Are we on the cusp of a revolution in solo travel, with more solo travellers than ever before? How is the travel industry responding to this growing demand? What has changed; are travellers becoming more confident and eager to take the plunge in solo travel, or is this increase representative of a greater choice of more options and more capacity? Are the barriers to solo travel the same, and what steps is the travel industry taking to remove obstacles? - Select Travel Holidays' Amy Wright investigates solo travel...
‘If I don’t make the choice to travel, there is no one there to do it for me, and I know my travel agent at Select Travel Holidays will put a good package together.’ One of our most intrepid clients, Anne, encapsulates the proactive spirit many solo travellers have; when there’s an appetite to explore the world, why not just take the plunge and go yourself? Anne’s sentiment reflects a famous quote by the author and poet Henry David Thoreau, who mused that ‘the man who goes alone can start today, but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready,’ and Anne is certainly not alone in striking out on solo travel. ABTA’s annual ‘Holiday Habits’ report in October 2018 found that over one in six people (15%) had gone on holiday by themselves in the previous 12 months, which was an increase from the 12% who took a solo holiday in 2017. Other figures have confirmed that solo travel is certainly on the rise; ABTA’s 2017 findings were double the number compared to the six years prior to that, and in the three years between 2015 and 2018, research from Hitwise – the largest online behavioural research tool in the UK – found that searches for solo travel increased by 143 per cent, based on analysis of searches made by 3 million consumers in the UK. Furthermore, this upwards trend is looking to continue with solo travel specialist tour operator Just You predicting that the solo travel market will ‘grow four-fold in the next 4-5 years’.
Who are these solo travellers that are accounting for ever growing numbers? The largest increase from 2017 to 2018 in solo travellers could be found in the 35-44 year-old age-group, which saw an increase of 11% from 5% to 16%, whilst the most likely to travel solo were those aged 75 and above, with one in five in that age group travelling solo in 2018. However, these two age groups had very different reasons for travelling alone; one in five solo travellers aged 75+ cited the main reason as taking some time out, but for 92% of 35-44 year-olds travelling alone meant they had the opportunity to do what they want, an increase of 22% from 2017. The ABTA Holiday Habits 2018 report found that for most solo travellers – 76% - the opportunity to do what they want was the top reason to travel alone, and as a general rule, solo travellers were becoming less interested in travelling alone to take time out (63% in 2018, compared to 71% in 2017) or to meet new people (31% in 2018, representing a decrease of 10% from 2017). Those aged 75+ were the least likely to travel solo in order to meet new friends, with just 22% looking for the chance to meet new people, compared to 38% of 55-64-year-olds. More women than men are likely to travel solo, despite (or, perhaps more accurately, in spite of) the additional worries that solo women travellers face, with tour operators reporting a surge in demand from female travellers, who are looking to travel the world with confidence. In 2016, women made up 80% of Saga Holidays’ solo travellers, and Intrepid Travel noted an 79% increase in solo female travellers in their fifties between 2010 and 2015. Perhaps surprisingly, not all solo travellers are single; Phil Shipman from Just You notes that 20% of clients on their tours are actually in relationships, but choose to travel solo, ‘whether it be for pursuing different interests or simply struggling to get the same time off work, we service a cross section of customers who all have their own reasons for travelling solo.’ However, some have pointed to the increase in the single population as a contributory factor to the rise in solo travel, with more people remaining single for longer (or indeed forever) – in 2011, the last time a census was published, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that just over half (51%) of people in England and Wales were single, marking an increase from 47% in 2001.
Of course, solo travel isn’t just a numbers game – it is an experience, an opportunity, freedom and flexibility. As already noted, for the majority of solo travellers, it’s about the opportunity to do what they want while travelling, or – as Anne puts it – ‘being able to decide just for me what I actually want to do that day, i.e., sleep in, have a late night, and no discussion required on what tours or things to do, as with a couple!’ There is a shift in what people expect from travel, and a shift in perceptions of solo travel. Across the board in travel – whether it’s cruising or touring, families, millennials, ‘silver travellers’, or luxury travellers – there’s a marked emphasis on experiences; a recent Global Luxury Traveller Insights Study from Fairmont found that the gap between backpackers’ and luxury travellers’ experiences was closing, with Sharon Cohen, vice-president of the Fairmont brand at AccorHotels, explaining that ‘the two worlds are converging – the luxury traveller wants more grit, to go out and have street food, to explore more, but also to enjoy safety and comfort’ – and solo travellers are no exception. Travel is considerably easier now than it was ten, twenty, thirty or forty years ago, there are increasing travel links, and advanced technology enables us to remain connected to those we love at home, even when halfway across the world. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Lumley effect’ or the ‘Jane McDonald Effect’, travelogues and social media are inspiring our sense of wanderlust (not for nothing are cruise lines and tour operators engaging with so-called ‘Influencers’ on Instagram). The combination of more possibility and more desire is leading to changes not just in travel generally, but Shipman explains that this is impacting on solo travel too, as ‘more and more people are choosing to travel solo and tick off those bucket list destinations because they feel there are more options – and safe options – to help them achieve those dream trips.’ Whereas, he adds, ‘years ago people were perceived to travel solo because they had no one to travel with, nowadays you don’t have to have a reason, just a desire and a need to fulfil and there will be a product on the market to satisfy that need.’ Solo travel is also no longer seen as ‘something you would do when you get older or retire’; Shipman notes that Just You has ‘people of all ages from their 20s to their 90s on our Just You tours’, and the statistics bear out that solo travel is not just for the more mature. Furthermore, Shipman adds that solo travel isn’t just about the experiences that can be enjoyed, but who you’re sharing them with; ‘rather than being shy, or introverted as some people may expect, our groups are full of vibrant, interesting, social people who just want to share their experiences with others. Who wants to experience sunrise at the Taj Mahal and have no one to share it with, or that trip across the Grand Canyon and nobody to reminisce with over dinner or a glass of wine that evening? Solo travellers are incredibly adventurous, and it never fails to amaze me how some of our most exotic and far-flung tours consistently sell out year after year.’
