A few years ago I found a great deal on a cruise around Cape Horn, South America, with four days in the Antarctic. It was a great opportunity. Trouble was, none of my friends had the money or the inclination to go with me. I’d cruised before, as part of a group. Could I cruise alone?
The answer was yes. I booked a single cabin and spent 17 days on the Star Princess, viewing whales and penguins and seeing landscapes few of us get to see. I met lots of people and had a lot of fun. and since then I’ve done two more solo cruises on Norwegian Cruise Line (photo above). And along the way I’ve become wise to a now-obvious fact: not only is cruising solo possible, it’s becoming the thing to do.
Solo cruisers are still a minority, of course. But there are a lot of us these days, including many baby boomers. So many, in fact, that the cruise companies are starting to make us a part of their long-term planning. New ships are coming equipped with solo cabins, and on-board services are being planned with singles in mind. Solo cruiser get-togethers are a standard part of a ship’s itinerary.
Still, it can be a bit daunting to set off on a cruise by yourself if you haven’t done it before. So here are a few pointers, drawn from authorities like Cruise Critic and personal experience, to help you enjoy the experience without feeling like a third wheel. I call them my 10 smart tips for cruising solo.
Choose the right ship
Everyone seems to agree that a smaller ship is a better choice for solo cruisers than a large one, since you’re more likely to run into the same people more than once. It’s frustrating to meet someone you like and then never see them again, and that can happen on one of the new mega-ships carrying 4,000 or 5,000 passengers, like Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas.
Better to choose one with 2.000 to 3,000 passengers, like the Norwegian Gem, or a “mid-sized” one with 1,000 to 2,000 passengers such as Holland America’s Westerdam. If you’re the adventurous type, you could end up on a true small-ship line such as Hurtigruten or Celebrity Xpedition, with only a few hundred passengers — after a few days, you’ll know everyone.
Choose the right line
The second part of choosing your ship is the cruise line, and there are some that especially go out of their way to cater to single passengers. Opinions vary on this, but the lines that top most of the lists are Holland America; Norwegian Cruise Line; Britain’s Fred. Olsen Cruise Line (what’s that period for, anyway?); Silversea Cruises; and Crystal Cruises.
I’d add Royal Caribbean to the list, due its recent launch of two ships equipped with single cabins. And it’s useful to note that Silversea and Crystal are luxury lines: you’ll likely find a warm welcome on ships like these just because of the higher level of service – that is, if you can afford the price. For a detailed look at some of these lines, go here (the article is a little dated, but the information is generally still valid).
Avoid the single supplement
One of the biggest obstacles to solo cruising is the supplement the cruise lines slap on to make up the revenue they don’t get from the other person in your cabin. This is typically at least 50 percent, and sometimes a full 100 percent.
However, these days more and more lines seem to be lowering (and occasionally dropping) the single supplement on some of their cruises. Recent examples include an Eastern Caribbean cruise on the Regal Princess with only a 28-percent supplement for inside cabins. There are websites that look for these offers, including Vacations to Go. You have to sign up to see the specials, but there’s a good list of them. The bad news is that most of the best offers seem to be on higher-priced cruises.
Another way to beat the supplement is to cruise off-season, or book during wave season, from January to March, when the cruise lines are trying to fill their cabins. If you find a cheap price, the supplement will be cheap, too, and you’ll end up with a final price that’s still pretty good. I’ve done this a few times, and paid a little more than $100 a day for some very good cruises.
Look for a solo cabin
Norwegian made waves a few years ago when it introduced its purpose-built “studio” cabins designed just for solo cruisers. They look a bit like space capsules, but they’re well-equipped and comfortable, and passenger reviews have been positive. The studios are available on the Epic, Breakaway and Getaway. These are megaships — not ideal for solo cruising. But to compensate, these cabins entitle you to use a special singles lounge where you can mingle with your fellow cruisers. The studios carry a premium over the standard double rate, but it’s less than the single supplement.
