Solo cruising. Cruising solo. Somehow those two words, no matter the order, seem to evoke furrowed brows and looks of pity in many cruisers who are coupled or traveling with friends or family. Those of us who make the choice to cruise alone have a hard time figuring out why we are met with that reaction, except to deduce that those who look upon us as poor friendless souls have never experienced the liberation of a solo cruise, of not having to be responsible for anyone's pleasure but one's own.
I am a frequent "solo cruiser," and although I often travel with a friend or family member, I just as often travel with neither. Cruise Critic's Editor Carolyn Spencer Brown also cruises solo, and while we are very different (I am single and "of an age," she is a married lady whose husband has a busy career of his own), we both appreciate the experience of breathing it all in, of making our own choices, of being able to amble and contemplate life (and our cruise experience!) on our own terms.
There is, to us, a difference between being a solo cruiser and a single cruiser. While single cruisers tend to want to find others with whom to congregate, those who choose to cruise solo have to be comfortable with the concept that they are responsible for their own good time, whatever path that takes. To be alone is a choice. That choice, however, doesn't always guarantee a fabulous cruise vacation. In this coupled-up world, a solo can find it difficult to negotiate the obstacles inherent on most larger cruise ships, from harried and inattentive maitre d's to programs and activities that make it difficult for a solo to participate.
And then there's the issue of cost.
A solo or single cruiser creates "spoilage" in cruise-speak -- in other words, not only an empty bed that doesn't add booking revenue, but also a missing body to add auxiliary revenue from drink sales, casino use, shore excursions and spa treatments. With rare exception, a single or solo can expect to pay between 150 and 200 percent of the published cruise fare to cover the cost of the "missing" guest. What's worse, at least two major cruise lines -- NCL and Princess Cruises -- are now making solo guests pay double the non-commissionable fees (NCF's) that every guest is charged at the discretion of the cruise line. (These are not government-mandated fees and taxes, which by law can only be charged per person.)
For the North America-based solo, it's primarily the luxury lines that offer the best deals and the most amenable services (with NCL's mega-ship, Norwegian Epic, a welcome exception), but European cruise lines, from big-ship to small, high-end ones, have been proactive in this area for a long time. Depending on what drives you, you can find bargains and benefits on the lines (and in some cases, individual ships) that we have chosen as the best for solos. Here are some pointers first:
Are you a solo lady who likes dancing? Many lines and ships offer the "gentleman host" program, but usually on their longer cruises (Cunard's an exception; it offers hosts on all trips). They are actually selected on the basis of their dancing ability, and they love to trip the light fantastic. Solo men who love to dance won't have a problem finding ladies (they outnumber males traveling alone by about three to one!)
Are you interested in creating enduring friendships? Many cruise lines have solo get-togethers, and even if they don't, you can use your areas of interest (bridge play, perhaps, or wine and cuisine) to meet people with similar hobbies.
Even solos need community. Get out there! We know one lady who, even though she has the means, refuses to book herself a balcony cabin. "I spend too much time alone that way," she says. "I miss the camaraderie of sailaways up on deck, or the joys of coming into a port with others who are as enthusiastic as I am." Don't be shy about expressing to your maitre d' exactly what kind of dinner arrangement you'd like, either.
Finally, you can, in fact, double your financial ability to cruise by using the "Find a Partner" program offered by a few lines. This service connects single cruisers of the same sex who might be interested in sharing a cabin. It's not ideal for everyone, but it sure can help the bottom line.
Why: P&O's Azura, which launched in April 2010, has dedicated 18 single cabins for solo cruisers.
Special Extras: The solo cabins on Deck 6 include both inside and outside options (both 130 square feet) and have a "boutique hotel style" feel to them. Special touches include complimentary water and a "pamper pack" on arrival. Each cabin has a single bed, a flat-screen television and a vanity/writing desk and drawers, plus a bathroom with a shower.
Discounts Available: Cabins are priced for one, with no solo supplement, but they do sell out quickly since they're so limited in number. Don't expect any last-minute deals on these staterooms.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Why: NCL's newest ship, Norwegian Epic, features 128 studio cabins targeted at and priced for solo cruisers.
Special Extras: A full-size bed, flat-screen TV and private bathroom are all squeezed into these 100-square-foot accommodations. Although all the studios are inside cabins, they each have a window that looks out onto the corridor. Four different colors of ambient lighting jazz up the room. But the biggest perk is access to an exclusive, shared social space called the Studio Lounge. It's a sleek hangout space, with its own large-screen TV's, coffee-making facilities and a bartender at certain times of the day.
Discounts Available: The studio cabins are priced for solo travelers, with no extra supplement to pay.
Holland America Line
Why: Holland America Line, more than any other big-ship cruise line, is renowned for catering to solo guests. There are plenty of programs that don't require partners, and activities that can be delightfully solitary or a means to meet others (the culinary programs, from hands-on workshops to wine tastings, are tons of fun!). The Single Partner's Program, its roommate-matching service, matches passengers of the same sex with others who want to share -- and guarantees you'll pay just the double occupancy price, even if no partner can be found.
Special Extras: Singles are invited to meet and mingle at a cocktail mixer and on voyages of 30 days or more, gentleman hosts are available for dancing.
Discounts available: Typical rates run from 140 percent to 200 percent for solos. Holland America does not offer any special solo deals.
Why: Silversea doesn't offer "single" cabins but its occasional special fare deals means that a solo traveler can sail alone without a huge penalty. Typical solo fares are 25 to 75 percent above the double-occupancy rate, but may be eligible for Silver Savings discounts and free or reduced airfare. Singles make up about 10 percent (pretty significant in cruising) of its passengers. Another plus: With just 296 passengers on Silver Cloud and Silver Wind, 382 apiece on Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper, and 540 on Silver Spirit, solo cruisers find it easy to feel at home. Some of the enrichment programs and special interest cruises ensure a compatible mix of people with like interests, solo or not.
