After a long, hot day investigating the Mayan ruins of Mexico's Chichen Itza, I was unwinding in the hotel pool. A mariachi band played at one end, my margarita was parked at the other, and a thousand-watt full moon lit the space between. I paddled back and forth, alternately lamenting, on the one hand, having no significant friend or family to share the day and moment-and yet delighting in the private, unshared experience of that serenade to the sole swimmer in a moonlit pool. And last winter, when I finished near the top of my group in a skiing race, I overlooked the lack of a loved one to hug me in my success and instead accepted congratulatory cheers from co-racers, many of whose names I did not know.
Certainly, traveling solo has bittersweet moments, but it's infinitely more rewarding than staying home. Whether it is conflicting schedules, conflicting interests, or because the number of unmarried people in the U.S. has doubled in the last few decades, solo travel is one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel business. According to the Travel Industry Association, nearly one quarter of U.S. travelers, or 34.8 million adults, have taken a vacation by themselves in the past three years, double the number of a decade ago. Traveling solo means never having to say you are sorry about wanting to do something your travel partner doesn't, whether it is all-day tennis, shopping, or museum hopping. Going solo lets you fulfill your "wish list," even make those you left behind jealous of your adventurous enterprise. It does not mean being alone and feeling lonely, since it is difficult to be alone in a crowd of like-minded people.
The key to finding rewarding, exciting, low-cost travel for singles is to choose non-standard, nontraditional vacations. You do not purchase a vegetate-on-the-beach vacation, a look-at-the-sights vacation, a socialize-at-a-cookie-cutter-resort vacation-all of these are bound to disappoint. They frequently leave you feeling isolated and alone, constantly challenged to make conversation in artificial and pressured group situations that have no guiding theme. You constantly feel that the key daily goal is to meet as many other singles as possible (which rarely happens). Rather, the smart single traveler chooses vacations that concentrate on a topic, purpose, or activity outside the world of socializing. You choose to go with people who are focused not on themselves or their social needs but on an independent special interest, a desire for learning, a strongly held belief that has nothing to do with their own personalities or personal needs. And when you make that type of choice, you inevitably meet fascinating people and end up with strong friendships; you also spend less and enjoy more.
An Earthwatch Expeditions program (log on to ) is that sort of vacation; with Earthwatch, you make a (possibly tax deductible) payment to accompany a noted university researcher into the areas of their study, perhaps tagging seals, making inventories of scarce plants, counting the number of animals or fish that pass a given point each day. You occupy lodgings rented to serve the particular scientific project, perhaps using a sleeping bag or cot in the living room, making communal meals. You pay no single supplement and meet other dynamic persons who are among our most outstanding citizens; and whether you are traveling as a single or as part of a couple becomes utterly unimportant (the majority of participants travel alone). You can learn more about Earthwatch Expeditions by accessing its Web site (see above), and you will find a similar, extensive program operated by the Research Expeditions Program of the University of California (www.extension.ucdavis.edu/urep) for projects initiated by its faculty and graduate students. Alternatively, you can also sign up to assist noted archaeologists in their fieldwork both in the U.S. and abroad.
Crow Canyon Archaeological Center () is a nonprofit group that conducts archaeological expeditions and solicits volunteers of all ages (and mainly singles) to assist in them. And for a great many other such volunteer activities, contact the Archaeological Conservancy at www.archaeologicalconservancy.org/aaabout.html.
As you might expect, singles of all ages are also the overwhelming majority of guests at America's most popular "personal growth" centers, arts-and-crafts schools, yoga and Buddhist retreats, and campus summer sessions; and the pricing policies of nearly all of these vacation institutions are favorable to the single person traveling alone. The Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York (800/944-1001, www.eomega.org), America's foremost center for exploring personal relationships and psychological issues, maintains spacious dormitory accommodations for singles starting at $70 per person per night, including three (vegetarian) meals daily; it is primarily patronized by singles.
The giant Kripalu Institute in Lenox, Massachusetts (800/741-7353, ), a foremost yoga center, offers rooms and dorms with multiple beds (six to 22 bunks, hallway baths) for singles at $100 per night, including three vegetarian meals daily, and is also primarily visited by singles. (For other residential yoga retreats, simply subject "yoga" to a Google search.
Also heavily booked by singles of all ages are the nationwide out-of-doors hiking or work trips ("outings") of that important defender of the American environment, the Sierra Club, headquartered in San Francisco (415/977-5500, ). Since most of their programs employ sleeping bags, tents, or hostel-type lodges and huts, there is rarely a single supplement, and prices often average well under $100 a day for everything-accommodations, guides, and three meals daily.
Finally, as the number of single travelers grows, so does the number of companies that aid the single traveler. More and more singles specialists emerge each year. But it's important to acknowledge what they cannot do. No singles travel organization can normally obtain a waiver of the single-room supplement from hotels, cruise lines, and resorts that charge a single-room supplement. That would be asking a travel miracle. Instead, they specialize in pairing you with another single traveler of the same sex (or, if you're a mature traveler and indicate your willingness, with a single traveler of the opposite sex but on a purely platonic basis).
The longest established of the companies that pair up single travelers for the purpose of enabling them to avoid (a) loneliness and (b) a single-room supplement, and to share and thus divide other costs (like the rental of a car) as well, is the 21-year-old Travel Companion Exchange of Amityville, New York (), headed by a distinguished travel professional, Jens Jurgen, and his wife, Eul. They assist in matching up hundreds of would-be travelers each year-and, from all reports, quite successfully-but their clientele is almost always middle-aged or older, despite the Jurgens' willingness to perform that service for singles of any age. If you go to TCE's Web site (see above), you'll find an impressive statement of its principles and goals, which it achieves through circulation of an equally impressive bimonthly newsletter ("Travel Companions"); attached are several pages of classifieds placed by members seeking other members to share travel costs. Responses are initially passed on by the organization, thus protecting the identity of members until they have fully determined the bona fides of an offer.
Recently, the publisher of Shaw Guideshas created a somewhat similar match-up service that is apparently intended for younger travelers who utilize the Internet. Known as TravelChums (212/787-2621; ), it is an entirely free-of-charge service whose effectiveness we cannot yet gauge. The fact that it does not charge for the match-up will probably result in much less of the remarkable personal service provided by Travel Companion Exchange; but according to TravelChums, over 29,884 persons have already registered. A great many other travel organizations schedule periodic trips for singles and then match up the participants for double rooms, permitting them to avoid the dreaded single-room supplement.
Among the most active of these nationwide firms are as follows: O Solo Mio (800/959-8568, ) of Los Altos, California, is an especially active nationwide firm in business since 1991 that operates tours for singles of a broad age range (mostly between 40-60); it arranges roommates for all participants desiring to share. Recent trips have included long weekends in Las Vegas; Alaskan cruises; the lowlands of Holland; the high living of Paris, London, and Rome; and a number of South American packages.
Aim Higher Travel (877/752-1858, ) of Winfield, Illinois, is a cruise specialist with a "guaranteed share program": It will try to find a roommate for you, but if that fails, it will absorb the single-cabin supplement. Travel Buddies (800/998-9099, www.travelbuddiesworldwide.com) of Cloverdale, British Columbia, Canada, operates active, interesting tours (wine-tasting in Italy, a golf tournament in Costa Rica, Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises) on which it will match up participants with roommates free of charge, enabling them to avoid the single supplement.
And then there are organizations that not only arrange "shares" but attempt to attract large numbers of singles for specific dates or departures. Foremost among them:
Windjammer Barefoot Cruises (800/327-2601, ) of Miami, Florida, the famed Tall Ship cruise company, sets aside a few cruises each year only for single travelers, who share cabins and thus avoid a single supplement. Perhaps the most popular of the line's sailings, these tend to fill up early.
The World Outdoors (800/488-8483, ) of Boulder, Colorado, a massive wildlife/adventure travel company, set aside 35 of its outings this year for solo travelers. And since many of these vacations involve camping, single supplements apply only when inns are used. But solos need not limit themselves to these specialty weeks: On most of the company's regular outings, a full 50 percent of the participants come alone. Sample trips from a recent catalog: "Alaska Wildlands Hiker," "Colorado Backcountry Multi-Sport," and "Canyonlands-Escalante Hiker."
And then there are the several nationwide and international clubs that look out for the needs of traveling singles: Travelin' Singles Club (www.travelinsingles.com) of Anaheim, California, has been organizing tours for solos in their 30s, 40s, and 50s since 1980. Members can subscribe free to an online newsletter describing prospective trips.
Outdoor Singles Network (no phone number; ) of Haines, Alaska, is a long-established (1989) quarterly newsletter for outdoor-loving singles, ages 19 to 90, that helps to find them a travel companion; $55 for a one-year hard-copy subscription with your personal ad printed in the next issue, $35 for online membership ($75 for both), and $15 for the current issue.
Connecting Solo Travel Network (604/886-9099, ) of Gibsons, British Columbia, Canada, is a network of traveling singles who host other traveling singles around the world. A constantly updated list of travel hosts is provided. Members also receive a bimonthly newsletter with free ads soliciting travel companions and also describing tours and cruises that are "singles friendly." A membership costs $30.
Going Solo Travel Club (800/475-3755, ) of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, is for singles of all ages. The club announces international tours, monthly activities, and weekend getaways in Alberta and British Columbia. It charges no membership fee.