When Mona Rangar, sitting at the desk at which she’d spent most of her 30s, began idly searching the web, she didn’t realise she was part of an emerging demographic. She just wanted a holiday, and was running out of people to go with. As she edged towards her 40s, memories were fading of an interrailing trip with an old boyfriend and of the time she gatecrashed her sister’s US road trip.
“Literally from those two trips in my early 20s all the way through to my late 30s — oh my God, this is so sad — I was just focusing on my career,” Rangar, now 40, says from Sydney, where she’s been living since moving there from London last January. She grew up in Durham, North East England, and became a recruitment manager after studying law. “Then all my best mates got married and had kids. I found myself in the minority. I was single and really wanted to travel, but with other people.”
It’s a predicament a growing number of travellers find themselves in; thinking they’re alone but increasingly discovering they aren’t. Professionals in their 30s or 40s — probably single, perhaps divorced — they’re successful in their careers and have money to burn, but neither the time nor the inclination to plan a solo adventure. Too old and liver-conscious to embark on an 18-30s trip to the Balearics, but too young to embrace the umbrella-following culture tours that dominate the over-50s market, they seek something in between.
“I’d been on a few family holidays but I really wanted to connect with other people who haven’t settled down, but want to explore the world and have the money to spend on adventures and nice hotels,” Rangar explains. “You’ve got that money because you’ve worked your arse off, but you don’t want to sit in a hotel with your parents and nephews again. You want to go exploring and come back to a nice spa and have a drink with people in the same boat.”
The cultural and familial expectations of marriage and parenthood — a background hum for most singletons of her age — were louder in Rangar’s family. Her parents are both doctors who came to England from northern India in the 1970s. “It wasn’t a strict family background but that cultural pressure to meet somebody and settle down started for me when I was about 22,” she says. Online dating had brought only sporadic success and a holiday would be a way to escape that pressure, too.
Rangar’s search, in 2015, led her to a new travel company for people just like her. Flash Pack, launched in 2014, is the brainchild of a married couple in their mid-30s who met online and identified a gap in the market. Between them — Lee Thompson, a photojournalist, and Radha Vyas, a business consultant — have visited more than 100 countries, frequently alone. “I once had to beg a married friend to come to Thailand with me, but it’s not easy and I think a lot of people our age haven’t seen group travel as an option,” Thompson says.
The couple found plenty of companies set up to offer group travel to individuals, but nothing that felt like it spoke to them. To test the water, they posted on Meetup.com, inviting people in their 30s and 40s to talk about travel at a bar in central London. Unsure if anyone would show up, they were delighted when dozens did. “We started to get traction early on and it was also clear that our idea had global appeal,” explains Thompson.
By the end of this year, Flash Pack will have taken about 2,500 solo travellers from 14 countries abroad. About 80% of them are single, and 90% join groups as individuals. It’s clear from the company’s website that Flash Pack is trying to challenge the stereotype of group travel, be it frazzled 19-year-old reps in Magaluf or besandaled greybeards in yet another medieval cathedral. “Forget your average holiday to the Costa del Dull. Your trips with Flash Pack will be a fully immersive travelling experience — served with a side of luxury,” it reads.
When I spoke to Thompson in August, trips to stalwart destinations such as Peru and Southeast Asia were selling well, alongside glamping in Slovenia and a Vespa tour of central Spain. Rangar went for the company’s most popular tour, a two-week trip to Cambodia and Vietnam that now costs from £2,229, excluding flights. Obligatory stops come with a twist; the boat tour of Halong Bay in Vietnam includes ‘kayaking and karaoke’, and there’s a cookery class in Hoi An.
Demand for solo travel, be it in groups or truly independent, reflects the age of the individual in which we find ourselves. Government statistics for England and Wales show that the number of people living alone rose from 23% in 2002 to 26% in 2016. In London, almost a third of homes are now occupied by just one person, while in New York and Paris that proportion is more than half. Restaurants are welcoming more solo diners. In 2014, a restaurant opened in Amsterdam, Eenmaal, with only tables for one, partly to fuel a growing conversation about eating alone.
Travel companies are also waking up to this growing appetite. Airbnb has noticed a rise in home-alone bookings, which now count for up to 27% of stays in some cities. The Association of British Travel Agents’ annual survey found that 13% of holidaymakers in 2016 travelled alone, up from 10% in 2013. While those most likely to travel solo are over 55, of the age groups below that, those aged 35-44 were the most likely to go solo. When asked why, older travellers chose ‘travelling to a new destination’ as the main reason. For Rangar’s generation, the biggest motivation was the ‘opportunity to be able to do what I want’.
