On this week’s 51%, we finally get out of the house. We speak with travel agent Jean Gagnon about how to plan ahead this vacation season; cyclist and self-proclaimed “worldwide nomad” Rachel Yaseen discusses the drive behind her adventures; and Dr. Sharon Ufberg interviews Amanda Black, founder of the Solo Female Traveler Network.
Guests: Jean Gagnon, president of Plaza Travel Center in Latham, New York; Rachel Yaseen; Amanda Black, founder of the Solo Female Traveler Network
51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. It’s produced by Jesse King. Our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock, and our theme is “Lolita” by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue.
You’re listening to 51%, a WAMC production dedicated to women’s issues and stories. Thanks for joining us, I’m Jesse King.
I have been sitting on this episode for a long time. I’m very much a homebody, but if there’s one thing the coronavirus pandemic made me daydream of, it’s travel – because, of course, COVID-19 pretty much stopped it. For the past two years or so, we’ve all been staying closer to home – for good reason, I might add – but now that states are relaxing their COVID-19 restrictions, and the omicron variant appears to be on a decline, more and more people are feeling optimistic about dusting off their suitcase. Overall, travel in the U.S. is bouncing back. So if you’re looking for advice on your spring and summer vacations, some travel motivation, or just an excuse to daydream about the trips you would take if it weren’t for COVID-19 – today, we’ve got you covered.
Jean Gagnon is a veteran vacation planner and president of Plaza Travel Center in Latham, New York. She says the pandemic decimated every corner of her industry, but slowly, the calls are coming in.
“We do a lot of international travel here, so we are very affected by the testing requirement that is still in place by the U.S. government, that you have to test [negative for COVID-19] 24 hours before you return to the U.S.,” Gagnon explains. “As soon as that gets pulled, which we’re hoping will be fairly soon, then travel will really get blown out of the water.”
When people are planning for their travels, what things should they be keeping in mind, still?
OK, they still have to book really, really far in advance. That is the number one way to save money. People say, “Oh, I’ll wait, because maybe the fares will go down.” Airfares don’t go down. Once in a while a hotel offers a last-minute deal, but it’s usually not any place that you get an airfare to. So you really, really should plan in advance. I will give you an idea: so you have not only the two year pent-up travel demand, but then you have the people who normally would have traveled this year. You know, you’ve got three years worth of people trying to travel. I had a family trying to go to Hawaii in July. Now you would think, “Oh, July, that’s four months away,” but I could not find what they were looking for. People have to be flexible. They have to book far in advance. And they should try to plan to travel on the off times for their destination. So for example, Hawaii is a huge family destination, so July and August are very busy – fares are going to be up. You go in May, you’re gonna save a lot of money, if you’re flexible. Same thing with Europe: July and August, very, very expensive. Go in September or October, if you can, or again in May. The Caribbean actually goes down in the summer, because it’s so hot. They’re more popular in the winter, when it’s cold here. So if you want to go to the Caribbean, go like in June or September – you’ll still have beautiful weather, but you’ll pay a lot less money. So if you want to try to save money and have less crowded areas, you want to travel when it’s not the peak time.
What’s hot right now, where are people going?
The National Parks are still very, very hot. People are trying to stay within the U.S., the majority of people, because they are concerned about doing the testing before they return to the U.S. So everywhere in the United States is very, very hot. Florida is always busy, and it’s even busier this year. Hawaii is very, very big this year. I’ve seen more people book Hawaii this year than ever before, because it’s still a very foreign-feeling place, and yet it’s considered a domestic flight. The Caribbean is starting to come back, cruises are starting to come back, and Europe as well. It’s funny, because people think trips or vacations are like, on a shelf, and I can just pick theirs off the shelf – all trips have to be built. Even if there’s a package at the hotel, you have to build it with the flights. And if you go on a weekend, it might be more than during the middle of the week. So every trip, you have to sort of see what is out there. And also, people say, “Well, how much is an average hotel?” And it’s like asking, “How much is an average car?” You know what I mean? I mean, do you want an old car, a little two-door economy? Or are you looking at a Mercedes Benz? So there’s no cookie cutter thing. We have to talk to people to find out what they want to do, and how long do they have. If you only have four days, you’re probably not going to go to Hawaii. If you have three weeks, that’s enough time to go to Australia, New Zealand, or Africa. So your parameters guide us into what we would suggest for you.
When you’re doing the actual planning, what’s the first thing you book is?
