Tuesday 24 January 2017

Going Solo: The rise of solo travel and the art of going it alone

Special Report

Weekend & Independent.ie Travel

Published 30/10/2016 | 02:30

Solo travellers are a new normal, not an inconvenience. Photo: Getty Images
Solo travellers are a new normal, not an inconvenience. Photo: Getty Images
Isabel Conway
Rebecca Cox
Colum McLornan
Nicola Brady in Kenya
Solo travel is changing for the better...
Thomas Breathnach: 'experiencing local cultural interaction is king'
Deirdre Mullins in India
Northern Lights
Thailand
Sara Zimmerman

The new solo traveller is blowing stereotypes apart. Our top writers report on one of the hottest trends in travel.

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1. Solo travel goes smart

By Pól Ó Conghaile

Picture a solo traveller. Who do you see?

A young man? An older divorcée? Years ago, those stereotypes rang true. Today, they get more dated with every booking. Growing numbers of female travellers, in particular, have blown the market wide open - ranging from 20-somethings to business travellers and older holidaymakers on group trips.

"The average adventure traveller is not a 28-year-old male," as Marybeth Bond of US website The Gutsy Traveler (gutsytraveler.com) puts it.

"It's a 47-year-old female. And she wears a size 12 dress."

For previous generations, solo travel meant a toss-up between Dervla Murphy or singletons looking to score. Not any more. Solo travellers may be single, married or none of the above. They could be millennials or mature. They travel for work and play, alone or with groups and escorted tours (or both). They might fly solo because their holiday dates don't match their partner's, in pursuit of a personal hobby or interest, or simply because they feel like it. And as trends change, so do stigmas.

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Travel Editor Pól Ó Conghaile flying solo in Rome.

Solo travellers are a new normal, not an inconvenience to be penalised with single supplements. Sure, those annoying levies still exist (most holidays are still taken by couples or families, after all). But there are positive signs - from Norwegian Cruise Line's solo-friendly studio staterooms to the growing flexibility of tour operators like Travel Department, Contiki and Friendship Travel (another company, Wendy Wu Tours, says solos now account for 18pc of its sales).

The fact that travel has become so much cheaper and easier to organise, and the staggering growth of social media and the sharing economy, have accelerated the change. From Airbnb to apps like Meetup.com and CityUnscripted.com, solo travellers have more tools than ever.

The rise in female business travellers is another game-changer. Suddenly, hotels are tweaking everything from door locks to room service and bathroom products ("It will give Virgin an edge to make sure we look after them," Sir Richard Branson said when Virgin Hotels debuted in Chicago last year). Restaurant revamps are including more solo-friendly tables and seats at bars. And naturally, a gazillion solo travel bloggers and Instagrammers are inspiring (and enraging) their followers.

Security, of course, remains an issue. So does eating alone (thank God for Wi-Fi, is all I can say). That's why, in compiling this week's solo travel special, we've worked to combine realistic tips from our best travel writers with personal testimonies, industry insights, and travel stories from as broad a spectrum as possible. If you're thinking of taking the plunge, there's never been a better time.

In the future, I have a feeling solo travel will just be... well, travel.

2. Freedom & confidence: 'Solo travel is one of the greatest gifts I've given myself...'

By Deirdre Mullins

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Deirdre Mullins in India

I discovered solo travel in my early 20s. I had just finished college and went backpacking with two friends who, as it turned out, didn't like each other. I got stuck in the middle of their arguments and it ruined two months of a trip I'd spent years looking forward to.

After making my escape in Laos, my first solo journey was the 'slow-boat' along the Mekong into Thailand. The relief was blissful. I didn't have to worry about my travelling companions, and once I got used to being alone, I loved it. I learned so much about myself; I was forced to be independent, to be outgoing and to develop confidence. Travelling alone, I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. If I don't want to traipse around that archaeological site in the midday sun and would prefer to laze on the beach, then I'll do that. I have no one to answer to but myself.

Of course, being alone has its drawbacks. Single rooms can work out more expensive, and a table for one can feel a bit grim at times. It can get lonely, but by connecting with other solo travellers, I've rarely ended up alone.

Solo travellers have a mutual understanding of each other's needs: adventure, independence and freedom. We travel together when we want company, but if we change our plans, that's generally accepted, too.

Much of my travel memories are a montage of temporary travel partners, many of whom I've developed deep and lasting friendships with. Relationships are fast-tracked and new friends bring about the unexpected. Danielle, a friend I made in Thailand, encouraged me to leave Asia and go the States. I ended up living and working with her on an organic farm in rural Oregon. I was immersed in American culture in a way that I never could have expected.

