Flying solo: More women are traveling alone or meeting up for girlfriend getaways

photo Standing on the 18th floor of the Suntrust building, Shelda Spencer Rees, director of tourism for the Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau, speaks about a new initiative titled "Girlfriend Getaways" focusing on women who travel alone.

Safety tips for travelersChris McSpadden and Shelda Rees share advice they've learned over decades of travel experience.BEFORE YOU LEAVE• Plan your route and make reservations in advance for overnight stops if you are driving. Don't take a chance on settling for whatever's available when you are ready to stop. Book with reliable airlines and hotels. Read travelers' ratings.• Give your children or a good friend the names and locations of hotels on the road and your destination before your leave. Don't rely on just your cellphone in case you are needed in an emergency.• If traveling out of the country, do your research in advance. Know the customs of foreign countries and what is considered appropriate dress for women. Familiarize yourself with the language and learn basic conversational phrases.• If renting a car for travel, choose one with a trunk so you can hide valuables. An SUV leaves your belongings exposed to theft.AT THE AIRPORT• Don't take too much. Women are prone to overpack to ensure an appropriate outfit for every occasion. Rees advises that you take one suitcase that you can check, one small carry-on and your purse.• Leave valuables at home.• Don't have so much in your arms that you have to set your bags down to get your wallet or boarding pass out.• When checking in at the airport, don't leave your luggage to turn away to the counter. Wheel luggage right up beside you to the counter. Have everything in one hand, the other on your luggage handle. Thieves are watching for distracted travelers and can quickly pick up an unattended suitcase and be gone before you turn around.• If you have a layover, don't leave luggage unattended in a chair beside you or on the floor."If I am going to sit with my stuff at my feet, I stick my foot through the handles," advises Rees. "Think like a criminal. If you are talking on your phone, your handbag to the right of you, all someone has to do is sit down, wait until you are distracted, grab the handle and move on. If it has a strap, put your arm through it."CHECKING IN• Upon arrival, it's better to make more trips from the car to the hotel than try to bring everything in with one trip and not have your hands free.• Try to check in during daylight.• Once you've checked in, text your family and let them know you have arrived safely. If your family expects a text, and it doesn't arrive, it will alert them to check on your safety.• Ask for a room near the elevator, but not right beside it, so it is a short trip from the elevator doors to your room. Do not accept a room at the end of a hallway. Ask not to "turn a corner" to reach your room, which puts you further from the elevator.• Many travelers ask for rooms on the first floor, if the hotel offers them, where they feel safer having hotel and restaurant employees around them.• Some travelers feel safer asking for a room with neighbors on each side so that someone can hear should you call for help.• Avoid motels/hotels with outside entrances (such as the old mom-and-pop motels at which guests entered their rooms from a parking-lot door.) Choose a hotel in which rooms are entered from an interior hallway.• If parking is at the rear of the hotel, ask if there is camera surveillance. If not, ask for security to walk you to your car if you feel ill at ease.• If the hotel has night security, ask for that number and keep it in the bedside drawer.• If staying in a boutique hotel where the same staff works day and night shifts, it's not imprudent to let the front desk know you will be out for the day sightseeing. If you should not return, someone will be alerted.• If maintenance is needed, ask the front desk who will be coming to your room. That person should be in uniform or at least have on a hotel name tag. When someone knocks at the door, don't just assume it's maintenance. Always check out the door's peephole before opening up.• Frequent travelers often leave their TV on when out of the room for the day. If there are people watching guests come and go, they may be fooled into thinking someone is in the room.• If leaving early in the morning, ask somebody to go to the car with you. Anytime you feel uncomfortable trekking from the hotel to the parking, ask to be accompanied.• Always hold your purse on the arm away from the curb. Better yet, wear a crossbody purse.

Between 35 years of banking experience and her own leisure travel, Nancy Collum is on the road or in the air at least four times a year on major trips, not to mention weekend professional trainings.

The vice president and credit administration manager at First Volunteer Bank says she has never worried about personal security over the years, but there is one situation that could make her uncomfortable and have her glancing nervously about: dining alone.