Always air. First we need people to determine what dates they want to go, so we can book the air. Because of that, you really have to decide the itinerary first. So for example, if you’re going to Europe, if you’re going to Italy, are you going to fly into Rome and fly home from Venice? Which is a great itinerary. That’s fine, but let’s book those flights first. Then we fill it in with how many nights in each place, so we can book the hotels. Then once we have that booked, we book the transportation – are you going to take the train between the two of them, are you going to drive a car. And then the last thing that we fill in is usually like any kind of sightseeing. Like, if you’re going to be in Rome, you want to get a reservation to see the Vatican. But we usually do that after the rest of the stuff is in place.
What are the ways that you’re seeing people traveling? What are the reasons they travel?
That’s a very interesting question. Um, I believe that different people travel for different reasons. Some people just want to get away from their everyday life. They want to relax. They want to lay on a beach. That’s what they enjoy doing their vacation – they want to do almost as little as possible. There are other people that want to do a combination of activities. You know, I want to kayak, I want to hike, and I want to lay on the beach. So there’s a certain destination that fits them. And then there are people – I, for one, just love to see new places. I love different food, I love seeing different cultures, I love the history. And for them, that’s a different vacation. I mean, yes, you can go to Aruba, because there’s sunshine 365 days of the year, but you’re not going to see seven days’ worth of culture and history. It’s a small island. So someone like that might want to go to Europe, or they might want to go to South America. What I enjoy doing in the morning, which would be walking around a new city and going to the local market – somebody else might want to sleep in bed until 11, and then have a light lunch by the pool. So you really have to find out why that person is travelling, so you can determine what destination is best for them.
My travel partner is probably the type of person who would want to lay in bed until like 11 o’clock or noon, and I’m the person who would want to get up and explore. If you’re trying to travel with somebody, but also mitigate those differences, do you have any tips for that?
Well, yeah, you have to then say, “Well, what is the most important?” Do you still want to travel together? Are you willing to compromise? If the case is yes, you want to go somewhere [where] you can get up, feel comfortable leaving the hotel by yourself, and going and doing something while the other person, you know, lays in bed. Which is fine. So if you went to Paris, you could get up in the morning, go get a croissant, walk around the small little villages, and then come back at 11 o’clock.
I don’t know if it’s because I’ve traveled so much, or if it’s just my nature, but I would probably tend to be more on the fearless side. Whereas I feel that people say, “Well, I heard that there’s a lot of crime in London.” Well, yeah, but depending upon where you are, there can be a lot of crime in Albany. So you have to know where to go and where not to go. I think women traveling alone have to equip themselves with the knowledge of “What can I do? What shouldn’t I do?” You know, walking around at three o’clock in the morning is not a good idea no matter where you are, if you’re by yourself. Traveling in pairs and numbers is always good. During the day, though, it’s usually not a problem, because people are living, people are working. Perceived danger is sometimes just that – it’s a perception.
You talked a little bit earlier about booking early to save money. Are there places that would match a smaller budget? Or do you have general tips to travel on a budget? Because a lot of us are broke.
Well, the first thing if you’re traveling on a budget is you do want to plan as far as possible ahead of time, OK? Because there are smaller hotels or Airbnb’s that might be less expensive – but if they’re good, and they’re less expensive, they’re going to be popular. People are going to know about them. Driving is always an alternative. And there are fabulous places just to go in our area for great vacations that you could drive to. There’s a wonderful website, I’m sure a lot of people are familiar with it – it’s called “Only in New York,” and they have them in each state. There’s an “Only in Massachusetts.” And you can go on there, and they talk about interesting things to do in your state. And a lot of them are free. State parks that you may have never heard of, a lot of state parks have cabins. So you could go to a state park on Cape Cod, and stay in a cabin on the beach for a ridiculously low price. But you may have to book it two years ahead of time, because it’s going to be popular.
Lastly, are there any underrated places that you think people should be going to see more?
Portugal is an incredible small country. It’s easy to get around, some of the cheapest prices you’ll find anywhere in Europe. I mean, ridiculously low prices. Friendly, friendly people. Incredible history – Portugal, at one time, was a huge naval power. But I think Portugal is one of those places that is really, really underrated.
I actually spoke with our next guest toward the end of last summer, during a pitstop on her massive cycling tour from New England to Chicago. Rachel Yaseen is many things: a posture alignment therapist, life coach, public speaker. But at 45-years-old, she gave just about all of it up to pursue her own adventure as a “worldwide nomad.” The 836 miles between her sister’s home in Rhinebeck, New York, and Chicago, Illinois, seemed like quite an ambitious trek to me – but it’s nothing compared to the 30,000-mile worldwide cycling tour she wrapped in Australia shortly before our conversation. Her journey may not be for everybody, but as she cycles from city to city, Yaseen says her goal is to encourage others to be their authentic selves and pursue their dreams — no matter what those dreams might be.
