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On their own trip - Tribune India

All-women trips are getting popular. The travellers are not just from Mumbai or Delhi but other cities and small towns as well. Clubs like Girls on the Go and Women on Wanderlust (WoW) have created avenues for them to travel, socialise and make new friends, writes  Kalindi Sheth

After Sheila Lakhanpal (65) lost her husband a decade ago, she became listless. The mourning, which followed, saw her seeking the company of other widowed friends only.

But a year later when money from her husband’s insurance plan funded an impromptu trip to Europe with a woman companion, Lakhanpal’s life got back on the track. "I realised I had been bit by the travel bug, which inspired me to see many more places. Later, I made several more small-budget trips to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Egypt with the same friend. But we always had to take into account each other’s prior commitments and then plan a tour," she recalls. Luckily for women like Lakhanpal, the growing need for all-women trips is beginning to be acknowledged.

Recognising this need and its commercial value, Piya Bose-Desai, a young finance lawyer, quit her job in 2008 to start Girls on the Go, a travel club, which caters only to women. Desai (26) started on a small note where she was the one-woman staff handling all departments, whether it was finance, accounts or advertising. Her efforts paid off sooner than hoped and the travel club had organised its first trip. Desai was of to Leh-Ladakh for 10 days with 24 enthusiastic women, including Lakhanpal.

"I have been travelling alone since the age of 16. On my journeys, I had observed that not many Indian women travelled on their own unlike their western counterparts. Some, whom I spoke to, said they felt restricted when they went on trips with husbands and extended families," recalls Desai.

It was one of her earlier trips from Nepal to Tibet that served as an inspiration to take women like herself to Ladakh, she adds.

Piya Bose-Desai, a young finance lawyer, quit her job in 2008 to start Girls on the Go, a travel club, which caters only to women

Sumitra Senapaty was the pioneer in this field who set up Women on Wanderlust (WoW) in 2005

"It was a challenging destination but it worked out for everybody. The ages of the women ranged from 18 to 65. I had been freelancing with several travel agencies in the past and that helped me a great deal in organising the trip. And I got a great feedback. I have already organised a trip to Konkan and a luxury tour to Rajasthan," she says.

The pioneer in this field, Sumitra Senapaty (48), who founded Women on Wanderlust (WoW) in 2005, says this was a great idea just waiting to catch some entrepreneur’s attention.

Senapaty, a freelance writer based in Delhi, says she loves travelling to various places around the globe and has often ventured out alone. It was one such trip that inspired her to start WoW. It is an exclusive club for women travellers who love to travel alone.

"I had been travelling alone all my life and knew many women who wanted to travel but couldn’t. WoW was formed to give women a platform to not just travel but also to socialise and make new friends," says Senapaty, who has done everything from kayaking through the South China Sea, to camping in the African jungles, to driving across New Zealand and sailing in Seychelles and Maldives.

It was her chance meeting with a group of women in London, who were not related to each other and weren’t even acquaintances but had formed a strong bond because of their love for travel. This inspired her to introduce a similar concept back home. Despite initial hiccups, WoW was hit. As Senapaty puts it, "Many women want to travel. But several restrictions or reservations associated with travelling alone make them hesitate. The reasons might be many — a busy husband or strict parents who may be against their daughter travelling alone. Then there are women either widowed or separated, those with friends, relatives or colleagues not able to accompany them for one reason or another. So women just put don’t take the plunge."

"I wanted to make such women experience the sheer thrill and joy of travel and that inspired me to start this organisation,"adds Senapaty.

The entrepreneur is, however, quick to clarify that WoW is not a travel agency. "It is a club, a social group. Women, who travelled on WoW’s first trip to Ladakh in the summer of 2005, are still travelling with us today because they have a lot of fun when they get together. And the group is a heady mix of women of all ages and stages — young, not-so-young, young-at-heart, single, divorced, heartbroken," she says.

Some of Senapaty’s most popular trips include the ones to destinations like South Africa, Greece, Turkey, Europe, Egypt and China. The travellers say they find the trips cost-effective as well as safe.

Aparna Pal-Chauhan (44), who has been on three WoW trips, says: "I had always travelled with family or friends. And my husband isn't always free to travel. Besides, I am a history buff and he isn’t. So when I signed up for a WoW trip to Greece-Istanbul, he was surprised that I was going with people I didn’t know at all. But it was great; the places we visited were beautiful. And I paid just Rs 75,000 for nine days, which I thought was complete value for money."

As for the fringe benefits of such trips, Bangalore-based Chauhan, who works as an administrator, says she ended up making a couple of new friends and continues to keep in touch with them. She also toured Bhutan and Ladakh subsequently, and is planning to go on yet another trip this year.

Mohana Talapatra, another WoW regular, says, "Making travel plans has always meant a long-drawn out logistical and coordination nightmare. Either because we simply cannot coordinate schedules with those of our family or friends in today’s life-on-a-treadmill routine or we just want some ‘me’ time away from immediate family. So for many busy workingwomen like me, Sumitra's pioneering concept of travelling across the world with a group of like-minded women has been a boon."

So travel clubs such as Girls on the Go and Women on Wanderlust have been the answer for prayers of many urban women.

Senapaty, however, says that her patrons are not just from Mumbai or Delhi but other metros and many small towns as well. "I even have NRIs and foreign nationals coming along. A majority of the members are working women," she says.

According to Senapaty, women feel more confident travelling with another women than an impersonal agency taking care of mass tourism. "I believe that being a woman myself, I know exactly what they are looking for and I plan our holidays more like a close friend."

Desai, who is currently tapping domestic destinations, plans to go international this year with trips to South Africa and Egypt lined up. She finds her experiences quite different. "I get many interesting clients like pairs of mother-daughter or aunt-niece, who come along just to spend quality time together as well as be free to do what they like when they travel. I have noticed that this freedom to do your own thing is an important factor because most tour operators make the itinerary so suffocating, that there is no leeway to do your own thing," she says.

Lawyer Sheetal Kumar (40) and her 18-year-old niece recently went on to the Ladakh trip organised by Desai. "I agreed instantly because it was an all-girls trip. My niece and I were both wanting a break, and it was perfect. Our family was a little apprehensive because it felt we might, in fact, attract more attention because of our being an all women group. But I thought we were very safe and, despite being strangers, we ended up bonding very well," recalls Kumar. For both the teenager as well as her aunt, the trip became an opportunity to expand their social circle. "You come to a stage in life when your circle of friends is too set; this is a perfect way to meet like-minded women and make new friends," adds Kumar.

Taking the social aspect a step further, Senapaty has introduced a membership plan for WoW patrons. "We also keep adding new features. For an annual subscription, which costs Rs 8,000, members get an invitation to a wine evening, an annual lunch, and an all-expenses paid weekend trip with other WoW members," she says.

Today, the club has more than a hundred members and they come from all walks of life. Senapaty says that soon the club may provide business opportunities to members and then women, too, could mix business with pleasure.