The Economics of Today’s Solo Travel

The Economics of Today’s Solo Travel

This Insight started as a rant about the familiar economic inequities of solo travel in a duo world. I suspect it may have begun with an inadvertent click on a stealthy ad, since suddenly splashy photos of sundrenched faraway destinations invaded my screen. Then, beneath the mammoth font that promised prices so enticing one couldn’t possibly justify staying home, the familiar fine print: “pp, based on double occupancy.” This seemingly innocuous “pp” (short for per person) has long been the packaged tour and cruise industries not so subtle reminder that solo travel carries a hefty fine, which can in some cases practically double the advertized price of a trip.

Bhutan-Paro Tigers Nest.

The Taktsang Palphug Monastery, or Tiger’s Nest, in Paro, Western Bhutan, emerges from the clouds.

Like most of us born with the solo travel gene, I seldom have anything to do with packaged tourism brands and their business model of transporting throngs of vacationers to popular destinations around the globe. The resulting swarms of visitors and their pernicious effects on the environment and culture of their host areas are precisely what I aim to avoid in my travels. But that’s a topic for another time. For now let’s go back to the pp practice. In the decades since mass tourism began to gain traction, fueled by the advent of wide body airliners, city-block size cruise ships and massive resort development projects, pp pricing has spread all the way down to targeted small -group tour organizers and local suppliers of tourism-related services. Everybody’s on the single’s tax bandwagon.

Removing the offending ad from “Chéri fait tes valises” (Darling, pack your bags. n.b. it really is the name of a bargain luxury travel broker!) from my screen, I set out to research the current state of single supplements on the tourism industry scene. I expected it to be still firmly entrenched into the Noah principle that leisure travelers are meant to come in pairs. But instead, I discovered that things are looking up for the single tourist!

The New Single Paradigm

Botswana-Okavango Lillies.

Water lilies in the Okavango Delta of Botswana.

Ever more of us are going solo. One of the most comprehensive surveys of travel trends, the Visa Travel Intentions Study commissioned by Visa, has been tracking international leisure travel behaviors for the past decade. The 2015 edition, conducted with over 13,500 adult travelers across 25 countries, is an eye-opener on the profound changes that are reshaping leisure travel. In a nutshell: Some 24 percent of people chose to travel alone on their most recent overseas leisure trip (up from 15 percent in 2013). The jump is even more spectacular among first-time travelers, to 37 percent (more than double from 16 percent in 2013). We now represent a substantial, growing market that travel services suppliers can no longer afford to ignore.

Who Are These New Solo Travelers

Tanzania-Katavi Giraffes.

Giraffes in southern Tanzania’s remote Katavi National Park.

Who we are defies all the old stereotypes of the “single and looking” vacationer. We are a varied lot, just as likely to be married or in an alternate form of committed relationship as to be life-long singles or single again and happy to be. The one thing we do have in common is the desire for a fulfilling travel experience aligned with our diverse personal interests, from genealogy to extreme sports. And most importantly, we are willing to extend considerable time planning our own holiday. Only 46 percent of us are turning to professionals to arrange either a packaged group tour or a personal guided one. Although this has more than doubled (from 21 percent in 2013) it still leaves over half of a sizeable market segment that remains to be wooed by the leisure travel operators who want our business, even as we are gaining the savvy and clout to handle it ourselves.

Yet, single travel doesn’t mean alone. It’s a matter of personal preference and level of comfort how much external assistance we require. I have a friend, a seasoned solo traveler, who is happy to decide on a destination, dates and a handful of things of interest and let her travel planner figure out the rest. “All I want do to is pack and show up,” says she. Personally, I consider research and planning, the more granular the better, part of the excitement of the trip. But, as soon as I venture beyond the mainstream destinations with an established tourism infrastructure, that research includes small-group tour companies and service providers that specialize in my destination and area of interest. And I like that I can now routinely include a “no single supplement” filter to all my searches.

No Single Supplement

Getting close to Alaska's humpback whales.

