Easter weekend, and my husband is lost down an Airbnb rabbit hole, hopping mad. Scroll and tut, scroll and tut.
Apparently, there is nowhere to stay in all Oxfordshire – that county straddling three AONBs, with its embarrassment of charming cottages and rustic yet luxurious inns. Or to put it another way, there are no four-bedroom holiday homes available on the May Day bank holiday, less than a fortnight away, when he is set to go on his “boys’ weekend” along with three other middle-aged men. Since the plan was hatched back in 2021, not only has nobody found a place to stay, but nobody has yet realised that the first weekend in May is a bank holiday, either, accounting for the scarcity of accommodation.
I cannot help comparing this (though not aloud) to my own recent “girls’ weekend”, for which everything – hotel, restaurants, trains – was booked months in advance. Yet, usually, my husband is the organised one, ticking off his admin-heavy job list – car admin, insurance admin, mortgage admin, bin admin – with uncomplaining efficiency. So, why this blind spot when it comes to travel admin?
We’re not the only ones. Families and couples checking in at Liverpool John Lennon airport reveal a similar story when asked who books the holidays in their household.
“I do it,” says 39-year-old Sophie, on her way to Alicante with her two children. “My husband wouldn’t book anything – he’s hopeless. He’d get too frustrated.”
“He’d start swearing,” her daughter chips in.
“I do it,” says Mary, 44, en route to Stockholm, whose mask cannot hide her withering look. “Because no one else seems to have the time – or so they say.”
“It’s 50-50,” says Peter, from Manchester.
“Yes,” says Helen, his wife. “He books the c--p ones.”
Has travel become a woman’s job? Or, to use Helen from Manchester’s vernacular, are men just c--p at booking holidays?
A changing of the guard
It hasn’t always been this way. For my octogenarian in-laws, holiday booking is still very much my father-in-law’s task, from start to finish – not least because he’s the only one who can use the internet. Insight from tour operator Turquoise Holidays (turquoiseholidays.co.uk) confirms this trend. In the higher age bracket, reveals James Bell, the MD, men are more likely to be involved, particularly when booking special retirement holidays – say, wine tasting in New Zealand, or safaris. Overall, however, 60 per cent of Turquoise’s bookings are now made by women.
“Particularly for honeymoons and families, at the lower age demographic, the women generally know what they/the family want and require from a holiday,” says Bell. “Overall, women seem to often take a greater interest in the hotel, and the logistics, and usually know what the children want to do.”
Villas-with-pools company Vintage Travel (vintagetravel.co.uk), meanwhile, reports that 75 per cent of new inquiries come from women, which Stephen Ellison, the head of marketing, puts down to gender roles.
“This seems to reflect the fact that women are the keepers of the family diary, and know what the make-up of the group will be and what is needed,” says Ellison.
“When men are in charge of the arrangements, they do seem to go wrong more frequently. Men quite often do things such as getting the dates wrong – so they’ll book a date that works for them, then realise that one of the children has a school camp that hasn’t been taken into account.”
This sounds familiar. When I was arranging a group family holiday with friends via Zoom recently, the meeting faltered when one of the mothers went to put the children to bed.
“Hang on,” said her partner. “My calendar’s just walked out of the room.”
Battle of the sexes
“When women are thinking about holidays, they’re going to be thinking about their children, they’re going to be thinking about their partners, about time, about food,” says Dr John Gray, relationship counsellor and author of self-help bestseller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. “Don’t expect men to be thinking about all those things. He’s not going to be taking in all the parameters like that.”
Though we have advanced “beyond ‘women’s roles’ and ‘men’s roles’”, as Gray puts it – the theme of his new book, Beyond Mars and Venus – and while we are freer than ever to live the lives we choose for ourselves, the majority of women remain the primary caregivers and stay-at-home parent, so it makes sense that they know what the kids need.
Tourism campaigns chart the shift. In the 1980s, when sex sold everything – to men – tanned models in bikinis frolicked in the sea, laughing at some hunk’s jokes. In the following decades, the focus changed. The poster girl changed from the type of woman men want to the type women want to be.
When Secret Escapes (secretescapes.com) was launched in 2011, sex was still selling – but no longer to men. A best-friend type, kimono-clad on a four-poster, whispered about cut-price posh hotels, and the message was loud and clear: if a woman wanted a romantic weekend in a classy joint like this, she’d have to sort it herself (average female salary no obstacle at these prices). Now, even as models continue to frolic in the sea, she’s a mother, not a sex symbol, and it’s her children she’s laughing with. Their happiness is central. Dad’s a fleeting glimpse, carrying a toddler, bringing up the rear.
