Travel For Gays and Lesbians

Tour operators, resorts and travel clubs that specialize in travel for gay men and lesbians

By , Friday, Apr 15, 2005, 12:00 AM

A simple fact about specialty travel: Gay people travel differently than straight people. Gay and lesbian travelers usually like to meet other gays on the road, for reasons of security and comfort, if not to simply hang out with similar people. A booming hospitality industry has blossomed for this highly valued, double-income-no-kids market. Since lesbians and gay men (the latter especially) are praised for their dual-income, no-kids, frequent-traveler demographic, the travel industry seems to constantly jack up prices for the free-spending community whenever the word "gay" is used with "travel." But with a slowly re-bounding economy, as well as the embracing of the gay travel world by the mainstream, budget travel has risen to the forefront of the often-overpriced gay and lesbian travel market.

When trying to budget a gay holiday, the first thing to do is your homework. Excellent resources like PlanetOut.com/travel, Gay.com/travel, and OutandAbout.com list hundreds of gay and lesbian accommodations, restaurants, and travel companies, all with costs that indicate the lower-priced ones.

Gay friendly, wallet-friendly countries

An obvious budget travel strategy is to choose destinations that are gay-friendly alternatives in cheaper countries. Forego expensive New York, San Francisco, London, or Paris and try instead more budget-minded gay destinations. In Latin America, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico City, Costa Rica, Rio de Janeiro, and Buenos Aires are all gay-positive hot spots despite their Catholic surroundings, and with dirt-cheap but sophisticated hotels, restaurants, and bars. In Europe, experience the burgeoning gay centers of Prague, Budapest, Moscow, and St. Petersburg for a fraction of the cost of Western Europe. In Asia, the Philippines, Bali, and Thailand present a gayer culture than pricier (and more closeted) Hong Kong, Beijing, and Tokyo. If you are less adventurous, Montreal, Toronto, Cape

Town, Sydney, and Auckland all give you a highly-evolved gay English-speaking experience for a lot less than similar cities in the U.S. or Western Europe, thanks to favorable exchange rates to the American dollar. Of course many of the places listed above require long-distance plane travel, but by securing good airfares or using frequent flyer miles, you'll be able to live like a king (or queen) on a lot less once you arrive.

Penny pinching while you sleep

Ah, the politics of the gay hotel room. Checking into a hotel as a same-sex couple, and asking to sleep in one bed, is the litmus test of how gay friendly an establishment is. Although this can seem at times like pushing the envelope in rural areas and certain foreign countries, insisting on one bed versus two can often mean the difference of paying up to a 25 percent or more on the price for the room in some places.

And why check into a mainstream hotel at all? Check first for gay bed and breakfasts in the areas you are visiting: They are usually half the price of comparable hotel rooms, breakfast is included, you get a chance to meet fellow gay travelers, and you can pick the brains of your host who can more easily hook you into the local gay scene, especially in off-the-beaten-track destinations. Yes, budget gay B&Bs can be unearthed in spots like South Dakota and Arkansas, even Tijuana, Quito, and Latvia, places where staying with locals may mean the difference between feeling lost and having a gay ole' time. Purpleroofs.com list scads of gay budget accommodations, some starting as low as $25 per night.

For singles, the pesky single supplement charge has been a thorn in every independent traveler's side for aeons. This charge, which can often double the "based on double occupancy" publicized price, is incurred regardless of sexual orientation when any single joins any organized tour group. How does one get around this hard fact? By asking the tour operator if you can split a room with another single traveler on the trip, thus securing the lower double-occupancy price. Sure, you may have to put up with snoring, but at least you'll have another single comrade to keep you company and your wallet will thank you (and who knows, your roommate may end up looking like Tom Cruise).

Got a great house or apartment that is just going to go to waste while you're away? What better way to capitalize on it by swapping a week or more with another gay traveler's home somewhere else in the world? The home exchange network Mi Casa Su Casa (gayhometrade.com/) sets you up with listings of other gays for a mere $40 for a three-year membership. Anything from studios to cabins to mansions all over the world are listed, and members simply set up arrangements between themselves as to when and what will be swapped, and best of all, you can home trade as much as you like for free once you've joined.

