There was a time when travelling on your own was a hard core, maverick thing to chance, the preserve of free spirits of the nomadic sort. When my time came, I looked around, saw my friends weren’t keen to hit the road, and so I packed myself up and went it alone. The world’s too large and life’s too short to sit around and wait for travel buddies. People are always a bit apprehensive about anyone going off alone, especially if you’re a woman. Some of them think you’re brave, the rest think you’re crazy. Both are probably right. But success for the solo traveller, male or female, owes itself to preparation. That’s when the travel professional gallops onto the scene to save the day, armed with expertise, information and support in your packsaddle.
The soul of solo
There’s something utterly invigorating about travelling solo – it’s way different from travelling with friends or family. It’s about having an open mindset and being ready for anything, a welcoming demeanour that’s accepting and respectful, about making well-informed choices, harnessed to a safety net of reliable contacts, and most importantly, about being as comfortable in one’s own company as in the company of complete strangers. One could argue that any traveller type, whether alone or accompanied, would need the same, but when you’re alone in a foreign country, you’re truly left to your own devices. Alone. It can get lonely if you’re not prepared, practically and mentally.
You might feel weird, like people are looking at you funny, judging you for being a sad little human without another soul in the world to share your life and travels with.
You might worry about your personal safety, about managing on your own if things go wrong, about overspending..
But solo travellers wouldn’t take these ‘risks’ if they didn’t feel that the pros outweighed the cons. If my own solo experiences are anything to go by, those perceived challenges actually make the prospect all the more attractive; because overcoming brings with it a sense of achievement, rewarding and self-fulfillment.
How the pros kick the cons’ derriere
Later this month, I’ll travel to Europe with my 2 teenage nieces – a first for me and their first time abroad. A lot of compromises have been factored into the planning: what they would like, what I’d like them to experience, and what their low threshold for boredom could endure, with elements of my bucket list peppered into the mix to make it worth everyone’s while. In my solo days, no such thing. It was all me, what I felt like doing, where I wanted to eat, how early I wanted to get up, how far I was prepared to walk, how much time I needed to stare at the sunset or art I liked; all me me me. It’s a time when being selfish is no bad thing, when it means freedom of movement and choice.
Travel bucket lists get their boxes ticked off with wild abandon, as there’s no one else to satisfy, accommodate or consider. Have you ever tried travelling with your best friend? Travel has a special way of highlighting the tiny, but annoying ways in which you and your bestie are actually incompatible as travellers. A solo traveller can’t fall out with him/herself. Travel companions are people whose company you might love but you’ll be inclined to do together what you’re accustomed to doing; and so never step outside your comfort zone. For that reason alone, every solo travel experience is an adventure!
Solo travellers enjoy the advantage of flexibility – they want to travel on their own time, at their own pace, make random stops in quirky spots off that beaten path, and practice their own travel culture. The introverts among them will enjoy the isolation for some much-needed zen time, introspection and wellness, a true mental escape from their everyday.
Extroverts will enjoy a balance of me-time with making friends out of strangers. As oddly alone as they are, they’ll appear to be more approachable to either locals or other travellers than couples or small groups travelling together might be.
To be solo is to be a curiosity, but that’s not a bad thing either.
Equally, solo travellers being unattached, are forced to interact with others during the course of a day’s activity, or finding their way around, and so on. The rewards are simple but profound: you get to learn something of the local language, your willingness to learn is hugely appreciated by locals, and you’ve opened the door to an immersive experience. When all is said and done, travelling solo teaches you a great deal about yourself. You discover how to rely on yourself and your own wits, how to enjoy your own company, and how to stretch yourself.
It’s transformative in the most empowering way – no wonder it’s one of the fastest growing travel trends of the last couple of years.
I vont to be alone!
Here’s a heads-up about solo travellers: they’re not running away from humanity. The contrary in fact, unlike the wistful Greta, they want a more intimate experience with humans from elsewhere and look deeper within their own humanity.
Local living and local interactions are top of their wish list, with wellness and relaxation a close second, followed by adventure and forever the need to give back with ecotourism activities.
All these experiences must be safe for solo travellers to do on their own, with opportunities to make some friendly connections along the way.
They need you to worry about the logistics and make existing infrastructure work well for them. String the activities they’re interested together in an all-inclusive style package so they have less to stress about, with fewer calls to make about what to do where during travel. Finally, factor in enough free time for unscheduled travel impulses.
They’re not too picky about destinations although some countries, like Sri Lanka and Kenya, regions, like New Zealand’s South Island and Southern Thailand, and cities, like Melbourne and Havana, have already been identified as particularly solo-friendly. They’re flexible and keen enough to do multi-country trips across regions like South East Asia or Latin America. Europe is the traditionally favoured destination, with Southern and East Africa promised their fair share of this growing market in 2018.