Special Extras: A cocktail reception is held on every voyage with a large number of solos. Most voyages of over 10 days also have male Social Ambassadors onboard as dance partners and shore excursion escorts.
Discounts available: Solo fares are often as low as 125 percent of the regular fares, but occasional sales can bring single traveler rates down to 110 percent. The line is quick to point out that these fares are "capacity controlled and subject to availability." In other words, book early!
Why: Crystal is one of the most popular luxury line for solos, who make up to 15 percent of its passengers on some sailings. Solos are attracted by the wide range of activities onboard, plus singles' parties, gentleman hosts and supplements that can be as low as 25 percent for certain categories. Many luxury-minded solos also choose Crystal because it features assigned dining room seating, which is unique in this market segment (most luxury lines have an open single-seating dining room); this set-seating dining policy means you dine with the same folks every night. Additionally, the Table for 8 program lets solo travelers dine at the specialty restaurants with other singles. Finally, while Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity are as spacious as super-liners, they carry only 940 and 1,080 passengers respectively; a sense of community prevails onboard.
Special Extras: Crystal's unique activities include the Creative Learning Institute, with choices that range from acting workshops, language lessons and astronomy classes to a Computer University.
Discounts Available: Crystal adds only 25 percent for categories C through E, 35 percent for categories A and B, and 50 percent for category AA.
Fred. Olsen Cruises
Why: This well-known British company, now in its fifth generation of ownership by the same family, has long catered to its traditionally over-50 passengers. In this sense, it actually creates -- and designs -- cabins for its solo travelers. The line offers primarily U.K.- based cruises to a mostly British market, but is attracting some North Americans to its winter Caribbean trips, which are marketed to new world travelers. Fred. Olsen's sedate atmosphere, which caters to a mature demographic, will be a welcome change for those who choose to avoid the more raucous nature of most mass-market lines.
Special Extras: All Fred. Olsen ships -- Balmoral, Boudicca, Braemar and Black Watch -- offer solo cabins, ranging in number from 40 (Braemar) to 64 (Balmoral). Not only do single cabins come in a variety of categories (including a few balcony staterooms and solo suites), but they are also decorated for solos. Travelers will find a cozy stateroom with just one bed, with extra furnishings where the second bed would normally go.
Discounts Available: Technically, all cabins could be discounted if they don't sell close to a sailing. But discounts on single cabins are rare as they typically book up very early.
Why: The cozy atmosphere on Seabourn's small ships assures solos that they won't be overlooked, and getting to know fellow guests is easy.
Special Extras: One of Seabourn's lovely traditions is to have its officers and entertainment staffers host tables at dinner -- not only on a formal evening but on just about every night. Solo travelers receive special consideration when it comes to invites -- so you really don't have to dine alone if you don't choose to. As well, single ladies will be escorted across the dining room by the maitre d', a nice touch.
Discounts Available: Depending on the sailing and the time of year, Seabourn offers capacity-controlled discounts on "run of the ship" A-, B2- or V1-category suites. Solos pay just 50 percent more than double-occupancy passengers, but Seabourn will choose their statement location. Assignments will be made about 30 days before sailing.
Why: Costa Cruises actually has single cabins (or in some cases, regular cabins priced for solos) on most of its ships. Unfortunately for American cruisers, these solo staterooms are not available outside of Europe.
Special Extras: This Italian cruise line offers singles' meet-and-greet parties on board, and the full range of other traditional shipboard activities that encourage social interaction among solo passengers. As Europeans love to dance, Costa's newest ships have some of the largest dance floors on the seas. While they don't have dedicated gentlemen hosts, there are plenty of opportunities to take to the dance floor for everything from merengue to polka!
Discounts Available: Europeans who book a dedicated single cabin do pay a supplement, but it can be as low as 30 percent above the double-occupancy rate. North Americans typically have to pay 80 to 100 percent more than the regular fares.
Why: Have you ever considered taking a ferry for a cruise vacation? The small ships of Hurtigruten are actually part of the Norwegian highway system, delivering goods and people to the towns along the west coast of the country, places where highways cannot be built. You can travel 13 days from the Arctic Circle to Bergen in the south (or reverse) or just do a four-day trip from Tromso to Bergen (or reverse). It's an incredible voyage; the ships are unique, offering charming accommodation and three meals a day. However, do beware that most meals and beverages, including coffee, is priced on an a la carte basis.
Special Extras: There are no special activities for solo passengers, but the congenial, relaxed ambience and excitement over the magnificent scenery make it easy to meet people.
Discounts Available: Hurtigruten charges a mere 10 percent supplement on suites year-round; solo passengers booking regular cabins pay no supplement between mid-September and mid-April. Check for special senior savings as well.
Why: Cunard's ships have long attracted solo travelers to its traditional cruise ships and ocean liners, and the convivial onboard atmosphere means that solos can easily make friends, if they so choose, with their shipmates. Cunard does try to accommodate passengers who wish to dine solo, but this depends on how full each voyage is. In general, solo travelers are assigned to tables with other singles. In addition, gentleman hosts are available to whirl single ladies around the dance floor.
Special Extras: Solo travelers will never be bored with so many activities taking place onboard. You can attend lectures by experts in various fields, see a planetarium show on QM2, enjoy theatrical workshops and performances by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, play numerous rounds of team trivia, and bliss out in the spa.
Discounts Available: Cunard's typical solo supplement is 200 percent for Queens and Princess Grill and 175 percent for inside, outside and balcony cabins. Very occasionally will the line off discounts to solo travelers.