Melissa Preston had just finished an intensive four-year stint working in Indonesia when she decided she deserved a vacation. She was curious about taking a cruise, her first ever, but hesitated—she usually travels solo. Would she be hit with that infamous “solo tax”? As a veteran globetrotter, Preston knew the cruise industry was famously family-friendly and traditionally prone to levying high “single supplements,” or fees slapped on travelers who occupy a room designed to hold two or more. That levy could be as much as 100 percent—in other words, traveling solo might cost exactly the same as it would for a couple.
But the times, thankfully, have changed. Preston chanced on a travel company whose voyages are tailor-made for travelers just like her, Peregrine, which specializes in small, private, and independent tours and trips. The firm’s no-supplement policy meant she wasn’t an outlier—indeed, around half its travelers book for one. She opted for an itinerary focused on the Croatian islands. “I liked the idea of jumping off the boat for a swim in a sheltered bay every day,” Preston says now, reflecting on that recent trip. Peregrine’s ability to cater to solo cruisers also meant that Preston felt part of a group of singles on the trip. “It was awesome. One day, we ended up dancing with the locals in Opuzen, and enjoying the tiny bars dotted around the square,” she says. “I made several lifelong friends from that trip, and have since met them in various parts of the world.”
These days, she isn’t alone in sailing solo. The cruising industry has seen shifting demographics, whether sprightly but widowed retirees or the rise of never-marrieds (compare the 63 percent of American singles who have never married today with the 28 percent logged in 1960) and smartly, several operators have adjusted their offerings accordingly.
Mega-ship specialist Norwegian arguably was the pioneer, repurposing interior-facing cabins as pod-like solo rooms known as “studios” when it launched the Epic in 2010; you can find studios now on four other ships in the fleet. Luxury line Cunard—famous for transcontinental trips and for keeping the sailing glamour of yesteryear—introduced solo rooms to the Queen Elizabeth 2 and added them to the Queen Mary 2 during its $132 million refit three years ago. Expedition specialist Hurtigruten began waiving supplements on certain sailings, and saw its solo traveler business rise 40 percent as a result; meanwhile, Victory Cruise Lines has eliminated the surcharge on a range of its 2019 itineraries. American Cruise Lines, the river specialist, has supplement-free solo staterooms on all of its 11 ships, including 250-square-foot options with their own balconies on American Song, its newest, with itineraries through the Pacific Northwest. Now, even when a fee is charged, it might no longer be the 100 percent extra that once was industry standard. To sail solo with Mediterranean specialist Celestyal, for example, the maximum you’ll pay is 30 percent more.
Now that the industry is better serving solo cruises, more people like Melissa Preston—avid travelers who may have seen most of the globe yet still never taken a cruise—are reconsidering. There’s plenty of reasons why, says Janice Waugh, founder of Solo Traveler, who dismisses conventional wisdom that cruises aren’t ideal for singletons. “The trickiest part of travel is the transitions—getting from one city to the next,” she says. “[But] the ship takes care of it for you, in a safe environment.”
Some of our natural inhibitions seem to disappear on a cruise, so people are more open to meeting and talking than they would be in their daily routines.
She has some smart tips for a first-timer, noting that there can be distinct advantages to solo cruising.
Planning for one means scheduling is more flexible, so why not use the fact that you don’t need to coordinate calendars to your advantage? Firms will often slash prices closer to sail-away dates to ensure the ship is full, and even waive single supplements to do so. Search for those last-minute promos, or just ask, she advises.
After boarding on your first day, she suggests, introduce yourself to the front desk or bartender, and tell them you’re there alone; these staffers can then make efforts to introduce you to fellow travelers. Some itineraries even include a mingling social as a formal event, thrown by the cruise staffers, at the outset, as when Waugh sailed with river specialist Avalon. Pack playing cards, too, as an ice-breaker for those early cocktail-hours-slash-socials. Remember, though, that there’s a clear distinction between singles and solo cruising: There’s no forced matchmaking on a standard voyage—despite what Love Boat might have implied—and if you prefer to be left alone with your thoughts (and several good books) for the entire week, you can do easily do so.
Take stock at mealtimes. If families tend to dine earlier, delay your meal until the dining room is full of couples, then be bold. Walk up to a table and ask if you might join them. “It’s better not to go to the same people all the time, at every meal,” she adds. “Keep moving around to meet more people.” Once you’ve connected with like-minded folks, it’s easier to stay in contact on smaller ships, where they won’t disappear into a 4,000-strong crowd. Waugh does suggest exercising caution much as you might in a major city: Never give out your stateroom number, and create an email address that you can give to fellow cruisers that isn’t your primary one. But overall, the upsides of cruising alone are catching on.
Long Island-based Allan Jordan, who retired from a career in financial communications, relishes his regular solo voyages. “You’re in an environment where you can meet a lot of people, and socialize as opposed to being alone,” he says. “Some of our natural inhibitions seem to disappear on a cruise, so people are more open to meeting and talking than they would be in their daily routines.” Yet Jordan doesn’t hesitate to luxuriate in the freedom of sailing solo. “I generally disconnect to give me some time to decompress and recharge.”