“I really wanted to share my stories and experiences and inspire other people to pursue their own adventures here in America,” says Yaseen. “And when I show up in communities on my fully-loaded bicycle, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I just came from 70 miles away,’ people can really get it into their heads. Like ‘Oh, that’s how this is working.’”
Let’s go back to the beginning, and how you got started doing this. You’ve been going around the world for the past three years? What prompted the decision to do that?
So I spent about 25 years of my adult life living in Tucson, Arizona, and I did a lot of different entrepreneurial things. But it came to a time where I felt like I just knew that I needed something else. You know, when I was in my early 20s, I really had these dreams about living nomadically and traveling the world. But I fell in love, and I married a man that didn’t really have those dreams. And so I decided to go to Spain and walk the Camino de Santiago, which is a pilgrimage in northern Spain. It’s about five weeks, it’s about 500 miles. While I was doing it, it was fantastic, and I really found out how strong I was. And then at the end, I had been walking with some people, and I was in the office where you get the certificate where it says, “Congratulations, you’ve completed this.” And the person that I was with wrote “traveler” as their profession. I don’t know why, but you had to write your profession. And I was just totally, like, struck. And I actually started crying. Because I said, “I want to be a traveler.” That seemed very difficult. I had a family. And when I came back to America, it just seemed really clear to me that that life that I had dreamed about in my 20s was really what I needed to pursue, and that I couldn’t really be the person that I was, when I was loving that other life. Quickly, when I got back to America, I just realized that I needed to make a big change. And, yeah, it was a transition. But at some point, I decided that I had to live. I had to be a different sort of mom than other moms. I had an eight year old. And I had to just show him – and myself – that you’re the best person when you pursue what you’re passionate about, even when it’s not popular with the people around you.
What was it like, having to make that decision? How did your friends and family react?
It was horribly uncomfortable. You know, it was funny, because someone might think, “You’re going to give away all your things and start living nomadically, how scary!” But that was easy. That was natural. That’s what I feel like I was supposed to be doing all along. But yeah…I think to most people, I was living a model-perfect life, and to disrupt everything was very upsetting to family and friends. And especially for me, it wasn’t clear what direction this was going. I didn’t have a plan. That makes it even harder for people, and you kind of have to sit in that discomfort and be willing to be uncomfortable with yourself, knowing that, in my heart, I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.
Has the response gotten better, over the past few years?
Yeah, absolutely. While it isn’t what any of my family members would choose for their own life, and sometimes I think that they wish that I would be normal, I do feel a lot of support from the people around me. Absolutely.
That’s good. So let’s talk about some of the places you’ve been. Do you mostly bike, or do you hike? What’s your preferred mode of traveling?
So in the beginning, it was really unclear. I wasn’t really sure what format that it was going to take. And so it took a little while to really start to realize that “OK, I would like to make this a cycling trip around the world.” It originally started with my new partner in Denmark, and I road to Croatia with him. And it was really like, “OK, this is interesting.” And we already had a ticket booked to Thailand. So that was like, “Alright, we’ll officially start the trip in Thailand,” and then just started riding in Thailand. And I really wanted to set up challenges, because, for me, I feel like growth happens when you set up challenges for yourself – purposefully. Not all of a sudden, like, you get divorced, or a pandemic happens, or there’s a tsunami, but where you really set up challenges for yourself and accomplish them – or maybe fail, and that’s OK, too. I’ve done that. But I think you find out who you are, and you find out how strong you are. In the beginning, I said, “OK, we’ll start in Thailand. Now I want to go to southern Myanmar.” And no one goes to southern Myanmar, because there’s very few places you’re allowed to stay, and you have to cycle great distances, and there’s really no infrastructure for tourism. But I thought, “OK, this sounds interesting.” The three blog posts I read, none of the people were successful. So I thought, “Yeah, now I really want to try this.” And we did, and it was incredible. We made it. And then we continued cycling through Southern Thailand – you cut back into Thailand from Southern Myanmar – and then down through Malaysia, and Singapore, and then stopped at the different Indonesian islands. And then we got to Timor Leste and hoped to be able to get a sailboat to Australia, because the whole concept was to be human-powered, and not fly. But it was the middle of cyclone season, and it just wasn’t possible. So we flew to Darwin, which is in the northern part of Australia. And then it was COVID, and we spent the last year and a half in Australia.
