What is it about going solo that appeals to so many travellers today? Is it the freedom to decide your day’s itinerary – only after you’ve had your morning coffee alone in a strange hotel? Is it the thrill of discovering an alien environment all on your own? Is it the carte blanche to stop and linger at a place for as long as you want?
Statistics show a steady rise in solo travellers that surpasses any previous figure in history. Global home-sharing platform Airbnb reveals that the number of outbound solo Singaporean female travellers has more than doubled in the past few years. Hotel price comparison site Hotelscan.com saw a 170 percent jump in the number of people looking to book a room for one in 2018.
Image sharing site Pinterest reports that searches for “solo travel” shot up by nearly 600 percent this year. Google Trends reports that from 2015 to 2017, there was a worldwide 50 percent increase in the search term “solo travel”. And various tour operators – including Luxury Escapes, Lightfoot Travel and Insight Vacations – all report a rising trend in solo travellers signing up for their luxury packages.
Journalist-turned-author Clara Chow, 41, has been travelling alone since 2014. A wife and mother of two, she would hop on a plane and travel by herself to find inspiration for her books. Past destinations include Iceland, Denmark and Indonesia. She says: “To travel by yourself is to have peace and quiet, and do mundane things like taking your time at the supermarket or watching people on the subway. For a working mother, that’s a luxury.”
In the past, people travelling alone – especially women – might have been perceived as “eccentric”. But today it’s seen as normal, perhaps even “glamorous”, Ms Chow says, because it shows you have the spending power to pamper yourself any way you like. Travelling alone even gave her the inspiration for her new collection of short stories, Modern Myths (2018), which fuses ancient Greek mythology with contemporary environments.
For Ann Marie Santo, an Irish schoolteacher at the Singapore-based international school UWC South East Asia, a solo trip once a year is a must. The 38-year-old wife and mother of three says: “It’s really important for me to get in touch with myself without the kids around. I experience things a lot differently when I’m alone. I engross myself in a new culture, catch a foreign movie, go to nice spas and bars, and generally notice more things about the places I’m visiting.”
She says: “I think the best part of it is that I’m forced to communicate with people a lot more. And people are generally more accommodating and polite towards a woman travelling alone.”
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HOW TOUR OPERATORS HELP
But while a lot of people are choosing to travel alone, many prefer to do so within the organised structure and security provided by tour operators. Rather than planning out everything themselves, they leave the nitty-gritty of booking rooms, restaurants and activities in the hands of the experts. “The reason is simple: We’re busy people; we don’t have time to do the research,” says Ms Santo who recently joined a Luxury Escapes trip to Melbourne.
Rajah Chaudhry, Head of Asia, Luxury Escapes, says: “Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a significant rise in interest from solo travellers for our small group luxury tours. Women, mainly in their 50s and 60s, have shown great interest in travelling on our curated luxury tours to our most exotic destinations. Globally, roughly 15 to 20 percent of the travellers in our small luxury tours tend to be solo travellers. And this number is steadily on the rise.”
Mr Chaudry explains: “When it comes to exploring unfamiliar destinations deeply, they prefer to be part of a group, so they can feel comfortable and safe, and also engage and share experiences with fellow travellers. Dining alone can sometimes be lonely and somewhat intimidating for them in foreign countries.”
Some operators charge additional fees for special activities, meals and airport transfers. “Effectively, this means that the revenue earned from a solo traveller is often lower than that generated from a traveller on twin-share basis,” says Mr Chaudry. However, Luxury Escapes chooses to charge only a single traveller premium to cover the additional expense of a single room and not for the other inclusions, so as to keep solo traveller prices low enough to be appealing for this growing market segment.
Meanwhile, Insight Vacations has witnessed a double-digit growth in solo travellers over the last few years. Its CEO Ulla Hefel Böhler says travelling alone within an organised group tour isn’t so paradoxical. She says: “Our groups tend to be small, so it’s easy for a solo traveler to get to know fellow travellers…From the first welcome reception, we ensure that everyone has the opportunity to meet and mingle with others. As such, the social element is a high point and the other travellers in the group are usually very friendly and will take care of the solo travellers.”
