These two words strike dread — not to mention resentment — in the heart of a solo traveler. Consider for a moment the cost of a superior ocean-view room on a Royal Caribbean International seven-night Alaska cruise. For two adults, it’s $1,539 each. For a single traveler, the cost is $2,843 — an additional $1,304.
Single supplement? Or single penalty?
Royal Caribbean is by no means alone. Supplements are a widespread industry practice in both the cruise and packaged tour industries. Travel companies say that these surcharges (which are generally anywhere from 10 to 100 percent or more of the standard rate) are justified because most accommodations, whether in a hotel or on a ship, are priced for double occupancy.
“To sell that stateroom to only one person," said H.J. Harrison Liu, a spokesman for Royal Caribbean, “that wouldn’t necessarily make business sense for us."
Solo travelers, as one might imagine, tend to have a different view of supplements.
“It’s the bane of the single person’s travel existence," said Bella DePaulo, a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies what she calls “singlism," or the ways in which single people are stereotyped and discriminated against (it’s also the name of her most recent book).
One experienced solo traveler from New York, Arlene Rosenberg, decried single supplements and in an email asked me how to skirt them.
“I’m really missing out on a lot of travel opportunities because of this," she said.
Supplements have been around for decades, but with each year they become more out of sync with the nation’s demographics as the United States grows increasingly single. According to figures released last year by the Census Bureau, there were 102 million unmarried people 18 and older in America in 2011 — more than 44 percent of adult residents. That’s up from 92 million in 2006, which was 42 percent of residents 18 and older. It won’t be long before half of the country is unmarried.
Of course, many unmarried people live with a partner, so not all of them are traveling solo; yet married people aren’t all traveling in pairs either. About 12 percent of U.S. adults, married or unmarried, plan to travel solo this year, up significantly from 7 percent last year, according to the American Express Spending & Saving Tracker. And if companies make it more affordable for people to travel on their own — by dropping supplements and offering deals to solo travelers the way they offer deals to couples and families — that number might climb even higher.
A number of tour companies — including Rick Steves’ Europe, Backroads and G Adventures — attempt to take the sting out of supplements by offering a halfway measure: They will waive the supplement if solo travelers agree to be matched with a roommate. In some cases, if the travel company cannot find you a roommate, you get the room to yourself. Singles travel companies like AllSinglestravel.com offer roommate matching with that guarantee. No matter what, be sure to read the fine print. For instance, SinglesCruise.com notes that it “accepts no responsibility for roommate matching incompatibility such as sleep patterns, snoring, noise or age differences."
Those who want to select their own cruise buddy can try sites like CruiseMates.com, which has a message board where users can post roommate requests.
It’s nice to have these options, but for many solo travelers, roommates are something they left behind in college — and they want to keep it that way. The reasons for that range from the obvious inconvenience of rooming with a stranger to a more profound idea that DePaulo refers to as “single at heart." It’s the notion that some people are single not because they can’t find a partner but because, as she puts it, “single is who they are" and “how they live their most authentic life."
These are people who want “to regulate their own space and time" — all of which is at odds with having a roommate when on vacation, let alone one they don’t know.
DePaulo thinks charging single supplements is ultimately a silly business decision. If travel companies drop the surcharges, they might lose money in the short term, but in the long run they would gain the loyalty of millions of solo travelers.
As it turns out, there are a handful of companies that in the past few years have been willing to do just that by waiving some supplement fees (not just lowering them) and by dedicating a portion of their websites to solo travel. In a perfect world, these companies would do away with supplements entirely. But for now, consider this the first of what I hope will be a growing list of solo-friendly cruise lines and tour companies. Intrepid solo travelers, this one’s for you.
• Avalon Waterways: One way to avoid single supplements on cruises is to book far in advance, a month or so before New Year’s Day or shortly after. For travelers who book their 2013 cruises early, this river and small-ship cruise line dropped the single supplement on a number of departures in Europe, including Magnificent Europe from Budapest to Amsterdam (15 days starting at $4,499 for a single during a recent search) and Paris to Normandy’s Landing Beaches (eight days starting at $2,849). Information: Avalonwaterways.com.
