Call me a killjoy, but I can’t stand hen parties. I’m not such a fan of weddings either, and they share much in common: the outdated division of the bride with her brood of female-only friends, the groom with his men-only team of compadres; the bizarre blend of old-fashioned tradition with cheesy props; the drama associated with guests and their pecking order; and the ludicrous expense of it all.
Was it always this way, or is the whole charade getting worse? Telegraph Travel delved into the history of the pre-nuptial event, how it evolved from a one-evening celebration to a weekend holiday, and how much we’re spending on them in modern times.
How old is the tradition?
Stag and hen parties have been around for longer than you might imagine. The Spartans are considered the first to hold a dinner for soldiers to mark their last night as single men, as early as the 5th century B.C. As for hens, according to the book In Search of the Greeks, author James Renshaw explains that the so-called “proaulia” involved the bride-to-be “spending time at her home, preparing for the ceremony with her mother, other female relatives, friends and slaves”.
The term “hen party” (or “bachelorette” for those across the pond) first began to gain prominence in the late 1890s, with Utah-based newspaper The Deseret News describing it 1897 as a “time honored-idea that tea and chitchats, gossip and smart hats, constitute the necessary adjuncts to these particular gatherings.”
As for stag dos, or “bachelor parties” in the US, the phrase was first recorded in 1922, when used by Scottish publication Chambers’ Journal of Literature, Science and Arts to and referred to as a “jolly old” party.
By the 1960s and 1970s, with the tides of the sexual revolution, these pre-wedding bashes had taken on a new, debauched life of their own. Fast forward to today, and they’re more expensive than ever before, with an ever-increasing number of us going abroad and stretching the celebrations over several days, rather than just an evening.
What destinations are popular?
According to search analysis from Hitwise, the last three years has seen a 233 per cent increase in searches for “hen do abroad”, and a near-identical figure for “stag do abroad”, with January being the most popular month for searches, and 18-24-year-olds representing the largest age group.
I recently returned from a hen party in Budapest (the third most popular destination last year according to Hitwise) and it was absolutely crawling with raucous stags and hens from all over Europe, in a concentration I couldn’t quite believe.
Data from GoHen has Barcelona as the most popular international destination for both stags and hens currently, followed by Berlin, Hamburg and Dublin for stags; and Marbella, Dublin and Benidorm for hens.
We have the likes of Ryanair and easyJet to thank for their rock-bottom European fares, in enabling more of us than ever to travel abroad for such festivities. Which is not to say the package itself is cheap…
How much are we spending?
A major YouGov survey in 2016 found that men are prepared to spend more than twice the money on a stag do (an average of £400) than women are on hens (£175).
As for activities, women were found to favour a spa weekend, followed by going to a bar or club, then attending a cocktail-making session; while men prioritised going to a club as the most attractive prospect of a stag, followed by go-karting and then paintballing.
Research from retailer Banana Moon last year put the cost of all this even higher, an average spend of £501 for stag and hens, the highest cost in the breakdown being travel (£109), followed by accommodation and then alcohol.
Unsurprisingly, a full 80 per cent of those questioned considered this price tag to be too expensive, especially if you have more than one planned per calendar year, which you probably do: weddings tend to be like buses when you reach a certain age.
According to GoHen, however, the costs are only escalating. On average, stag groups were spending 50 per cent more than last year than they were in 2013, with women coughing up a more modest 28 per cent more over the same period.
Do we even enjoy them?
The aforementioned YouGov survey found an almost even split when it comes to our view on stags and hens, with 41 per cent considering them outdated, compared to 39 per cent who don’t.
In 2013, The Telegraph’s Sally Newall described hen parties as “mini-holidays we have no control over”, writing: “My mum did precisely nothing to mark her ‘last night of freedom’ in 1971. Nor did the majority of her friends. At most it was a quiet meal and drinks with a few close friends and family.
“[Now] the reality is anything but — every girl I know complains about hen dos. The gripes range from having to give up precious annual leave to annoyance that their inbox is clogged up with emails from henzillas obsessing over every tiny detail. Or being forced into doing an activity they’d usually run a mile from – belly dancing, for example, has been known to reduce some less coordinated hens to tears.”
I turned to members of our travel team on the matter, and the results were mixed.
“I hate the concept of traditional stag dos — particularly the pressure to visit a seedy and depressing strip club,” one said, male, aged 34. “My stag do will involve cycling with friends, good food and wine. Not traipsing around a city centre dressed as a nun.”
From another male, 30: “I suggested to my best men that we all just go to our respective locals for a quiet pint and maybe text each other should the desire arise. Instead, the pressure for stags, ushers and best men is to plan extravagant, once-in-a-lifetime trips. Anyone — anyone — who even suggests a three-night stag needs to be struck off the wedding list.”
“Hen parties stand for everything I loathe and if I ever get married, I’m not having one,” said a female, 31, while another, this one aged 28, stated: “I love the idea of a hen party. I want a one-night do in Liverpool with all my girls, L plates, strippers, feather boas and rude straws.”