Women are now travelling more than men. Female solo travel and women-only group travel are two of the fastest-growing markets in recent years. And don’t be misled by all those square-jawed presenters and biographies – even adventure travel, traditionally the preserve of white, upper-class males, is now dominated by women; Discover the World (discovertheworld.com) reports that 58 per cent of inquiries and bookings come from women.
In her report Couple Dynamics in Household Tourism Decision-making, Dr Ziene Mottiar, a tourism economics expert at Dublin Institute of Technology, identifies women as the “gatekeepers of holiday purchases” among heterosexual couples.
It’s all in the detail
Clearly, women are doing most of the legwork when it comes to the tasks involved in making a holiday happen – but are they actually better at these tasks?
Women themselves obviously think so. Two-thirds believe they are better at it, according to a survey by Airport Parking & Hotels (aph.com); while findings from Skyscanner (skyscanner.net) suggest a third of men think women are better at it, too.
According to the Office for National Statistics, 98 per cent of personal assistants and secretaries are currently female. Is this colossal majority purely down to traditional gender roles – or could it indicate that women may be more skilled at activities such as organising, researching, considering all the possibilities and predicting the needs of others – a similar skill set to those required in arranging holidays?
As Helen from Manchester puts it: “I’ll spend a lot of time looking and researching, and have everything organised, whereas Peter will just book the first thing he finds.”
Women do spend longer researching, agree tour operators.
“In general, women tend to be more detail-oriented,” says Liddy Pleasants, MD of family-travel specialist Stubborn Mule (stubbornmuletravel.com). “They’ll read all the reviews, spend ages on each hotel website, read blogs to check if there’s anything else they should be considering. They ask a lot of questions, really drill down into the detail, and will check and re-check that they have everything exactly right.
“Men are often far more decisive. They don’t want to faff around considering every different option. They want to go on a nice holiday and they want to get it booked now.”
In our society, decisiveness is considered a more typically “male” quality. But is this a myth, or is there some truth to the stereotype – and if so, is it learnt, or innate?
“We often hold beliefs about what is expected from us because of our gender and the normal rules of behaviour assigned to our gender – for example, women are caring, men are decisive,” says Sally Evans, director of positive psychology consultancy Perform & Grow (performandgrow.com). “As we continue to comply with these expectations, we are often strengthening those views.”
Evans rebuts the suggestion that men are “better” at making decisions, but cites studies examining how men and women use different strategies in decision-making. “Out of 32 studies, 20 found no difference between men and women’s thinking styles; but 12 found that women implemented an analytical approach more often than men,” she says. “It seems that men may be more inclined to go with a hunch. Men take more risks.”
Yet other experts suggest that our powers of decision-making may run deeper than that. In his book The Chimp Paradox, psychiatrist Professor Steve Peters writes about our instinctive “inner chimp” behaviours. While male chimpanzees must be strong to provide security, he asserts, weaker females would do well to be wary of the male, good at anticipating his actions, and stay vigilant enough to protect themselves and their offspring. “It seems reasonable then that female inner chimps are frequently lacking in confidence… and therefore avoid decision-making for fear of getting it wrong.”
While indecisiveness may sound like a weakness, might this inability to make snap decisions – and instead keep pondering, appraising every eventuality, anticipating every problem – in fact lead women to make a more considered decision… eventually?
Never settle for less
“Bad” is, of course, a subjective issue, as TripAdvisor reviews have taught us. Show me the dreamiest hotel in Positano and I’ll show you the twerp rating it 0/10 for its lack of in-room teasmade.
Could it be that women – ever vigilant, alert to the threat of a holiday spoiled by chintzy curtains – are hardwired to look for the “bad”, for the negative, which men may simply not notice?
Research, both physiological and psychological, does indicate that women are more sensitive to various stimuli. Professor Ivanka Savic-Berglund, a neuroscientist and author of Sex Differences in the Human Brain, is currently researching female atuity, and her results suggest that women have greater sensitivity to sensory stimuli – smell, noise, and visually – a sensitivity that increases further during ovulation.
This may explain why loud music might be more likely to ruin a romantic dinner for, say, my mother – whereas put my father in front of an all-inclusive hotel buffet, and you can bet he won’t be critiquing the soundtrack or the decor.
So how should we be doing it? Should men and women take turns? Family-values advocate Dr Gray advises couples to talk about their expectations in advance, to help ensure everyone gets the break they want. He believes, perhaps not surprisingly, that women would actually be happier if their male partners booked great holidays.
