Traveling solo

By Donna Tunney

The dreaded single supplement has long been an albatross around a solo traveler's neck, but an increasing number of land and cruise suppliers are coming around to the notion that a customer vacationing alone deserves a fair shake.

To be sure, these suppliers are the exception rather than the rule, as the majority of providers continue to charge a 100% supplement fee, and sometimes more, so that an individual traveler is paying at least the equivalent of two cruise fares or two tour rates.

Solo clients can be a tough sales pitch for retailers. Aside from the single supplement cost, there often are concerns about safety and about feeling like a fifth wheel.

"The single supplement is a big obstacle. Nobody wants to get soaked," said Marie O'Brien, an agent with Acendas in Mission, Kan. "But it isn't only the cost. A lot of would-be solo travelers are older women who have the money, but they're afraid something could go wrong, like missing a flight and becoming stranded somewhere, or becoming ill on a trip, and they'd be all alone."

Even with the obvious drawbacks, the volume of solo travelers is considerable. They account for 11% of all U.S. adult leisure travelers, and they take 4.3 trips each year, according to data from the U.S. Travel Association.

In recent years, several prestigious travel suppliers who cater to upmarket clients have embraced the potential revenue from solo travelers by revamping their policies to include low or waived single supplements on a wide range of vacation products.

Strategies unfold

Luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent is one of them. It decided to realign its policies three years ago with an eye toward actively courting the solo-traveler market. A collaboration among the company's executives and ground suppliers resulted in its Solo Savings program, where single supplements are either waived or reduced by as much as 75% on dozens of departures.

Since the program launched in 2011, the company's solo customer bookings have spiked by 27%.

"We did a careful analysis of what solos are looking for," said Bob Simpson, A&K's vice president of operations and small ships. "The goal was not necessarily to create a separate product line but rather to present a value for people traveling alone, because they tend to be penalized with single supplements. So we targeted specific programs where we could eliminate the supplement."

A&K attracts an upscale, professional crowd, which makes them an attractive market.

"Our solo travelers tend to be an older demographic, many of them retired with expendable income, and 70% are female," Simpson said.

The company, aware that safety and security are important issues for solo travelers, particularly mature women, takes steps to reassure prospective clients.

On its website's Solo Traveler page, for example, A&K uses marketing phrases such as "Travel on your own -- but never alone," and "Your tour director is both a guide and a companion."

Grand Circle Travel is another example of an operator that offers a wide range of departures with no single supplement. Its sister company Overseas Adventure Travel waives single supplements on all land and small-ship vacations and on trip extensions.

Traveling SoloBoth firms feature the Solo Traveler Challenge, which promises that if a customer finds a lower solo price on any comparable international trip they will match that price and then deduct $500.

While these supplier examples cater mostly to an older clientele, the solo travel market includes younger people, too.

Contiki, the tour operator for customers 18 to 35, has a growing share of independent travelers. President Melissa da Silva said that 46% of Contiki's guests last year traveled solo, and of those, 63% were females.

"We have found ourselves to be a great option for that solo young woman traveling abroad, because we provide a sense of security," da Silva said.

The numbers are higher for certain destinations, such as Asia and Latin America, where Contiki's solo guests account for 55% and 58%, respectively, of all customers.

Contiki's single supplement is relatively low compared with most operators. It varies by tour but averages about 25% of the double-occupancy land cost, da Silva said.

Contiki offers to pair up same-sex roommates on all itineraries, and for those who agree to share a room, the single supplement isn't an issue. Several operators provide this option, which likely appeals more to younger clients than to older ones.

Old and new ideas

Norwegian Cruise Line is the pioneer in bringing single-passenger studio cabins to mainstream lines. Accommodations for 128 solo guests debuted on the 4,000-passenger Norwegian Epic in 2010, and the studio accommodations will also be featured on the Norwegian Breakaway, set to debut this month, and the Norwegian Getaway, entering service next year.

In 2011, Royal Caribbean International said it would install three cabins for solo travelers on the 2,112-passenger Radiance of the Seas. Royal is expanding its single-passenger options aboard the 4,180-passenger Quantum of the Seas, which will enter service next year with 28 studio cabins that will be sold without a single supplement.

"There's been a fair amount of interest in that recently," Adam Goldstein, line president, said during a recent press conference.

But while Norwegian and Royal have taken these steps to attract solo guests, the single-supplement policy persists in double-occupancy staterooms.

