Meet the Woman Who's Making Travel Safer (and Better!) for All Women
Whenever I’m in Hanoi, I’m struck by the number of backpackers who are carrying the same guidebook—they walk the city streets with their noses in the book and follow it word-for-word. That guidebook culture has established a popular path through Southeast Asia known as the banana pancake trail (named for backpackers seeking cheap eats and a popular street food).
However, in my column and lectures, I’ve always encouraged travelers to go beyond the well-worn path. So, I was thrilled to hear about Kelly Lewis’ work at the Women’s Travel Fest—an event that she actually founded—an annual, sold-out conference that aims to inspire and empower women to travel the world. She’s also the founder of Go! Girl Guides, a company that publishes travel guidebooks made specifically for women.
Lewis’ guidebooks encourage women to get off the beaten path and pursue more local experiences, as well as address common questions from first-time female travelers (questions that seasoned travelers are often too afraid to ask).
To learn more about her innovative work and her own travel career, I caught up with Lewis to talk about Go! Girl Guides and the future of travel.
There are hundreds of guidebook choices out there. Why did you decide to start one just for women?
Women have unique concerns when it comes to their health and safety while traveling. When I was traveling through South America, there were so many instances that I kept thinking, “I wish I had a girlfriend who could’ve warned me about that!”
And that’s exactly what we do. If it’s hard to find tampons (as is the case in much of Argentina and the rest of the world), we tell you. If the men are particularly aggressive in a certain area, we tell you. If a hotel is lovely, but in a bad part of town—well, you get the idea.
What women-specific information does Go! Girl Guides provide, and what sets them apart from other guidebooks?
We focus specifically on women’s health and safety in different parts of the world. We list all of the women’s clinics in the country, for example, and interview local ob-gyns about women’s health concerns. We also tell you how to navigate a pharmacy abroad and how to ask for things like Monistat or Plan B in the local language.
We also focus on finding accommodation options that are safe, affordable, and in good neighborhoods. We look for things like CCTV, night guards, 24-hour staff, sturdy locks on the door, and safes in the room. We want women to be prepared and stay safe while traveling.
All of this added info, combined with the standard what-to-see, where-to-stay information you find in other guidebooks, helps us to present a clear, easily understandable and relatable guide that helps women travel better.
What is the biggest thing holding women back from travel?
I think a lot of things hold women back from traveling. For some, it’s fear of the unknown and the belief that the world is dangerous (it’s not!). For others, it’s being tied down in a relationship or a career that you feel you can’t escape.
But if travel is something you’re interested in, there is always a way to make it happen. In a relationship with someone who doesn’t like to travel? See if you can take a weekend getaway with a friend, or just take off somewhere on your own for a few days! Have a busy career? Use that vacation time! We talk a lot about making travel a reality at the Women’s Travel Fest, an annual consumer travel festival that we host once a year to help empower women to travel the world.
Every traveler has a moment when he or she catches “the travel bug.” What was your moment?
I didn’t actually get to start traveling until after I graduated from college. I always wanted to study abroad, but I could never afford it—but when I graduated, my present from my family was a trip to New Zealand and Australia.
I fell in love with New Zealand at first sight, and I immediately came home, sold everything I owned, and moved there for a year. It was the best year of my life.
After that, I just knew that the 9-to-5 life would never be for me; I wanted to experience the world as much as I could.
What tips do you have for other aspiring travel professionals?
This is a hard question, because there are so many different ways to get into the travel industry. If you're interested in writing, start a blog, join Facebook groups, and check out online communities like Travel Blog Success. If you're just looking to travel more, look into becoming a flight attendant or working for an airline at your local airport. If you want travel discounts, consider working in the tour industry as a guide or travel planner.
I got started first by starting in travel writing by starting a blog, TravelBugJuice.com. Before that, I was a newspaper arts and entertainment writer. Through TBJ.com, I was able to connect with fellow travel bloggers, so when the time came to launch Go! Girl Guides, I had a great source for writers. It was a learning process to break into publishing, but I had a strong editorial background, which helped a lot!
Travel marketing often conveys that we either need to travel in five-star luxury or climb Kilimanjaro if we want to get the most out of travel. Is there a happy medium?
Of course! I think it’s all about personal preference. What do you enjoy spending money on while you travel? Is it food? Nice accommodations? Experiences and excursions? Determining that while you’re on the road can help you mold the perfect trip.
For example, I love to eat, and I prefer to stay in hotels these days rather than hostels, so to accommodate those things into my budget, I rarely drink alcohol when I travel. It’s always easy to find cheap food wherever you are, but alcohol is usually pretty pricy. That’s just one thing I do to adjust my budget on the road to make room for everything I want to experience.
And finally—just for fun—what’s next on your travel bucket list?
Greece and Italy are on the top of my personal travel bucket list. I have family in Italy I’ve never met before, and Greece just looks so lovely!
For more information, check out gogirlguides.com. Interested in attending the Women’s Travel Fest? The next event will be held Feb. 28 in San Francisco. Find out more at womenstravelfest.com. Follow on social media @GoGirlGuides and @WomenTravelFest.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author