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Solo travel: Going it alone

Traditionally for hippie backpackers or lonely hearts, more of us are finding reasons to pluck up the courage and adventure alone. What type of solo traveller are you?

Solo travel: Going it alone
Rim of Grand Canyon. Image: Getty

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Are you a life-changer setting out on a volunteer break or sabbatical, or a soulful traveller seeking seclusion and solace? Perhaps you’re looking for love, to learn something new or simply to meet people with similar interests? Or, you might be a business traveller looking to tag a bit of free time onto the back of a work trip. Whichever type of solo traveller you are, you’re in good company.

According to research in the ABTA Consumer Survey 2015: Holiday Habits Report, nearly one in six people — or 15% of us — holiday alone. And this is just one of a raft of recent reports that indicate solo travel is no longer a niche pursuit. Last year, travel site 101 Holidays launched a spin-off, 101 Singles Holidays, in response to the increasing number of users enquiring about travelling alone.

There are more of us stepping out solo than ever before. And when we do, we aren’t usually alone for very long. “I was separated and the prospect of no more holidays just didn’t bear thinking about,” says solo travel convert, Bridget Foster. “I plucked up the courage to go on a singles holiday to southern Spain. I was petrified, as I’d never even spent the night alone in a hotel. But I met another single lady and we started travelling together. We’ve had so many amazing trips to Iceland, Norway, Jordan, Egypt, to name a few, which would never have been possible if I hadn’t taken the plunge and booked that first trip.”

Now a member of Thelma & Louise, an online community for women seeking other female travel buddies, Bridget has firmly got the travel bug, solo or otherwise. “I’m going to Alaska and Canada this autumn for a special birthday. Other women tell me I’m really brave, but I’m not at all — travelling opens you up to so many new experiences, countries and cultures.”

Women are the driving force of the current solo travel boom with a TripAdvisor survey of more than 9,000 showing that 74% had either already travelled alone or were planning on travelling solo in 2015, while Pinterest reports that pins focused on female solo travel rose by 350% between 2014 and 2015. Tour operators are increasingly catering to this burgeoning market with everything from women-only ski camps in the Alps, to women’s walking holidays in Japan, or cultural trips in India.

In some cases, solo travel results in more than just finding a compatible travel companion. “I was looking for a new way to meet people who were interested in travel and shared a similar passion for seeing the world,” says Kate Radchenko, who lives in the Ukraine. “I joined TourBar, a dating and travel social networking   platform that aims to match solo travellers from around the world, and as a result of travelling solo, I met my partner Sana. He’s based in London, so we would have never have had the opportunity to meet unless we’d been encouraged to start travelling alone.

“One of the biggest challenges is reassuring friends and family who haven’t travelled alone that it can be a great experience,” she says. “Many people who haven’t tried it themselves are worried about loneliness when you’re by yourself, but in fact, it can be far from lonely because it puts you in situations where you’re encouraged to speak to new people.”

Shared interests

Meeting new and like-minded people, as opposed to seeking out a new partner, is a key motivator for many solo travellers. It gives them a chance to share a hobby or interest that perhaps their partners or friends don’t enjoy, or the chance to learn something completely new.

“In the past, singles have been offered little beyond the escorted tour, which isn’t to everyone’s taste, so they’ve ended up either not travelling or visiting friends and relatives,” says Vanessa Lenssen from learning holidays specialist, GoLearnTo.com. “Almost 70% of our 2015 travellers were solos, an increase over 2014; and 2016 is already seeing a growth
in solo travellers.”

Specialist tour operators across the board, from those offering biking and boating to trekking and skiing, are reporting a boom in the number of solo travellers making bookings. Just under half of One World Trekking’s customers travel solo, for example, while European cycling holidays specialist, Freedom Treks, reports over two-thirds of its tours cater to lone holidaymakers.

“As people become increasingly adventurous with their holiday styles, the idea of travelling with a group of similar travellers appeals even more,” says Freedom Treks’ Saul Follett. “Individual travellers may be apprehensive about being on their own, so we’ve created a collection of solo cycling holidays with the social benefits of cycling as part of a small group; or by boat, too; or a guided itinerary. We also keep single supplements as low as we can, and where possible offer the option to share accommodation or luggage transfers with other travellers.”

Fitness, health and wellness holidays have long attracted solo travellers. The Healthy Holiday Company reports that 65% of its guests travel on their own — a percentage that’s been consistent since its inception — while Health and Fitness Travel has seen a rise in the diversity of travellers choosing to go it alone on its health, yoga and wellness breaks. This element is something more tour operators are working into their holidays in order to attract the ever-growing number of solo travellers.

