Research Spotlight: How Does Advice to Women and Men Traveling Alone Reflect Gender Inequality?

Searching the internet has become almost a prerequisite for travel (though considerably fewer trips, of course, are happening during the pandemic). Online articles and blogs are appealing sources of information because they offer up-to-date travel advice, often drawn from personal experiences. Despite their widespread use, online travel articles have received surprisingly little research attention. Dr. Anne Barrett and I saw them as a novel data source for examining gender inequalities in travel, as the advice differs markedly depending on whether men or women are the target audience. We recently completed a couple of projects involving the analysis of articles aimed at those venturing out alone – a subset of travelers for whom the messages about travel’s risks versus rewards are especially divergent for women versus men.      

Our first paper, forthcoming in Sociological Forum, analyzed gender differences in 100 online articles directed at women versus men traveling alone. Using a leisure constraints framework, we developed the concept of “bounded explorers” to capture the social, behavioral, and emotional barriers that are imposed on women as solo travelers, hinging on their perceived vulnerability and men’s perceived dangerousness. We identified two processes through which this construction of solo women travelers as bounded was generated: creating negative expectations and encouraging vigilant risk avoidance. Statistical analysis of the data revealed that both processes were significantly more common in articles targeting women than men. Women’s travel articles foreshadowed fear, loneliness, dependence on others, and sexualized social interactions, while men’s articles focused almost exclusively on pursuing pleasure. Our results highlighted the importance of travel as a domain that often reinforces gender inequality, suggesting a narrowing of women’s options that may have implications extending far beyond the realm of leisure.

To further explore this framing of solo women travelers as more bounded than men, we conducted a second study that incorporated a consideration of age. Published in the Journal of Women & Aging, this paper reported the results of our comparison of travel articles written for younger versus older women. In line with our prior research, we found ample evidence of messages highlighting solo travel’s risks to women. However, they were more prevalent in articles aimed at younger women. In contrast, articles for older women often highlighted solo travel’s rewards, including the opportunity for self-discovery and “letting go.” Our analysis suggests that constructions of aging influence cultural representations of solo travel’s pleasures. Older women’s articles often contained messages that highlighted their strengths and abilities, countering negative assumptions about older adults, and older women in particular. This positive framing resonates with one of the prevailing cultural narratives of aging – the progress narrative that focuses on continual self-development across the second half of life. It contrasts with the more prevalent decline narrative that highlights the losses than can accompany age. 

Our studies point to directions for future research – on gender, age, and other dimensions of inequality that may influence cultural representations of solo travel. The relatively small size of our datasets did not permit examination, for example, of how race-ethnicity, sexual identity, social class, disability status, or other inequalities may shape these constructions. Our findings also serve as a springboard for research examining the cultural messages about solo travelers found in other online media, such as tweets. The #metoo campaign that urges women to speak out about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault has led women solo travelers all over the world to use online spaces to share their stories and advance women’s right to travel alone. For example, hashtags like #viajosola (I travel alone) produce narratives about solo travel that have yet to be examined for their representations of solo travel. 

Another direction for research centers on assessing the extent to which women and men are exposed to and internalize these messages about travel from various sources. The greater prevalence of articles guiding solo women than men travelers suggests that women may seek out and be exposed to more online advice; however, more research is needed examining not only the gendered patterns in the messages and exposure to them but also their impact on behavior, emotional experiences, and self-perceptions. Further studies also should examine cultural representations of men’s solo travel experiences, including analysis of age patterns. They may contrast with the ones we found for women. While our findings suggest that women’s risks are constructed as declining with age, men’s risks may be viewed as minimal at young ages but high in later life when physical limitations increase their vulnerability. 

Rachel Douglas is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology. She studies gender, leisure, aging, and urban sociology, examining how communities reflect, reinforce, and challenge social inequalities.

Anne Barrett is a professor of sociology and the Director of the Pepper institute at Florida State University. You can learn more about Anne Barrett here.

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