Image: Solo travels
Jeff Chiu  /  AP file
The dreaded single supplement isn’t new. If you travel by yourself, and stay in a room or cabin meant for two, you’d expect to pay a little more. But lately, columnist Christopher Elliott writes, travel companies have come to see singles as suckers.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/2/2008 10:58:44 AM ET 2008-06-02T14:58:44

Flying solo? Prepare to pay up.

Janet Rahn, a software test analyst from Oakland, Calif., was shocked when she recently asked for a single rate on an Overseas Adventure Travel tour of Kenya and Tanzania. “As part of the package, they offered a layover in Amsterdam for about $125, based on double occupancy,” she remembers. “As a single, I’m being charged $270.”

The dreaded single supplement — charging solo guests up to twice a couple’s rate — isn’t new. If you travel by yourself, and stay in a room or cabin meant for two, you’d expect to pay a little more.

But lately, it seems, travel companies have come to see singles as suckers. For example, Rahn says that in addition to shelling out twice the room rate, Overseas Adventure Travel wanted her to pay a $20 penalty. Indeed, singles are often singled out for punitive fees and surcharges, ranging from extra taxes and port charges to “supplements” that far exceed what two people sharing a cabin or room would have to pay.

“It doesn’t make sense,” says Rahn. “If I were traveling with someone else, we would be charged a total of $250 for the room. Traveling by myself, I’m charged $270?”

She’s right, of course. It doesn’t make any sense.

Or does it? I asked Overseas Adventure Travel about the price discrepancy. It turns out the single rate of $270 is correct. But a review of Rahn’s reservation records suggests she may have been quoted the wrong price when she phoned the company. “My sales colleague might have given her the estimate of about $120 because she considered Ms. Rahn to be part of a double,” spokeswoman Priscilla O’Reilly told me. To its credit, the company agreed to honor its first price quote.

It might be a mistake to write off Rahn’s experience as a simple misunderstanding. Vicki Fuller, a retired teacher from New York, says she’s been paying single supplements for years, and has noticed a pattern. “They’re often 150 to 200 percent over the regular price for double occupancy,” she says.

“It feels like discrimination,” says reader Melanie Austin, summing up the sentiments of  many solo travelers I’ve heard from.

It often is discrimination. Here four ways the travel industry is biased against singles – and what you can do about it.

1. Your money — or your vacation
Travel companies sometimes treat their solo travelers worse than cargo. Shannon Kovack and her roommate prepaid for a tour of southern India last year. But just before their trip, her roommate broke her wrist and had to stay home. “I was contacted by the tour company and advised that now that I was a single traveler, I would have to pay an additional $2,990,” she says. “I pointed out that our trip was already paid for. Nope, they said — you have to pay the extra.”

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Holding your vacation hostage in that way is wrong on so many levels, I don’t even know where to begin. But Kovack could have also bought travel insurance, which would have covered the extra money her tour operator was demanding at the 11th hour.

2. More fees, please
One of the most common complaints I get from cruise passengers is that their single supplement more than doubled the cost of their cruise. When asked, their cruise line says the extra covers taxes and port fees. Some travel agents have suggested that this is nothing more than a money grab by cruise lines, and that those port fees aren’t going to the port, but straight to the cruise line’s bottom line. I think they’re probably right.

Reader Joanne Hoefer managed to sail around the fee problem when she took a cruise to Europe recently. “I found a really good travel agent, and she held my booking until the day after the final payments were due,” she told me. “That’s when the cruise lines start to cut fares.” She ended up paying less than half what she expected in single supplements.

3. Here’s the worst room in the house
On a four-week tour of Greece, Maia Russell discovered that twice the price doesn’t always mean twice the room. As a solo traveler, she was handed the keys to closet-sized quarters. “The bed took up most of the room,” she remembers. “The washbasin was cracked, and water leaked onto the floor when you washed your hands. There was no fan, it was very hot and stuffy. The sheets didn’t look very fresh, and the counterpane was dirty. I couldn’t even open the windows.”

How to fix that? Russell asked politely to be moved to a larger, cleaner room. “Not possible,” she was told when she phoned the front desk. “We are fully booked.” Unable to sleep because of noise from the nearby elevator and the stifling heat, she finally threatened to come to the reception desk in her nightgown and “make a scene.” The hotel promptly moved her to a spacious room with a working air conditioner.

4. We don’t want your kind
The travel industry makes life uncomfortable for solo travelers in countless other ways that, if they aren’t discriminatory, are at the very least awkward. Try eating in a restaurant by yourself if you need an example of that awkwardness. Reader Catherine Partridge is frustrated by seeing advertisements for travel products that end up costing her more because of a “hefty single supplement meant to punish solo travelers.” She adds, “The travel industry has absolutely no understanding that some people have to or even want to travel solo.” Her anger boiled over recently when American Airlines introduced a Web site for women traveling. “I thought this was great until I realized it was aimed at women traveling with their kids, or in groups,” she says.

Maybe the best way of approaching a travel industry that continues to treat singles as second-class citizens is to remind them that you are part of a large and growing group, at least according to a 2005 survey of travelers, which found that 4 in 10 people vacation on their own.

The travel industry often takes solo travelers for granted, asking them to pay more and giving them less. A competent travel agent and a phone call is sometimes all it takes to remind them that just because you’re single, doesn’t mean you’re a sucker.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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