Solo travel is one of the greatest gifts I've given myself. It's strengthened my intuition, I've made friends all over the world and connected locally at a deep level. Don't let a lack of travelling companions stop you from fulfilling your travel dreams. Just pack a sense of curiosity and openness and soon you won't want to roll any other way.

Deirdre Mullins is a travel writer and media producer

3. How to stay safe as a solo traveller

By Nicola Brady

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Nicola Brady in Kenya

It's natural to be a little anxious about safety when you're on the road alone. But with a bit of common sense, a little forward planning and a few nifty tricks, you'll soon forget your worries. Here are my top tips.

Personal security

Most of this is common sense, but it doesn't hurt to take a few extra precautions. Take photographs of your passport/visas and save to a cloud service like Dropbox, or email to a friend or family member. Always choose a hotel or hostel with a 24-hour reception, and keep a little emergency cash hidden, just in case. If you can, use traceable taxi services like Uber, and never get into an unlicensed car.

Do your research

When you're on your own, you want to make life as simple as possible. Little things like knowing how to get from the airport into the city can make all the difference (and prevent you getting ripped off). Figure out how public transport works before you head to the station, and map out your route in advance, too.

Stay in touch

Always make sure someone at home knows your itinerary. You don't need to be too precise, but if someone knows where you're staying each night it makes all the difference (you get extra holiday bragging points, too). And if you're hanging out with someone new, it doesn't hurt to pass it on… just send a quick text or Whatsapp home to say where you'll be, and that you'll check in later. Wink emoji optional.

Trust your instincts… feel free to say no

I'm sure I've missed out on some fabulous opportunities because I was just a bit too cautious. But here's the thing - it's not impolite to tell someone you don't want to talk to them. Or to say that you'd rather sit alone, or dine alone, or walk alone. Trust your instincts. Does that street look a little dark and dodgy? Get a cab. Does your hotel feel sketchy? Move to another. Listen to that little voice in your head - it's rarely wrong. Keep your wits about you, and go with your gut.

Common pitfalls

Pickpockets can be a nuisance on the road. Be sure to keep your wits about you, particularly in busy areas, and get a bag that zips up completely. RiutBags (£89/€98; riut.co.uk) are new, stylish backpacks with hidden zips, making them practically theft-proof.

4. How to meet and connect as a solo traveller

By Thomas Breathnach

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Thomas meets a new friend in Brooklyn...

The solo traveller sure has come a long way. Had Shirley Valentine been a 2016 millennial, she would most likely have met her Greek lover on Tinder, or via a moussaka-making course on meetup.com. In travel today, spectator sightseeing has become passé and experiencing local cultural interaction is king.

The social shift has been largely triggered by the accommodation sector, where sites like Airbnb.ie and homestay.com allow solo travellers to check-in with local hosts. Of course, it's worth noting that hosts can vary from non-intrusive to party-all-night entertainers, so it's always best to consult previous reviews to find a listing that meets your needs.

When it comes to dining, the days of requesting a table for one like a jilted honeymooner are also up, with eating out becoming more solo-friendly. Check out the global supper club movement, for example, where local hosts create pop-up dinner parties for a pot luck of guests. What better way to have your cultural cake and eat it? For inspiration, check out sites like grubclub.com in London.

For more active solo travellers, downloading the meetup app opens up an infinite inventory of gatherings across the globe: from camogie sessions in San Diego to salsa classes in Lima. And for those travellers feeling altruistic, charity doesn't have to begin at home, either. Pop-in volunteering is a growing tourist trend - think walking rescue pit bulls in Brooklyn (barcshelter.org) or community gardening in Vancouver (urbanfarming.ca). Sign-ups are quick, and offering a helping hand can be a great way for like-minded folks to mingle.

For those on a working holiday, the mushrooming of co-working spaces across the world means you can now have a new micro community of colleagues even as a lone business traveller. You don't even have to clock-off: Surf Office in Lisbon (thesurfoffice.com) and SunDesk in Morocco (sun-desk.com) are two examples of co-working spaces where you can also co-live. Call it the perfect work/life balance.

And if you fancy taking your local interaction up an octave, don't overlook dating apps like Tinder. In dating merry nations like the USA, a swipe left can mean you're simply down for a latte, not a Greencard. Verified profiles should ensure you're not being cat-fished and a quality local date tends to be a lot more updated than any guide book. And who knows, even if you heart being a solo traveller, you may not be one for long...

Thomas Breathnach is a travel writer

5. Going with a group: 'I was excited, nervous and didn't know what to expect...'

By Rebecca Cox

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Rebecca jumps into Greece...