Before we get to what it’s like travelling in COVID, I thought I’d ask – how do you go about making these plans and decisions? Do you have a certain destination in mind, where it’s like, “I know I’m gonna stay here.” Or is it more like, “OK, I’m gonna bike to this city, and then hope to find a place to stay.”
So there’s the larger scope, which is, “How is this gonna look over like the next six months?” And then there’s like, “Where am I going to go tonight?” So typically, I’m really just looking at the map and identifying where there’s places to stay. If I’m in the middle of nowhere, like in Australia, there might not be a choice – I’m loading a whole bunch of food and water on my bicycle, and I’m just wild camping. So when I’m done for the day, I’ll literally pull off the road find a spot to camp in the middle of nowhere. There’s no humans, there’s kangaroos and some birds. If there’s towns, then sometimes we’ll stay in a hotel. If there’s somewhere that we know it’s like a school holiday, then sometimes I’ll plan ahead. But not usually – I like the flexibility, because you don’t know where you’re going to end up each day. And I like not knowing.
How much stuff do you have on your bike? How much are you bringing with you?
These are such good questions. So the more you carry, the more you have to pull with you. And I am a minimalist, thank goodness, because it’s heavy. I like to carry a couple different changes of clothes for cycling. Maybe like a little dress, and depending how cold it is, maybe some SmartWool top and bottom and some kind of like heavy coat. I’ve got a sleeping bag, my tent, a stove for cooking. Everything is super lightweight. You saw my bike, it’s pretty minimally loaded. When I show up to places, people are usually surprised.
How do you keep in shape for this?
I did not necessarily prepare for this. It wasn’t like I thought, “OK, I’m going to train for it.” I think the training happens while you’re doing it. That said, it’s a lot of repetitive motion all the time. I mean, we’re all doing some kind of repetitive motion all the time, whether we’re sitting around a bicycle, or even professional athletes are doing their motion. And so as a posture therapist, that is a big deal for me. I am constantly advocating for doing the posture exercises, and I do them every single morning. I take like 30 minutes to do them.
So let’s talk a little bit about what it was like traveling during COVID. How did that whole experience happen for you?
Oh, it was super interesting because I got in to Australia literally within hours of it closing to foreigners. And so then I was locked down for three months in Cannes, Australia – which couldn’t have been a better place to be locked down, it was absolutely beautiful. When we were released – and I say released because all of a sudden there was an announcement that we could leave – then we made sure that we didn’t go to areas where there was COVID. So COVID was really isolated to the Melbourne and Sydney area, and we just skipped that whole area. So I cycled about 15,000 miles over the course of a year throughout Australia, but just skipped the COVID. Traveling was just about making sure that I was in the right area at the right time.
OK, so you’re going to Chicago now. Why?
Really, the northeast all the way to Chicago is completely foreign to me. I’m much more comfortable in Europe and Asia and Australia than I am here, I was actually really intimidated by the ticks, and then I heard about the black bears. And so I’m really not as familiar with this area. And really, the whole reason that I’m doing this is to connect with as many people as possible. So as I’m cycling along, I’m giving talks and workshops. The talks are meant to inspire people to pursue their own adventures, because I believe that everyone has an adventure in them that’s calling to them. Sometimes we don’t do them because we’re scared. We don’t know that we can do it. We’re scared that if we can do it, the people around us might not be supportive. We might not have the imagination to even like know what [it is] – we know there’s something, but not exactly sure what it is. And sometimes we just don’t want to disappoint people. It’s very easy to come up with all kinds of things about why you can’t do something. I noticed it for myself, I am constantly coming up with reasons why I can’t do something. And the truth is that, until you come to a point in your life where you feel like you just need to do something, you’re probably not going to challenge yourself. But when you do, and you start to really realize the reward of it, then it’s nearly addicting, and it actually makes you such a stronger person, and you really get to know yourself so much better. And when you do that, you show up better for other people.
One of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately is – you know your headphones, and how they get tangled up? And how you can’t just like pull them, you have to carefully, like, undo them? For me, I think that’s what moving through the world and cycling is. I think we get all tangled up, and moving and cycling is this slow way for me to untangle and to really see myself.
As someone who has seen way more of the world than I have, what are some of your favorite places?
