The days of solo travellers getting a raw deal are over, as more travel companies and tour operators see the value in catering to this growing market
By Lola Augustine Brown
Travelling on one’s own has long been an expensive and sometimes intimidating endeavour. Tour companies weren’t set up to accommodate singles, so solo travellers were therefore often required to pay an expensive “single” supplement to join a tour or book a spot on a cruise. Supplements could range from 80 per cent to 110 per cent of what a couple would pay for the same travel experience. Happily, this is no longer the case.
Janice Waugh, the Toronto-based founder of the online community Solo Traveler and the author of The Solo Traveler’s Handbook (Full Flight Press, 2012), has been advocating for solo travellers for more than a decade. The changes within this demographic in that time have been dramatic, she says. “People weren’t really travelling solo 10 years ago. Now companies have adjusted their business models to capture this lucrative market, and that’s good news for Canadian solo travellers.”
The list of operators offering trips for solo travellers grows longer every year, and there are solo packages to suit all travel styles and budgets, making it easy for the single traveller to scratch his or her itch, whether that means luxuriating in Tuscany, basking in the Caribbean sun, or trekking through India.
A 2018 study by Booking.com found that more boomers than ever are booking solo trips: 40 per cent had taken a solo trip in the past year and 21 per cent were planning to do so in the future.
Megan Bailey, the North American sales and customer-experience director for Intrepid Travel, says that when the company began offering tours specifically for solo travellers last year, the trips quickly sold out. “We were finding with our trips in general that about 50 per cent of our guests were solo travellers anyway,” Bailey says, “so we designed these trips that guaranteed that everybody is going to be on his or her own.” These are clearly the trips to take if you want to avoid couples and cliques and meet new people.
The Price Has to Be Right
When you’re looking for an affordable solo trip, you need to do your research. You may see supposedly great deals advertised wherein companies claim that they are waiving the dreaded single supplement, when in fact a couple doing the same trip gets a two-for-one deal and you’re simply paying as much as a twosome. This practice is less common than it was, Waugh says, but you have to be aware that it does happen.
“What we see more often now is that because companies have all the data and can project what sales are going to be, they can set specials for trips that aren’t going to be at capacity,” Waugh says. “Cruise lines have in some cases adjusted their business model so that a certain percentage of spots on every departure is available for solo travellers, who get their own rooms. I’ve seen the number of spots go as high as 40 per cent.”
Finding those deals can sometimes be a challenge, but you’ll find an up-to-date list of the best deals for solo travellers on Waugh’s site or by signing up for her monthly newsletter (via her site).
Targeting the single traveller has also meant that cruise lines have introduced cabins and amenities exclusively for solo travellers. In 2010, Norwegian Cruise Line was the first to do this with the debut of the cruise ship Norwegian Epic, which offered studio cabins and a studio lounge—a place to “meet and mingle with fellow solo cruisers,” says Andy Stuart, the president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line. “Guest satisfaction among this group indicates that they truly enjoy the ‘studio’ experience, and we’ve seen a significant number of repeat guests within this category. We’ve also noticed that our senior and baby boomer guests make up a significant portion of studio room bookings.”
There are now studio rooms on six of Norwegian’s vessels, and the cruise lines Carnival, Royal Caribbean International, and Cunard Line have followed the example. Solo travellers can also find on-board programming just for them—from wine tastings to art lessons. Waugh says that the only problem with solo cabins on cruise ships is that there are so few of them in comparison to the number of people who want to travel solo: “You need to book years in advance to get into one.”
River cruises are doing an excellent job of capturing the solo-traveller market, either by waiving the single supplement or designing ships with solos in mind. Emerald Waterways offers two dedicated solo cabins on each of its ships, and AmaWaterways offers single-occupancy staterooms on four of its ships.
“River cruises are a great option for solo travellers, because there are generally between only 100 and 200 passengers on a ship,” Waugh says. “The dining rooms aren’t large and it’s easy to pop around to different tables and meet lots of people.” Although there are more opportunities for solo travellers on river cruises, Waugh says that you still need to book early to get those cabins.
Just You, a tour company that bills itself as a specialist in solo travel, has been operating in the UK for 14 years and launched in Canada in 2017. The company offers a range of tours through Europe for which guests automatically get their own rooms without paying extra, and all the tours are competitively priced.