I was single. I was 25 years old. I was changing jobs, and had a few weeks off in the summer. It felt like having school holidays again, and I was ready for an adventure. My problem? All of my friends were working or had plans with their other halves. So I decided to take a chance on Contiki (contiki.com), who do group trips and adventures for 18-35s. I'd heard lots of good things about it.

One week later, I was on a plane to Greece to meet up with a group of strangers to go island-hopping. I was excited, nervous and had no idea what to expect.

Sure, I was a little worried about going on a trip with people I didn't know and the fact that I was going alone, but I quickly came to realise that we all felt the same way, and within minutes of meeting we felt more comfortable.

We started in Athens. We saw amazing historic sights during the day and checked out great Greek restaurants and culture by night. By the time we got a boat to Mykonos, our group was more like a family than strangers. We went on party boats, joined rave parties on the beach and toured in search of secret locations off the tourist trail. On Santorini, we ventured up an active volcano before returning for a private sunset viewing and a bit of bar-hopping including a wild, Coppers equivalent called Murphy's Bar.

After an amazing island-hopping adventure, we returned to Athens where we said our sad goodbyes. I loved Contiki, and solo travel was everything I had hoped for and more. The great part about it was I could choose when to have time to myself and when to re-join the group. On the trip, you had the balance of relaxing on a beach or hitting up the clubs - it was up to you what you wanted to do with your free time. Our guide was amazing, helpful, easy going and made us feel extremely safe.

I made lifelong friends, and incredible memories.

- Rebecca Cox lives in Glenageary, Dublin

6. The older solo traveller

By Isabel Conway

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Isabel on an adventure...

I fell into solo travel by accident. My travel companion and I had planned a trip to San Francisco, but instead of jetting off with me, he got stuck on the picket lines at home. Ireland was on strike then, too.

Back then, Dervla Murphy was the champion of solo travel. "Look what happened to her!" my grandmother warned: Murphy had been robbed by bandits, attacked by wild dogs and gotten lost on remote mountain ledges. She would have scoffed at the notion of eating lobster on Fishermen's Wharf. But still, at least I was going.

As it turned out, I wasn't robbed in a back alley. Creepy Cliff from Texas put his hand up under my skirt in a dark corner of Alcatraz, sure, but that was as bad as it got on my first long-haul journey. I was 21.

My mother's advice? She told me to kick predators "hard in the goolies and scream like a banshee". It worked its magic then and since. Not that I need to repel predators like Creepy Cliff as much these days… the more middle-aged you are, the easier you can blend anonymously into the world, invoking genuine help and friendliness from strangers rather than unwelcome 'come-ons' as the grey hairs multiply.

Travelling alone was a transforming experience. It helped me to grow up, learn how to enjoy my own company, conquer fear, loneliness, become more self-confident, and observe the world around me properly.

Eating alone in restaurants is still the hardest part of a solo trip. I miss the company, so I look for communal tables or dining space at bar counters. The internet has also made solo travel as an older woman much easier. I can quickly get updates on everything from personal safety to contacts for city greeters and a wealth of tours and group activities if I get lonely. From chatting with expats in Rick's Bar in Casablanca to following the Blues in Chicago, from tango lessons in Buenos Aires to skiing through a blizzard with kindly Swedes on the Arctic circle, going it alone turned me from tourist into traveller. Amazing things do happen when you travel alone.

My advice? Give it a go. If you've ever been driven insane by a shopaholic companion dragging you into every shoe shop in a city, been forced into a tea shop when you fancy a glass of wine or suffered accusing sighs when a hotel or restaurant disappoints, then maybe it's time for liberation and a solo trip.

You never have to say sorry to yourself, after all.

- Isabel Conway is Ireland's Travel Journalist of the Year

7. The Industry insider (1)

Sara Zimmerman, Managing Director, Travel Department

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In the past, there was a bit of a stigma about travelling by yourself, but fortunately (as someone who travels on my own quite a bit), that seems to have gone. Travelling solo is a massively growing trend.

At Travel Department, we've always worked hard to cater for people travelling alone. We offer solo-friendly holidays designed specifically for them, and which do not charge a single room supplement. This year, however, we've noticed that just as many single travellers are joining our regular trips. Our holidays are perfect for them as there's always someone around to chat to, but if they want time to themselves that's not a problem either.

Some solo travellers are a bit anxious to begin with, but our guides are really supportive, and on our solo-friendly holidays we always ensure that there's an opportunity for people to get to know each other right at the start of the trip.

Not surprisingly, solo travellers tend to enjoy the same destinations and types of holiday as everyone else. That means for us that Italy is the number one destination, with other popular choices including Spain, Iceland and Portugal.