You know, it’s funny, because in Australia, people wanted to know where my favorite place in Australia was – because I think I saw more of Australia than most Australians see. So they’re curious, like, where should they go? And my favorite was the middle of the Outback, where there was nobody. And the stars…It could almost bring me to tears. The stars are like, you can’t even imagine it, because there’s no light pollution. And the sunrise and the sunset, and just hearing the birds. The magic of just being out there is absolutely incredible.
Our last guest today is the founder of the Solo Female Traveler Network, a community of more than 500,000 women travelers — or aspiring travelers — online. Members frequently share photos on Facebook from their adventures, solicit advice on everything from flight planning to homesickness, and occasionally connect on meetup tours organized by the network. Founder Amanda Black says it all started as a way to empower women and help them feel safer on their travels. She spoke with Dr. Sharon Ufberg, co-founder of the California-based personal development and wellness company, Borrowed Wisdom, for her 51% segment, “Force of Nature.”
Dr. Ufberg: How did this group get started?
Black: I had been traveling solo for many years, and as a woman alone in certain parts of the world, I found myself, once in a while, in a situation where I felt a little vulnerable. And I could have used some support from people like me. My last straw was when I was in Mexico, and I had just gotten there. And I went out for a beer and a taco around the corner – and while I was gone, for those few minutes, somebody had broken into my room and stolen everything. Literally everything except my dirty clothes, and thankfully, my passport. But I remember standing in the streets of Cancun, knowing no one, and thinking, “OK, what do I do now?” And I knew that there would be plenty of people around me who would be willing to help me out, but I didn’t have a way to connect with them. So as soon as I got home, and as soon as I replaced my computer, I started a Facebook group. And it was meant originally for my travel friends and their travel friends to have a place to turn for everything in situations like this – for travel advice, for inspiration. And then a few years into having the group, we decided we wanted to travel together, and we started operating organized tours.
Dr. Ufberg: I had that experience myself as a traveler, so I totally can relate to that. So this travel network has now been going on for about five years. What would you say you’ve learned about what women want from travel?
Black: I started out really just trying to provide what I really want from travel, and what my most rewarding moments encompassed. That’s first of all, community. It’s difficult to make friends as an adult, no matter who you are – and especially when you’re doing something a little bit off the beaten path, like traveling to different parts of the world by yourself. So being able to connect with women who understand you, and women who have maybe found themselves in similar situations, is our number one value. Second of all, we really believe in empowering women: empowering women to chase their dreams, to say yes to themselves, to discover who they are. And I believe that the best way to do that is through travel. And when you travel, it teaches you things like gratitude, and humility. Those are two things that I’ve really learned from travel and have changed me as a person. And so our travel experiences aim to give women the time and the space and the experiences to feel all of those things: empowered, grateful, humble and connected.
Dr. Ufberg: Amanda, can you give us a story that might illustrate how your network has accomplished this goal of helping individual women within a community? Like you were so needing in that moment in Cancun not too long ago?
Black: Yeah, so there are so many examples of this. If you get into our Facebook community, which is free for everyone, and just scroll, you’ll see lots of examples. But one of my favorite, most powerful examples happened a few years ago. There was a woman who had met her partner, her boyfriend, somewhere in her travels. And she decided to go home with him. He lived in Turkey. So she went home with him. And she had been traveling with him for a little while – and he turned abusive. After a big blow up, she locked herself in the bathroom at his apartment, and she had her phone with her. And she had tried to call the police. He was banging on the door trying to get in. She felt really threatened. She had been trying to call the police, and they wouldn’t come. So she posted in our community explaining what happened. And she got thousands of comments – so many that we had to shut it down. We were all overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and love and wanting to know if she was OK with what happened. But we had a handful of members who lived in Turkey, and even lived in the town that she was in. So ultimately, we had members from all over the world calling the police in Turkey – and most helpful, we had women who spoke the language calling the police. And once the police came, and they got her out safely, the women from our community were there to greet her and to help her on her journey back home.
Dr. Ufberg: That is really fantastic. I would love to hear what’s next for you, and how people can find you.
Black: The best place to start if you want to join our community is to just find us on Facebook. We also have a free community off of Facebook that you can find on our website, which is sofetravel.com. Our team is working hard to create more destinations. We have a volunteer program that we’re working on, currently, to supply some more direct help to these organizations that we visit on our tours. And we have some big picture projects around aiding the end of sex trafficking and gender violence – we’re currently looking for a perfect fit and a partner for one of those causes. So anyone is welcome to contact me directly. My email is Amanda@sofetravel.com. We look forward to welcoming anyone who wants to join our community.
51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. It’s produced by Jesse King. Our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock, and our theme is “Lolita” by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue.