Kembell Huyke, 74, of Flushing, N.Y., retired as a banker 11 years ago—and now he’s seeing the world. He loves to travel, sometimes with his partner, and sometimes on his own. In the past decade, he has booked a single passage on ten journeys with ElderTreks, a group adventure-travel company for people 50 and older. Among his destinations: Ethiopia, India, Iran, Myanmar, Thailand and Tunisia. “Every trip is a life-enhancing, learning experience,” Huyke says. “Best of all, by the end of every solo trip, I’ve made at least one new friend.”
See Also: SLIDE SHOW: 9 Amazing House Swaps
Huyke is a part of a growing demographic in the travel industry: tourists 55 and older who travel without a spouse or friend, often on group tours or cruises. And many older travelers are truly going it solo—designing itineraries that take them where they want to go without the restrictions of a tour group.
Those choosing to travel unaccompanied are best served by using a travel agent to arrange their trip. “If you need advice on how to get from Point A to Point B, you can call us for help anytime,” says Nathan Warner, a travel agent at Liberty Travel in Dulles, Va.
Beth Jenkins, an agent with McCabe World Travel, in McLean, Va., says that a knowledgeable agent will customize a trip with safety in mind and has contacts for guides and drivers all over the world. The agent also can arrange for a solo traveler to join a group excursion, or even a cooking class, for a day.
However you design your single travel, “when you travel alone, you meet new people,” says Cynthia Schoeppel, 64, of Alexandria, Va., who is divorced. She prefers the security and convenience of group tours, and she has taken ten solo trips in the past decade, including three with educational travel company Road Scholar. Often she selects trips with a home base in a major foreign city—such as Madrid, Rome and Florence—where she is comfortable as part of the group or walking on her own.
Typically, Schoeppel has found there are about six singles out of 25 to 35 people on each Road Scholar trip. “People are friendly,” she says. “All day, you’re busy.” She often goes out in small groups of both singles and couples. In Tuscany, for example, she joined a few people after dinner to sit in a café in a city square.
Tour operator Abercrombie & Kent reports a 19% increase in solo travel in 2013, with most travelers 55 and older. Forty percent of the tour operator’s solo passengers are married, but their partners may not share their interest or they have a scheduling conflict. Many in the married group are pursuing a personal passion such as wildlife photography or history. African safaris are the company’s most popular destination for singles. Small-group travel is a “natural fit” for solo travelers, says Jean Fawcett, media relations manager for Abercrombie and Kent, “giving guests the experience of exploring a destination with other like-minded travelers.”
Women far outnumber men as solo travelers: about 70% versus 30%, say tour operators, who theorize that women over 55 are more adventurous and active than their male peers, and often outlive their partners. JoAnn Bell, vice-president of programs for Road Scholar, says many of the organization’s single travelers are recent widows and widowers, embarking for the first time alone.
Ward Luthi, founder of Walking the World, an adventure-travel company for older explorers, says his tours, typically 10 to 16 people and two guides, lend themselves to solo travel because the group stays together all day. Singles don’t have to fear a later-in-life version of being shunned in the high school cafeteria, he says. Most meals are eaten as a group, or the guides invite the group’s members to eat with them.
The major drawback to traveling alone is not loneliness, but cost, otherwise known as the “single supplement.” Pricing on most group tours and cruises is based on per person, double occupancy. Thus, singles are charged more—sometimes by up to 100%—for bunking alone.
But you can avoid or reduce the single surcharge. Choose a tour operator that welcomes singles. Smithsonian Journeys, for example, will occasionally discount or waive the single supplement. Abercrombie & Kent lists savings on its Solo Travel page, including trips that waive the single supplement or reduce it by up to 75%. Many tour operators, such as Smithsonian Journeys, ElderTreks and Road Scholar, will match singles with a roommate so they can pay the regular rate, and Road Scholar will waive the single supplement if it can’t find you a match. Road Scholar’s Web site has a page for special offers, which includes deals for singles.
If you’re looking for a cruise that caters to the older crowd, look for the higher-end cruise lines that offer smaller ships, such as Oceania, Azamara and Silversea. Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, which provides information and reviews, says Oceania and Azamara “don’t cater specifically to the family market.” Also, she says, Silversea often eliminates or reduces the single supplement. “And river cruises are great because the small ship size encourages group camaraderie,” she says.