This year, we've seen a huge growth in the popularity of long-haul holidays for solo travellers, with 20pc choosing destinations further afield, such as Russia, India and China. Our TDactive Holidays range is also extremely popular for people travelling on their own, with walking and yoga holidays both having a high proportion of solo travellers on most trips.

Whether short or long-haul, city break or sun destination, the key ingredients are always the same - great value, great guides and the company of like-minded people.

See travedepartment.ie and tdactiveholidays.ie

8. The Industry Insider (2)

Colum McLornan, Founder and MD of Friendship Travel

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The number of single people is on the rise. The 2011 Census showed 392,000 one-person households in Ireland, and the number of divorced people had increased by 150pc in 10 years. The world is gradually changing to reflect this, from supermarkets with their meals for one, to travel companies offering singles holidays.

Our own business at Friendship Travel is increasing every year, with Irish bookings up 12pc this summer, despite world events impacting on destinations like Tunisia and Egypt. Both Dublin and Belfast have more direct flights to the Mediterranean nowadays, which means we can offer easier access to a wider choice of destinations.

Who books with us? Three out of four guests are women in their 40s and 50s, and a significant number each year are newly single. I'm glad I chose the name Friendship Travel when we set up nearly 20 years ago, because it describes what we're about: friendship, not dating. Few of our guests are looking for romance. For most, it is about having company when you want it, especially at dinner each evening. It's about safety, too. Our hosts meet you at the airport, and there's always someone to go sightseeing with, or out for a drink.

This is why our house-party holidays are so popular. We take over a small hotel and organise everything about it to suit our guests, from moving twin beds together to create a welcoming room for single occupancy, to setting up one big table in the restaurant for sociable meals.

Most house-parties are 'fly and flop' holidays, but we're also seeing demand for holidays with sightseeing trips or activities included, so we are developing more of those, and I am sure long-haul holidays will grow, too.

We've just carried out a survey about Christmas, which can be a difficult time for single people. The results show that many spend Christmas with their grown-up kids or grandchildren, but one in five admitted they don't enjoy it. Judging from the way our festive breaks are growing, an increasing number of singletons in their 40s and 50s are swapping family Christmases for sunshine breaks with people their own age.

I think in the next 10 years the holiday industry will continue to develop different products for different types of holiday-maker. My advice? Always choose a solo travel specialist, not a general tour operator or travel agent.

See friendshiptravel.com

9. Six of the best solo trips for 2017

By Nicola Brady

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1. Tuscany

An offshoot of Travel Department, TDactive offers group trips with an adventurous bent: think walking, yoga or motor sports. There's a three-night photography holiday in Tuscany on March 27 of next year with Dublin Photography School, too.

Details: From €799pp (ex €109 compulsory single supplement); tdactiveholidays.ie.

2. Lanzarote

Adventure trips are all well and good, but what if you want a 'fly and flop' holiday, with a bit of company thrown in? Friendship Travel organises group trips for solo travellers, with shared meals. Head to Lanzarote for a week of winter sun, half-board, with your own room (no single supplement), flights, transfers and a host included.

Details: From €795pp; friendshiptravel.com.

3. Thailand

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Something of a foodie? GoHop.ie has a week-long Real Food Adventure Tour of Thailand next year. You'll travel with a small group and tour around markets, climb Doi Suthep, take part in cookery masterclasses and experience life in a homestay.

Details: From €1,332pps*, gohop.ie.

4. Northern Lights

This trip has all the Iceland highlights - Gullfoss waterfall, Reykjavik, black sand beaches, a glacial hike and, hopefully, the aurora borealis. The six-day, small group tour from Intrepid Travel is fully guided and includes five breakfasts, but not flights.

Details: From €955pps*; fly to Reykjavik from €69 each-way with wowair.ie. See also intrepidtravel.com.

5. Namibia

Want a once in a lifetime adventure? G Adventures has teamed up with National Geographic to offer incredible trips around the world, like the 10-day Wonders of Namibia tour. You'll get exclusive access to cheetah research facilities, go on safari drives and visit the Petrified Forest.

Details: From €2,399pps*, excluding flights, gadventures.com.

6. India

Some countries are a little more intimidating to tackle alone - India is one of them. Best, then, to head over with an exceptional adventure travel company. Wild Frontiers specialises in trips that are off the beaten track, like 'Rajasthan: Taj, Temples & Tigers'. The 16-day trip captures all of the wonderful craziness of the region, while exploring the quieter sides, too. Includes a tour leader, local guides and most meals.

Details: From €2,319pps* excluding flights, wildfrontierstravel.com.

*Single supplements available for an additional cost. All prices subject to availability and change.

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