“Since we strictly deal with solo travellers, we negotiate with hotels and excursions to fill these itineraries specifically for them. We won’t work with any companies that are going to charge us a single supplement,” says Nick Roberti, Just You’s Canadian national account manager. The company’s top-selling offering is “Highlights of Tuscany,” a seven-day tour that starts at $1,399 and includes a stay at a four-star hotel, breakfasts, transfers, and excursions to Pisa, Siena, and Florence. Just You’s all-inclusive “Lake Como” tour offers seven nights in a resort town with three different excursions, all for $2,399.
Even all-inclusives are recognizing the importance of catering to this growing market. Transat Tours Canada offers a “Solo Collection”—no single supplement is charged, and guests are given free Wi-Fi, room service, and the option of dining at a communal table. At press time in October, last-minute trips in the Solo Collection included prices as low as $689, including fees and taxes, for a week at a four-star property in Puerto Plata, in the Dominican Republic.
Similarly, a quick review of sites such as Club Med and Sunwing revealed a variety of great deals for solo travellers if you’re happy to travel soon (there were options for those wanting to book in advance, too, but prices seem to go down as travel dates approach). You may have trouble getting a berth on a cruise without plenty of advance planning, but a break in the sun seems to be a great late-booking option for the solo traveller. Empty hotel rooms make no money for operators, so they’re much happier to waive any supplements they might normally impose once it becomes clear that rooms aren’t filling up.
Seeking Camaraderie—or Not
The idea of travelling with a bunch of strangers may fill you with dread, but if you’re willing to take the leap and join a solo travellers’ tour, there’s a good chance that you’ll meet like-minded people who won’t feel like strangers for long. Roberti says that Just You’s success isn’t simply the result of competitive pricing—the itineraries are designed to be inclusive.
“Our clients are adventurous, young at heart, and looking to make new friends,” he says. “The atmosphere is fun. We have family-style dinners and make it easy for people to get to know each other.” The average age of those who book a Just You tour is 53, but Roberti says that he was on a tour a few months ago that included a 24-year-old and an 83-year-old. “The age range is quite broad,” he says.
If you’re the type who doesn’t mind bunking with a stranger, then the “Solo Traveller” offerings from Intrepid Travel may suit you: travellers are matched up with a roommate on the first day of the trip. Bailey says that local tour leaders look at the manifest and match travellers on the ground, though they offer a single-supplement option for those who want to join the trip but really don’t want to share quarters.
And if you find you and your roomie aren’t compatible? “It happens on every group trip that there are some people who will not get on—as in any group dynamic, there can be tension—but that’s where our leaders would step in and switch them out. They are great at dealing with those group dynamics and specialize in making people feel comfortable,” Bailey says. “Often, as the trip goes on, people form connections and decide that they want to be roommates for the whole trip, and that works really well. Plus, you’re changing hotels every other night or so, so there are always opportunities to mix it up.”
In addition, that you’re travelling as part of a group doesn’t mean that you have to spend every minute together.
“There’s a lot of free time on our trips when people often just go off and do their own thing or have dinner or go out with a smaller group from the trip,” Bailey says. The formula must work, as 60 per cent of people who take an Intrepid tour come back to book another. Tours vary from basic to luxurious, and in terms of cost, you could be looking at anything from nine days touring Bali for $1,240 to a 15-day tour of Sri Lanka for $2,740 (flights to and from the destination aren’t included).
There’s a strong possibility that you will get along with your fellow travellers, though. “A lot of people want to go on these trips because their friends aren’t interested in going to a specific destination or can’t get the same vacation time. You meet up on day one with a group of people from around the world and you all come together because you have this shared experience. You’re in a destination to which you’ve all wanted to travel for a long time, and you’re all experiencing it together,” Roberti says. “There’s the flexibility that allows you to go out and eat solo if you want, but the security of the group is always there.”
Clearly, if you want to travel solo, it isn’t hard or unaffordable if you shop for tours that have made solo travellers a priority. Whatever kind of travel you’re interested in, whether trekking in the foothills of Kathmandu or cruising the Danube, there’s a way to make it work. Whether you’re single or simply want to explore places that your friends and family don’t want to visit, going solo isn’t nearly as intimidating or expensive as you might think. Bon voyage!