I love traveling solo. Ever since those three months I spent in Europe with a backpack and a Eurail Pass when I was 22, I’ve thrived on the unmediated adventure, the open possibilities, and even the occasional loneliness that comes with heading to far-flung places on my own. Traveling with a posse was never my thing, and I was always bemused by those who signed up for organized group tours.
As a group-travel skeptic, then, I was intrigued to meet Jessica and Caitlin, two seasoned and intrepid solo travelers who have harnessed all they’ve learned out in the world over the years to create group travel experiences for women through their company, Purposeful Nomad. I had a suspicion that their approach might cater to someone like me, and was curious to get their take on what group travel can offer a sometimes-sociable introvert who loves to travel on her own, who freaks out if she doesn’t get her daily alone time, and who hasn’t loved the few group travel experiences she’s had in the past.
I had a chance to catch up with Jess and Caitlin earlier this month. We had a refreshingly honest conversation about the pros and cons of group travel, and how they work to make it appealing to those of us with a stubborn independent streak. I have to say, I came away impressed with their approach…
Sarah: Hi gals! I’m excited to talk about group travel with the two of you, because even though you run organized tours with Purposeful Nomad, you both started out as solo travelers. I’m curious to know the things you value most about independent travel?
Caitlin: Solo travel allows me to move about freely and on my own schedule. I can pick and choose what I alone want to do. More importantly, it really heightens my awareness and forces me to face new challenges head on. It pushes my boundaries on what I think I can do. I like stepping outside my comfort zone. That’s where a lot of personal growth can happen.
Jess: When I travel solo I have more time to sink into the place that I’m visiting. I feel drops of rain on my face more deeply, I see and smell more vividly and my creativity is always heightened. I have the freedom to make my own way and can chose to live deeply in a culture or check out for the day in a hammock near the beach. Mostly, I like the struggle of feeling alone, needing to work it out by myself or get over my own anxiety. There is something freeing and amazing when you do it by yourself.
S: How did you think about those things when creating your tours?
J: We’ve thought about this a lot. When researching a trip, Caitlin and I do daily gut checks about how we feel about each place, to see if we’d be satisfied as a solo traveler. It can take months or more to complete all of our research and planning for just this reason.
It took us two years to stitch together our Ecuador Food, Farm, Fleece tour, for example. We kept going back to the country looking for adventures that were off the beaten path, truly unique and that really reflect our style of travel.
For us, community connection is key and we strive to find experiences that you would be very challenged to find if solo backpacking unless you lived in the country for months and had access to translators, local guides and drivers. Like the organic chocolate farm in the Cloud Forest of Ecuador, where we learn the bean-to-bar process, sleep in the community and then go back the next day to work the farm. Or in India, where we sleep a night in an off-the-grid village and work with the ladies of Sambhali Trust.
S: That gets right at one of my other hesitations about group travel…When I go to unfamiliar places, I’d rather not be surrounded by other people like me the whole time. I’d rather find opportunities to interact with locals.
C: That’s exactly the mission of Purposeful Nomad, too. Besides the immediate small group, all we do is interact with the locals. From service projects, to fun exchanges, to education opportunities, we believe all the good stuff about travel comes from the locals.
J: When Caitlin and I both solo backpacked it was important for us to dig deep into the culture and we emulate this in our trips. We are very careful about which communities we work with, how authentic the experience is, and if we believe each interaction can and will be a mutual exchange. We do our research and ask hard questions. We will walk away from places that just don’t feel right or feel too touristy.
S: A related worry of mine is that group travel creates a buffer between myself and my environment that prevents me from experiencing the place as fully as I might on my own.
C: I would say our trips do the exact opposite. When you travel with us you are going to see things and meet people that you wouldn’t otherwise. We painstakingly research, travel and discover off-the-beaten path adventures and communities. We relish working with people who haven’t worked in the tourism sector before because we know we are offering totally new and unique experiences. We provide local guides and drivers that help us get to where we want to go and assist us in bridging gaps to get there. Keeping our group size to a minimum also helps soften our impact.
J: I think in some cases it would be logistically impossible to have these experiences on your own. We work with a small non-profit called Paqocha that is helping reintroduce alpacas to the highlands of Ecuador. We are the only group to work with them and these communities and finding these places is challenging and requires translators, drivers and guides. These villages are so real and lacking in tourist infrastructure that it takes heavy logistical planning to make it work. It would be very challenging to do this on your own.
S: On the flip side of wanting to meet people when traveling, I really value my alone time. I don’t like to be around other people 24/7, and struggle when I can’t get away from the group for days on end.
