After graduating from college in 2008, Kelly Lewis traveled the world solo. She spent a year in New Zealand and backpacked from one end of South America to the other. In the process, she relied on guidebooks. But they didn’t give her all the information she needed, especially as a woman. “I would have loved if someone would have told me it’s really hard to find tampons in Buenos Aires,” she said. “And why doesn’t anyone tell you this particular bus station is sketchy at night?”
When she returned to the United States in 2010, she started Go! Girl Guides, a brand of travel guides explicitly for women, by women. She and her team of writers explored Thailand, Mexico, Argentina, New York City and London and wrote manuals on how women could enjoy these places and stay safe.
Lewis also started a website to supplement the books (one of the most popular posts is: “Late Period While Traveling, Don’t Panic”), a travel conference, and, with Alyson Kilday, Damesly, a tour company for professional women. Here are edited excerpts from a conversation with Lewis.
Q: Why do you think women need special guidebooks when traveling?
A: I think women are often told they shouldn’t travel – that it’s irresponsible, that it’s unsafe. So we really try to do our part to make women feel comfortable, to get out there, while also saying, “These are the things you should be aware of.” Knowledge is power. Women have special concerns when it comes to traveling regarding their health and safety, for example, so we have a section that has information on women clinics and another one on safety.
Q: Have you ever felt unsafe on one of your adventures?
A: When I was in Argentina, I had bad experiences with employees on long distance buses. I was spied on by an employee. I had another one push himself on me when I was sleeping. My writers had similar experiences when they went to do the guidebook, so we knew this was one thing we had to put in the book.
Q: What about the emotional challenges of traveling?
A: I think loneliness and homesickness are huge emotions you battle as a female traveler, so our guides address community and how to meet people. We talk about using couch surfing as the best way to form a connection and about how to be outgoing and talk to as many people as possible. The more people know of you, the more they feel a need to protect you.
Q: Do women want to do different things when traveling than men?
A: I find that women are looking for more connection or purpose when they travel; they have a specific reason to visit a country. So they want to go to Thailand and volunteer with elephants instead of just going to Thailand in general. All our books have a free or low-cost volunteer section in the back.
Q: How do you select which destinations to feature?
A: We first started choosing cities and countries that are maybe a little difficult for women to go to by themselves. So Thailand is really popular and a wonderful place for solo travel, but it can be a little intimidating. Bangkok is a big city, and the language barrier is a real concern, so that’s why we started there. The same is true for Mexico and Argentina, but you are dealing with a macho culture on top of it.
Q: What projects are you planning next?
A: We are working on a television show called “Brazen,” where everywhere we go, we will meet incredible women who are actually changing the world. There is a woman in Thailand who rehabilitates elephants in an elephant orphanage and another who is a sake brewer in Japan.