"It's when you walk into a restaurant, ask if there is a table available, and the hostess asks (with surprise), 'Just one?' or 'Do you want to wait for the rest of your party?'" explains Collum.

"Sitting down to a meal by myself feels awkward, and I thought people would look at me and think 'Isn't that pitiful? That woman doesn't have anybody to eat with her.' But eventually it hit me: Nobody was paying that much attention. In fact, now I find a lot of times the wait staff is more friendly and talkative because you are by yourself."

The growing number of women traveling solo has caused the decline of such stereotypes. A woman checking into a hotel by herself or dining alone doesn't merit a second glance. No more knee-jerk reactions such as "Do you want a seat at the bar?" when a lone female enters a restaurant for dinner.

In fact, women traveling alone comprise 11 percent of all U.S. adult leisure travelers, according to the U.S. Travel Association. The boom in this travel demographic has caused a 230 percent increase in the number of women-only travel companies in the past six years, says travel analyst Marybeth Bond, author of The Gutsy Traveler blog.

Intrepid Travel website reports that, of 100,000 travelers booking trips in 2012, 63 percent were females between the ages of 25 and 39 -- its biggest market.

"In the past, women have kind of been afraid to travel alone. This year, I've got several women traveling alone, but some are leaving from here and meeting up with a scheduled tour," says Chris McSpadden, owner of Travel by Air, Land and Sea. "It's across the board in ages. One is in her late 60s, her husband travels a lot for his business, so she just goes on her own. Then there are younger girls out with their girlfriends. Girlfriend travel is increasing; I see more and more of that."

Shelda Rees, director of tourism for Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the bureau began marketing travel packages aimed specifically at women four years ago, one year after the state of Tennessee launched its female travel promotions. In the industry, such trips are known as "girlfriend getaways."

"Our girlfriend getaways include spa treatments, art/jewelry makers for an arts weekend, winery visits, local dining, and shopping on the North Shore, Southside or Hamilton Place," Rees describes. "They are always about local tourism but with a little behind-the-scenes added for a more special trip."

Area hotels are jumping on the girlfriends bandwagon as well.

Richard Pauley, director of sales and marketing at The Chattanoogan, says it offers a Ladies Day Out package for up to four women that includes a suite and choice of two spa services each.

"If we have a group of ladies checking in, we try to keep their rooms together; first, to enhance that sense of community and second, it makes them feel more secure to know their girlfriends are in the room next door," says Pauley.

The Gutsy Traveler's Bond reports that girlfriend getaways have already grown to represent 4 percent of all U.S. travel spending -- about $200 million annually. AAA's Girlfriend Travel Research found that 24 percent of American women have taken a girlfriend getaway in the past three years, and 39 percent plan one in the next three years.

Travel professionals find women are traveling for a variety of reasons.

Some are newly divorced or fresh off a broken relationship. A change of scenery helps them make a clean break as well as temporarily removing them from locations that carry "couple memories." The home page of the Chicks Unhitched website -- which books travel specifically for such women -- says: "Divorce was tough ... you are tougher."

"Post-divorce travel therapy is often the ideal dose of momentum people need to deal with life challenges and changes," says McSpadden. "There are many single accommodation options available where you can rebound from a bad romance. The first step is identifying what's right for you."

Other reasons women are traveling alone, according to Travel Guard Worldwide, a company offering travel insurance, are: A desire to follow their own schedules (17 percent), they have more time to travel than their friends (15 percent), traveling to pursue a specific interest (14 percent), widowed or divorced (43 percent) and traveling to reconnect or "find themselves" (4 percent).

McSpadden notes that singles travel is prompting changes in the cruise industry. Previously, a single traveling in a double-occupancy cabin would pay a "single supplement," or surcharge, for the privilege of privacy. Supplements could be anywhere from 10 to 150 percent of the standard rate to cover revenue lost from that empty bed.

"Now more cruises have single cabins, even European river cruises have accommodations for singles, which makes cruising more accessible for single travelers," says McSpadden.

Contact Susan Pierce at or 423-757-6284.

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