Let’s face it: most of the travel industry is set up for people travelling in pairs or groups. But some of us have always travelled alone, and as the baby boomer generation gets older, there will likely be many more solo travellers in the future.
There’s a lot to be said for travelling with a companion: you have someone there to share your experiences, help you find the right train and bring you chicken soup if you get sick. And because the travel industry prices things for two, 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. You can travel when you have the time, without worrying about someone else’s schedule. You can get that one seat left on the plane (it’s often easier to get one seat than two). And you can travel free and easy, without the infighting that sometimes crops up and ruins trips.
Still, there are a few nagging problems that do get in the way when you’re travelling solo. I’ve lived with them for many 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 (see above), it adds a hefty premium to the price of things like package tours and cruises for those who travel solo. The surcharge is typically 50 to 75 per cent, but it can be double.
The solution There are ways to work around this problem, and the first is to book your flight and hotel separately: there are no single supplements on air flights, and hotel prices are more dependent on the 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 to escape the supplement in places like Cuba, where they’re sometimes happy just to fill the rooms. But even hotels and resorts in high-rent locations will sometimes drop the extra charge 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 the past few years I’ve taken 10- and 11-day cruises for just over $100 a day — not as cheap as if I’d shared a cabin on those cruises, but still a great price. Subscribing to travel newsletters is a good way to find these deals.
The last strategy is to look for another solo traveller who wants to split costs with you: for example, some cruise lines, like Holland America, will hook you up with someone of the same sex who wants to share a cabin. There are also organizations like the Connecting solo travel network that offer a forum for solo people looking for travel partners.
Watching the bags
The problem When you’re travelling through airports and train stations, your bags can become a real burden. You have to buy a ticket? Drag your bags along. Have to use the washroom? Drag your bags in with you. Some days you feel 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 rolls along with you (still a hindrance, but minor in relative terms). And of course, it goes in the overhead bin on the airplane.
If you don’t mind standing around the luggage carousel, there’s something to be said for checking in your bag 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.) Alternatively, you can travel first class and pay other people to deal with your baggage. Oh, bellhop?
The problem I live alone, so I don’t mind being by myself. But some people do: they need other people to be their sounding board, to compare notes with and to help them navigate the planet. When you travel alone, there’s no backup if you have a problem. As well, you miss a lot of the fun and camaraderie that comes from being with other people.
The solution Make friends on the road. When you’re alone, you tend to be more open to talking to other travellers. I find that I fall in with other travellers on at least half my trips: on my last one 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.
I meet most of these people on trains or buses, or in the hotels I stay in. But a great way to meet people 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. It’s easy to continue your conversation over dinner, and presto: you have some new friends.
The problem Enjoying the local cuisine is a great part of travel, but dining at nice restaurants can be awkward if you’re alone. I usually avoid eating in classy places if I’m dining alone, opting for middle-of-the-road joints where I can watch the passing scene while I eat.
The solution The obvious solution 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 what they’re doing for dinner, then mention the place you have your eye on. It’s a date! Failing that, you can drop by the restaurant for a drink, if it has a bar, and check it out before you decide to take the plunge. 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’ve had a drink or two.
For dining in less formal places, the common strategy is to bring a book: I find it a good opportunity to read up on the neighbourhood in 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 of them are priced according to the number of people on board – the more people, the cheaper the price. Some tours won’t go without a minimum number of people, and those that do often charge outrageous prices. Want a birding tour for one? That can cost $100 instead of the usual $20 or $30.
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 do your research and find a company that already has a tour going where you want to go, then ask to be added to the group. You might find it on the internet, or by asking around: the local tourist board often has suggestions.
There are other strategies, as well. Try staying at a hotel near the attraction you want to visit, then teaming 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 do the job (you can 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. I’m sure other single travellers have their own strategies, so if that’s you, leave a comment and share them with us. 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 year, such as spring and fall.
Some cruise lines have noted the number of people cruising by themselves and started putting solo cabins on their ships. And the rest of the travel industry is beginning to adapt, with companies moving toward a fairer price structure and waiving the single supplement during shoulder season and slow periods.
But progress is slow, and 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.