Much of the travel industry seems to be organized like Noah's ark—for couples. Travelers who don't have a companion or "significant other" often feel the brunt of what they regard as price discrimination. As one reader put it:
"I am a baby boomer, planning to retire in three years. I notice that all advertisements for trips always quote a price "based on double occupancy." I am divorced, have few relatives, my work colleagues are younger and have less money to travel, so I foresee taking trips solo. I worry that I won't be able to travel if it means I have to pay twice the price. Or are solo travelers forced to share cabins with total strangers? What accommodations does the travel industry make to the growing number of solo older travelers?"
The short answer is, "It's very tough to avoid paying more unless you're willing to share." And age has little to do with it—the penalty for singles is not biased by age.
Single Supplements—Overt and Covert
Package tour operators and cruise lines openly and formally discriminate against single travelers. They price their products on the basis of "per person, double occupancy," and almost always impose a supplement—often quite stiff—on singles who travel by themselves.
Other travel suppliers, although they don't price "per person," employ many pricing practices that absolutely penalize singles (or subsidize couples, depending on how you want to view it):
- These days, almost all hotel rooms are designed for at least double occupancy, and, in most of the world, hotels charge the same prices for one, two, and sometimes even three or four occupants. Even where a hotel has a few single rooms, or publishes single rates, those single rates are generally more than half the double rates. Hostels are about the only accommodations I know that charge by the person for everyone.
- Although railroads do not price regular tickets per person, they often price sleeping accommodations that way. On Amtrak, for example, the least expensive roomette accommodates two and the price is the same for one or two travelers. And several European railpasses offer "saver" options, for two or more traveling together, that cost less than single passes—although more than half the regular price.
- Almost all rental cars accommodate two or more people, so a single traveler pays more than the per-person cost for two or more travelers together.
- Even airlines, which do not charge per-person prices on regular tickets, often offer "free" or reduced-price "companion" tickets that, in effect, discriminate against singles.
Except for ordinary air and rail tickets, then, you pay a price premium to travel by yourself in almost all other travel situations.
Doubling Up: The Easy Solution
If your main concern is to avoid the price penalty, that's relatively easy—provided you're willing to share accommodations. Finding someone to share hotel rooms/cabins raises a basic question: Would you rather share with someone you know and, presumably, socialize with that person for the duration, or would you prefer to travel with a stranger and share nothing more than the sleeping facilities?
If you prefer to travel with someone you know, you may be able to locate a traveling companion from among your usual circles—friends, relatives, co-workers, or members of your church, club, professional association, or other organizations. You can ask around or even post a notice in a newsletter, bulletin, on a board, or such.
If you can't find anyone, you can look for a compatible companion in advance of your trip or before you even start planning a specific trip. Several membership organizations match potential travelers, including Connecting Solo Travel Network, Travel Acquaintance, and Travel Chums. You enroll (usually with modest "dues") and submit a personal profile with a list of places you want to visit. The organization then sends you a list of potential matches, and you can start contacting or even meeting with any that seem of interest. Depending on your interests beyond just travel, these organizations arrange either same- or opposite-sex matches.
If you prefer to travel with a stranger, several tour operators specialize in arranging matched-up tours and cruises for singles. Among them are Adventures for Singles, All Singles Travel, Escapade Cruises, O Solo Mio, Singles-Cruises, and Singles in Paradise. As the name implies, Women Traveling Together specializes in all-women singles tours and cruises. Several of these agencies claim they try to assign matches based on some sort of personal screening rather than just the luck of the draw. Typically, many of these agencies offer to "guarantee" that they will find someone to share your cabin/hotel accommodations, and, if they fail, they'll let you occupy double accommodations at the regular per-person price.
Many mainstream tour operators also offer shares: The United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) says that some 60 percent of its members do so. Beyond same-sex, this matching does not promise to search for any sort of compatibility—age, interests, whatever. But at least you don't get gouged.
True Solo Travel: More Expensive But Worth It?
If you really want to travel solo, you have a tougher problem avoiding single price discrimination. I have never found an operator that deals only in single-occupancy accommodations. However, many of the online "matching" and "singles" agencies, listed above, list at least some tours and cruises with either low single supplements or none. Connecting Solo Travel Network, for example, currently lists dozens of tours and cruises with good pricing for single occupancy. Also, mainstream tour operators and cruiselines sometimes reduce or waive single supplements as a promotional gimmick, especially on last-minute deals.
Many cruise ships have a few single-occupancy cabins. They typically cost more than half the low-end per-person rate bur are usually less than full two-person rates. However, I seldom see really great last-minute deals for single cabins.
Of course, if you travel independently, you don't face any official single supplements. However, as noted, you still face what amount to de facto supplements, in that you often pay the same price for single occupancy or use that you would for two people traveling together. Presumably, however, for many of you, the privacy and independence are worth the extra cost.