No part of the world is exempt though. If your destination can be characterised by experiences favoured by modern travellers, it can be marketed as a viable option for solo travellers.
Portrait of a solo traveller
From North American travellers to millennials in their numbers, now retired or widowed Baby Boomers and Asian travellers too, the demographics are broad. The notion that the carefree independent traveller is always a young adult on a gap year is blown to bits as people of all ages are taking up the option to travel solo. Older Baby Boomers with their higher disposable income, possibly without a partner to accompany them and often experienced travellers, tend to seek out wellness experiences and good weather conditions to relax and rejuvenate. In general your solo traveller is interested in museums, the theatre, good dining and drinking options – focus on arts and culture in your destination to draw them in.
Other activities enjoyed included seeing top sights (71%), visiting museums (59%), meeting locals (55%) & meeting other travellers (51%).
Don’t be offended, men, if you feel your gender is too often overlooked in the solo travel conversation. We know you’re just as brave and pioneering to go it alone. It’s just that society has put women in a box, labelled it the ‘fairer sex’, and made us sound more fragile than we are. Also, female empowerment as a social phenomenon is growing in momentum and size, with #hashtag movements amplifying female voices on all fronts. Hence the big fuss about women travelling solo.
Sure there are security issues around a woman anywhere by herself but that’s why we learn how to be careful, at home or abroad. The solo traveller should be handled with care, regardless of gender, purely because of number. Packages, accommodations, minimum group sizes for transfers and activities of the traditional sort would discriminate against all solo travellers whether they wear blue or pink.
Safety is a universal issue, as is cost.
For travel professionals, it’s worth noting, however, that women are the ones driving the current solo travel boom (according to TrekkSoft). A number of niche travel brands have cashed in on this trend by offering women only tailor-made adventures into destinations like New Zealand, Patagonia, Tanzania, Nepal and Canada.
..72.4% of women are likely to travel alone, compared to just 27.6% of men”
When they’re not seeking out transformative adventures in the great outdoors, physical challenges and escapes into nature, they’re keen to explore cities from different, new or quirky perspectives. They want opportunities for people-watching, shopping, urban photography and sunbathing; parks and gardens, cafes and galleries, gin tasting at local markets.
They’re not opposed to getting a bit lost if it means finding some of those cliched hidden gems, and they want good food experiences. They want to learn things – pursue their hobbies or try out new interests, all the better if those activities bring them into contact with local people. In fact, they’ll be searching for prospective destinations according to interests, which is precisely how you should be marketing your brand and presenting your offerings.
Making solo travel work
The singleton, the odd one out, exception to mainstream travellers – that’s how they expect to be treated. Although at this stage, given the growing numbers of solo travellers and the potential revenue to be earned from them, it’s safe to say they’ve emerged from the shadows of the niche. It’s time to include them better in our offerings and address their particular needs. Considering that solo travellers tend to be budget conscious, value-adds are important. The big elephant in the room is of course the single supplement they get slapped with – the ultimate penalty for travelling solo.
Can you offer a single supplement waiver on select departures or tours, perhaps depending on the kind of accommodation you use or through some kind of agreement with some of your preferred suppliers? It’s well worth the consideration.
Do you include self-guided walking tours to give your client some time to explore independently? Can you provide the option for them to join a small guided group aimed at solo travellers as a safe sampler of the destination? Then they could meet some like-minded folks, have someone to share some of their experiences with, and identify where they’d like to see/do more of on their own later.
Can you cover all bases for their peace of mind? All-inclusive should mean you have all practical requirements and emergency contingency plans in place, and make them clear in the information you provide at research and decision-making stages. Provide things like a Meet & Greet at each arrival point, detailed transfer options, private or local guides, and at the very least, current and comprehensive information about the destination, safety and cultural sensitivity tips – all essential to the solo traveller as they plan their trip. They want and need to be prepared.
Do you offer them reliable maps and directions, emergency contacts and other important details on their mobile devices for easy access? In-destination apps on phones are now commonplace and of particular use to solo travellers who may feel vulnerable as they navigate their way around, especially coming up against language barriers en route.
Whether you’re selling Rajasthan or Newfoundland, ensure your itineraries and website feature pics of singles too, not just families and couples. Make someone available to take their travel photos from time to time, so they can have some variety in their photographic souvenirs. Promote the personal touch as your service culture and keep contact with your solo client before, during and after travel. Make them feel acknowledged and included, and take the lonely out of solo travel.