“Over the years, we’ve seen heightened numbers of single travel statistics from  Google reports,” says Andrew White, president of Quark Expeditions. “Not surprisingly, this mimics our own findings. From 2015 to 2016, the number of solo passengers travelling with us to Antarctica increased by 43%.”

This trend prompted the expedition cruise company to explore new ways of servicing this ever-growing market. Ocean Endeavour — its first health- and wellness-focused vessel — was created with this thriving group of explorers in mind. “We’ve allocated 25 single cabins per voyage, priced for single occupancy, and there’s no single supplement. Plus, we have a ‘share option’ for those preferring to share a cabin with other adventurers,” says White.

If fear has traditionally been the limiting factor when it comes to travelling alone, cost has been the other. The mainstream travel industry bases its books and much of its infrastructure on the idea that most people travel in twos. This Noah’s Ark principle means that a single person will often pay as much for a room as two travellers would.

Cruising has the reputation for being the worst offender, with single travellers sometimes asked to pay more than the cost of a cabin for two, to make up for their expected lack of spend in the bar or on beach excursions.

But this is changing, with canny cruise lines beginning to ease-up on solo passengers. Small-ship cruise line, Voyages of Antiquity, for example, has declared 2016 ‘the year of the solo holiday’, offering no single supplements on a number of its Greek and Greek islands cruises. Meanwhile, tour operators in general, including most of those mentioned above, are either banishing or reducing single supplements, or offering clients the chance to share costs and accommodation with other travellers.

But for some lone travellers, getting away from it all — including other people — and taking a voyage of self-discovery is still the key driving force. “Solo journeying allows the opportunity and the freedom to contemplate and reflect, and enjoy the experience at one’s own pace,” says John Beckett, who travelled with Freedom Trek’s new self-guided Lanzarote tour.

“So much of what we do and the way we communicate in the 21st century is so public. Travelling alone puts this into stark contrast and it can be exciting and energising to be looking at maps, planning your way on your own and then, likewise, enjoying the scenery and views, rather than spending time wedded to a phone or computer screen. It allows you to look up and around at horizons rather than down at a small screen. And it makes you think, ponder and make decisions for yourself — even if many of the logistics have been arranged for you on an organised tour, it’s still a chance to self-explore and self-discover.”

For a different type of traveller, however, journeying solo offers the chance to become immersed in another culture and contribute to a community, with the boom in voluntourism trips largely fuelled by solo travellers.

“Aged 58, I found myself living alone”, says Julie Fox, who travelled with responsible volunteer organisation, People and Places. “I decided I wanted to volunteer, but receive guidance and a local person to liaise with. I liked People and Places’ ethical approach. I’ve volunteered twice, to Nepal, where I stayed in comfortable lodges and worked in local schools helping teachers to learn new skills. The small communities made me so very welcome, and the schools were surrounded by snow-topped mountains.

“With volunteering, you receive far more than you can give,” she adds. The same, it seems, can be said for solo travel. Sometimes less is definitely more.

How to do it: Solo travel matchmaker

1. Learn to…
From photography and painting to courses in dance and scuba diving, you can enjoy dedicated solo departures that incur no single supplements. Some trips are age-specific to ensure compatibility. Try a Learn to Sail week on the Turkish/Greek coast, from £654 per person, excluding flights. golearnto.com

2. Give something back
Try your hand at responsible, ethical volunteer projects in Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean, covering everything from health to conservation. Recent projects include ‘community support’ in Cambodia and ‘education support’ near Kruger National Park. Costs for four weeks in Cambodia are from £1,095 per person. travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk

3. Seek solace and calm
Indulge in soul-soothing yoga and surfing (lessons are with ISA-qualified instructors), while staying in a dreamy cliff-top house in India or Sri Lanka. There’s no single supplement. From £30 per night for a ‘Quite Nice Room’. soulandsurf.com

4. Meet other singles
A seven-night stay at ClubSolos in Crete costs from £575 per person, including flights, transfers, B&B in an apartment for one, three dinners, welcome drink and the services of an accompanying Solos Tour Leader. solosholidays.co.uk

5. Join fellow cyclists
Take a week-long, island-hopping adventure cruise and cycle tour through Croatia, on moderate to challenging rides led by an English-speaking tour guide. Select single cabins are available with no supplement. From £770 per person, excluding flights/transfers and bike hire. freedomtreks.co.uk

6. Additional free time
Are you a business traveller wanting to make the most of a work trip? Once you’re off the expense account, you might want to consider checking into a hostel. There’s a growing number of ‘poshtels’ — affordably priced upscale-style hostels — featuring private en suite rooms and other hotel-style perks for less. yha.org.uk  generatorhostels.com

Published in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)