Taking some time off from a tech job in Chicago this year to contemplate a career move, Shannon Elarton signed up to visit Tanzania in May with AdventureWomen, a women-only tour company, on a hunch that she might gain some perspective from her fellow travelers.
She was also, she said, “craving something deeper than you would get in a basic tour” and got it one day when the company owner, Judi Wineland, introduced the group to 12 women from a local Masai community. Through interpreters, the assembled talked for more than two hours about subjects from female genital mutilation in Africa to divorce in the United States.
“By the time it was finished, it was the biggest gift for me,” she said. “At the end of the day, we all want the same things: to have work, to provide for our family, to have a family.”
Traveling to experience such personal connections and search one’s soul isn’t limited to women, of course. But a rise in the number of women-only trips, both from new companies and established ones, suggests women are keen to wander well beyond resorts touting girlfriend getaway packages and mother-daughter spa retreats.
“It’s more than yoga and wellness now,” said Samantha Brown, the television host of “Samantha Brown’s Places to Love” (coming to PBS in January), noting the rise of women-only learning trips. “It’s empowerment through a skill set.”
Adventure trips in particular are surging among women.
“When women make connections with other women who are very different than they are, it’s an invitation to see the world through another woman’s lens, to see all that we have in common, and an opportunity to develop more empathy and compassion for women, and the world around us,” said Mary Cecchini, who left her corporate career in 2014 to found Living Big, an adventure travel company.
Not all women’s trips are adrenaline-based. Wellness retreats have served as a springboard to more emotionally charged events such as Renew, a breakup boot camp coming Dec. 1-3 to an estate in Saugerties, New York. Founded this year by Amy Chan, a writer who specializes in psychology who was motivated by her own devastating breakup five years ago, Renew is open to a maximum of 12 women who will have access to sessions with female specialists, including a neuroscientist and a psychologist.
“Men have been taking sporting trips and fishing trips and hunting getaways for ages, and it’s finally time for women to have the equal amount of hall passes, so to speak,” said Mollie Fitzgerald, the owner of Frontiers International Travel, a travel agency based in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania. She adds that she has seen demand for women-only travel spike, particularly to places like India and Morocco where interests in wellness, culture and food are addressed.
Cultural offerings bring together women with similar interests. Katharine Landale, a marketing executive in London, couldn’t interest her husband or children in a trip to Moscow, but she found 10 like-minded friends keen on Catherine the Great and caviar to go with Red Savannah on a new female-guided tour.
“It’s just on the edge of our European comfort zone, and I feel comfortable going on a real adventure with a group of women who are all very strong-minded and interested and interesting,” she said. “Going to Moscow as women in that bastion of male power will be fascinating.”
Still, the call of the wild seems to be the loudest for many female travelers. Below are some of the established companies and startups that are offering challenging itineraries.
A guide to women’s guides
Judi Wineland, a veteran of the adventure travel industry, acquired AdventureWomen, one of the oldest women-only specialists, last year and brought in her 28- and 30-year-old daughters to help run the company. New trips include viewing the northern lights in Finland and seeing orangutans in Indonesia and offer women-to-women exchanges with locals, from female politicians to divers for pearl oysters in Japan.
“We’re a relationship company, and our medium is travel, and our travel is to less-visited places off the beaten path,” Wineland said.
Among new women-focused companies, Living Big offers small group trips to places like Iceland and Kauai where the focus is on adventure (the eight-day trip to the Hawaiian island of Kauai in May costs $3,649). But it also guides trips to Italy and New Orleans where the emphasis might shift to food or music, and customizes trips for solo travelers and small groups.
Allison Fleece and Danielle Thornton founded WHOA Travel in 2013 in a moment of inspiration after their own exhilarating climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. WHOA, which stands for Women High on Adventure, runs trips around the world, but its Kilimanjaro trips remain popular (from $3,400 for nine days).
“It’s safer, and there’s built-in camaraderie when you’re sharing experiences,” Thornton said.
Long-established, but new to the gender-specific tour, Austin Adventures will offer three new women-only itineraries. The tours are led by Kasey Austin Morrissey, the 28-year-old daughter of the company’s owner, Dan Austin; she has worked in the family business since she was 11 and is the company’s vice president for operations. She considers adventure trips the new spa getaways, places where women “are looking to challenge themselves and their friends by pushing their limits together.”
Trips include nine days in Costa Rica in March (from $3,498) and from six days in Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks in May (from $2,798).
Responding to a rise in women traveling on its regular itineraries last year — 65 percent versus 55 percent the year prior — and the requests of its clients, Exodus Travels just announced 12 departures dedicated to and guided by women. They range from 15 days touring Iran (from $3,715) to eight days walking in Italy ($1,705) and five days climbing Mount Toubkal in Morocco (from $545).
Other companies are similarly increasing their women’s trips. REI Adventures, the travel arm of the outdoor goods retailer, saw its female participation jump 60 percent in the past seven years. In 2015, it debuted women’s trips and added 19 itineraries to the Women’s Adventures series this year, including an 11-day trip to South Africa that combines a wildlife safari with sea kayaking, hiking and cycling (from $7,699). A 10-day trip to New Zealand hits the hiking trails of the Southern Alps (from $5,199), and a nine-day trip to Greece spans yoga sessions, vineyard hikes and cooking classes.
Seventy percent of trips run by Wild Women Expeditions, established in 1991, feature backcountry camping. New 2018 departures include a trip that emphasizes hiking and other activities in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia (10 days from $5,295) and a multisport tour of Costa Rica (eight days from $3,295).