|A solo traveler in the Serengeti seems to have the vast expanse of East African plains all to herself.|
There are plenty of reasons why one would want to travel alone. Sometimes a frequent travel partner isn’t available. Other times people simply crave quiet and solitude. For these and many other reasons, solo travel has become a growing niche over the past few years, and agents, tour operators and cruise lines are adjusting the way they do business in order to accommodate the new trend and the new travelers.
Last year, tour operator Abercrombie & Kent launched a dedicated solo travel division that waived or greatly reduced supplements and fees for solo travelers, and saw a 26 percent increase in this niche for the last three quarters of the year. Bob Simpson, A&K’s vice president of product planning and business development, feels that this bump contributed significantly to the company’s overall profits for the year. A full 11 percent of its overall client base is now people traveling alone. Simpson estimates that 50 percent of the company’s solo travelers are not part of the single travel program, but sign up for a regular excursion.
Who Is Traveling?
Of course, identifying the “solo traveler” can be a challenge. A group of girlfriends who spend most of their trip together but who want their own rooms can count as singles for the hotel or ship where they will be staying, but might not consider themselves solo travelers. Or a grandfather may take his grandkids on a trip, and while he would count as part of the family travel market, he would also count as solo if he wants a private room. There are just as many types of solo travelers as there are families and couples—and the market is rising.
|A traveler going it alone in Rajasthan, India, enjoys a panoramic view of Udaipur from an alcove in the City Palace.|
Mindy Vanderhoof, a travel consultant with Austin-Lehman Adventures, says that she has noted more widows traveling together or with female friends who sign up individually, but travel with someone else. “The increase in solo travel is basically female,” she says. Likewise, A&K’s Simpson says that 70 percent of his company’s solo travelers are female.
Linda Tatten, president of Travel by Tatten, specializes in women’s travel, and has also noticed an increase in women venturing off on their own. “For solo travel, there’s no set age,” she says. “She could be 30 or 70. There’s not just one type.” She does note, however, that people who originally got a taste for traveling with a partner are more likely to continue traveling without a companion—for example, widows or divorcees.
Steve Born, director of marketing for the Globus family of brands, estimates that roughly 20 percent of the brands’ client base is traveling solo, and as high as 40 percent of singles traveling with other singles. He notes that more and more travel marketing is directed toward what he calls “noncouple” occasions. “We’re more aware and more sensitive that there’s a broader world,” he says. As for what solo travelers want, Born has found that there is as great a variety in single travel as there is with couples and families. “Cultural experiences are very popular with groups of women together,” he says. “They don’t want to just sit on a beach and sip drinks and gossip. Don’t think of girlfriend getaways as a beach stereotype. Women are very engaged in cultural experiences, and they’re looking for an easy way to put it all together.”
On the other hand, Maya Northen, president of Chimera Travel, says that the solo travel she books (primarily FITs) is divided equally by gender, and that the travelers are generally between the ages of 40 and 55. “I also see a lot of younger people [in their] early- to mid-20s traveling solo; maybe taking time after college or quitting their jobs to take time to travel,” she adds. “It’s growing because of the demographics of the population. People are getting married later, getting divorced, or not getting married at all and they’re not waiting to travel until they have someone to do it with. In addition, I think some people just really prefer to travel solo. It allows them to experience a destination and/or activity solely in the way they’d like to, or they feel it’s more adventurous to go on their own. Finally, I think some people truly travel to meet others around the world, and perhaps they feel it’s easier to do this when they’re traveling solo.”
How to Sell Solo
|This lone traveler has plenty of company on Antarctica’s South Georgia Island.|
As with any trip, the key to selling single travel is selling the destination. If the only factor blocking a booking is a fear of flying solo, let the clients know that they would not be the first to do it, and that they can have a perfectly fulfilling experience on their own. “People don’t realize the option exists,” Tatten says. “People are surprised that they can do [this kind of trip]. The solo travelers that I have booked are not looking for a specific type of company to travel with, but a place to travel to.”