And though the guided holidays (be it with Insight Vacations or its higher-end enterprise Luxury Gold) are designed to increase camaraderie among the group’s travellers, those seeking a more individual experience can get plenty of free time to explore a town or city on their own – an experience that water safety expert Kenneth Khoo attests to.
ALONE BUT NOT LONELY
After breaking up with his girlfriend of six years in 2012, Mr Khoo took to travelling by himself – at first to ease his heartache, but later to simply forget work and social obligations. He says: “When I first started travelling alone, I was planning everything by myself. I thought that that was the best way to do it, so I wouldn’t have to meet anyone along the journey asking me why I was alone.”
But that changed when he decided to go on a Insight Vacations holiday in Italy. The 40-year-old says: “I found it much more productive to let the tour operator take care of my basic needs, like meals, hotels and transportation from one city to another. And when I felt anti-social, I would tell our tour guide and she’d help me plan out my day alone. I would use Google Maps and language translation apps to get around – it was very easy.”
He says: “When the sun set, I would rejoin the group for dinner. And instead of looking at me funny, everyone wanted to know what I’d been up to… I personally don’t think there’s any stigma to travelling solo.”
Nico Heath is the co-founder and director of Lightfoot Travel, a luxury tour operator specialising in tailor-made holidays, honeymoons and short breaks. He too has seen a rise in solo travellers, who now make up about 5 percent of Lightfoot’s clientele.
He says: “All of our itineraries are customised, so we can organise anything for solo travellers, whether it is trekking in Bhutan or a week of relaxing in the Maldives… But small group tours have also been attractive to solo travellers. Our boutique expedition cruise, for instance, has guests eating and doing activities together. But because we work with small boats, we don’t get stuck with huge crowds. So that’s still an attractive proposition for solo travellers.”
Some of the Lightfoot Travel’s popular itineraries include its Bhutan hiking tour, which attracts solo travellers looking for a spiritual and healing experience; its Ecuador and the Galapagos package, which includes a luxury yacht trip around the gorgeous volcanic islands; and its Antarctica cruise, which lets one sail past tabular icebergs and penguin colonies on a small ice-strengthened ship.
As Mr Khoo puts it: “If you can get over the initial shyness of telling people you’re on your own, travelling with a group of like-minded people can be very rewarding.”
10 Reasons to travel solo, say those who have
1. It builds your self-confidence and tells the world that you don’t need an entourage to travel in style
2. It compels you to talk to strangers who might have entirely different perspectives on food, politics, romance and everything else. The fact is, there are many solo travellers out there looking to connect with someone like you
3. It makes you appreciate the details of your surroundings and relish every step of your journey and every bite of your food
4. It teaches you to stay on guard, while staying open to new experiences
5. It affirms all your strengths and weakness: For instance, how good is your sense of direction when the wi-fi signal is weak and you can’t use Google Maps? How well can you communicate with your hands or by drawing pictures when you don’t speak the language? How quickly can you make nice with strangers and get them to help you? How much alone time do you need before you start feeling lonely?
6. It gives you carte blanche to lie in bed or by the pool all day instead of seeing the sights – no matter how famous and spectacular those sights may be
7. It helps you switch off from technology, the extensive usage of which new studies now link to stress, insomnia, anxiety and depression
8. However, if you choose to work remotely, it helps you quickly accrue wisdom on how to stay connected, negotiate time differences, conduct phone chats on the cheap, and get stuff done despite the hotel’s possibly lousy wifi
9. It makes those back home – be they family members or colleagues – realise that they sometimes have to solve any current (and hopefully minor) home or office crisis without you.
10. It gives you the very things you normally don’t get enough of the rest of the time – such as uninterrupted sleep, stillness, and the opportunity to regroup, recharge and reflect on how your life has unfolded. And all that might add up to give you the richest travel epiphanies of your life.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.