J: Yes! I agree, I need time to process!
C: Me too! That’s why I definitely encourage women to take the alone time they need when it’s available. Our groups are typically 6-10 ladies, which is small enough not to be overwhelmed by a mass of people. We are in nature a lot too. Large, crazy tourist sites are pretty rare on our itineraries by design.
J: We try our best to give travelers options and space when it’s available. For example, the day we cook with Michelle O’Fried on our Food, Farm, Fleece tour almost feels like Thanksgiving in the USA. Some ladies went for a long walk, others horseback riding, while some just curled up on the couch with a blanket and a book. We want everyone to feel included, but understand when you need time to reflect and be by yourself. That processing is important for the experience.
For travelers with an independent streak we attempt to tailor specific days to your need to go at it alone or have an adventure. For example, in Ecuador there is a day that you can take a guided crater hike that is about 6 hours or if you’re not up for that there is mountain biking or shopping in town. We try our best to give options when we can.
There is also another night that we partner you off and you stay with a local family. It’s up to you to break the language barrier and create your own experience. Some ladies were invited to an impromptu solstice party while others played dolls and cooked with their family.
S: It seems to me that for an independently minded traveler, these are exactly the scenarios that can make group travel worth it. For me, certain destinations do not scream out for a group tour—places like Paris or Tuscany or Buenos Aires, where not only can a solo female traveler feel completely safe, but can access so much on her own, or sign up for a single cooking class or one-day tour if there’s something specific she wants to do.
On the other hand, I’m planning a long trip to Asia this fall, and will be accompanied by my boyfriend for only a couple of many weeks. I want to go to Sumatra, but realize it’s not a place I would feel comfortable exploring on my own, for reasons of both societal norms and because the tourist infrastructure is so limited that I can envision getting into some frustrating situations that I’d deal with better as a team. So we are heading there together, and then I’ll go to places like Bali and Laos on my own, because I know I can handle those locales as a solo female. If I didn’t have my boyfriend traveling with me, I think the only way I’d go to Sumatra would be with a group.
J: While I love solo backpacking, I think it can be scary, especially at first. I think everyone has a different level of comfort and for some women, going to Guatemala or Peru is a huge step while others solo backpacking through Afghanistan is totally fine. I think everyone’s level is totally different and we try and speak to these differences. Ultimately we wish to be a platform in which women launch themselves into the world and make transformative and positive change.
I see your point about not wanting to go to certain places alone as a female. As of right now, I don’t think we build trips solely on this idea. If any of our trips speak to this it would be India, purely because not every woman feels comfortable traveling alone there. I personally think it’s safe, but with male guides it’s a little easier to navigate and get deeper into the culture without being hassled.
I think our trips are a great way to start your adventure or supplement a portion of your trip if you are nervous or wish for a different pace, lifestyle or logistically need help getting to some of these places. One woman is traveling with us for 14 days and then volunteering in New Delhi, for example.
S: I like spontaneity. When I’m traveling, I like having the freedom to decide on a whim to go somewhere I’ve just heard about, or to stay in a place I’ve discovered I love for longer.
C: Although our itineraries are pretty set before we depart there is always room for spontaneity. Again, we do build in times where you can choose what you want to do or just go off and explore for an afternoon on your own.
J: Our trips are tailored so it is challenging to stay an extra day or two in a place you love. But, you can always go back! Many places we discover on our trips are hidden gems and not necessarily in your Lonely Planet, and you may very well want to return again, I know I do! I feel like if we’ve made you want to stay longer or go back and explore these areas more than we have done our jobs.
S: So inevitably, one of the tradeoffs an organized tour is a loss of spontaneity. But on the flip side, what does group travel offer that isn’t available to the solo traveler?
C: A true sense of community and camaraderie. It always amazes me how quickly a new group of ladies can become friends. Within 24 hours it often seems like the group is already “gelled.” The ability to talk about certain experiences and feelings you have throughout the trip and listen to other perspectives. A feeling of security and safeness.
J: To this day, some of our ladies are still in touch and might travel together again. I’d also add that our trips provide access to vetted communities, activities and organizations that would be challenging to get access to as a solo traveler. The experiences and local connection you’ll have in 14 days with us would take you months if not years to create if trying solo.
And, let’s be real. Sometimes as a solo traveler it can be scary to be alone and sometimes it’s hard to make friends or get yourself motivated to get out the door. On our group trips, you have an instant group of women ready and willing to go on an adventure. We have sorted out the details and made the arrangements so all you need to do is show up and be open.
Feature image credit Jessica Scranton.