Fueled by women over 55, solo vacations are becoming increasingly popular

Being widowed has not stopped Cindy Cook from traveling the world on her own.  “I just took my first solo trip for fun,” says the 66-year-old registered nurse from Howell, New Jersey, of her Danube River cruise.  “There were several single women on the ship, so that made it extra fun.”

Cook is part of a trend driven largely by boomer women.  “We are seeing a rise in solo travel,” with 36 percent of consumers in a survey planning to take, at least in part, one trip alone, says Ninan Chacko, CEO of Travel Leaders Group, one of North America’s largest travel companies.  Through an online survey of Americans who said they were interested in solo travel, Expedia found that 60 percent of these traveler’s plan to take a solo trip in the next year. In fact, when given the choice between bringing their mobile phone or a travel companion on their next trip, one-third of these travelers from the same survey said they would choose to go solo with just their device.  

A FAST-GROWING TREND

Over the past five years, “solo travel has been the fastest-growing segment of our business,” says Brian Fitzgerald, chief operating officer of Overseas Adventure Travel.  In 2010 women traveling alone made up 27 percent of bookings for his company, which caters to people over 55; now he puts that figure at 50 percent. “Women over 55, especially, are curious learners and passionate about travel.  They’ve worked their whole lives to travel and don’t want to sit home. They’d rather be on the road and connecting with people.”

The travel company Tauck has also seen a spike in solo travel, especially on its riverboats, says Katharine Bonner, senior vice president for river and small-ship cruising, with 90 percent of the company’s solo riverboat cruisers over 50.  “The baby boomer generation is now empty nesters and recently retired, which is our sweet spot.”

What’s more, she says, “75 percent of our solo travelers are women.  They’re more willing to travel by themselves, and they like to travel more than men.  Some are married, but their husbands don’t like to travel, so they travel without them.  Some are widows who previously traveled with their husbands.”

But solo travel can be pricey.  Surcharges abound, often because a single booking is taking up a room space that otherwise could house two people.  For example, a six-day Danube River cruise in May 2020 with Avalon Waterways starts at $1,929 per person for a couple; a single traveler pays $3,331.  Similarly, a nine-day air-inclusive motor coach tour to San Antonio and New Orleans with Holiday Vacations in April 2020 costs $3,999 per person with double occupancy; that same trip is $4,799 for a solo traveler.

 

THE INDUSTRY RESPONDS

To help singles save on these costs, some tour companies now specialize in solo travel.  Most women who go on a tour by Wild Women Expeditions are traveling solo. Typically, they share a room or cabin with a fellow traveler, but they can usually get a private room for a nominal fee.  The same goes for Exodus Travels, with 66 percent of their customers traveling solo, and Intrepid Travel, with about 50 percent going alone. Overseas Adventure Travel is adding 2,000 more solo slots, with no extra charges for singles.  

Bonnie Mack, a 72-year-old retiree living in Clearwater, Florida, has taken several international solo trips.  “Traveling alone helps you get into a place better and connect with other prople,” she says. “When you’re with a companion, you tend to stay with your companion.”

Mack is a longtime solo traveler and has stories about the benefits:  “When I went to Bali, Indonesia, by myself about 23 years ago, I met a Burmese man walking from my hotel to the market.  We ended up spending the whole afternoon together and had a drink at the hotel afterward. That wouldn’t happen if you’re with a companion.” 

THE JOYS OF ONE

Cook, who considers herself outgoing, also enjoyed making friends on her cruise.  “We hung out and did shore excursions together and have kept in touch,” she says. “If I had traveled with my husband, we probably would have stayed together and not met other people.”

Plus, singles like Cook appreciate being able to relate to their destination on their own terms.  “Since the trip was to explore my heritage in Slovakia, I didn’t want the distraction of having a companion,” she says.

Both Mack and Cook value the sociability, support and safety of traveling with a group or on a cruise.

“Being alone can be intimidating: some women are apprehensive about it,” says Mack.  “On a tour, you’ve got your guide and your nucleus of other people.” For example, when she visited India on a tour, she says: “I ended up connecting with my tour guide and giving him my DVD of 3, which he had always wanted to see.  Everyone else was in couples. I felt I had someone to lean on.  To this day, we’re still communicating.”

Above all, such travel can give a solo traveler a sense of empowerment.  “When I got back from my India trip, I felt I could talk to the world because I had done it by myself,” Mack says.  “That’s the greatest thing.”

(by Veronica Stoddart for AARP Bulletin, December 2019)