Beyond the girlfriend getaway: best bucket list adventures for women only

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Up until just a few years ago, the phrase “girlfriend getaway” conjured up images of a group of women pampering themselves with spa treatments, wine tasting, or shopping the day away.

While such trips are still a significant part of an exploding travel industry catering to women, more female travelers are upping the ante when it comes to adventure. Increasingly, women are opting for high-octane excursions like trekking in the Himalayas, horseback riding in Iceland, or heli-hiking in the Canadian Rockies, all of which appeal to a growing segment of travelers looking for an adrenaline rush along with some female bonding.

“I have a multi-sport Thailand trip that includes living with elephants for four days and a multi-sport Iceland trip that involves hiking followed by viewing the Aurora Borealis from a natural hot spring,” Emilie Cortes, president of Call of the Wild, a pioneer in women’s adventure trips, told

“Both are in 2014, and even though we haven’t even advertised them yet, they’re basically pre-sold and nearly full based on repeat customers. There is no way that would have been the case in 2009.”

Indeed, “women are getting gutsier than we used to be” when it comes to travel, notes Marybeth Bond, a National Geographic author and founder of The Gutsy Traveler, a website and resource for women travelers. “It used to be that women only traveled to visit someone, a family member or a girlfriend. Now we travel just to explore.”

There are several underlying reasons for the trend. First, as record numbers of women reach retirement age, many are discovering travel as a way to reconnect with female family members or friends, and to refocus on themselves after decades of balancing work and family obligations. Shifting cultural norms also play a role, says Beth Whitman, founder of women’s travel website Wanderlust and Lipstick and tour operator WanderTours.

“There’s been this acceptance that it’s ok to leave your husband at home and even your young children and go to a yoga retreat, or take a solo trip or with your sister or mom or friend, and have that ‘me’ time,” Whitman notes.

Pop culture has provided inspiration, too. It’s been years since Sex and the City steamed up television and movie screens, but women still flock to New York City with their girlfriends to follow in the footsteps of Carrie Bradshaw and Co. The blockbuster success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir-turned-movie "Eat, Pray, Love" also sparked thousands of women to visit Italy, India, and Indonesia in search of their own potentially life-changing adventures.

Whatever the motivation, the travel industry has responded to the growing demand.

Traditionally, only a handful of women-centric tour companies, including the Bend, Ore.-based Call of the Wild and Adventure Women, were in existence; nowadays, there are dozens.

Whitman, for example, founded Wanderlust and Lipstick in 2007 after hosting women’s travel workshops for nearly two decades. In addition, some larger tour companies, such as Canadian Mountain Holidays, have created women-only itineraries.

The business travel market also has fine-tuned its focus on female travelers. In 2012, the Four Seasons Hotel in Houston launched its “Gal on the Go” program, which randomly selects female business travelers for a no-cost upgrade to its women-only floor, whose rooms are equipped with extras such as yoga mats, makeup kits, and fashion magazines. And since 1995, the Wyndham Hotel Group has catered specifically to its female clientele with its Women on Their Way website, a resource full of travel resources for women.

Tour operators note that a majority of their women travelers are generally aged 45-65, though travelers in their 20s, 30s, and all the way up to their 70s, aren’t uncommon. While many sign up for tours with a female friend or family member, a growing number are booking trips as solo travelers. In fact, Annapolis, M.D.-based operator Women Traveling Together, which was founded in 1997, states on its website that women traveling by themselves account for 80 percent of its total customers. (Most of the company’s 2013 departures, incidentally, are sold out.)

Whitman notes that many customers on who book women-only WanderTours trips are “divorced, widowed, or [have] husbands [who don’t] like to travel.” Often, the experience is to start out strangers and end up friends because “they get into this safety net where other women are so supportive, and there are tears at the end because they don’t want to leave. It’s a great bonding experience,” Whitman says.

Whether women are traveling on their own or with a buddy, they should take time to properly vet the tour operator prior to booking, travel experts note. According to Bond, travelers should ask about “group size, what meals are included, is there a single supplement, may I talk to someone who has been on the trip last year? And read the itinerary – are you going to be on and off a bus? Finally, how much of [the company’s] business is repeat business?”

Indeed, doing a little homework ahead of time helps pave the way for an epic adventure – which, in turn, is likely to keep the wanderlust stoked for the next trip.