Gay B&Bs

Luxury hotel chains like the W, Kimpton, Kempinski, and Intercontinental have gone out of their way to create gay and lesbian advertising campaigns to lure gay travelers to their properties. But for the frugal traveler, an old mainstay of the gay travel world is your best bet for cheap sleeps: the gay-owned B&B. They are ubiquitous, friendly, fun, and the best way to tap into the local gay community when traveling. And they can be half the price of a comparable hotel room. But since gay B&Bs are small operations with limited advertising funds and are usually run out of people's homes, it's often hard to find out about them. But you'd be surprised how omnipresent gay B&Bs are-I've discovered some in spots like South Dakota and Arkansas, even Tijuana, Quito, and Latvia. A gay B&B in an out-of-the-way spot can often mean the difference between being completely on your own or meeting other gay people, travelers and locals alike.

Probably the most comprehensive site for digging up gay and lesbian B&Bs is Purple Roofs (www.purpleroofs.com). Here may be the only place you'll discover hard-to-find properties like the only lesbian guesthouse in India ($20 a night), or a gay-owned boutique hotel in the center of Marrakech starting at $35 a night, or a gay-owned B&B in Rio also for $35 a night. (Having said that, most of the listings are in North America.) And Purple Roofs is the only place that lists scads of gay B&B discounts under their Specials section-like 25 percent off room rates during low seasons, or 50 percent off of a third night stay.

Also check out Rainbow Destination's B&B directory site guesthouses.net/. There aren't as many listings as Purple Roofs, and some are straight-owned and over $100 a night, but you can still dig up some great finds here-like the Inn at Coyote Mountain in Costa Rica, a luxurious and remote hacienda, for $99 a night; Or the 18-24 James in Cairns, Australia-a 26-room resort with pool, sauna, gym, and spa-starting at just $55 a night.

Two other gay B&B directory sites are hsleepgay.com/ and gaybandb.com/. The first is lists 86 international B&B's and the second site 100, but www.sleepgay.com gives prices and profiles of each property, while gaybandb.com/ simply links you to each B&B's web site directly. As for finding gay B&Bs in the U.K., try pinkuk.com/tourism/B_B.asp and for Australia and New Zealand try inthepink.com.au/.

Beyond the bed-and-breakfast

Not a B&B person? No problem. You can easily do a home swap with other gay travelers as well-where you trade your domicile with another traveler for a period of time (or choose to host someone in return). Anything from studios to cabins to mansions all over the world are listed, and members simply set up arrangements between themselves as to when and what will be swapped, and best of all, you can home trade as much as you like for free once you've joined.

The most extensive gay home swapping network is the GFN Home Exchange Club (nearly 1,500 listings at gfn.digsville.com/; $44.95 for a 1 year membership)-they guarantee you'll find a home exchange partner in one year, or the next year is free. Or try the well-established Mi Casa Su Casa (nearly 200 listings at gayhometrade.com/; $60 for a 3 year membership), in business since 1992; or the UK-based Home Around the World (350 listings at homearoundtheworld.com/; $70 for 1 year), which specializes in European homes and offers travel insurance, flight and hotel discounts, and online bulletin boards. Don't feel like forking over the membership fee? Two services-the excellent One World One Family (nearly 80 listings at oneworldonefamily.com/) and the relatively new Gay Home Exchange (19 listings at gayhomexchange.com/)-offer free memberships-but you get what you pay for in terms of quantity of listings.

Or you simply camp it up! Gay campgrounds and RV parks are multiplying like crazy around the world, and offer a down-home way to save money and socialize at the same time. Surf to Gay Campers (gaycampers.com/) for over 100 listings in 12 countries of rural getaways where you can bring your own tent or stay in cabins for nominal fees. Gay Camp USA (campgayusa.com/) lists over 75 gay and gay-friendly campsites across North America (and one in England), all for low rates, and some even offer work-exchange for camping on the property-now that's budget living!