The most recent solo trip she organized, she recalls, was for a woman who wanted to see Europe, and went on a Globus tour so that she could have other people around her while maintaining her independence. Whether the traveler is part of a couple, a family or single, Tatten says, the first thought is always “I want to go here. How can I do it?”
When organizing single FITs, Northen says she finds solo travelers have many more questions than the accompanied traveler, especially when going to the countries where English is not the main language. “They want to make sure they have absolutely every possible ‘I’ dotted and ‘T’ crossed before they leave,” she says. “Also, they don’t have a travel partner to discuss their questions/concerns with [who knows all of the trip details], so they tend to really use me as their sounding board.” Another challenge in booking single FITs is that local operators for tours and excursions at the destination may have a minimum requirement for a guaranteed departure, so be sure to confirm that they will take your client even if no one else signs up.
A major hurdle facing solo travelers—and their agents—is the dreaded single supplement, which can increase the cost of a trip significantly—sometimes by 100 percent or even more. Several tour operators and cruise lines have taken steps in recent years to get around this extra fee, from offering trips with low or no fees to matching up roommates.
Austin-Lehman’s single supplement is taken at the time of booking before they know what the full makeup of the trip will be. If the traveler agrees to be assigned a roommate, the company waives 50 percent of fee whether they can find a roommate or not. They then search through other singles on the trip by gender and age range and let each traveler approve the match before it’s set in stone. Once roommates have been arranged, the fee is waived.
In the Globus family, Cosmos also has a roommate program, and offers special promotions to waive single supplements. Twenty-two of Avalon’s 2012 departures will not have supplements, which can range from about $200 to $550, depending on the length of the trip and hotel accommodations. Promotions like these, Born notes, always draw a good number of solo travelers.
|One of the 128 special cabins created just for solo cruisers onboard the Norwegian Epic.|
Abercrombie & Kent has more than 35 trips designed for this client niche to places such as Egypt, Turkey, Kenya and Tanzania, and offers what they term “Solo Savings” on select programs and departures. These trips have no or greatly reduced single supplements. (A full 75 percent of A&K’s Extreme Adventures charge single supplements that are 15 percent or less of the double rate.) A&K’s regular escorted programs can also take solo travelers, and the single supplements are generally less than 15 percent of the total trip price. In addition, many European canal and river barges, as well as the Galapagos adventure cruiser MV Eclipse, have single stateroom options. On Le Boreal in Antarctica, single supplements are 30 percent of the double rate.
Of course, tour operators can also work on a case-by-case basis to reduce single supplements. “Especially with a returning guest, if someone is worried about fees, we can see what we can do,” says Austin-Lehman’s Vanderhoof. “We can try to see if we can get it down. Just ask. You’ll never get anything if you don’t ask.”
Anywhere from five percent to 20 percent of Crystal Cruises’ business is go-it-alone voyagers, and the line has taken steps to increase its appeal for the market. Seating is assigned in the main dining room, guaranteeing that guests will never have to sit by themselves, and the private restaurants have dedicated tables for singles to mingle. To encourage solo bookings, the single supplement on Crystal cruises is 25 percent of the full fare—significantly lower than other companies, which can charge 100 percent of a second fare or beyond.
The line also has a perk for solo female travelers who want a dance (or dinner) partner on their cruise: The Ambassador Host Program keeps between four and six men (more for Big Band or Around-the-World cruises) onboard to accompany women to social functions and shore excursions. Nice Touch: The gentlemen are generally mature (48 and up) and are all trained in at least nine different dances (think swing, tango, foxtrot, etc.).
Norwegian Cruise Line has gone the extra mile in catering to solo travelers by creating 128 special cabins just for singles on the Norwegian Epic, which can be booked for no supplement. The admittedly small “studios” (as they’re called) can be found on two decks, and let guests have access to a space called the Studio Lounge (formerly known as the Living Room), a communal area with a bar, coffee, tables and chairs for socializing, and a public board for reaching out to other singles. (The board makes it easy to find companions for meals, activities or shore excursions.) The studios regularly sell out, and have proven so successful that the upcoming Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway will also have 59 Studios each.