always had this love of reading and love of stories, those were the things that expanded my brain and I wanted to go see where all these things came from like “The Arabian Nights” or the stories about India. I worked for two years, saved up $1,500 and the only country I could conceivably go to without spending everything in a month or two was India. In 1997 I went to India for six months and it was really just kind of because I didn’t know what else to do with my life and I didn’t want to go home yet. So it was kind of the Supertramp version of going home, taking the long way.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: But you continued to choose unusual destinations throughout your personal travel and your career. What attracted you to these particular spots?
Paula Froelich: I ended up moving to New York and I got a job, I was the deputy editor of Page Six at the New York Post and I worked there for ten years and then I quit. For a variety of reasons I was very unhappy and I kind of hid, I call it hiding, for about a month where I just didn’t really leave the apartment except to walk my dog. Then I thought you know what? You used to be cool. You used to be brave, you used to be really bold and do interesting things. I remembered the last time I thought that way was India so that’s when I started traveling again. I went to Kenya by myself in 2009, but solo travel has been a big thing with women for I would say a good eight years now. The numbers have steadily gone up. That’s what I was starting to see as I went out to these places, some were dangerous, like Iraq in wartime. It’s the arrogance of youth, thinking, oh well, I’m there for an assignment, I’ll be fine. There are some things I did that I would just never do today, like skiing in Afghanistan. I’m going to leave that for someone else.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Well, I have to ask you about skiing in Afghanistan. That’s not one of the usual top ski destinations like Vail or Aspen. How did you decide to take that trip?
Paula Froelich: Well, it’s how I decided to take a bunch of my trips. I would go on a trip and meet fellow travelers and they’d be like, “Did you hear about this thing? Yeah, I’m really involved in this bling blong, and they’re going skiing in Afghanistan.” I was like, okay, let me know more. For me, it sounds very Vice or whatever, but nobody was doing anything like this at the time and all they would say is, “Afghanistan, it’s just a pit.” Not all of it. People still have to lead their lives and there’s also a lot of reasons to go to these places. I’m obsessed with history, I’m obsessed with again, stories and a lot of these things take place in these countries that are being fought over and have always been fought over.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Well that leads me to ask you, what do you get out of these adventures?
Paula Froelich: Well, let’s look at Iraq. Iraq’s history is the entire Old Testament of the Bible. We visited Babylon, we visited Abraham’s birthplace. The oldest Christian monastery in existence is in Iraq. The ziggurat of Orr, where the garden of Eden is said to be. It’s fascinating, but what’s also fascinating too is that in these places, especially with Instagram and the internet, people tend to think it can be very homogenized. Everything seems like you’re not discovering anything anymore. Well, in a lot of these places you still can. For me, it’s about places that have not conformed and are unique. In all these cultures you can still find something that changes your life or changes your perspective, which I think what travel is about.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Nicole, AdventureWomen is offering a new adventure vacation to the Middle East. What do you think can be gained by traveling to destinations like this? Some that we’re often told to avoid.
Nicole Wineland-Thomson: The one thing that I have always believed in and I think it’s a part of being raised in a traveling family, is that at the end of the day we’re all pretty much the same. We may look different or have different accents, languages or beliefs, but we are all kind of cut from the same cloth. Part of pushing the boundaries a bit and offering a trip to the Middle East is we want to not only push those boundaries but show women that this is an incredible place to visit. We want to show women that they can be safe, that we can incorporate a transformative experience maybe for the guests as well as for the women in the country. Certainly, we’re not trying to force a transformative experience, but I think a lot of that actually happens naturally when you’re put in a situation that feels so different from your norm back at home and it allows you to open up a bit and try something new and different.
Paula Froelich: For me, when I quit my job in 2009 and I was scared and freaked out because you’re not supposed to quit your job without another job waiting, I started traveling alone. What I really loved about it is that I could try things out. I was in therapy so I could try things out without somebody going, “Oh, Paula’s not going to like that, Paula’s not going to be into that.” Or, “I know what you’re going to think.” Even if you travel with your best friend, sometimes it’s just freeing to go and try out new things without somebody judging you. The other thing is women are trained from day one to have a 360 vision, and so it’s exhausting because you’re constantly looking out for other people. You’re constantly wondering if they’re having a good time and you end up going to a place, like Venice for example, and not doing everything you wanted to do because you’re with other people and you need to make them happy.
