Written by Irene S. Levine for Next Avenue
If you're a boomer considering cruising by yourself — whether because you're single or your spouse can't or won't travel — you may have some anxieties about it. They might run the gamut from wondering if you'll be the only one traveling alone to concerns about making conversation with a table full of strangers each evening (or listening to them).
But there are quite a few reasons why cruising solo may be more appealing, and less expensive, than in the past. Boomers represent more than 50 percent of cruisers overall, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the cruise industry trade organization, and some CLIA members say as many as 10 percent of their passengers are solo travelers.
"We've seen a jump in solo travelers," says Priscilla O'Reilly of Grand Circle Cruise Line, which owns and operates a fleet of 15 small ships and riverboats. "Today, solo travelers represent one out of four passengers on our line, up from one out of five only five years ago."
Predictably, both large cruise ships and riverboats are expanding their efforts to woo this growing market segment.
An important note: Many people confuse solo cruising with themed singles cruises. Solo cruisers optto travel alone and aren't necessarily interested in connecting socially with other single people. "Singles cruises" are organized to connect singles with other unmarried people for romance or friendship.
WHY CRUISING CAN BE IDEAL
Cruising eliminates many of the hassles typically associated with travel, which can be more stressful when you're alone:
Passengers aren't burdened with the logistics of arranging for hotels, excursions and transfers.
Cabins are a "home away from home" for the entire length of the journey; you pack and unpack once.
Cruisers experience the safety and security of being part of a group — with plenty of crew onboard to tend to their needs — but can also spend time alone.
All-inclusive pricing on some lines helps control costs and can add convenience; no reaching for your wallet each time you want a snack or drink.
Chuck Flagg, who owns a Cruise Holidays franchise outside Atlanta, says he sees solo travelers checking destinations off their bucket lists. Cruises can make a travel goal easy. "This ranges from seeing the tulips blossom in Holland, to visiting the Galapagos Islands, to Russian River cruising to setting foot on Antarctica," Flagg says.
A GROWTH IN SINGLE ROOMS
Historically, one of the biggest barriers to solo cruising has been the "singles supplement," a hefty surcharge imposed on single travelers. "The cruise industry, as a rule, bases pricing on two people in a stateroom," Flagg says. The normal supplement is 200 percent of the cruise fare.
But with a growth of single travelers, the industry is changing.
For one, single cabins are becoming more common. Norwegian Cruise Line has been a pioneer in designing cabins for solo cruisers. The modern 100-square-foot studio staterooms with showers are specifically designed for singles; they open to a common lounge area — a virtual living room where passengers can meet for a drink, watch TV or chat.
Earlier this month, Cunard announced it was adding single staterooms with oversized windows on its refurbished Queen Elizabeth. Riverboat cruises, another growing area, also offer single cabins on some ships.
Experts recommend solo cruisers book early. Because the number of single staterooms (on cruise ships and riverboats) is limited, these cabins often sell out quickly.
COMPARISON SHOP ON SINGLE SUPPLEMENTS
If you do book a double cabin, you may relish the extra space. But it comes at a price. Check around, because single supplements vary widely.
"I have seen everything from the supplement being waived in the case of some river cruise lines to ones as low as 150 percent of the per person rate," says Flagg. "Lower rates often appear about 45 days before sailing," he says.
Luxury, all-inclusive Crystal Cruises offers one of the lowest single-supplement rates in the industry, starting from 125 percent to 175 percent, based on stateroom category. A few times a year, Crystal offers even lower, time-limited Solo Traveler Book Now Fares. Norwegian Cruise Lines also offers special rates or reduced supplements from time to time.
On Holland America Line cruises, depending on the itinerary and stateroom category, single guests can book a double stateroom for 150 to 200 percent of the double-occupancy fare.
For 2014, Grand Circle allocated 1,160 cabins for solos, about two-thirds of them on Grand Circle's five most popular destinations. The line charges no single supplement on three 50-passenger ships and offers reduced supplements on other itineraries. Its Solo Travel Challenge guarantees solo travelers the lowest price on any comparable international trip for Americans.
Escorted tour operator Abercrombie & Kent also has a Solo Savings program to court solo travelers on selected departures.
SOCIAL MEDIA FOR SHARING
While sharing a cabin compromises privacy, it allows solo cruisers to take advantage of per person/double occupancy rates. So some lines and travel agents help pair unrelated same-gender adults.
For example, Grand Circle Cruise Line has a free Roommate Matching Service. If the line is unable to find a match on a particular cruise, it places solo travelers in single cabins at no additional cost.
Some travelers take to their own social media outlets to buddy up and reduce costs.
FLEXIBILITY TO BE WITH OTHERS OR BE ALONE
Cruising affords the flexibility of being with others or being alone. On large ships, there's always a quiet lounge or spot on the deck to retreat to with a book. When solo travelers want company, there are opportunities to make new friends with singles and couples, both on the ship and on excursions.
Meals can be ideal opportunities to meet new people. Many cruise ships have moved to "open seating," allowing guests to dine whenever they want, as long as the dining room is open.
On large ships, guests can eat at large tables (with other singles or with mixed groups) or small ones, ask to be seated alone or opt for the solitude of room service.
Crystal Cruises has a Table for Eight program that seats singles together at specialty restaurants.
On riverboats, seating is usually unassigned and the small number of passengers encourages mingling. Solo guests can ask to be seated with other singles or table hop from meal to meal to find kindred spirits. Viking River Cruises even provides "conversation starter" cards at each table to break the ice.
SOME SOCIAL DIRECTION
Small-group excursions also tend to be social. "We train all of our program directors [guides] and ship staff to be on the lookout for solo travelers and to engage them from their first day with us," says O'Reilly of Grand Circle. "We include free time for independent exploration throughout the cruise or tour and our program directors make sure solo travelers have a buddy or group of new friends to go off exploring with [if they want company], or else they, themselves, may accompany solo travelers, if desired."
Many lines host welcome receptions, dinners and other special meet-ups or events for solo cruisers. On some lines, solos don't even have to worry about not having a dance partner. Male dancer/hosts have been on many cruise lines for years, but now Crystal Cruises has introduced female dance partners for single men.
Social media has made solo cruising even more social. "If you want to meet people, join a Cruise Critic Roll Call before you board and you'll start making friends before you sail," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, the Cruise Critic site's editor-in-chief.
Although you're likely to feel comfortable as a solo cruiser, don't be surprised if you cultivate a new friendship or find a travel companion for your next voyage.
ONLINE RESOURCE FOR SOLO CRUISERS
Interested in doing a little research before you go?
The Cruise Critic Community Forum for Solo Travelers allows travelers to share tips and advice, such as which ships to choose, which excursions are best and tips for open seating at dinner.
MAKING A VACATION ALL YOUR OWN
Whether you're planning a family vacation or thinking of doing some traveling alone, there are so many different approaches to planning and preparing for an incredible experience. If you're disabled or planning to travel with someone who may have limited mobility, there are more considerations to think on.
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