Given that we’re living in the Selfie Era, is it any surprise that solo travel is on the rise? I keep hearing more and more about this trend—driven by millennials and women, but increasingly popular overall—and I’m convinced that its impact on the industry is growing.
A few statistics I’ve come across recently: Roughly one in four U.S. travelers plans to travel alone in 2018, according to a study by MMGY. The US Tour Operators Association says that nearly half (46%) of its members reported a growth in solo travelers in 2017 over the year before. And Google searches for the term “how to travel solo” have risen tenfold since 2008, reaching a peak in January 2018.
Solo travelers come in many forms: Some are unmarried, divorced or widowed, while others have partners but choose to travel without them. Many solo travelers are joining a small group trip or cruise, while others are truly going it alone. But what many of them share is a sense of adventure and a quest for self-knowledge.
“Many of our solo clients are looking to do some soul-searching or want to gain new perspective on life,” says Mark Lakin, cofounder of Epic Road, which creates customized, “transformative” trips for high-end travelers. “And they want to do it without the security blanket of a partner or friend—to experience the world without a filter.”
So what’s driving the trend, and how can the industry make the most of it? Here’s what I’ve discovered.
SOLO BECAUSE #YOLO?
Why the recent increase in interest in traveling alone? Janice Waugh, founder of Solo Traveler, an exhaustive online resource dedicated to the segment, thinks that demographics have a lot to do with it: “There are now more single households in the U.S. than ever before, and that number is growing,” she says. “People tend to get married later—and more frequently—and they’re living longer. So there are many periods in a person’s life when they are single.”
Women in particular are interested in solo travel, with numerous surveys pointing to its popularity among female travelers. “As women become more independent as they get older, men become more co-dependent,” says Paula Froelich, a travel journalist whose website A Broad Abroad recounts her solitary escapades. “Women are raised to be caretakers all their lives. So once the kids are grown up, they want to take care of themselves. It’s a really liberating feeling.”
Of course, travel has become more affordable and accessible for everyone. And you can’t ignore the influence of social media. Think of all those selfies in front of bucket-list monuments, for one thing. For another, being active on social media helps boost travelers’ confidence and sense of safety—you’re never really alone when sharing your trip virtually with the folks back home.
“BITTER, PARTY OF ONE!”
Many solo travelers have told me they felt self-conscious or anxious the first time they hit the road alone. Staffers look at them pitifully or assume a woman alone is waiting for her date—or, worse, has been stood up. Good staff training can help put solo travelers at ease instead: For instance, asking if they prefer someone to chat with, or would rather be left alone for a more meditative experience. If the former, offer to pair them up with another solo guest, or see if a staffer is available to show them around.
Indeed, many solo travelers do want to socialize, at least to a certain extent, and a number of tour operators are positioning themselves to capture that market. Overseas Adventure Travel, which says just under half of its guests are solos, sets aside up to 40% of the slots in its land-based trips departures for single travelers and doesn’t charge a single supplement. Nor does it charge extra for singles on pre- and post-trip extensions. Also not charging extra for singles: the small-group tour operator Intrepid Travel, which saw its solo travel bookings grow 24% in 2017 alone and recently introduced a slate of solo-only trips, including Bali, Morocco, and Peru.
And what about people who aren’t interested in group travel? That’s where the sharing economy comes in. Services like Airbnb, EatWith, and Vayable let users join activities or socialize on an à la carte basis. Airbnb has said that in certain cities like Buenos Aires and Toronto, solo travelers represent as much as a quarter of all bookings.
TWICE THE PRICE
The biggest complaint I hear from solo travelers is cost. The single supplement—which can be as much as 100%—happens because most hotels price their rooms based on double occupancy. Most of their single occupants are business travelers, whose employer is probably footing the bill, so there’s little incentive to offer a discount. And tour operators and others who resell hotel rooms usually aren’t willing to absorb the extra cost.
That said, some cruise lines and tour operators have been reducing or even waiving it as a way to attract solo travelers. Why? Many companies see it as a way to drum up demand for departures that are having trouble selling—which is why you’ll often see Abercrombie & Kent, Uniworld, Tauck and others running supplement-free sales. But Waugh postulates that some companies are taking a longer view of a solo traveler’s potential lifetime value. “When a traveler is happy with a company, they become phenomenally loyal—perhaps taking 20 trips over a 15-year period. All of the sudden that looks like a very valuable customer.”
Some cruise lines are getting around the supplement issue by building staterooms designed expressly for solo passengers. Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, offers single-occupancy “Studios” on six of its ships that include access to a special lounge. AMA Waterways has single cabins—with balconies—on four of its river ships; it also invites solo cruisers to a attend a welcome reception and dine at the captain’s table.
So what can companies in the travel industry be doing to better court the solo travel market?
- Emphasize the self-actualization aspects of your offerings, experiences that will provide the perspective shift many solo travelers are looking for.
- Train your staff to be more sensitive to solo travelers and help them feel less self-conscious.
- Provide opportunities for solo clients to socialize with each other—a welcome cocktail party, a group dinner. (But don’t make it seem like a singles mixer.)
- Consider reducing or waiving the single supplement. If you can’t, be sure you clearly explain the value of traveling alone.
- Make rates and other information on solo travel easy to find on your website.
What about you? Have you seen an uptick in solo travel? How is your company responding? Let’s keep the conversation going!