If you don't like to go camping without your microwave, Rainbow RV (rainbowrv.com/) is the largest GLBT RV/Camping club in North America. For a membership of $12.95 per year, you get discounts to select gay campgrounds, an online newsletter, a gay campground directory, and invitations to gay RV rallies and events. Also check out the California-based non-profit gay RV club Traveling Our Way (travelingourway.org/), with 230 members and membership of $20 a year.

So be it B&B, home swap, camping, or in an RV, there is no reason gay travelers should have to pay anymore than anyone else to have a great vacation-you just need to know where to look.

Camp it up

Many of us don't like getting dirt under our fingernails, and you may have given up camping long ago after a stint in the Brownies, but gay campgrounds have been a steadily growing trend in North America. Not only do they tend to be social havens for rural gays and lesbians, they offer city-slickers a chance to let their hair down (as well as their trousers, since a large percentage of them are clothing-optional). Needless to say, camping and its grown-up sister RVing are a fun, budget way to travel. Gay Camp USA (campgayusa.com/) lists over 75 gay and gay-friendly campsites across North America (and even one in England), all for low rates, and some even offer work-exchange for camping on the property-now that's budget living!

If you don't like to go camping without your microwave, Rainbow RV (rainbowrv.com/) is the largest GLBT RV/Camping club in North America.

For a membership of $12.95 per year, you get discounts to select gay campgrounds, an online newsletter, a gay campground directory, and invitations to gay RV rallies and events. So gas up your Winnebago and get going!

Five tour operators that stretch your dollar and your mind

A majority of gay tour operators blatantly market their products as upscale, luxurious, and far from affordable. Thankfully, a handful doesn't. You can always check out the round-up of twenty monthly best buys from gay operators listed on the useful and up-to-date web site www.gaytravelnews.com. Here are profiles of five specifically cost-conscious tour operators serving the gay market:

Gay Jet (800/9-GAYJET, gayjet.com/): Only a couple years old, Gay Jet has quickly become a budget leader, offering all kinds of air/hotel packages around the globe. Amazing deals include three nights in Europe with air for $489, or seven nights on two Hawaiian islands for only $625, air-inclusive. Moreover, their web site is a plethora of gay travel info, from an events calendar to travel bulletin boards, and you can also book online gay-friendly hotels, car rentals, and flights. Alyson Adventures (800/8-ALYSON, www.alysonadventures.com): Specializing in outdoor adventures, Alyson recently joined forces with the large and more staid Hanns Ebensten Travel (although both will keep their respective identities). Alyson's trips include biking, hiking, skiing, kayaking, scuba diving, rafting, and other active adventures, at reasonable costs (starting at $1,195 for a week). Most meals, activity costs, accommodations, and parties are included in their pricing.

Inta-Aussie (800/531-9222, inta-aussie.com/): The Australia-based mainstream tour operator Inta-Aussie has jumped into the gay and lesbian travel market full force, with incredible deals to Oceania and the South Pacific for dirt cheap, thanks to their volume discounts. Deals start at $999 for five nights' hotel in Sydney, air-inclusive from the West Coast. Their Sydney Gay Mardi Gras package is $1,799 for air-inclusive five nights' hotel, a city tour, a harbor cruise, and a ticket to the actual Mardi Gras party (over $110 each themselves).

2Afrika (877/200-5610, 2afrika.com/): This gay-owned Africa tour operator is little known in the gay market since it specializes in mainstream travel, but their gay-friendly deals to the world's second largest continent can't be beat. 2Afrika promotes a $999 package to Cape Town from the East Coast, including air and five nights' accommodations, as well as info on the gay scene and even a gay tour guide if needed. They also offer packages to Ghana and Senegal for not much more, as well as week-long safaris in Kenya and Tanzania starting at $1,795 including air, all meals, and fairly upscale accommodations-much less than their competitors.

