There is a misconception that solo travel is mostly for men or 20-somethings, but middle-aged women are avid solo travelers too. In fact, according to Beth Santos, CEO and founder of Wanderful, a travel and home sharing network for women, the average solo traveler is a 47-year old woman.
“Safety is a huge question,” says Santos. “A lot of people don’t know what their travel experience is going to be. Is it going to be safe or not? If it’s deemed unsafe – is that reality or just a perception? Besides safety, a lot of women worry about being lonely, eating at a restaurant on their own, or not being able to share a fun experience with someone else.”
Understanding social and cultural expectations of women is another issue that can affect women traveling to foreign countries on their own. Through Wanderful, Santos is not only creating a safe place for women to travel but improving the experience through connections with local women who’ve opted to be a host to women travelers.
How it Began
Wanderful started out as a blog when Santos was 22 years old. According to her, the only women travel blogs that existed at the time covered topics like, ‘What to wear on your next beach vacation.’ Santos wanted to go beyond superficial travel topics and talk about the cultural aspects that affected women when they travel, from personal hygiene to societal expectations of women in different parts of the world.
Having traveled to Sao Tome and Principe, a small two-island nation off Africa’s west coast, she found herself having to deal with not only being a foreigner in a small country of 150,000 people, but dealing with local expectations of women as well, which led to her interest in sharing her experiences through content.
Santos created an online travel magazine for women called Go Girl Travel Network. Through the content she intended to bring women travelers together to share their experiences and tips, empower one another to travel worldwide, and create a global sisterhood of independent, adventurous and globally minded women. She soon found that sharing experiences through content wasn’t enough.
“Travel is an ever-changing thing,” said Santos. “With political changes and cultural shifts taking place, what you wrote about a year ago is no longer relevant now, and I realized that content wasn’t enough to address the issues women face when they travel.”
She did have a good network of women who were willing to share their experiences, and decided to assemble those women from around the world to become advisors for other women who wished to travel to their country. Rebranding her network as Wanderful, she created an online community of women that could provide tips and advice for people while they were in their country. Soon members were posting to the Facebook page about a place they were traveling to, and asking if anyone was around to meet up, or if they had a place to stay because they felt safer with this community of women.
“I realized that it wasn’t just about providing tips for these travelers, but being there for each other. Now we’re moving from becoming [an online] network to [one where] women [can] host you, meet up and be a friend for you in a foreign country. It’s about making a strange place less strange,” said Santos.
Everyone who’s a Wanderful member has opted to be a local host to meet up with people when they come to town and answer questions, and some people who find they have an extra bedroom to offer, charge a small price for it.
“We differentiate from Airbnb in the sense that we are for women. Typically, when I travel with my friends and family I’ll book a house or apartment [through an Airbnb], but when I’m by myself, I tend to feel safer in a hotel, but then I miss out on the opportunity for a cultural exchange that goes beyond the hotel experience. We are creating an Airbnb experience for women with a trusted network.”
Santos is looking to add homestay insurance for hosts, and will soon add background checks as part of the safety feature. Currently, all Wanderful members are credit card verified and manual checks are run to ensure that everyone is who they say they are.
Wanderful also focuses on the social impact of travel, and helping travelers become locally engaged.
“Travel is not just about going on beach vacations, though I love those too, but building connections across the world and having a better understanding of each other,” Santos said.
Partnering with third party travel planning organizations, Wanderful connects women within the network to travel together on both volunteer programs as well as on tourism trips. Currently the company is partnered with nonprofit organization, Unearth the World, a Chicago-based social enterprise that organizes social projects in different countries around the world. This year, participating members will travel to Zambia and Botswana, live in a fishing village to build houses with the local community, and then take the rest of the week to travel, join a safari and enjoy the country. Travelers will also stay in a women owned place in Botswana. Unearth the World will organize and run the trip, but it will be exclusive to Wanderful’s community.
Trips are typically held twice a year – one in the U.S. and one international trip.
How to Become a Member
For those interested in signing up, the first thing they will receive is a survey that covers where they’re from and some of their favorite things to do, then they will be entered into the database of women members. All members get access to a home sharing network around the world.
“You can submit an inquiry and say, ‘I’m traveling to Rome and looking for someone to stay with,’ and our customer service people will match you with women who can help with what you’re looking for,” said Santos.
In addition, Wanderful partners with hotels and travel companies who offer members discounts on tickets and accommodation. For example, Hotel Storm, which is a big deal site for hotels, has up to 50% off for all members of Wanderful. Santos said the main idea is to create a network where women can help women on a peer-to-peer level but also meet at happy hour and have a glass of wine together.
In addition, when new members sign up, $10 of the sign-up fee goes toward nonprofit organization, Womentum, which supports women entrepreneurs across the world. When these women entrepreneurs reach a certain level of success, Womentum donates towards their business to help them grow.
“So you’re already helping someone else who is looking to grow her business in another country,” said Santos.
For those women who have always wanted to travel solo but never could drum up the courage to do so (like myself), knowing that there’s a network of women to reach out to certainly makes it less daunting. If you’ve traveled solo, or wish to do so, leave a comment and tell us about it.