Since Norwegian made its move, other major lines have followed suit, first in a small way but now more enthusiastically. As noted, Royal Caribbean has included 28 solo cabins on its Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas, with no single supplements (they even have some interior cabins with wall-to-floor LED screens that show ocean and port views).
P&O Cruises offers 18 solo cabins on its 3,000-passenger Azura, the second-biggest ship in its fleet. And Holland America will have 12 on its new Koningsdam, set to launch in 2016 (a bit chintzy, if you ask me). There are more and more solo cabins available every year, so the selection is getting better. Still, best to book early – they fill up fast.
Another way to avoid the single supplement is to find another solo cruiser to share a cabin. Holland America Line has a Single Partners Program that tries to match you with someone of the same sex; if it can’t, you get the cabin at regular price (ka-ching!). Fred. Olsen has a similar program.
If you’re travelling on a cruise line that doesn’t offer this service, there are organizations such as Cruisemates that help singles team up for cruises. Or try luring your family and friends with photos of tropical beaches and Pacific sunsets …
Get on a roll call
Roll calls are discussion threads on Cruise Critic or other cruising sites that allow people going on the same cruise to get to know each other and exchange information. (You can find a good listing of them here.) Sign up for the one about your cruise and you’ll get to know at least a few people before you even embark. Once you’re on the ship, there’s often a roll call get-together on the first or second day so everyone can get acquainted. I ended up going on several excursions with people I met at one of these.
Meet and greet
Most cruise lines also hold welcome parties for singles, usually early in the cruise. These are a great way to meet people, and perhaps find a partner for dinner or shore excursions. To get everyone relaxed and sociable, the cruise line often even springs for free champagne. Check out the daily bulletin that appears in your cabin to find out where and when these events are happening.
Another tip: even before the meet-and-greet takes place, cruise veterans say having a drink at the piano bar on the first night of the cruise is a great way to find other solo cruisers. You’re out to discover who’s on board, and so are they.
Get a dining strategy
Dining can be one of the toughest parts of cruising solo, depending on your personality. I ate in the buffet restaurant for most of my first solo cruise because I didn’t like the arrangements in the Princess dining rooms. (Besides, it had the best view of the whales and penguins swimming beside the ship.) However, I then discovered Norwegian with its Anytime Dining policy, and began to like eating in the dining room again.
If you enjoy dining at a big table with a lot of people, then you’ll have no problem with the traditional arrangement on most ships. For one thing, you’re with the same people every night, so you get to know them. (Cruise Critic advises taking the late seating since there are fewer families.) But you can also request to be seated with other singles, or ask for a different table if you don’t like the one you get. And on Norwegian, at least, they ask if you’re willing to share a table. Say yes and you’ll meet new people every night.
Go on excursions
The ship’s escorted shore excursions can be expensive, but it’s worth taking one or two early in the trip because they’re a great way to meet people. You spend a good part of the day in the company of a dozen or so other cruisers, and it’s easy to make arrangements to meet later, or team up for a private excursion at the next port. If a ship excursion is beyond your budget, try scouting out the area where you disembark to meet other people looking for a ride. You can often form a group for the day and split costs.
Being on a ship with a couple of thousand other people can be a bit daunting, especially if you’re not a people person. But remember, you’re on vacation, so relax and say hello. Share a table, share a drink, take part in an on-board activity, and you’ll probably end up with a few new friends in a hurry. Some people end up making friends for life, and taking future trips together.
Those are my 10 smart tips for cruising solo. But to me, the most important tip is to do your own thing. One of the best things about cruising solo is that you can do what you want, when you want. So if you want to socialize, great – if you want to sit on your balcony and read a book, that’s fine too.
You’ve paid your fare in full, so do your own thing and have the cruise you want, without worrying about what anyone else thinks. Though you probably still shouldn’t wear your bathrobe and bunny slippers to the buffet …
Photo at top copyright Norwegian Cruise Line