Pied Piper Travel (800/874-7312, piedpipertravel.com/): Around since 1990 (and mentioned last week on our site), Pied Piper specializes in small gay groups aboard mainstream cruises (including the Queen Elizabeth 2 and Queen Mary 2) in contrast to the more expensive gay-only cruises offered by other companies. Included in their cruise deals are private cocktails parties, a tour escort, private dining tables, and of course meals and most drinks. Seven-night cruises start at an amazing $461 per person.

Cruises and Mexican resorts

RSVP Travel Productions of Minneapolis (rsvp.net/) and "Atlantis Events" of West Hollywood (800/628-5268; atlantisevents.com/) appear to be the largest tour companies for gay men and lesbians. In addition to operating a great many gay cruises since 1986, RSVP offers vacations in Peru, Ireland and French Polynesia, among other destinations. Atlantis, appealing to a slightly younger and perhaps more active clientele, runs a variety of stays, tours and cruises to various Blue Bay resorts and on smaller cruise ships, as well as to its own "Club Atlantis" near Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

Olivia Cruises and Resorts of Oakland, CA (phone 510/655-0364 or 800/631-6277; oliviatravel.com/), is the largest operator of cruises and tours for lesbian travelers, a successful company in the cruise business since 1990 whose destinations are widely scattered and sold to a national audience. Its cruises outnumber its land tours four to one, and have recently gone to such attractive locations as Greece, China, Vietnam and Thailand, Tahiti, Turkey, and Alaska. It also offers long-term payment plans for its packages. Because of its high volume of incoming phone calls, you will occasionally have to leave a number, but are always called back promptly.

Particularly skilled at low-cost group tours on popular cruise ships is New York City-based Pied Piper Travel (800/874-7312; in New York 212/239-2412; gaygroupcruises.com/). Pied Piper's periodic offerings typically run in the Caribbean and to Europe, with a few to Australia and Africa. In San Diego, a company called Arco Iris specializes in escorted tours and group tours to Mexico, including airfare from many U.S. cities, for quite decent prices (800/765-4370; arcoiristours.com/).

Land-based holidays

For land-based holidays, there are growing options. One respected operator is Above & Beyond tours, based in Palm Springs, CA (phone 800/397-2681; owners vigilantly update the Web site, including last-minute specials, at abovebeyondtours.com/). It has been around since 1987, is United Airlines' official gay operator, and offers a wide variety of both independent and group global travel, including regular forays to Europe, South Africa, Latin America, and an annual trip to the Sydney Gay Games and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

Skylink Travel of Santa Rosa, California (800/225-5759 or skylinktravel.com/) is prominent among the medium-sized women's operators, and growing in popularity. Around for over a decade, Skylink primarily operates land tours to international destinations (Kenya, China, Greece), and has recently discovered that perhaps half of its former group passengers are now requesting individual, custom-tailored arrangements for singles or couples, the classic "f.i.t.'s" (foreign independent tours) of travel, which Skylink willingly provides.

Adventure/sports vacations

Onto outdoor and sporting vacations: Gay-owned Alyson Adventures (phone 800/825-9766, or visit alysonadventures.com/) is known for outdoor-activity trips, especially biking in France, but also river rafting, canyoning, and scuba diving all over the world. Or check out Montana-based OutWest Adventures (800/743-0458, or outwestadventures.com/), whose tours include skiing, hiking, and gay dude ranches.

Operating since 1990, Toto Tours (773/274-TOTO or 800/565-1241) is a smaller tour company for gay men only (primarily adventure travel, such as whitewater rafting in the Grand Canyon, barging in Burgundy, hiking in Switzerland, multi-adventure tours (bungee jumping, game driving, biking, trekking) in South Africa, sailing a tall ship in the Caribbean). The Chicago-based company is online at tototours.com/.

Operating for over 10 years, Undersea Expeditions (800/669-0310, underseax.com/) has about six scuba diving trips planned at any given time. Trips include Cozumel, Papua New Guinea and Tobago. Most trips have between 15-30 fellow divers aboard from both genders. However, Undersea does offer trips separated by gender. Lodgings are either land-based or live-aboard (which means you sleep on a boat, and jump right in the water). They invite non-divers to also come along for snorkeling or to just get their feet wet. Tours range between $800-$1,600, and last about seven days.

