Having just arrived in Croatia, Alicia (who preferred her real name not be used) and her friend go to meet up with two thirty-something men on vacation from the States. As two young twenty-something travelers, Alicia and her friend face the plight most Millennials do: both carry grand dreams of a multi-country trip but limited funds to achieve it.
Despite their bank balances, both girls soon find themselves pulled into an enviable montage of five-star dinners in Portugal, yacht parties in Croatia and shopping trips in Italy. As the two travelers make their way from country to country, they are whipped up in a champagne-fueled fever dream the likes most young women couldn’t afford. The benefactors of their trip are not mom and dad or years of savings; rather, Alicia and her friend have agreed to be arm candy for men seeking travel companions. In other words, the price tag for the girls’ whirlwind tour of Europe comes down to beauty and sex for travel.
Recently, I read an article in Vanity Fair exploring the rise of “sugaring”: “A trend where twenty-something girls are trading sex for money with wealthy men known as “sugar daddies.” Using websites such as Seeking Arrangement, many young women are choosing to sidestep the financial woes that mark one’s twenties and monetize their looks instead. I heard rumblings of online sites that facilitate a similar sex for money arrangement only with travel as the payout.
What ultimately inspired me to explore this underbelly of the travel world was the idea of the “perfect storm.” On one side, the number of female solo travelers and women-only tour companies has risen exponentially over the years. According to adventure tour company, Intrepid Travel, 63 percent of their customer base are women between the ages of 25 and 39, while more than half of the entire solo travel industry today are women.
At the same time, there is a growing amount of violence against female travelers. In a 2014 New York Times article, it was reported that rape and female-targeted crime is on the rise, while the U.S. Department of State explains “women travelers are more likely to be affected by religious and cultural beliefs of the foreign countries they visit” and “face greater obstacles, especially when traveling alone.” It’s in the heart of this storm—in the center of the chaos—that popular websites like MissTravel have set up camp.
Launched in April 2012, MissTravel is the first dating site aimed exclusively at travelers. The website was set up by Brandon Wade, the founder of Seeking Arrangement, OpenMinded (a site geared towards open relationships) and What’s Your Price? (an online dating auction for women). Explaining to Culture Trip why he created MissTravel, Wade said he wanted to “build a platform where people who love to travel can connect with one another, while providing access to travel for those who might not be able to afford it on their own.”
The tagline for the site once read: “Beautiful Women Will Travel For Free” but has since changed to “Never Travel Alone” in order to both reach a broader audience and sidestep the unsaid connotation of the services offered. The website functions the way most dating sites do: a basic profile is filled out and matches are made with the added step of posting upcoming trips. You set one of three options:
Take Me Along (for a wannabe globetrotter looking for a well-heeled traveler to fund their trip)
I Have My Own Ticket (a more conservative approach where travel expenses are split 50/50 between people)
I Have an Extra Ticket (where a wealthy jet-setter seeks a companion for their upcoming vacation)
Despite its efforts to not be considered a “sugaring” site, the data behind MissTravel tells a different story. The majority of users on the website are men of an average age of 35; while women on the site are of an average age of 27. “I Have an Extra Ticket” proves the most popular option amongst men, while “Take Me Along” is the most popular choice amongst female site users. In other words, people using MissTravel tend to be younger women seeking free travel from older men.
There is perhaps no grayer area than the space MissTravel now calls home. In speaking with Alicia – who says no sexual encounters took place with her European travel companions – the most shocking part of her story is the cavalier way in which she shares the experience: “The advantages are simple. You have the opportunity to meet people whom also love to travel and are willing to help pay for expenses. You get to do things you wouldn’t normally be able to afford and go to places you probably couldn’t on your own.”
While other twenty-somethings are relegated to shacking up in hostels and rationing vacation time, Alicia and her friend have managed to explore half of Europe at no cost. I can’t help but think back to a quote from novelist Elizabeth Gilbert and her best selling memoir, Eat Pray Love. In the novel, Gilbert details her passion for seeing the world and writes, “to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice.”
In my own pursuit of travel I have skipped credit card payments to buy plane tickets, sold personal effects and let finances fall into temporary disarray all to afford camel treks in Morocco and rainforest adventures in Borneo. I’ve always fallen to my knees before that great altar of travel but here I am left standing perplexed. A quick glimpse into this underworld of travel leaves me thinking perhaps travel is not worth all costs.
Alicia continues to divulge details of her lavish European adventure. Bottles of red wine that cost more than her flight. Designer labels bought on the Amalfi Coast. Day trips to Croatian castles. In the end, it seems Alicia and her friend did get the European adventure of their dreams. I ask Alicia whether the men got what they wanted too; she pauses and then casually replies, “they wanted arm candy…” Alicia’s voice trails off and like so much of this underground world, I am left to fill in the blanks.