Norwegian Epic's studio rates vary by departure, but they are less than what a 100% single supplement would add to a double cabin. A seven-day Aug. 24 cruise from Barcelona, for example, would cost $1,099 in a studio, while an inside cabin costs $899, per person, double occupancy, according to website pricing. The single supplement on that inside cabin would bring the cruise fare for a solo occupant to $1,798, or roughly $700 more than the studio stateroom.

"The cruise industry operates under a very different business model than say, your regular hotel and resort, which may usually have unoccupied rooms and do not offer inclusives beyond bath amenities and in-room coffee," said Harry Liu, manager of global brand communications for Royal Caribbean International and Azamara Club Cruises.

Crystal Cruises has male dance hosts for ladies traveling solo."Because food, entertainment and other amenities are standard inclusives across the cruise industry, our industry's pricing structure is based on at least two paying guests per stateroom," Liu said. In the case of Royal, he added, it would mean that one guest in one double cabin would pay the price of two guests, a 100% supplement.

Tavia Robb, public relations manager for Celebrity Cruises, said, "Celebrity doesn't really offer any substantial single supplement program. If a cruise fare is $1,200 per person [double], for example, and someone sails alone, she or he would pay $2,400."

Come one, come all

In the wider cruise market, it's the river ship companies and the luxury brands that are most solo-traveler-friendly. Several river cruise companies, including Uniworld, AmaWaterways and Avalon Waterways, waive supplements on many cruises, and luxury lines such as Silversea Cruises and Crystal Cruises reach out to solo guests with low fees. (Read related story, "On AmaCerto, one not such a lonely number.")  

Silversea typically offers select sailings with a 10% single supplement, and Crystal this year added a dozen itineraries with a 10% supplement, offering 26 cruises with reduced single fares.

Jack Anderson, Crystal's senior vice president of marketing and sales, explained that "because we're a luxury brand, we do not plan to operate at 100% berth occupancy. We budget to operate at a 96% or 97% stateroom occupancy, and that gives us the flexibility to accommodate 50 to 60 singles per sailing. So it's part of our business plan that we want singles, and we will price attractively for singles."

Crystal accommodates singles in other ways.

"A lot of our onboard activities are designed to be considerate of solos, Anderson said. "We have the 'Table of Eight,' for example, in our alternative restaurants Silk Road and Prego, where solo travelers can dine with other solos. And we have dance hosts on every cruise.

Besides, Anderson said, the solo market is only going to grow.

"We believe the number of people healthy, wealthy and able to travel is increasing, and it's a demographic opportunity," he said. "My prediction is that [the solo market] will be strong and viable, and it will increase."

He said that would be particularly true as the 79-million-strong baby boomer generation retires during the next 20 years. Presumably, some percentage of them will travel alone as widows or widowers, or as divorcees.

"We want to be out in front with the solo market and capitalize on it," he said. "But we have to be careful not to stereotype solo travelers. Many are married and choose not to travel as a couple: He wanted to go to a golf resort, and she wanted to go to Asia."

Anderson said the line decided about a year ago, when it still had a 25% single supplement, that it would offer a lower supplement of 10% on a capacity-controlled basis.

"We designated those sailings based on the diversity of itinerary, the time of year, etc., so that our guests would have a wide menu to choose from," he said. "If we reach certain numbers that conflict with reaching budget goals, then the 10% would have to go away, and we'd go back to 25%."

 

Quick take: Solo-friendly examples

International Expeditions has removed the single supplement from a limited number of cabins on every Amazon and Galapagos departure this year. (www.ietravel.com)

 
Boundless Journeys waives or reduces by at least 50% the single supplement for the first two singles booked on most of its small-group tours. The operator specializes in cultural and soft-adventure trips. (www.boundlessjourneys.com)

 
AmaWaterways is waiving single supplements on more than a dozen river cruises in Europe and Asia this summer and fall. (www.amawaterways.com)

 
Grand Circle Travel's Solo Traveler Challenge promises that if a customer finds a lower solo price on any comparable international trip, it will match the price and deduct $500 from the cost. (www.gct.com)

 
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection lists two dozen cruises this year with no single supplement. (www.uniworld.com)

 
Abercrombie & Kent waives or reduces single supplements on a variety of itineraries and cruises. (www.abercrombiekent.com)

 
Avalon Waterways charges no single supplement on about 50 Europe cruises in 2013. (www.avalonwaterways.com)

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