When the average person thinks of the solo traveler, what images come to mind? A young student backpacking his way through Europe? A business traveler in a suit racing to his next appointment? The Marlboro Man?
Is the image of the average person traveling by themselves young or old? Male or female?
According to the U.S. Travel Association, the average solo traveler is around 42 years old and makes around $50,000 a year, a demographic that doesn’t include many college students (in fact, 38 percent of solo vacationers are college graduates). And though men may still be in the majority when it comes to traveling by themselves, women are closing the gap. In fact, 47 percent of all solo travelers are female.
Sometimes it seems as if the fact that women even dare to travel alone, even in this day and age, is like something out of a 1960s issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. Nestled between articles on how to perfectly curl you hair and what kind of cake your man would like comes an announcement of a fascinating, new sensation: Women are finally traveling alone. But instead of keeping to the reserved ladies’ cars of luxury rail liners of yesteryear, women are now crossing oceans for the sake of adventure, career, charity and, sometimes, just plain fun.
Businesses are now opening themselves up to the growing women’s travel market. Women Traveling Together is a website with listings of travel tours designed especially for women ranging from exotic cruises to Istanbul and the Greek Isles to rustic trips to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Teton Mountains, to visiting Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. There are books like “Woman Travel: Wanderlust and Lipstick,” directed at women travelers, and websites like “Being-A-Broad,” which gives advice for western women living in Japan.
Though women are traveling more often than they used to, there is evidence that men and women travel differently. Currently, the U.S. State Department advises women traveling to Saudi Arabia not to wear pants in public, in favor of ankle-length dresses with short sleeves. There have been incidents in the past where foreigners have been arrested in Saudi Arabia for “improper dress.”
Arrests for dress codes seem farfetched in the United States, but in Saudi Arabia, dressing conservatively is part of the common culture. Preparing yourself for cultural differences, abiding by local laws and customs, is important, so much so that the U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs stresses it in their brochure.
For interior design freshman and Kuwait-native Sarah Sharawi, conservative dress wasn’t the problem.
“I was walking around in sweaters here in Michigan during the summer. Everyone was looking at me strangely, but I was so cold!” Sharawi said.
Sharawi is leading as much an international and cosmopolitan life as one can for being only 19 years old. Born to Egyptian parents in the United Arab Emirates, Sharawi was raised in Kuwait and attended the American School of Kuwait before making the decision to come to the United States for college like her two older brothers. Since Sharawi arrived at MSU as an international student, not only has she gone through the normal college-age experience of planning your own trips for weekends and breaks, but also trips back home to Kuwait.
While most other students reunited with their families for Thanksgiving break, Sharawi planned a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet up with her friends from the American School of Kuwait (who are dispersed among universities across the United States). For spring break, Sharawi went to Miami, Florida with two of her friends. These trips were Sharawi’s first experiences with traveling alone and weren’t as daunting for her as she imagined they would be.
“I like traveling alone. I like the independence, I feel like I’ve accomplished something,” said Sharawi. “When traveling alone, you only have to worry about yourself. You’re running on your own time, it’s easier to manage.”
Coming to MSU and living independently of her family served as the catalyst that made Sharawi a more independent traveler.
“I’d just follow my parents. I never carried my passport,” said Sharawi. “Then when I was on my own, I noticed there were a lot of things I had to know…a lot of things to worry about.”
On her visit to D.C., what she learned to worry about culminated into a travel lesson: No matter how much you love your wardrobe, leave most of it at home.
“I was coming back to Michigan, but I had to take a train [to get to the airport]. I fell asleep before we got to the stop and didn’t have a lot of time to get my stuff together before I got off the train. I was carrying a huge bag. When I was dragging this huge bag off the train, I saw a bunch of people coming toward me onto the train. I ended up stuck between the crowds of people and the door closed. My heart dropped into my stomach. I found a guy who works on the train and he took care of me. He sticks with me the whole time, and said, ‘Madam, do not travel alone like this [with her large bag].’ It was awful; I didn’t know where I was. Marymount? Maryland? I had no idea!”
Now that the school year is drawing to a close, Sharawi is preparing for her long journey home. After attempting to find a travel partner, Sharawi decided to go it alone, but she admits that she rather have a travel partner:
“I’d rather go back with someone I know. The 21-hour flight gets boring.”
While Sharawi traveled for college, Kate Patch, the specialist advisor for Center for Gender in Global Context at MSU (or GenCen for short), did the same, doing undergrad research for her anthropology major in Ghana and Nigeria. In addition to her work in Africa, Patch has also taught English in Taiwan, participated in a volunteer trip in Honduras, and coordinated one in Nicaragua.
“My position and philosophy stresses the importance of going abroad, being educated and knowing where you are,” said Patch. “And for non-traditional students, don’t let that stop you.”
Patch believes traveling while one is young enriches a person and helps their world view, and feels like the year after students graduate high school is “the best time to do it.” Patch says that American high school students would benefit from a gap-year system, like western Europe. The program shouldn’t also be limited to western European countries, but all over.
Patch, along with Sharawi, feels like a sense of pride and power can be gained by being a woman traveling alone.
“I worked in Ghana and traveled by myself as a white woman. I had to take time to learn the transportation system, learn the language, and the ways of the people,” said Patch. “I had the opportunity to see places that normally American males had more access to. It was interesting to find empowerment in societies that normally aren’t empowering for women.”
An incident in Nigeria gave Patch a scare, but didn’t deter her from her work. Twenty-year-old Patch was interviewing market women in a large city. Patch’s regular research assistant wasn’t available, so her professor’s daughter filled in and translated Yoruba for Patch. There had been some fighting in the city at that time and a fire erupted in and men started to shoot arrows from bows into the market. Patch was separated from her interim assistant and took refuge in a church, where she eventually found Patch.
“We don’t really have to run for our lives in the U.S. everyday. [The scare] wasn’t purposeful, people panicked and started running.”
Though Patch’s experience in a Nigerian market isn’t exactly what most would consider a good time, she hasn’t let it affect her attitude toward the country, the region, or traveling at all. Patch plans to go back to Ghana to work soon, and she’s bringing her 2-year-old daughter with her.
Patch acknowledges that people are afraid to travel abroad, and she believes it’s mostly due to the lack of proper media coverage on parts of the world not dealt with often in the United States. The less known about a country, the more people are going to rely on stereotypes and negative images fed by media. Africa is a good example of this, as people characterize it as every country experiencing civil unrest with every person starving, says Patch.
Patch and Shawari agree on a few essential tips for young women traveling abroad:
1.Be alert. Don’t fall asleep, said Sharawi. You’re more likely to miss important information and maybe even your stop.
2.The unknown is dangerous if you don’t know the transportation systems, says Patch. Know your travel itinerary and how you plan to get to certain locations.“My rule is: If you’re in an airport, no matter how much you want to burst and pee, find your gate first,” said Sharawi.
3.Lastly, Sharawi adds “Smile.” “If you’re asking for help, smile and they will be more likely to help you. If someone is bothering you, smile slightly and keep moving. It will take you everywhere.”

One thought on “Women Abroad”

  1. Thanks for the article and for publishing a nice website. I have been seeking reliable info on travel tips and will put these recommendations to practice. I have found it difficult to find good recommendations, as there are so many sites with junk posts. Please keep the good information coming!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *