Sitting at a rooftop bar in Cartagena, Colombia recently, my girlfriend and I were approached by two English-speaking strangers around our age.
“Hey,” one started, “You two look like you might be queer and we were the only ones here so we thought we’d talk to you.”
Looking around, I noticed it was true. Straight people, sipping beers and mingling together, with no sign of same-sex attraction. It hadn’t struck me before this remark because, to be frank, this is what many of our travel experiences are like. It’s rare that we find ourselves in all-gay company, but when we do it’s always a bit of a Christmas-morning feeling of wonder.
We sat with our new friends, one male who simply described himself as queer, and one trans MTF, and discussed the perils, pitfalls and joys of traveling as part of our diverse community.
Planning your own trip? Before you start your flight search on Cheapflights.com, here are some LGBTQ travel tips to get you started.
How Has LGBTQ travel changed over the years?
I’m just gonna say it: Travel for LGBTQ people is better than ever.
For one thing, LGBTQ rights worldwide — from marriage to adoption rights and the basic decriminalization of homosexuality — are getting better. Of course, with progress can come backlash, as seen in the U.S. with bathroom and religious freedom bills or in Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws, but overall the momentum is moving in the direction of equality. In many places around the world and on our TV screens, it’s now commonplace to see gay couples holding hands and trans people living their truth in the light of day. This normalization of LGBTQ culture has opened the door to new destinations for queer travelers.
Technology has been a major democratizing force for travel and has proven especially useful for queer travelers. It used to be that LGBTQ people wishing to travel without fear would look to one of only a handful of trusted guidebooks for specific destinations. But with the internet at our fingertips, it’s much easier to do the necessary research to figure out the safety situation of different destinations, discover the gay neighborhoods and hotspots in any given city and connect with other members of the community while traveling.
Another thing that has made travel that much better for LGBTQs is the power of our wallets. As it turns out, the LGBTQ travel market is hot. LGBTQ people are more likely than their straight, cisgender counterparts to hold passports and, as a global community, spend more than $200 billion annually on travel. Businesses in the travel sector and entrepreneurs have taken notice, marketing their brands and destinations toward LGBTQ travelers or creating new companies specifically for this niche market.
Ready to go? Here are some resources to help you prepare
There are 72 to 75 (depending on which technical definition you use) countries worldwide in which homosexuality is illegal, which could be punishable by imprisonment or death. It’s probably best to make sure your holiday destination is not on this list.
Traveling to places that aren’t expressly supportive of LGBTQ rights, whether it’s an international destination or less LGBTQ-friendly area within the U.S., can be cause for pause for some travelers. Doing a bit of research on your chosen destination to discover the legal situation, as well as the cultural attitudes, is a vital step before booking travel. The International Lesbian, Gay, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) has a map that outlines sexual orientation laws in different countries around the world. You can also find country-specific information on the State Department’s website as well as important information for LGBTQ travelers. Know the location and phone number of your embassy or consulate in case you should run into trouble and need help.
The most important thing when traveling, no matter who you are, is to be conscious and aware of your surroundings. If you’re in a place where homosexuality is frowned upon, exercise discretion and limit public displays of affection. While your advocacy instinct may be strong, keep in mind when visiting other countries that you are a visitor. Respect local customs and watch out for your own safety.
Where to book?
While you can always search for flights, hotels, rental cars and travel deals on Cheapflights.com, there are tons of resources for LGBTQ travelers. The International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, or IGLTA, connects travelers with businesses that support LGBTQ rights from hotels to cruise lines to rental car companies and even local bars and art galleries. You can search everything from accommodations to attractions or search by destination and rest easy knowing all the listed businesses pay to be members and are LGBTQ friendly.
Human Rights Campaign, HRC.org, also compiles a list of LGBTQ friendly or inclusive businesses in their annual Buyer’s Guide. You can search the travel section for hotels, airlines, cruises and more to see how they score (from 0-100) on the workplace equality index. Seeing how a company treats its LGBTQ employees might factor into your decision about which hotel or airline to book and which to avoid.
LGBTQ exclusive travel
Olivia is one of the leading lesbian travel and tour companies, offering cruises, resort-stays and guided tours for groups of women who want to travel together. Their vacation packages frequently feature famous lesbian performers, activists and celebrities.
R Family Vacations, founded by Rosie O’Donnell, produces cruises and vacations for LGBTQ families if you’re looking to bring the kiddos.
All solo travelers, especially those who present as trans, butch lesbians or very flamboyant gay men, must take precautions. Be aware of your surroundings, avoid walking alone in certain areas at night, and trust your gut if something just doesn’t feel right. Trans travelers can find more specific travel and flying tips here.
If you’re looking to meet up with other LGBTQ travelers or locals, you can try couchsurfing groups or meetup.com groups. Just search LGBTQ groups for the location where you’ll be traveling and stop by for a meetup, or to get tips from other gay travelers. Dating apps like HER for lesbians, Grindr or Hornet for gay men, or Tinder for anyone in the rainbow spectrum, are another way that more and more LGBTQ travelers are meeting up and finding community while traveling. Meeting a local can connect you with insider info on the gay scene in the area. And meeting a fellow traveler to go out with can make you feel that much safer in an unfamiliar place. That being said, it’s important to exercise caution when using dating apps and meeting up with strangers—especially when traveling in intolerant countries or cities. Entrapment schemes have been used to target gay men and the geolocation function of apps could be especially dangerous to trans people, who have historically been at greater risk of violence.
If you’re new to solo travel and are LGBTQ you may want to book accommodations, a tour, or an entire trip through an exclusively LGBTQ travel company. You can travel to new places with the peace of mind an organized group trip affords and the bonus of forming new friendships with members of the community.
Travel tips for families
Traveling with kids presents challenges for obvious reasons: You’re packing for more people, planning ways to keep them busy during flights or long car rides, and, if they’re babies, you’re hoping they don’t cry the entire time. Traveling as an LGBTQ family can come with its own set of challenges, like strangers asking invasive questions, immigration officials needing excessive explanation about last names and family relationships or hoteliers scratching their heads about the sleeping arrangements you’ve booked for your stay.
When traveling with adopted children it’s of the utmost importance to have all of your documentation in order. If your child doesn’t share your last name, parentage or custody documents will be necessary. If you’re not the legal parent, documentation giving you permission to travel with the child is required. Keep in mind both parents must sign the child’s passport.
Learn more at travel.state.gov.
There are plenty of options for LGBT families looking to get away. Disney vacations at land or sea tend to be a good option for kid-centered LGBTQ family trips. Booking accommodation through a home-share site like Airbnb can be a way for families to avoid awkward hotel encounters and enjoy the privacy of a home away from home while they travel.
Another option is to skip the city or resort and head to the great outdoors. Rent a camper and take a family trip to Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, or any of the other 57 national parks in the U.S. and its territories. Not only are national parks maintained with taxpayer dollars—making every American citizen partial owner—but the National Park Service promotes awareness of accomplishments of the LGBTQ community through their LGBTQ Heritage Initiative, highlights important properties of historical value to the LGBTQ community and is outspoken about their own diversity policies. Enjoy the scenery and feel good knowing the NPS has your back.
LGBTQ destinations for Pride
Whether you’re looking for a local pride event or a faraway destination, a small-town celebration or a major-city march, gaypridecalendar.com is a great resource outlining LGBTQ Pride celebrations throughout the U.S. and across the globe.
Stateside, you can’t go wrong with a visit to the gay staples: Palm Springs, a gay-mecca in the desert 100 miles east of L.A.; Key West, Fla., the tropical playground for adults where basically anything goes (if you’ve visited the Garden of Eden, you know what I’m talking about); New York, home of the Stonewall riots, Broadway and different neighborhoods for different tastes; San Francisco, home of the first Gay Pride march and arguably the gayest city in America; or Provincetown, Mass., affectionately referred to as P-town, with its summer of themed weekends like Bear Week and Women of Color & Friends Week.
Other big cities like Washington, D.C. and Atlanta are great weekend destinations with thriving LGBTQ scenes and huge Pride celebrations. Many smaller university cities like Eugene, Ore., and Cambridge, Mass., have exceptional LGBTQ community offerings as well.
Trans travelers may want to consider a trip to Portland, Ore. or Seattle, Wash. and enjoy crazy-good beer, coffee and food selections (not to mention beautiful scenery) in a place that has trans rights on the books and lots of people with liberal, accepting cultural attitudes. For sunnier weather, check out Fort Lauderdale, Fla. This beach town has been wooing trans travelers with ads featuring transgender models for a couple of years now, and its official tourism site, sunny.org, outlines resources for LGBTQ travel, and devotes a full separate page to trans-specific resources.
If you’re looking to go international, Barcelona and Madrid, Spain, are known for having vibrant gay scenes (check out our tips for all first-time visitors to Spain), but also consider LGBT-friendly Tel Aviv, Israel; Stockholm, Sweden; Montevideo,Uruguayan, the city that played host to 2016’s Global LGBTI Human Rights Conference or Brighton, England, which celebrates its fifth annual Trans Weekend this year.
The options are vast, so pick a destination from this list or choose your own. Whatever you do, don’t let uncertainty prevent you from traveling. In the words of Maya Angelou, “perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
Share your own tips with us in the comments and start planning your next trip on Cheapflights.com. Safe travels, and happy Pride!
Feature image: istockphoto/lisegagne