Spiritual journeys

Spirit Journeys (800/490-3684, spiritjourneys.com/) focuses on gay and lesbian spiritual group journeys to mystic places like Peru, Bali, and Mexico, with participants educating themselves on their own as well as the native's beliefs; rituals are enacted in the course of these journeys along with more standard guide-led sightseeing.

Useful websites and publications

The most important guidebook to travel by men is published by the San Francisco-based Damron. They have several titles at your disposal: the "Damron Men's Travel Guide" ($19.95, published since 1964), the "Women's Traveller," ($17.95), and "Damron Accommodations Guide" ($23.95). Damron has been working to expand its European coverage and now publishes a gay guide to Amsterdam ($12.95). Its titles can be obtained from many bookstores or the Damron Company Web site (damron.com/), where they're discounted (shipping is $5 for the first book and $1.50 for each additional book). You can also order by phone, at full price, on 800/462-6654 or 415/255-0404.

Then there is the Rainbow Handbook Hawai'i. Traveling with the Rainbow Handbook is like traveling with an old friend who has lived on the accepting islands for years. This charming insider's guide is written with a witty and conversational tone. It includes trivia, anecdotes, history, and interviews along with must-have maps and glossary. Of course, no guidebook on Hawaii would be complete without pictures, and the Rainbow Handbook goes above and beyond to deliver. Viewable online, or can be purchased for $25 at rainbowhandbook.com/.

Of course, there's also Frommer's "Gay & Lesbian Europe," an all-in-one volume that marries orientation-irrelevant information such as travel tips, dining, and attractions with descriptive gay- and lesbian-specific information about local gay history, lodging, bars, clubs-even saunas ($24.99 at bookstores).

Some people, especially Europeans, favor the German "Spartacus" guide by Bruno Gmunder, which is available in English. It is the bulkiest of them all, though, and there has been grousing that some of its information is out of date, despite annual editions. Even so, it remains the most complete and oft-quoted international reference, and although it doesn't have a Web site, it's available for purchase for $32.95 at most mainstream outlets, including Amazon.com.

The nation's leading travel newsletter for gays and lesbians is the award-winning "Out & About," published 10 times a year in a handsome, quality format; it covers travel opportunities of a fast-breaking sort, and is obviously more topical than the once-a-year guidebooks are able to be. Subscription information is available at gay.com/.

A few other periodicals can also be helpful. Our World, published since 1989, strives to furnish up-to-date information about operators and current tours by publishing a 56-page magazine 10 times a year (www.ourworldpublishing.com, $25 by mail, $12 online, 386/441-5367). It's well stocked with ads, phone numbers, and details about upcoming packages and tours. Another is the smaller Passport Magazine (passportmagazine.com/), which is a published bi-monthly ($19.95/year, call 800/999-9718) and focuses on first-person articles, recommendations, and tips. For city-by-city entertainment information, flip through the racy pages of "The Guide," distributed for free at gay clubs around the world and available online at guidemag.com/.

If you're still at a loss for holiday ideas, refer to one of the oldest and most well-respected exclusively gay and lesbian travel Websites, gaytravel.com/. A self-named "portal site" offering access to a multitude of special travel offers, providing information on last-minute discount airfares and special cruise and tour packages, many of which are offered by some of the other major gay and lesbian tour operators. The site is updated at least thrice weekly, and its more than 400 destination articles and featured programs (including such esoteric offerings as llama trekking for lesbians in Canada) make the site a good place for expanding your vacation search. For additional information, you can call 800/GAY-TRAVEL or 800/429-8728.

A few nascent resource Web sites are testing themselves in the marketplace.

The jury is still out on them, but you might find helpful information at one of several spots. These are general-interest gay sites, but each has sections devoted to travel that supply destination information: gay.com/, industry leader planetout.com/, and gaywired.com/. Of the three, GayWired.com has demonstrated the most interest in maintaining a particularly helpful travel section.