The same old images still adorn the walls and windows of your local travel office: Smiling nuclear families discovering Disney World and well-tanned, hand-clasped couples honeymooning on the white sand shores of a Caribbean paradise.
While families still go to Disney World and couples still honeymoon in the Bahamas, these images are increasingly anachronistic representations of the typical American traveler. Millions of people today travel with neither families nor mates, but alone—as unattached singles.
In the last decade, the number of single travelers has exploded to reach more than a quarter of the entire industry—a percentage that continues to rise along with divorce rates and the average marrying age. According to Connected: Solo Traveler’s Network, a leading online singles travel community, one-third of the adult population is single and travels that way. “We're divorced, widowed, married to spouses who don't care to travel, or we're just plain single,” say Cstn.com’s editors. “The one thing we have in common is that we are all looking for comfortable and economical ways of traveling alone … without paying expensive single supplement fees.”
Whether these single travelers are looking for an open-bar hook-up scene, or just a way to avoid those bummer “single supplements” at hotels, there’s no shortage of travel companies offering to help.
In the '70s, Club Med and an outfit called Single World (long since defunct) were the only real options for stag travelers looking for trips that catered to their particular situation. Today, nearly two-dozen major tour operators offer tailored service to the growing singles travel market. These companies are a diverse lot, offering everything from traditional party cruises to rugged backwoods adventure trips. To help buyers find the right company, there are also singles travel message boards and newsletters galore, suggesting the arrival of a full-blown subculture.
But what, exactly, is “singles travel”? The variety of services offered under the term is a source of frequent confusion, say industry leaders, exacerbated by cross-promotional activities often linking singles travel agencies to internet dating sites.
Mark Braunstein, CEO of Singles Travel Service, estimates that a "small percentage" of customers are looking for love when they book a trip through his company. “But when guests do meet, the relationships tend to last because it is often based on a strong common interest. For example, guests who have met on our ski trips are already in love with winter sports and skiing.”
Braunstein’s company has been a close witness to and participant in the boom in singles travel. Since Singles Travel Service began posting trips on the internet four years ago, he says, sales have more than doubled each year. In 2007, his firm saw a 245 percent increase in bookings for his Caribbean party cruises and singles heritage tours of Central America and Asia.
Where singles travelers go depends on what they’re looking for, notes Tammy Weiler, a former flight attendant who founded Singles Travel International in 1995. “At the moment the hottest singles trip ‘party’ destination is Miami, hands down,” she says, “followed by Las Vegas, Chicago, Madrid, London, Dublin and Prague. And of course Caribbean cruises are still popular.”
Singles cruises aren’t the one-size-fits-all party boats of yore. Today’s single travelers have plenty of choice when it comes to how they spend time between shore excursions. And, with whom. There are salsa dance cruises, senior and baby boomer cruises, gay and lesbian cruises, even religious-themed cruises.
Single travelers also face a choice of adventure travel companies that now specifically service the solo-traveler market. The World Outdoors, Adventures for Singles and Back Roads are just three of the biggest operators who take small groups of singles deep into jungles and mountain ranges around the world.
But even when far from the world of double-occupancy cruise cabins, global loners can’t always escape the curse of the singles supplement charge. For example, the World Outdoors’ Alaskan wilderness tour tacks on a $650 single supplement if you choose not to be matched with another member of the group. On the upscale Australia tour offered by the Singles Travel Service, the additional cost of bunking alone is $1,500—a 40 percent mark-up over the double-occupancy package price.
To sidestep this surcharge, most singles travel companies offer a pre-trip match-up. For example, Vacations to Go will pair same-sex, independent travelers and give them the standard couples rate. If they can’t match you before the date of departure, they’ll cover the penalty. Some companies are also able to secure a limited number of single occupancy rooms.
Another way to beat the singles supplement is to avoid package tours entirely and find a traveling partner through sites like Mango-Tree.com, which allow users to peruse traveler profiles of people heading to the same places and who share similar interests and traveling styles.
These days, whether you’re heading to the Bahamas or Belarus, you don’t have to be alone just because you’re single.