Nicole Wineland-Thomson: Yeah, that’s actually really true, Paula. With AdventureWomen, one thing that’s actually pretty phenomenal is most of the women that are on our trips don’t know each other. So they walk into this small group experience, all women, and they literally can be whoever they want. Their spouse isn’t there or their best friend. When I was recently in Costa Rica, I was granted that experience for the first time. Now I’ve traveled by myself before, but most of my travel has been with my family, that’s just how we were raised. There was an opportunity as a grown woman stepping into the role of not knowing who any of these women are. When have I ever had that opportunity where I can just walk into a country, into a group of women and be who I feel is the right representation of myself? So many other women on the trip keep coming back because of that. Sometimes they form bonds and they travel together in the future, but most of our women like that fresh, rip the bandaid off, unveil, be who you are. On our trip to the west coast of Costa Rica, where we were on this really intensive sort of zip line experience and we’re past the point of no return, you cannot turn around, you cannot go down. There were 16 zips left and one of them encompassed a very rickety monkey bridge of sorts. This is towards the end of our trip and one of the women, just no matter what she told her body and her brain to do, it was a complete disconnect did, she could not. This was facing her fears 101. I watched as all of these women that were total strangers coming onto the trip did not continue on. They waited and they watched and they encouraged and this woman crossed this bridge and made it and literally collapsed into us, into strangers, into an environment that she had never been in her life. We all congratulated her, it was a remarkable experience because every single woman there, we were all in it together.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Well and speaking to that, obviously both of you have mentioned that you have traveled solo for many, many years and have both noticed an increase overall of female solo travelers. Nicole, why do you think there’s such a rise in women who are planning solo travel adventures and coming on your group trips?
Nicole Wineland-Thomson: The philosophy of solo travel as it is today is on the rise because of women empowerment and all this women-centered and focused stuff that’s happening in our society. Also, women are delaying having kids, they’re waiting until they’re older, they’re very successful in their jobs. They are putting things first that we didn’t as women decades ago. I think that adds a lot to suddenly women having this new lease on life of being able to go off and explore and become adventurers.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Paula, what have you noticed?
Paula Froelich: If you look at statistics, it explains it. In 2013, I wrote a piece for Newsweek on how do you ignore 32 million single women? Just ask Madison Avenue, I show the actual demographic and the breakdown. Women are not opting to get remarried, whereas men are. Women, our purchasing power is four times that of men because, during those years that we may have saved, we saved really well. We had to budget for a whole family. But beyond that, I think women are getting out of the good girl mode. The good girl mode in my mind is you grow up, you go to school, you graduate from high school or get your GED and you go straight to work or you go to college. After they went straight to work, women usually got married around 24 or 25 depending on where you lived. I went to school in the south so everyone got married early. They have kids, and then all of a sudden they’re waking up at 40 going, “Wait a minute, I did everything right, why am I not happy?” There was this whole wave of people going, “Hold on.” I thought about this a lot after my trip to Timbuktu. I spent three weeks going up the Niger River with a small group. Now I do want to say for all those out there, I consider solo travel either going by yourself or going in a small group of women where you don’t know anyone. Either way, you’re alone and you don’t have the backup support of somebody right there who knows you. I thought it was fascinating because there was only one man on that trip. It was all women of a certain age, I was the youngest one by far. There was a woman who was 64 and she was retiring in the next year. I said, “Oh, so are you married?” She goes, “No, but I’ve got my sweetheart.” And I say, “Oh, that’s nice. How long have you guys been together?” And she goes, ” We’ve been together about four years.” I said, “Oh, well why isn’t he here with you?” And she goes, “Not his thing and if he came, then I would spend my whole time worrying about him and I’ve always wanted to see Timbuktu, so this is about me. I worked my whole life, I’m going to go see Timbuktu.”
