Travelling on your own can seem a scary prospect – but it can also be the most enriching way to explore. Here’s how to take those first solo steps, says Lyn Hughes
“Recently widowed, I’m dreading my first overseas trip alone. I don’t want to go on a ‘singles holiday’ or go backpacking. What can I do?”
“I want to go to Kyrgyzstan, but none of the companies for solo travellers go there...”
“My partner likes sun and sand but I’m itching to explore Asia. I don’t want to holiday on my own – what do you suggest?”
The Wanderlust office gets enquiries like these all the time. Let’s start by getting a few misconceptions out of the way. If you want to travel with a group, you don’t have to go with a solos holiday specialist. If you’re over retirement age, you don’t have to go with a certain company that specialises in trips for mature holidaymakers (though they do offer some great options). Going independently doesn’t have to involve a particular budget or style of travel. Hostels aren’t just for young people. And going solo doesn’t have to mean going on your own...
Small-group tours, expedition cruises and how to avoid single supplements
Even if you’ve travelled independently in the past, don’t look down your nose at organised trips. You’ll be travelling with like-minded people, and most likely doing things that would have been difficult to arrange as a solo traveller. You can usually avoid any single supplements by sharing with someone of the same sex too.
There are plenty of organised options to suit all travellers. Here are some of the types of trips to consider:
Most of the companies that advertise in the pages of Wanderlust magazine run small-group tours, generally of between eight to 16 travellers plus guides and/or tour leaders. These trips range from cultural jaunts around the Middle East to gentle saunters through Tuscany, treks up Mount Kilimanjaro and expeditions along the Silk Road.
Tour operator Explore says that its groups are generally made up of 50% solo travellers, 50% couples/companions: “Our UK and Europe tours are popular with first-time solo travellers who want to ‘test the water’ before joining a longer adventure, while our recent introduction of budget trips has proved popular with solos too – it may be that they offer a more cost-effective option for people who have never travelled alone before.”
Active holidays such as trekking, mountain biking or kayaking always seem to attract a high ratio of people travelling on their own. Georgina Hancock of Discover the World says that the company’s husky-sledding trips are particularly popular with single travellers: “They get their own team of dogs and learn to mush. There’s a real sense of achievement and shared camaraderie. People make friends for life.”
Exodus also finds its active trips attract a high proportion of lone travellers; its Everest Base Camp and Lycian Activity Week are particularly popular.
We’re not just talking huge gin-palace vessels with nightly cabaret and multiple restaurants. There are many water-borne options, including expedition cruises and specialist cruises; some of these ships carry fewer than 100 passengers, for a more intimate experience. According to Exodus, 35% of travellers on its polar boat trips are journeying alone.
On Exodus’s cruises you can sit where you want at mealtimes, meaning you can meet new people all the time. However, some ships allocate a seat to each passenger: check before you book. If the ship has allocated seating, find out how many solo travellers will be on board and whether you’re likely to be seated together.
Wildlife-watching trips can be another great option for solo travellers. Days are spent in small vehicles (or on foot) looking for wildlife, resulting in plenty of shared experiences and jaw-dropping moments to discuss over evening sundowners. Smaller lodges and camps typically have communal seating for meals. Check this in advance.
Do try to get a feel for whether the camps you are interested in are popular with honeymooning couples – you may want to avoid lodges that are overly romantic.
Language courses, yoga holidays, cookery, art, photography: there’s an increasingly wide choice of learning trips, and the majority of other participants will be alone.
Specialist Go Learn To says that 80% of its clients travel solo: “The holidays offer a way to travel with like-minded people but with complete independence as well – our clients don’t feel obliged to ‘hang out’ with the group at all times unless they want to.”
Similarly with Wanderlust Journeys, our own photography and travel-writing weekends: nearly every participant comes on their own.
These multi-week (or even multi-month) journeys in large trucks typically attract lone rangers. They appeal to travellers with a thirst for adventure, an open mind and an ability to get on well with others – even when living in close confines, 24/7. As they are often lengthy expeditions, overland trips suit solos who – having only their own work and time commitments to worry about – can be more flexible.
However, even solos with limited time can overland: you can often join a trip for just a short leg of the full journey. For example, a truck’s entire route might be Tangier to Cape Town (a six-month monster) but you could join the group for a two week expedition in East Africa. One thing is certain: do a trip like this and you’ll likely make friends for life.
If you don’t want to join a group of other people, many tour companies can tailor a bespoke trip for you, including your own guide and/or driver if appropriate. With no one else to consider, and no set itinerary to stick to, you can create the trip of your dreams. You are tapping into the tour company’s expertise and contacts, and have safety and security, but also as much privacy as you want.
As well as the small-group adventure trip operators, there are companies that specialise in tours for single travellers. On these, 100% of the group will be solos; trips range from group stays at beach resorts to more intrepid exploits.
For example, specialists Solos Holidays offers everything from sun-and-sand weeks in Cyprus to expedition cruises and hikes in the Nepalese Himalaya. Trips are open to anyone travelling alone, whether they’re single or with a partner who is unable to travel. On most trips, singles get their own double/twin room. Other solo-travel specialists include Just You, Friendship Travel and Travel One.
Is there a charity or good cause that you would like to support? Combine fundraising with a fun trip on a charity trek or cycle ride. A range of specialists (eg discoveradventure.com) offer trips such as climbing Kilimanjaro, trekking to Everest Basecamp or cycling the Great Wall of China; all attract lots of solos.
Volunteering can be a life-changing and incredibly fulfilling experience. It comes in many guises, from assisting scientists on a conservation project (earthwatch.org) to two-year VSO projects (vso.org.uk), where you use your skills to help a community. See Wanderlust's Volunteer and Conservation travel guide for more trip ideas, advice and information.
An increasing number of companies – including solo-travel specialists – have departures aimed specifically at lone travellers, which may not carry a single supplement. However, this doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily the cheapest options. Do your research before booking.
There are other ways to avoid solo supplements though. You could share with a fellow traveller (of the same sex) – many tour companies offer this option when you book. Also, consider travelling out of season or when a destination is suffering a big drop in tourism.
Finally, ask! You may be able to negotiate not paying a supplement – if you don’t ask you don’t get!
“Identify why you are a lone traveller. There’s nothing more frustrating than being ‘adopted’ by other people when you want to be on your own.” Howellsey
“See the prospect of finding friends as an added bonus, rather than the objective of the trip. If you’re keen to hook up with people, stay in homestays or B&Bs. There’s often one big table for communal eating – a natural place to start a conversation.” Liz Cleere
“Join Triptrotting. It’s the same principle as Couchsurfing but the focus is on meeting locals as a guide or as a coffee companion – it’s purely social.” VikkiRed
“Pre-booking a few activities before you arrive can be reassuring – it guarantees meeting people, even if only for the duration of the tour.” miralhett
“I always make small talk with people I come into contact with – often that leads to something. If it doesn’t, fair enough – I like my own company!” Julia69
+ Meeting more people
+ Being open to more experiences
+ Being able to do as you please – not having to compromise
+ Being easier to accommodate – squeezing onto full buses or into busy restaurants
– Being considered a sex tourist – both men and women
– Safety and security issues
– Evenings alone – eating out or having a drink
– Homesickness/feeling low