Getting close to Alaska’s humpback whales.

Fantasy Cruise of Alaska – This is small-group travel at its very best. The Island Spirit and its owner-Captain Jeff Behrens sail the Alexander Archipelago of Southern Alaska from late spring to fall. They introduced me to the world of difference between a conventional cruise  and a sailing adventure and made a believer out of me. Additionally, of the ship’s 17 cabins, two are reserved for singles on each cruise at the per-person occupancy rate. Fantasy Cruise of Alaska, http://www.smallalaskaship.com/index.html. Contact: e-mail Fancruz@rockisland.com, tel. +1 800-234-3861 or + 1 425-765-8879.

Overseas Adventure Travels – An award-winning organizer of small-group tours for mature American travelers to some of the most spectacular destinations on the planet for four decades, Overseas Adventure Travel has long been a leader in solo-friendly travel. They clearly state that there are no single supplements on any of their departures. Overseas Adventure Travel, One Mifflin Place, Suite 400, Cambridge, MA 02138. https://www.oattravel.com Contact: e-mail https://www.oattravel.com/general/contact, tel. 1-800-955-1925.

Solo Vacations – Although new to the U.S. travel market (2015), Solo Vacations is the American offshoot of Solo Holidays, one of the premier solo travel companies in the U.K. (See below). http://www.solosvacations.com, US Contact: tel. 1-800-301-4810.

Thinking Globally

When considering an overseas adventure, I’ve found that it often pays to think globally. For instance, many U.K. companies have a long history of catering to single tourists, among them:

Solo Holidays – One of the oldest and largest small-group travel companies in Britain, Solo Holidays has been catering exclusively to single travelers’ needs since 1982. They offer guided and solo tours and adventures just about anywhere in the world. Their business model includes private accommodations for all travelers. Solo Holidays, 54-56 High Street, Edgeware, HA8 7EJ, U.K. http://www.solosholidays.co.uk Contact: e-mail travel@solos.co.uk, tel: +1 800-301-4810 or in the U.K. + 0844 815 0005.

One Traveller – Also an established company in the mature solo traveler arena, One Traveller offers no single supplement small-group tours throughout Europe as well as Sri Lanka, India and China. One Traveller Ltd, Unit 5-6, Green Way, Swaffham, PE37 7FD, U.K. https://www.onetraveller.co.uk. Contact: e-mail info@onetraveller.co.uk, tel. +44 (0)1760 722 011.

Wild about Africa – A specialist in reasonably priced small-group safaris in southern and eastern Africa, they do quote a single supplement for solo travelers, which can range from nominal to 20 percent or more of the total vacation, depending on the destination country and the type of adventure and accommodations. The single supplement is clearly stated in the price list for each trip. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K. http://www.wildaboutafrica.com. Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, tel. +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0)20 8758 4717 (U.K.)

Busanga Safaris – For another good resource for arranging no or low single supplement small-group safaris throughout Africa since 1999, check out Busanga Safaris Ltd,
6 Reeve Road
 Holyport,
Berkshire 
SL6 2LS, U.K. http://www.busangasafari.co.uk, Contact: e-mail Info@busangasafari.co.uk, tel. +44 (0) 1628 621 685.

Majestic Line – A small-ship cruising company dedicated to sailing voyages around the Islands off the western coast of Scotland (Argyll, the Hebrides and Saint Kilda), the Majestic fleet consists of three ships, each with six en-suite cabins. On each cruise, two cabins are reserved for solo travelers with no single supplements. Their easy-to-navigate website clearly indicates how many solo cabins are still available for each voyage. Majestic Line (Scotland) Ltd,Unit 3 Holy Loch Marina, Sandbank, Dunoon, PA23 8FE, Argyll, U.K. http://www.themajesticline.co.uk. Contact: e-mail info@themajesticline.co.uk, tel. +44(0) 1369 707 951.

