Why Do Women Travel More than Men?

Tourist girl

I don’t have hard numbers for backing the following statement, but definitely, I have enough anecdotal evidence for bringing it forward: Women travel more than men. For me, this was not a sudden realization but rather a gradual process of awakening over the years, after learning the stories of many women in my life that have decided to make traveling a serious purpose in their lives. First, it was a cousin, then a couple of friends, then a colleague, and then a girlfriend. One by one I would hear about their big and small adventures, either crossing the channel or crossing the world.

And then, there were more and more of these stories, coming now from women with whom I haven’t talked to in a long time but whom I remain connected through Instagram or Facebook. Sometimes they would be traveling with their partners, but more often than not, it was clear from their pictures, they were on the road alone. At the moment of writing, I could probably name two dozen women that I know who are in a constant pursuit for satisfying their endless wanderlust.

And then, I thought about my male friends. And sure, I know a couple of guys in the office that have made impressive trips around the world and with whom I catch up every few months when they are stopping over in London. But other than them, I struggled to find other men that exhibited a similar spirit as that of my female nomad friends. After scanning my social networks more thoroughly, I only managed to get a handful of names of guys who probably have the same passion for traveling.

I haven’t found rigorous estimations of travelers distribution by gender; however, data collected by travel agencies and airlines in the US shows that between 60% and 75% of all holiday travelers are women. Despite the biases in these numbers, they are in line with my observation and hint to something quite exceptional in the way that men and women conceive and experience traveling.

I have not found satisfying explanations for this phenomenon either. Perhaps it is that women are more prone to self-reflection and growth and therefore invest more in activities that provide them wellness and a better chance for self-actualization. Or that there was a real effect in women´s collective psyche due to bestselling books (and later blockbusters) Eat, Pray, Love, and Wild. Or it’s just that men really suck at asking for directions. Perhaps. Perhaps not.

So I turned the attention to myself. Yes, I have traveled around, but I wouldn’t call myself a globetrotter. I enjoy exploring a new place and learning the ways of other people, but I can spend long seasons not leaving the city and not suffering a meltdown. I may share an adventure or two about my travels with friends, but nobody is asking me intrigued by where my next destination is going to be, simply because it is not one of my defining characteristics. I am not very different than the majority of my male friends in my traveling practices, but I would like to travel more. Could it be that there is something in my behavior archetypal to the way that men travel?

Bringing something from your personality to the surface and using it to infer something unique to men but not women is a hopeless task, so I’m afraid that you won’t find here the ultimate answer to the question in the title of this entry. However, I identified three characteristics in me that usually slow me down or even stop me from traveling, and I wonder whether they could be generalized to other people and even resonate more with men than with women. Neither my behavior, nor the behavior of the other 4 billion men in this planet can be satisfactorily explained with only one variable, but out of the three plausible reasons that I offer, the first one might be the one with the most significant explanatory power.

1. Thinking too much, executing too little

When I asked a female friend why could it be that women travel more than men, she didn’t hesitate. “Women: We do things!” she said while snapping her fingers energetically a few times. And then, while rolling her eyes and changing the expression in her face to one of frustration, she sentenced: “But men… pfff, they think and think, but they never do anything”.

There is a recurrent joke that men overthink and are lousy at executing which in the context of traveling might hold for me some times. I may have ambitious plans to travel (Myanmar, Ethiopia, Korea, Iran, Brazil), but in the proverbial journey of a thousand miles, I often fail in taking that first step, trapped in a state of analysis paralysis.

The problem with the overthinking diagnosis is that it is just an external description of a phenomenon happening internally in our brains, and does not offer a helpful remedy other than “stop overthinking!” But observing the patterns in myself, I saw that overthinking is, in fact, a manifestation of an inadequate approach to planning a trip, one in which I favor a sequential process instead of a parallel one. Let me explain.

Any journey of considerable length requires taking many decisions, often with incomplete information and subject to various constraints of time and money. It is not a particularly tricky problem to solve, and if you are like me, you might think that writing down a checklist of things to do is the correct first step. Which it is. Hidden among the obvious chores (requesting the days off, buying the flight tickets, sorting out the accommodation), there are always more subtle ones (vaccinations, insurance, visas), which I will inevitably forget to do if they are not in my list.

But if you are like me, you are going to be led to a trap when you start conceiving this list as a sequence of orderly steps that you need to execute, one after the other, to minimize risk. I will only book and pay for accommodation when I have bought the tickets. And I will buy the tickets only after I get the necessary visas, which I apply for just after I get approval at work for taking those days off. When you make a chain like this, with a dozen action points, each one depending on the previous one, you will get stuck when any of them comes to a stop (and there will always be one of them coming to a stop). For me, overthinking is waiting, powerless to move from one item in a list to the next one.