“The world is so fast-paced now,” says Tom Marchant, 37, co-founder of Black Tomato, a British adventure travel company with a large young clientele. “When people look for time out now it’s often for themselves, to disconnect not just from work but their whole social environment. They’re thinking, ‘I want that magical week alone and I almost want to be a little bit selfish’. We’re talking about people who have achieved a level of independence and means, and have the confidence that comes with age.”
Black Tomato isn’t a solo specialist but is thinking about lone travellers a lot more than it used to. “Trips you’d associate with family or groups of friends are now attracting solo travellers,” Marchant says. “That might be a solo walking safari in Southern Africa or an immersive culinary weekend in Copenhagen. Now when we develop products, we ask, ‘does it work for solo travel?’”
As well as displaying a selfish streak, travellers in this age group no longer seem to feel the stigma that once beset the lonely holidaymaker. “We used to send out our brochures in opaque envelopes,” says Andrew Williams, boss of Solos Holidays, which has been around for 35 years. “We couldn’t put branding on our luggage labels either, because customers didn’t want to be identified as single travellers. Now that’s changed; travelling alone is a lifestyle statement.”
Sian Jones travelled on her own to India as a divorcee in her early 40s when her friend stood her up at the airport. “This was before Sex and the City and Bridget Jones and it was like, ‘poor you, haven’t you got a friend?’” Jones, who is from Wales, recalls 20 years later. A midwife by trade, she had such a good time anyway that she launched Solitair Holidays in 1999, another major player in the solo travel market.
“People no longer tend to feel sorry for you,” says Emma Long, a 45-year-old property manager and writer from Birmingham. “Now it’s more like, ‘good for you, I wish I could do the same!’” Long is single but has made some of her best friends on trips with Solos, to the Greek Islands, Malta, Turkey, the Algarve and Spain. She says romance has blossomed for other travellers, but that nobody sets out to find it. “That’s also changed,” Williams says. “10 years ago our strapline was ‘holidays for the single, unattached traveller’. We’ve dropped the ‘unattached’ because we know a lot of couples who can’t travel together.”
Similarly, Flash Pack doesn’t advertise itself as a dating service abroad, and says there’s a growing niche within the new market of people on gardening leave or a sabbatical who might not be single. In the era of online dating and swiping right, people don’t need to go abroad to meet other people. “I don’t know of anyone really hooking up on my trips,” says Rangar, who’s now been on several Flash Pack holidays.
Flash Pack differs from most solo travel companies in two ways. The vast majority of its customers are happy to share a room, which is one way around what remains the scourge of the solo traveller: the single supplement. For Jones at Solitair, whose customers are older and generally want their own rooms, reducing the cost of travelling alone requires constant negotiation. “I try to persuade hoteliers that these people tend to spend a lot more in the hotel because they’re frequently in the bar and restaurant,” she says.
Flash Pack also stands alone in defining a fairly narrow age range. It suits customers like Rangar, but some companies and travellers prefer a broader approach. “An older dimension can give a different perspective on a place or its history,” says Jonny Bealby, founder and managing director of adventure travel specialists, Wild Frontiers. “When you’re sitting around a dinner table every evening for 14 nights, that’s a positive not a negative.” Bealby, who started the business in 2002, has noticed the growing demand. He recently took a trip to Pakistan where all but one customer was aged 35-50. Of the 60% of his customers who choose to travel in groups, most are solo travellers.
For Rangar, solo group travel has been a revelation. She made friends for life and marvelled at new sites and horizons. “It wasn’t only the most amazing trip from a destination perspective, but it was also kind of what I needed personally,” she says. “Meeting new people away from the drudgery of my career and finding out that there were other travellers in the same position as me, enjoying life and not having this label put on them. It just made me feel normal again.”
Five ways to travel solo
Hostels remain a good bet for the solo backpacker on a budget. Increasingly, they’re much improved, often featuring chic interiors and hi-tech facilities.
A few operators cater solely to the solo traveller. Solos Holidays and Solitair are two of the most established firms, but ask about the age range if
Solo bookings now make up more than a quarter of the site’s stays in some cities, while Airbnb Trips makes it easier to plan adventures like cooking classes and comedy nights.
Cold economics traditionally sunk the ambitions of solo travellers with single supplements, but cruise lines are now laying on more single cabins and activities for individuals.
Group adventure travel helps remove the burden of planning and the risk of roaming solo. Wild Frontiers and Black Tomato have trips to remotest Pakistan and beyond.
Published in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)