• Grand Circle Cruise Line: Over the past few years this company, which caters to baby boomers, has had an increase in the number of solo travelers (particularly women), prompting it to address their needs. That meant training guides on how to make solo travelers feel included in all activities, as well as doing away with single supplements on its new small-ship cruises to Myanmar, the French and Italian Rivieras, Turkey and Greece. (One of those new tours, the 15-day Rivieras: France, Italy & the Isles, begins at $3,895.) There are no single supplements for add-on trips to nearby cities before or after any 2013 cruise either. Why, there is even a “solo traveler challenge" guaranteeing that “you cannot find a lower price for a solo traveler on any comparable international trip for Americans." If you do, Grand Circle will match that price and deduct $500 from the cost of your vacation. Information: www.gct.com.
• International Expeditions: In response to the growing number of solo travelers interested in its eco-travel trips, this nature company has waived supplement fees on select cabins on all of its 2013 Amazon (from $3,898 until July and $4,398 after) and Galapagos (from $5,098) small-ship cruises. Information: ietravel.com.
• Norwegian Cruise Line: Norwegian was voted best cruise line for solo travelers last year by readers of Porthole Cruise Magazine. Its Epic has 128 studio staterooms designed specifically for solo travelers. The studios (about 100 square feet) also include entry to the Studio Lounge, a shared key-card-access-only area with a bar and television screens. And thanks to increased demand, there is more to come: Two new ships, the Breakaway and the Getaway, will also have solo-friendly cabins and lounges. The cabins will be added to the line’s Pride of America ship too. Information: ncl.com.
• Vacations to Go: This travel agency offers discounted single supplements for an array of cruise lines like Silversea, Crystal and Paul Gauguin. To find solo travel deals, visit Vacationstogo.com (albeit not the easiest site to navigate) and select “singles discounts" from the column on the left side of the page. That will bring up a list of cruises from various lines along with their single supplements (some have no supplements). A division of Vacations to Go, Amariver cruises.com might also be worth checking out from time to time. For example, the single supplement on some Mekong River itineraries has been waived for travelers who book by March 31. Another division of Vacations to Go, Uniworld.com, is one of the oldest river cruise lines, and it has waived single supplements on several itineraries, which on a recent search included Paris and Normandy (10 days starting at $3,499) and Venice and the Po River (eight days starting at $3,199). Information: vacationstogo.com.
• Abercrombie & Kent: “Solo savings," a nascent category of departures to popular destinations such as Egypt, Kenya and Tanzania with this luxury tour company either have no single supplement or are reduced by up to 75 percent. For instance, a recent search turned up 25 percent off the single supplement for a 10-day Egypt and the Nile tour in March, making the starting price $1,575, down from $2,100. Information: abercrombiekent.com.
• Overseas Adventure Travel: Owned by Grand Circle Corporation (the parent company of Grand Circle Cruise Line), this company has no single supplements for any land or small-ship adventures, including the land tour Ultimate Africa: Botswana, Zambia & Zimbabwe Safari (from $5,820) and Ancient Kingdoms: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia (from $3,995). Plus, it has the same “solo traveler challenge" guarantee as Grand Circle Cruise Line (see above). Information: oattravel.com.
• Tauck: Founded in 1925, this tour company has dropped the single supplement from Category 1 cabins on all of its 2013 European river cruises, like the 12-day Blue Danube tour, from $4,490. And on certain land tours in Asia, Latin America and Europe, the company offers “solo traveler savings," such as $600 off the regular rates of its popular India tour — but the trip still costs solo travelers a few thousand dollars more. Tauck does get points for its website, which has a solo traveler forum where you can get answers to questions like “Would I feel comfortable by myself?" Information: tauck.com.
A last bit of advice: Think globally. To avoid supplements and roommates, consider traveling with a company based overseas, like Mercury Direct in London, which has no single supplements for tours of spots as varied as Sri Lanka, Cyprus and Egypt. And the Majestic Line, a U.K.-based cruise company, reserves two cabins for solo travelers on each of its small ships at no additional cost. Information: mercury-direct.co.uk and themajesticline.co.uk.