When Akanksha Bumb and Malini Gowrishankar star-ted F5 Escapes, a Bengaluru-based experiential travel company specialising in all-women tours, in 2013, a woman travelling by herself, especially for leisure, was not something very prevalent and mainstream in India. Today, they have had women travelling with them during some of their most crucial phases in life—healing through a difficult life situation, change of city/ circumstances, transition phase such as a new job, sabbatical or break year during education, among others.
“We are happy to have played a minuscule part in their life journey,” says Bumb.
F5 Escapes also had women realise their own style of travel—preferring to go solo than in a group, adds Bumb, whose company has so far booked over 300 tours, held over 30 community events and touched over 7,000 lives and counting.
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“When a woman joins an all-women group tour, the motivation tends to be freedom, experience, exploration, empowerment plus the additional factor of the feeling of safety that comes naturally in an all-women group tour. In that sense, she is not necessarily ‘alone’, just that she is not with their own friends and family. That also leads to the opportunity of new social networks and friendships,” explains Bumb.
F5 Escapes is focused on Indian destinations for domestic and international travellers: all-women fixed-departure group tours, customised vacations for solo travellers and experiential itineraries. “We work with midrange boutique homestays, hotels and heritage properties to offer a family-like atmosphere and an immersive stay experience to travellers,” adds Bumb.
Similarly, Anuj Jain, the ‘chief gallivanter’ of Wander Womaniya Travel, started his company in 2018 for the sole purpose of offering safe and solo trips for women.
“There is a feeling of pride and achievement when they venture out. They also get to meet a new unfiltered version of themselves, about which they either never knew or had hidden because of societal pressure. On a solo trip, no one will judge them,” says Jain, whose travel itineraries range from beaches to mountains like Bali and Thailand to Sikkim and Ladakh in the mighty Himalayas with packages to suit travel groups for girls-only trips.
More and more women are now travelling alone or stepping out without immediate company to feel empowered, enjoy freedom or just explore. Solo trips are on the rise for ‘me-time’ and offbeat destinations, and there is high pent-up demand and higher consumer confidence driving this segment. The good news is that the industry is also responding well by catering to their needs and offering customised itineraries for solo women travellers.
Women on the move
After struggling with varied challenges and working “very hard”, 35-year-old Bengaluru-based professional Nikita Das finally decided to quit her 13-year-old marketing job to finally take a break last year. “Now, I wish to pause and respect myself by taking time out for things I always wanted to do but couldn’t and then get back to work for the next 35 years,” says Das, who travelled solo to a three-month residency course in Ashtanga Yoga from Mysore, stayed and learned the art and science of yoga to channelise inner spiritual energy, and left for hiking solo in the east coast in the US. “The best part of solo travel is to explore… the more you explore, the better you know the world,” she adds.
From solo hikes like Catskills on the outskirts of New York, Freedom Trail in Boston, Vermont hike that is known for its stunning fall foliage and George Falls River Trail in Washington DC, Das found this new way of going solo in a trip a wholly meditative experience, finding a path, a place to stay, enjoying local food and local residents and learning different living cultures. “Travelling is almost like an ode to yourself… to thank your mind, body and spirit,” admits Das.
Similarly, Neha Bhandari, an independent media consultant, loves to travel solo as “one has no other option than to talk to locals; it actually helps a lot in understanding the culture and history of a place”, she explains. “No app can beat the information one can get from the locals. They will tell you about all the stories related to the place, festivals, off beat locations and local cuisines that no restaurants serve. Meeting new people from different places, cultures and age groups, be it local or other travellers, widens our horizon,” adds Bhandari, who has been to Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and now plans to travel to one place every quarter.
For some like Delhi-based corporate professional Niti Thakur, travelling solo is also an enriching experience. “It empowers and gives a sense of independence and enough time to think about life,” she says.
Thakur reads a lot about the places she plans to visit and tries to understand the culture, values and its history. “I always book my entry tickets for tourist places beforehand to save on-ground time. I never compromise on safety. I am picky about the hotels that I shortlist to make sure every booking is done on the basis of proper research using online ratings and references from trustworthy sources,” she says.
Solo is selling
Solo travel is typically associated with flexibility, and group tours are seen as rigid. That’s why many prefer travelling solo as it helps them meet new people and open their minds to unique experiences that inspire and enrich them.
Road trips to places like Dehradun in Uttarakhand from drivable destinations like Delhi, Punjab and Haryana have contributed to a significant increase in footfall.
“Quick getaways, local experiences and adventure treks or just vacation time alone are preferred choices for solo travellers. We can see a significant rise in the segment looking to rejuvenate and stay away from daily chores,” says Harkaran Singh, GM, Hyatt Regency Dehradun.
