Article first published in The Travelling Boomer
Let’s face it: most of the travel industry is set up for people travelling in pairs or groups. But some of us travel alone, either by preference or circumstance, and as the baby boomer generation gets older, there will be many more of us out there travelling solo.
It’s good to travel with a companion: you have someone to share your experiences with, help you find the right train and bring you chicken soup if you get sick. And because the travel industry prices things for two people sharing, you can get a better deal on package tours and hotels.
But there’s a lot to be said for travelling solo, too: you can go where you want and see what you want — not what your partner wants to see. You can travel when you have the time, with no concern about fitting someone else’s schedule. You can get that last seat left on the plane (it’s often easier to get one seat than two). And you can skip the infighting that sometimes crops up and ruins trips.
Still, there are a few nagging problems that can get in the way when you’re travelling solo. I’ve dealt with most of them over the years, and found ways around or through them. So I thought I’d share both the problems, and my personal solutions, with you.
Here are my five problems of solo travellers – and five ways to solve them.
Paying the single supplement
The problem This is probably the biggest annoyance for solo travellers. Because the travel industry caters mainly to couples, it adds a hefty premium to the price of things like package tours and cruises for those travelling solo. The surcharge is typically 50 to 75 per cent, but it can be a full 100 percent.
The solution The first way to avoid this problem is to book your flight and hotel separately: there are no single supplements on air flights, and hotel prices are more dependent on current demand than on who you are. If you’re shopping for a package, look for travel companies that don’t apply the extra charge: they’re scarce, but there are a few out there, like Explore!, Exodus: Canada and International Expeditions.
You have a better chance of escaping the supplement in places like Cuba, where they’re sometimes happy just to fill the beds. But even hotels and resorts in high-rent locations will sometimes drop the surcharge if they have empty rooms and the clock is ticking. It never hurts to ask, or have your travel agent do it for you.
The best solution, though, is just to shop hard. If you can find a deal that’s cheap enough to start with, it could still be good value even with the single supplement. In recent years I’ve taken cruises that cost me the price of a hotel room — not as cheap as if I’d shared a cabin, but still at a great price. Subscribing to travel and cruise newsletters is a good way to find these deals.
The last strategy is to look for another solo traveller who wants to split costs: for example, some cruise lines, like Holland America, will hook you up with someone of the same sex who wants to share a cabin.
Watching the bags
The problem Your bags can become a real burden when you’re travelling through airports and train stations. Go to buy a ticket, drag your bags along. Have to use the washroom, drag your bags along. Sometimes it feels like you’re being followed by a big, hulking shadow.
The solution Travel light. The days of travelling with a steamer trunk and 12 pieces of luggage are over. One medium-sized suitcase and a shoulder bag is enough for almost any trip. And as I demonstrated here, you can fit a week’s worth of clothes into a 20-inch “spinner” case that fits into an overhead compartment. (It’s still a bit of a hindrance, but minor in relative terms).
Alternatively, there’s still something to be said for checking your bags in as soon as you get to the airport and then wandering at will. (That’s one of the good things about checking your bags: once they roll down the conveyor belt, they’re the airline’s problem.) Or, you can travel first-class and pay other people to worry about your baggage. Oh, bellhop?
The problem I don’t mind being by myself, but some people need other people to be their sounding board, compare notes with and help them get where they’re going. When you travel alone, there’s no one to help if you have a problem. As well, you miss the fun and camaraderie that comes from being with other people.
The solution Make friends on the road. I find that when I’m alone, I tend to be more open to talking to other people. I fall in with other travellers on at least half my trips: on a recent trip I spent a day travelling with a French mother and son in Mexico, then teamed up with a retired English couple in Belize and a fellow Torontonian in Guatemala.
You can meet people on trains or buses, in restaurants or in your hotel. But a great way to meet them is to take a local or city tour: you spend the best part of a day with a small group of people, and naturally start to talk with them. Then, it’s easy to continue your conversation over dinner with your new friends.
The problem Enjoying the local food is a great part of travel, but I find dining at nice restaurants awkward when I’m alone. I usually opt for middle-of-the-road joints where I can watch the passing scene while I eat.
The solution The best antidote to eating alone is to find someone to dine with. But how? If you meet someone during your day and hit it off, ask them if they have dinner plans, and suggest a place you have your eye on. It’s a date! Failing that, you can drop by the restaurant for a drink before dinner, and check it out. If you talk to the staff and the locals a bit, the place may seem more welcoming by the time dinner comes around. And you may bump into another traveller who’s looking for a table mate.
For dining in less formal places, the most common strategy is to bring a book: I find it a good opportunity to delve into my guidebook. Another is to find a place with a live show, or a video screen showing a movie or sports event – whatever keeps you happy. If everyone’s watching the same thing, you’ll feel like one of the crowd.
Expensive day tours
The problem Since group tours usually have fixed costs, many are priced according to the number of people on board – the more people, the cheaper they are. Some tours won’t go without a minimum number, and those that do often charge outrageous prices. Want a birding tour for one? That’ll be triple the usual price.
The solution This is a tough one, but I’ve faced it quite a few times and come out smiling. The best strategy is to find a company that has a tour going where you want to go, and ask to be added to the group. You might find one on the internet, or by asking around: the local tourist board may have suggestions, too.
There are other strategies, too. You can stay at a hotel near the attraction you want to visit, and try to team up with other guests who want to go there. Or, leave your name with a few tour companies and ask them to watch for others looking for the same tour.
A final suggestion: ask the locals if they know someone who shows tourists the area. There’s often a local expert who’s happy to take you (read about my experiences finding bird guides here). Lastly, you can try online services like Global Greeter Network that offer tours by local guides for free.
There’s five problems of solo travellers, and how I deal with them. The real solution, though, is for the travel industry to start paying more attention to solo travellers and tailoring its offerings and its prices to them.
In some cases, it already is. According to Solo Traveler website, some companies are waking up to the fact that solo travellers are a great market. They travel more than couples — six or more times a year, compared with two to three times. And they’re often free to travel at slack times of the year, such as spring and fall.
Some cruise lines have begun to cater to the growing number of single cruisers by putting solo cabins on their ships: Norwegian leads the way here. The rest of the travel industry is beginning to adapt, as well — companies are slowly moving toward a fairer price structure, and offering special deals for solo travellers. This spring, a number of companies dropped or reduced their single supplement to combat weak demand for European trips and cruises.
Still, we’re nowhere near having a travel industry that’s friendly to solo travellers. Count this as another call for action: solo travellers aren’t going away, it’s time to give us what we need.
Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while sharing experiences on his popular website, The Travelling Boomer.