by LUCY VLAHAKIS
In account after painful account, the #MeToo movement has revealed the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault in our culture today. So it should come as no surprise that some of these stories shine an uncomfortable light on how women experience travel.
One such story came from well-known Silicon Valley executive Randi Zuckerberg, who posted on Facebook her experience being harassed by a seatmate on an Alaska Airlines flight last November. Her account, which included a claim that the flight crew failed to act on her request for assistance, went viral.
A recent survey reveals, in fact, that two in five women report they have experienced sexual harassment on the road. Like Zuckerberg, 8 percent have had to summon a flight attendant to deal with a misbehaving seatmate.
Our survey asked 400 U.S. women about their perceptions about safety when traveling alone and learned that, overall, they feel uncomfortable or unsafe traveling solo (although two out of three have done so), with millennial women significantly more likely to have concerns than Gen Xers. They consider their safety when choosing the location of their airline seat, have developed strategies to ward off uninvited overtures, and have definite ideas about what hotel features enhance their safety. Among the findings:
Women consider harassment risk when planning travel
A full 80 percent of women have considered personal safety issues related to potential harassment or assault when planning a trip, with a quarter considering safety often or always. Gen X women are more likely than millennials to say they have never considered personal safety when preparing to travel (25 percent vs. 14 percent).
They do their homework. Nearly two-thirds of female travelers (65 percent) research the relative safety of their destination before they go. To gather the information they need, they are most likely to reach out to other people who have traveled to that destination (31 percent). Others report they have read reviews on the topic (28 percent), consulted guide books or blogs (18 percent), looked at local crime statistics (16 percent), or visited message boards or travel communities (16 percent).
Perceptions: Women find strength in numbers
A third of women are less comfortable traveling alone today due to current events around sexual harassment and assault, while 54 percent report their feelings have not been influenced. millennial women’s comfort levels have been more negatively impacted by such news than their Gen X counterparts (42 percent vs. 27 percent).
Thinking about the risk of sexual harassment when traveling alone makes 43 percent of women feel uncomfortable and 24 percent feel unsafe.
Women feel safest traveling with a group of friends. As many as 62 percent are either very or extremely comfortable with this scenario, compared to a male friend or partner (54 percent), female friend or partner (36 percent), or a tour group (31 percent).
Only 15 percent of women are very/extremely comfortable traveling solo. The largest percentage, 34 percent, are somewhat comfortable, while 25 percent are not at all comfortable hitting the road alone.
Experiences: Two in five women have been sexually harassed while traveling
Two in five women report they have experienced sexual harassment or unwelcome interactions when traveling, with those interactions most often occurring in a bar (21 percent). Approximately 10 percent of women recall harassment while sightseeing, on an airplane, or in their hotel.
Slightly more than half of women have felt unsafe when traveling alone, and again, the bar is the setting in which they most likely have felt so (27 percent).
Gen X women are more likely than millennials to say they’ve never felt unsafe when traveling alone (46 percent vs. 27 percent).
Navigating the too-friendly skies
Three in five women have taken steps to discourage an airplane seatmate from unwelcome interest. Their most common tactic? Using earbuds or headphones (33 percent), followed by reading (28 percent), feigning sleep (19 percent), and explicitly telling the person they aren’t interested (17 percent). Eight percent have resorted to summoning assistance from a flight attendant.
As many as 59 percent of women select their airplane seat with personal safety in mind. Thirty-five percent prefer the aisle, either because it allows for an easy escape from an offensive seatmate (21 percent) or so they are more visible to the crew (14 percent), while 23 percent like a window seat so they can turn away from the attention. One out of 10 opts for business or first class, where there’s more interaction with the crew.
Hotels as safe harbor from unwanted sexual advances
When choosing travel accommodations, 24/7 presence at the reception desk and secure onsite parking are the most important security features, with 50 percent of women rating each very/extremely important.
Other security features they value are staying on floors with access restricted to guests only (41 percent), having the door to their room either located inside the hotel or facing away from the road if outside (33 percent), and having room service delivered by female staff (24 percent).
Among the survey’s interesting takeaways is the generational divide between millennial and Gen X women’s perceptions – a difference in line with broader studies around sexual harassment. Whether that disparity lies in the expectations and social mores each generation grew up with or the reality that younger women statistically draw more unwanted sexual attention, the fact is that millennials are on the brink of becoming the largest travel spenders, and travel organizations that directly address a woman’s concerns about personal safety on the road just might earn her business.