Perhaps women travel more than men because they make a better job organizing trips efficiently. Maybe they recognize that the key to successfully plan a trip is acknowledging that not only the various disconnected elements in the to-do list need to be optimized but that the time spent in the planning phase is itself a variable that needs to be minimized.

This year I have changed my mind when organizing trips, replacing the rigid, sequential list of steps for a more fluid, parallel approach. When I hit an item that I can’t resolve at the moment, I move on to the next one, which then I use as a reference to make further decisions about the journey. I have found that this strategy becomes even more effective when I’m planning more than one trip simultaneously, which should not be surprising, as scaling is one of the benefits that you obtain when working in a “distributed mode”.

My analytical mind still shouts in horror when I book a hotel before buying the flight tickets, as my defense mechanisms detect uncertainty. But that is precisely the point: acknowledging that traveling is less about hanging on to control and more about embracing the unknown.

2. More Bill Bryson, less Casanova

Three of my favorite books in which traveling is in itself a fundamental piece of the narrative are Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts; the biography of Casanova, by Ian Kelly; and Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. In the three books, the characters explore foreign, exotic worlds where they find exhilarating adventures, ardent romances, and fantastic wonders. In these stories, traveling is about conquering and discovering an external universe of people and places, not just an exercise of reflection or introspection.

My taste of books may reflect my inner desires of what it is that I look for when I travel. It is not that I am hoping that during my holidays I end up leading a gang of criminals in the slums of Mumbai, or having a pistol duel with a Polish nobleman for the love of an Italian actress. It is instead that my expectations are shaped around themes constructed in a world out there, one to which I am transported to find excitement, connection, and knowledge.

Having this mindset makes traveling quite fun, but the downside is that I put my expectations in external factors that disappoint me when they don’t work as I wish. After a few trips, I can’t avoid feeling the fatigue of chasing something out there, something more intense, better or merely different from the previous time. And when I am back home, I start thinking twice to do it all over again.

Perhaps women travel more because they are not in the game of conquering outer worlds. Maybe they are more interested in the inner aspects that are channeled through traveling, and therefore are less prone to feel frustrated when things don’t go according to plan. If traveling is more about growing and challenging yourself, you will always have an endless supply of excitement and won’t get bored quickly.

Last year I discovered the books by Bill Bryson and his work is becoming a personal favorite. His stories are not epic by any standard, but rather quite ordinary and even a bit bland. However, the witty observations about his many excursions also highlight clear and honest insights about himself. Perhaps his books are so beloved because he blends with terrific prose the discovery of new places with the discovery of himself.

Bryson’s books have inspired me to be more attentive to my thoughts when I’m on the road but doing it in a light, almost playful way. I am not looking to have a profound revelation of who I am, or what is my purpose in life, as that would be just another way of making traveling some form of competition: I am just becoming more curious about the triviality and silliness of my thoughts.

3. Table for one, please

If you want to make traveling a priority in your life, at some point you will need to master the subtle art of solo traveling. It is a given that we all love to travel with friends and partners, but the reality is that the logistics do not always work in our favor and you either have to relinquish the idea of making that trip you have been dreaming about or go ahead and do the whole thing on your own. Faced with this dilemma, I have chosen many times the latter option; however, I have to admit that I never felt thrilled about it.

When traveling alone in a foreign place my mind wanders erratically, and I cannot focus on what is in front of me. Many times I get myself lost thinking how much more enjoyable it would be to share the experience in front of me with someone else, but when I get back to my senses, the moment has vanished. I take some solace in knowing that it is a pretty familiar feeling, one that even the most seasoned travelers have to face.

Michael de Montaigne, the true first blogger, made a long trip between 1580 and 1581 that took him from his Château in France to Italy, where he indulged in his passion for the ancient Roman world. As he was the first great explorer of the inner human condition, I was very keen on reading what he had to say about traveling. Not surprising, his words written more than 400 hundred years ago, resonated well with my feelings of being marooned when traveling alone: “I felt only one lack, that of a company that I like, being forced to enjoy these good things alone and without communication.”

Perhaps women travel more because, somehow, they can cope better with loneliness. Perhaps some of them find it easy to befriend new people in their journeys, and some others feel entirely comfortable with the company of a book while dining alone.

This year I took it as a challenge to make a few trips on my own. They have been just long weekends away, in everybody’s favorite European capitals. I haven’t done anything different other than being slightly more open and chatty with strangers, from the person sitting next to me in the plane to whoever is browsing the same bookshelves as I am in a bookstore. It is such a simple act but one that has infused my journeys with new and constant interactions, balancing the focus in mind that I described previously, with my desire to connect with others.

Some people might find it difficult to get the conversation going with a stranger. I don’t have any particular advice on that point, other than if at some point you get stuck, try making a simple observation, something like “Have you ever noticed that women travel more than men?”

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