A Long Way to Go

The travel industry overall is coming along in the no single supplement area. However, if a big ship cruise is your heart’s desire, there is still a long way to go. All the major ocean and river cruise brands promise it, but it usually translates into a symbolic handful of low-level cabins at prices that are still a far cry for the pp rate. There are frequent news flashes from that corner these days, breathless announcements that a 3,000-passenger ship “now offers 18 dedicated single cabins for solo cruisers.” I am underwhelmed. If you hear of considerable improvements, please let us know.

The perks of being a solo traveler

The perks of being a solo traveler

I am a solo traveler. Not to say that I don’t occasionally enjoy a girlfriends get-away or a romantic escape, but that’s a different kind of travel. Then the main event is the company, with the destination merely a backdrop and any outsider the supporting cast. When it comes to adventure travel, make mine solo please.

It doesn’t mean going it alone. Tourists are everywhere, including the furthest reaches of the planet. Wherever I choose to go, I can be reasonably sure that I will meet someone who has also gone through the effort of getting there, an indication that we will share at least some common ground. And wherever tourists go, there are sure to be locals who within the framework of their culture and resources are prepared to make them welcome.

Bhutanese Buddhist festival dancers

At the Wangdi Festival in Central Bhutan, masked Buddhist dancers perform ancient ritual dances.

Traveling on my own enables me to focus on all that unfolds around me in the moment, without the filter of sharing impressions with companions or having to factor in their needs. It makes it easier for me to connect with the people I met along the way. And they are more likely initiate contact without feeling they are intruding. To them I am the interesting oddity who came all the way from a world that is as foreign to them as theirs is to me.

I was barely in my teens when I had my first taste of solo travel: a two-weeks visit in the family of my German exchange student. I immediately became the center of attention, the visiting Parisian. My friend took me on daily outings around Cologne, to monuments, museums and the hip shopping areas. Her mother showered me with kindness and made sure I tasted all the local specialties, including the seven-layer cake topped with whipped cream at the poshest tearoom it town. Her girlfriends were interested in my clothes, and their brothers were… just interested. Never mind that back home there were entire schools filled with the likes of me, here I was unique. I felt like visiting royalty. Solo travel was definitely the way to go.

Throughout my traveling life, it never failed to deliver unexpected perks. I once struck a conversation on a train from Milan to Venice with a lovely woman who then called my hotel the next day to invite me to tea. Her apartment turned out to be the piano nobile (noble floor) of her ancestral palazzo, at the end of a street that bore her family’s name. An invitation to a Venetian’s home is a rare privilege, to enter a private Palazzo an even rarer one. I would never have had this opportunity had I not been traveling alone.

In Chiang Mai, the historic city in the mountains of Northern Thailand, the manager of my hotel invited me to join her on a visit to the nearby Buddhist temple. She gave me a crash course on the rituals involved that allowed me not only to observe but also to participate in the daily offering of food her property made to the monks.

The most “alone” I’ve ever been on a trip was in Katavi, in the farthest southwest corner of Tanzania, where I happened to be the only visitor at the remote Katavi Wildlife Camp. There were four dedicated staff members eager to anticipate my wishes. The rich floodplain was teaming with game. Alone with my guide in the open-sided land cruiser in the infinite wilderness of the African bush, I experienced my most unique game drives ever. Then the young Oxford-educated British camp-manager joined me for dinner on veranda, and stimulating conversations interspersed with long pauses to contemplate the diamond-studded night sky and listen to the raucous silence of the bush.

In recent years (perhaps an additional perk brought about by gray hair?) I occasionally find myself “adopted” by fellow tourists the age of my own children. They see to it that we are on the same vehicle of game drives or river excursions. They invite me to share their table at meals. Invariably, after a time I always get the same questions. “Do you often travel alone?” Every chance I get. “Aren’t you, afraid?” Not a bit, I meet the nicest people on these journeys… More often than not, one of them will exclaim “I wish my mother would do this!”

For me the treasured memories of solo travels are as many as the trips I took. If you are an occasional or dedicated solo traveler, or if you are just considering it, or not, please share your thoughts.