If men are unsure, he says, ask: “‘What do you expect to happen on this vacation? What are the things you’re looking forward to? Give me some hints about what can make it really good – give me some options I can pick from.’ It’s kind of like giving him a multiple choice, only whatever he picks he’s going to get an A.”
Perhaps, in the end, it’s simply that more women care more – about design, about the detail, about travel itself.
Skyscanner’s survey found 75 per cent of women believe they do most of the research. It also found that more than 95 per cent of both sexes were happy with this arrangement, while further research concludes that women enjoy almost all the stages of making holidays happen more than men, from scrolling through endless pictures of rooms to packing. It’s an arrangement that seems to be working for everyone.
In Liverpool Airport, Sian and Josh from Wrexham are on their way to Morzine. No prizes for guessing who booked it. “I always do it,” says Sian, who plans several trips a year. “I’m obsessed with holidays.”
Doesn’t her husband want a say?
“I’m happy for Sian to get on with it,” says Josh. “It makes her happy. And if she’s happy, I’m happy.”
Three readers share their family holiday dilemmas – our experts offer solutions
Suzy Burroughs writes
We’re a family of four; my son is 13 and my daughter 11. We’d like a sunny, sandy beach holiday abroad in mid-July with things to keep kids entertained and off their phones! Maybe a water park nearby and/or kayaking.
How about the south-west coast of France? The wild, unspoilt Côte d’Argent has wonderful sandy beaches backed by forests, one of Europe’s best water parks at Biscarosse, and lots of lakes to canoe/kayak nearby. There are also nature reserves, cycling trails, and you can sign up for surf lessons at the resort of Moliets-Plage.
Sally Harrison writes
I’m 53, with a busy job – so interested in some downtime and quality family time, as well as good food and wine, a bit of sightseeing, time to read a good book, and maybe some spa time. Simon, 58, is a keen cyclist and interested in history. Henry, 11, is more interested in playing Fortnite (so Wi-Fi important) but also making some friends around his own age as being on hols with Mum and Dad is a bit boring. We all like nice hotels, self-catering and glamping.
Good food, history, cycling... several places spring to mind, including the Spanish cities of San Sebastian (the country’s tapas capital) and Girona (a favoured base for many professional cyclists). But what about the Croatia region of Istria? It’s renowned for its food, which is heavily influenced by neighbouring Italy (think lashings of truffles and pasta), its gently rolling landscapes and coastal paths make it popular for cycling, and there are plenty of picturesque and historic towns and cities to explore (Pula, gateway to the region and home to many ancient Roman remains, and Rovinj chief among them).
Our pick of Istria’s best hotels includes the Amarin Family Hotel (maistra.com), which has a spa, and plenty to keep Henry happy (kids club, outdoor pools, two beaches, free scooters, and, yes, Wi-Fi!). It is offered by Tui (tui.co.uk) if you’d rather book a package.
Samantha Fox writes
We have three children: a 13-year-old daughter who likes being kept busy and enjoys children’s clubs and activities, a sociable five-year-old who also gets bored easily, and our new baby will be about three months old, so would benefit from an indoor area to take him. We would ideally like our own villa with a pool but with access to facilities/kids’ clubs/also local resorts where we can walk out to. Don’t want a long flight. We love Mallorca, particularly Soller, but not sure there is a hotel to meet our needs.
The beauty of Mallorca is that it’s only a two-hour flight away and offers sunshine, a sound infrastructure and hotels that are experienced in catering for families. Though villas with pools can be rented island-wide, few will offer the kind of on-tap facilities that can be found at all-inclusive family resorts. An ideal luxury five-star resort that offers great value and superb facilities for children of all ages is Hotel Zafiro Palace in Alcudia (zafirohotels.com). The likes of four-star Viva Cala Mesquida (hotelsviva.com) and Portblue Club Pollentia Resort (portbluehotels.com) are also well-run family-friendly properties. If you’d prefer to rent a villa close to children’s activities and attractions, the best zones would be Palmanova, Santa Ponsa or Palma, but car hire would be necessary. Try vrbo.com or airbnb.co.uk.
If you can be tempted away from Mallorca, the Greek island of Zakynthos is a good option for a club-oriented villa holiday. The Peligoni Club, in the quieter north of the island, has a creche, swimming pool, bar, restaurant, spa and tennis courts, and offers lots of family-friendly activities like boat trips and guided bike rides.
One-week membership costs £455 per person, or £210 in low season. On its books are numerous villas, from cosy cottages for £500 a week to swanky grand designs (peligoni.com).