According to research undertaken by travel search engine Kayak, ‘me time’ is becoming a consideration for Indian travellers, with 38% saying they prefer to travel alone rather than in a group in 2023. Greater control, freedom, and flexibility in planning holiday itineraries could be major factors that drive solo trips.
Interestingly, exploring the world (62%) was mentioned as the main reason for the regained Indian travel desire, followed by living their dreams (61%), seeking thrills (55%), finding themselves (48%) and escaping their worries (43%).
Up to 60% of those surveyed consider themselves curious travellers. Curiosity also makes for more enriching experiences, as 75% of respondents also quenched their curiosity by usually exploring new and offbeat destinations. About 73% mentioned that they discovered new food experiences when travelling, and 70% met new people and made friends from different cultures during previous trips, as per Kayak.
Insights from the latest American Express Travel: Global Travel Trends Report, which looks at the motivations and considerations of travellers in Australia, Canada, Mexico, Japan, India and the UK, also suggest that over 58% are willing to travel solo to visit their dream destination.
Tracking consumer travel sentiment across India, global travel technology company OYO, too, published a mid-summer vacation index last year, where 13% of respondents wished to go solo in the peak summer season and over 25% of women would like to go on a solo trip as well. OYO Travelopedia Report 2022 also states consumers intend to head out on a solo trip as part of their resolution to scenic locations such as Manali, Shimla, Ladakh, Kashmir and Kerala, among others.
In fact, as the ‘live and work anywhere’ phenomenon has taken off among people who are able to work remotely, according to Airbnb internal data, approximately 30% of domestic and international bookings between Q2 2021 and Q2 2022 were by solo travellers from India. Overall, solo domestic travel among Indians has grown by about 120% in Q2 2022, when compared to Q2 2019.
SOTC Travel has also witnessed approximately 15-17% uptick in demand for the solo travel segment vis-a-vis the pre-pandemic times. “The travellers from this segment prefer unusual and non-standard itineraries that allow them to immerse into the destination and experience life like a local” says Daniel D’Souza, president and country head—holidays, SOTC Travel.
Rajeev Kale, president and country head, holidays, MICE, visa, Thomas Cook
While women travelling solo is in vogue and in demand, experts in this field and organisers are also making a concerted effort in offering the best experiences for solo women travellers. Nitesh Chauhan, founder of Jugni, who organises solo trips for women, observes a huge gap in offerings for solo women travellers in the industry. “We envisaged creating a safe space for them to solo travel across the globe. We talk about men, they have been travelling solo without feeling unsafe for obvious reasons. It has been much easier for them. However, lately we see a paradigm shift in the way women travel now,” he says.
Chauhan curates itineraries ensuring a good balance of touristy plus offbeat experience. “A safe environment where everyone feels inclusive and easy to express. Solo travel is the best way to explore the person within and have the exposure where trivial issues of life appear too small like a tiny particle. Solo women travellers are not city or country specific. They want to travel solo once in life for their own reasons. As a matter of fact, we have started getting a lot of solo women travellers from tier 2 cities now,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Kerala has launched a special project to set up women-friendly tourism centres and empower women. An initiative by the State Responsible Tourism Mission (RT Mission), the project will create a network of women’s units and tourism centres manned by women. As part of the project, training will be provided to selected women to work as tour coordinators, storytellers, community tour leaders, auto/taxi drivers (guest handling), homestay operators, etc. The project also aims to attract more women travellers to the state.
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“We believe everyone must experience travelling solo at least once in their lifetime. There is a different thrill in exploring new places with new people and it teaches us so much about ourselves. Although this can be challenging for some, when done the right way, solo travel can be one of the gifts one can give themselves,” shares Pushppal Singh Bhatia and Ravneet Kaur of That Couple Though, a Jalandhar-based influencer duo.
For Airbnb, the safety of the community —including solo travellers—is one of its top priorities and at the very heart of everything the platform does. “As part of this, we are rolling out a safety product in India that aims to allow solo travellers to experience all that the country has to offer with added peace of mind,” says Tara Bunch, Airbnb’s global head of operations.
The ‘Solo Traveler’ in-app experience is specifically designed to better support safe solo travelling on Airbnb. The product has expanded to Hindi—making it only the second language after English where this product has expanded.
Meanwhile, SOTC Travel’s holiday experts support solo travellers by helping them design the perfect holiday complete with trailblazing experiences based on their preferences, in addition to offering the necessary guidance and reassurance to customers, as per D’Souza.
Thomas Cook, too, has launched a dynamic customisable tool which empowers solo women travellers to pick, choose and create their own itinerary. It also offers exciting/attractive value-adds, wherever possible, like discounted/complimentary upgrades, transfers, dining, etc, during their stay.