In recent years solo travel has grown quickly and diversified hugely, with more and more people choosing to holiday alone. But post-pandemic, does it still hold the same appeal?
Over the last few years, solo travel has not only grown quickly, but diversified hugely. Operators have tailored their offerings to a wide range of holidaymakers who come from all walks of life: these travellers are no longer confined to backpackers who book open-ended flights directly with the airline, or the over 60s on coaching holidays. In fact, solo travel now accounts for around 11 per cent of all trips taken by Britons.
Last year, at ABTA’s New Opportunities in the Solo Travel Market Event, we reported on how, more and more, these holidaymakers are travelling alone because they want to, not because they have to – taking ‘purpose-driven’ trips.
Will Sarson, head of specialist product at Riviera Travel, told delegates that solo travel can be “transformational” for first-time customers, with Radha Vyas, co-founder of Flash Pack, saying the company aims its marketing at those in their 30s and 40s who feel “slightly isolated when their friends start settling down”, but no longer want to go backpacking – targeting a different demographic to your traditional independent traveller.
According to research last year by Expedia, two-thirds of travellers said they “prefer the freedom of travelling alone and meeting new people over the desire to have a vacation companion”, with the numbers higher among the young. But, in the age of Covid-19 – after months away from loved ones and in an increasingly complicated world – does solo travel hold the same appeal?
Rachel Coffey, business development director of Trafalgar, Costsaver, Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, admits that while “solo travel will always have an appeal, certainly in the short to medium term we are seeing increased interest in groups of families and friends wanting to travel together, perhaps in response to being separated from them for so long”.
While many solo travellers will tell you that their fears of travelling alone were totally allayed once they took the plunge, the new normal presents challenges and worries for even the most hardy traveller. Navigating the travel corridors list and Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice is daunting – particularly with the knowledge the rug could be pulled out
from under you at any time.
“Our message to all our agent partners and their clients is that we have taken all the stress out of it and taken care of every detail, so they can book and travel with us with confidence, whether they are travelling solo or as part of a couple or group,” Coffey says.
Brian Young of G Adventures agrees that solo travellers who would have normally managed their trip independently are now embracing organised trips. “Now, more than ever, travelling with an operator well set up for independent travellers will offer the flexibility, reassurance, expertise and community that contribute to a great adventure,” he says.
Holiday protection and flexible booking policies will be more important ever in this new landscape, a long with expert advice from travel agents, while booking with an operator offers an additional safety net – fellow solo travellers.
“The opportunity to meet new friends and like-minded people from around the world has been a big draw for many solo travellers when booking a small group tour,” Young says, noting that active adventures such as trekking Kilimanjaro and hiking the Inca Trail are performing particularly well. The pandemic, he says, is driving travellers to commit to challenges they may have put off in previous years.
Donna Jeavons, Contiki’s director of sales and marketing for the UK and Europe, says the number of solo travellers booking with the company has been on the rise for a number of years – and their reasons for doing so won’t change in the age of Covid-19. “Our travellers come to us because they are seeking a shared, sociable travel experience with like-minded people, and because we take care of all the details; our trip managers, local guides and our 24/7 traveller support team are always on hand. I think that gives solo travellers a confidence that they wouldn’t get with other types of travel, especially in these uncertain times, so I hope we’ll see those numbers go from strength to strength in 2021.”
Like hotels, airlines and cruise ships, operators will need to be transparent with guests about the safety protocols in place. Coffey says that “as well as curating perfectly paced itineraries that combine showstopping sights with off the beaten track experiences, we have done all our due diligence with post-Covid protocols and will not compromise on our exemplary hygiene standards – nothing is more important than the health and wellbeing of our guests.”
One issue for solo travellers will be the already tricky world of single supplements. Many operators will pair travellers with a similarly-minded companion, unless they pay to have the room themselves. It’s the reason why G Adventures, as well as launching a Travel with Confidence policy, which includes increased safety and hygiene processes across trips, has also created a Travel with Confidence Plus collection – offering additional social distancing and private rooms at a discount.
Saga, which has always served solo customers well, made sure its first purpose-built ship, Spirit of Discovery, continued that legacy. There are 109 single cabins, all with a balcony, which are 85 per cent the size of a standard twin or double cabin at 26 sq m, while Norwegian Cruise Line, with its dedicated solo-guest area, continues to lead the way for independent travel in cruise. When the FCO ban on cruise lifts, ship travel remains a great option for solos.
Before the pandemic, more than half of Intepid’s customers were solo travellers, says Zina Bencheikh, the operator’s EMEA managing director, who only expects that number to grow in future. “Companies who have relationships with the local communities they visit can provide reassurance and allow solo travellers to feel at ease while away from home during such uncertain time,” she says.
She adds that, because “clients will want to explore their backyards and travel small distances at first”, the operator has launched Intrepid Retreats – shorter getaways closer to home and focused on one location. It’s proof that for operators who can couple expert advice and agility – in terms of the itineraries and flexibility they offer – will be well placed to handle a new generation of solo travellers in the new normal.