With solo travel becoming increasingly common, solo travellers are becoming less of an anomaly, and the travel industry is finally adapting to their growing needs and demands. As Telegraph Travel writer Anna Hart recently wrote: ‘solo travel is no fleeting fad,’ instead, solo travellers are – and ought to be treated more like – ‘the customer base of the future.’ The London-based market research firm, Mintel, found in their 2018 Solo Traveller Report that rooms with no single supplement, advice on safe places to go, and 24-hour contact with a travel company were the top priorities for solo travellers. Single supplements have long been the bane of solo travellers; a Lonely Planet survey of 4,000 of its members in 2018 found that whilst four out of five had, or would, travel solo, a third of them said they’d felt disadvantaged by travelling solo, with half of them paying a single supplement. However, with an increasing number of dedicated solo departures, and the likes of specialist solo tour operator Just You, solo travellers are no longer being penalised with an additional fare, simply for wanting a room of their own. But it would be nice to see the day where single supplements could be the exception, rather than the rule. Just over ten years ago, Just You was ‘created out of a demand from clients to have a more bespoke product that was specifically designed for the solo traveller’, and Shipman continues to note that since Just You launched, ‘the market has taken solo travelling much more seriously, and whilst we are in a very strong position as the market leader in this area, we are seeing many other operators focusing more on solo departures and producing specific brochures to react to that demand.’ With increased competition in the solo market, and travellers becoming ever more discerning and looking for more authentic and adventurous experiences, Just You is ‘constantly adapting and changing our offering to always be ahead of the game and offer something unique and different to our clients. Our product managers are always looking for new experiences that nobody else is offering so we can give travellers memories that last a lifetime. Our client base is always asking us for more and more variety and options, so I can only see this getting more and more popular in the future.’
Whilst solo travellers can often strike out alone on independent travel – and as travel agents, we can arrange tailor-made tours for solo clients, who will benefit from our local knowledge and travel expertise, along with the financial protection of booking with us – many solo travellers find that joining an escorted tour is the most straight-forward option, enabling them to travel solo, but not alone. A recent report into solo travel found that escorted tours had the largest potential for expansion, with 52% of respondents interested in joining an escorted tour. Another popular alternative for solo travellers is cruising; as the Telegraph’s Pat Richardson pointed out in an article, ‘cruising and solo travellers could have been made for each other. Your travel arrangements are handled by experts, you’re looked after on board and are in safe hands when you join a shore excursion. You’ll make new friends and are unlikely to be the only one sailing solo.’ In 2010, Norwegian Cruise Line were the first mainstream cruise line to offer dedicated accommodation for solo travellers without a single supplement, when it first launched studio rooms, which also offered solo guests access to their own dedicated lounge. However, the luxury cruise line Hebridean Island Cruises has always catered for solo travellers with a number of single-capacity cabins, and whilst Hebridean Princess has a maximum capacity of just 50 passengers, 10 cabins are dedicated solely for solos. With solos making a significant number of passengers onboard, and Hebridean’s legendary hospitality and incomparable personalised service, Hebridean Island Cruises have long been beloved by single cruisers. Some cruise lines – whether ocean or river – will occasionally run promotions waiving (or lowering) single supplements on some cabin categories, although these are subject to availability, and can often be closer to departure date. In recognition of growing solo demand, Riviera Travel launched solo cabins without single supplements across their river cruise programme in 2018, and introduced two dedicated river cruise itineraries exclusively for solo travellers, who made up 18% of their customers in that year.
For many, trying solo travel for the first time can be ‘a big hurdle’ because – as Shipman admits – ‘it’s a huge step to take if you’ve never done it before.’ Anne also concedes that ‘anyone who is shy or timid may struggle with fellow travellers, and not feel confident to sit together dining with complete strangers, or share coach seats on long trips, or just having to pair up and share with a stranger to do certain things, or sometimes knowing you need a pair – i.e. canoeing or diving – and not knowing if you will be able to find someone.’ However, tour operators have made efforts to help solo travellers feel more confident, as Shipman puts it, ‘getting on that first trip and making friends can seem like a hurdle, but is soon overcome with the right company.’ As a brand dedicated solely for solo travellers, Just You ‘caters for the market very well by offering things like airport representation at every departure point, free airport lounges on long haul departures, and we also include breakfast on every single tour everywhere in the world after customers told us it was the meal they would most likely skip if they travelled solo,’ while the Just You community of over 45,000 clients who talk and support each other before and after they travel can add further reassurance to would-be solo travellers, and during the trip, tour managers have been hand-picked to work with solos ‘to understand and empathise with those first timers, and knit together the more experienced ones. The fact that over 70% of our customers come back to us again and again on multiple tours tells us we must be doing something right!’
If you’ve yet to head out on the road (or ship or plane!) for your first foray into solo travel, then Anne has some very sage advice: ‘Don’t worry. You always meet new people, but you also must make some effort yourself to mix in. There’s always someone in the group who will keep an eye out, if not the tour guide, just another individual who may be on their own too. Enjoy!’
Special Thanks: I would like to thank Phil Shipman from Just You, and our client Anne, for their contributions in answering my questions on solo travel, which formed an important part of my research for this article and helped to add a bit more colour beyond the statistics!
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