That’s the trip that spawned the article and it also spawned my website, A Broad Abroad because I came back and I realized nothing’s out there and then what was out there, it was either real budget or real luxury, nothing in between and it was very male-centered. For me, part of travel is just playing around a bit so I decided to make a fun, female-centered website for all the women that I had met traveling the world in the last four years. Within three weeks I had gotten 50,000 uniques and within a week of that, I got the job at Yahoo Travel as editor in chief. Within four months, we were getting 704,000 daily average uniques, which does not happen for a travel channel — not even The Travel Channel. It definitely doesn’t happen for a travel website that is all editorial.
There is a hunger for people to go beyond the headlines and to actually go in and meet people. This is what women are traveling for. They’re traveling for culture, they’re traveling for experience, they’re traveling for history, they’re traveling for personal gain. Women really want to look at themselves and say, “She can do it, I can do it.”
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: At Out Travel The System we do like to give listeners some really tangible tips that they can walk away with. So what I would love to do is talk about some tips for travel safety, since both of you have been all over the world, experienced all different destinations. Whether you’re staying relatively close to home or heading somewhere really out of your comfort zone, what are the best ways you can prepare ahead of your trip that will minimize issues if something doesn’t go as planned? Paula, do you have some of your top tips for staying safe?
Paula Froelich: One of the basic things is to carry a door stopper. No one’s breaking in your room with a door stopper. Don’t stay on the ground floor of a hotel anywhere. Never stay in a room with two doors, one in the back and one in the front. Always tell people where you are. Always have copies of your passport or send a copy of your passport to somebody who knows where you are. Never get drunk, like really fall down, dumb drunk. Don’t walk alone at night. Here are the basic rules for anywhere that I was taught as a kid. If that alley looks weird, don’t go down it. In fact, don’t go down any alleys period. If I’m going to a country that makes me nervous, I’m going to book a trip with Nicole and say, alright, you are going to deal with my safety issues and I am not going to travel alone because there are certain places it’s rough to travel alone. I met a woman in Afghanistan who was Australian and she cross-dressed her way through Pakistan and Afghanistan so she could take buses and travel cheaply. God bless her. I ain’t doing that. By the way, if you want to meet her, she’s featured on A Broad Abroad. Hitchhiking across anywhere is not my comfort zone.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Nicole, I’d love to hear from you, what safety tips can you share from your time on the road?
Nicole Wineland-Thomson: Well, yeah, Paula hit a big one for me and for us, which is nighttime safety, but a lot of that is just using intuition. If you’re leaving the restaurant and it’s dark out, especially if you had a couple of glasses of wine, just jump in that cab and get home. Even just bringing valuables. So many women want to, there are so many things that are valuable to them but it’s not necessary on these trips, you can leave that stuff at home. If you’re bringing your passport around with you, make sure you have a backpack that has either an interior pocket or put it at the very bottom of your backpack so you can feel it against your back at all times.
A big one for me personally is blending in and doing research about cultural norms and adhering to them and respecting them. The last thing you want to do is stick out like a sore thumb in the middle of who knows where because you aren’t adhering to cultural norms and drawing attention to yourself. It’s also just respectful in general.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: I only have time for one last question for both of you and I want to end it on a wanderlusty note. So Paula, what’s the next adventure travel trip you have planned for yourself?
Paula Froelich: I am going to the Congo for nine days and then after I’m going to Israel for seven days.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Amazing. Nicole, how about you? What’s your next adventure?
Nicole Wineland-Thomson: We’re heading to Antarctica. It’s very exciting, it’s my last continent, so I’m thrilled. I’ve never been before, but know so much about it and am just oozing with excitement about the wildlife. Growing up in a wildlife-rich home, it’s sort of that last great place to see.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: I went a couple of years ago when I was actually five months pregnant and it was my last continent as well. My husband and I had made a pact that we were going to go to all the continents before we had kids. Right after we got married, we made that pact and I didn’t realize I was going to be pregnant in Antarctica, but I was, and I did it. Thank you so much, both of you, for sharing your fearless stories and tips. Thanks for listening to Out Travel the System, brought to you by Expedia. Remember, you can also follow Expedia on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I’m your guest host, Jordi Lippe-McGraw, filling in Nisreene Atassi. Happy travels!