GOING SOLO

Cruising alone can open up new vistas

Many – maybe most – people never even consider going on a vacation by themselves, even those who routinely travel alone on business. How can you possibly have a great time without a spouse/significant other, best friend, or at least one of your children to keep you company? The old adage “don’t knock it ’til  you’ve tried it” applies here. You just might find that going it on your own, especially on a cruise ship, provides just the right blend of fun and relaxation. But be forewarned: It can be addictive.

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“Going it alone” conjures up the image of a sad, dejected outcast without friends or family, left to fend for him/herself in a confusing and sometimes hostile world. But going solo has a completely different connotation: it’s the term used to mark an important milestone in one’s development.

A musician’s first solo performance, a pilot’s first solo flight – stepping outside your comfort zone to do something without the security blanket of being part of larger group (even if that group only consists of two) can be scary, but it’s also exciting.  And exhilarating. And once you master it, you want to do it again and again.

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Cruising solo was like that for me. And I’ve talked to many others who feel the same way. Most (but not all) of them are women. Many of them are (like me) women who once would never have thought I’d enjoy traveling alone.  I’ll naturally be writing this from a woman’s perspective, since that’s my perspective – but for anyone, male or female, who wants to giving traveling alone a try, taking a solo cruise is the best and safest way to do it.

The first thing to understand about solo cruising is that it’s not the same thing as singles cruising. The latter refers to unattached men and women who cruise with the objective of “hooking up” (sexually or romantically) with another single. Singles may or may not be solo cruisers, and solo cruisers may or may not be singles. In fact, a large percentage of solos are happily married, in a relationship, or older and not interested in romance at all.

Based on my own experience, the majority of solo cruisers I meet are, like me, in a marriage that’s lasted decades and have husbands who either can’t cruise due to work or physical limitations, just don’t like to cruise, or do enjoy cruising but not as often as their wives want to.

It’s not surprising to me that while most of the men that I see cruising solo are young and unmarried, most of the women are just the opposite. Having talked with or corresponded with many, many cruisers, I think in general women like cruising more than men do. And that comes as no surprise, either.

For most of the guys, it’s an enjoyable vacation. For many married women, it’s not only time off from their regular (money-making) job, but also a vacation from the responsibilities of cleaning, cooking, household management, pet care, and all the other duties that make up her second, unpaid job. I’ve heard countless women (but far fewer men) say at the end of the cruise that if they had one wish, it would be that they could take their cabin stewards home with them.

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Benefit #1  of solo cruising: You get a big bed all to yourself

Given how a cruise makes a woman feel pampered and taken care of, it’s a wonder more of us don’t take off on our own to sail the seas now and then. But we’re conditioned, even in this “liberated” age, to do things as couples. It can be hard to get up the courage to venture out onto that vast ocean on your own.

The Fear Factor

It’s natural to fear the unknown – or at least to worry about it. Some of the women I’ve known who were considering a first solo cruise worried that they were too shy to socialize with strangers or make friends without being part of a couple. (Having gone the political route and served in public office in my younger days, I knew I could glad-hand with the best of them). Others worried about the dangers of being without a man to protect them. (As a former police officer with a few self-defense skills under my belt, I wasn’t concerned about that).

Some married ladies worried that men would see them as “available” and hit on them or that women who were with their husbands or boyfriends would see them as a threat and shun them. (I’ve had plenty of practice handling both of those situations and that doesn’t both me). Some worried about being bored without the constant stimulation of someone else’s company. (Since I grew up as an only child, I learned early on how to keep myself entertained. In fact, as an introvert at heart – albeit a social one – I need and treasure a certain amount of alone time).

My concerns were more practical. Would I be able to handle my luggage by myself? (Easy solution: learn to pack light). Would my husband’s feelings be hurt if I wanted to go without him? (Luckily, he understands). And then there was the financial factor. On most cruise lines, cruising without a roommate means essentially paying double, unless you get lucky and find a cruise with discounted solo prices. (I guess that means more oceanview cabins instead of the balconies and suites we book as a couple. Oh, well. #firstworldproblem).

Hey, life is all about tradeoffs. I’m willing to give up some things to get others. And the benefits of having my cabin all to myself far outweigh (for me) the disadvantages of having to book a cheaper cabin. Besides, I’m pretty good at ferreting out deals, and I’ve sailed alone in some pretty spectacular cabins – either by booking them very early when the low priced but high value categories such as 6Ks and 4Js are available, or by catching price drops that let me move up for just a few dollars to cabins that would have cost hundreds more if I’d booked them to begin with. The upgrade/upsell fairy has been good to me.

Benefits of Being a “Party of One”

I’ve cruised with my husband, with each of my grown children, and with a friend or cousin as a cabin mate. I enjoyed all of those cruises, and I would and will do it again. But I enjoy my solo cruises in a different way. That’s when I can really let go and relax. That’s when I can do whatever I want, when I want to, without considering anyone else’s schedule or preferences or hangups. When I talk to other solo cruisers, overwhelmingly they say that’s their favorite thing about it.

When I’m on my own, I can stay up and out on deck as late as I want without worrying about someone back in the cabin wondering when I’m coming back. And if I’m the one who “stays home” (in the cabin), I don’t have to worry about why the other person isn’t back yet or be rudely awakened when he/she comes stumbling in. I can sleep as late as I want the next morning, without being disturbed when he/she gets up.  I can go to my cabin right after dinner, put on my pajamas and curl up with a good book without disappointing a companion who wants me to go catch a show.

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Cardboard dinner companions don’t steal bites of your food

If I want, I can skip dinner altogether and just order up sweet potato fries and a grilled cheese sandwich from room service, without worrying that the person I’m with wanted to go to the MDR. Or I can eat in the MDR with different people every night, or arrange to eat every night with friends without the dilemma or a spouse, kid or friend who wanted us to get a table for two. And hey, it’s a lot easier for the photographers to get a good photo of one person than to catch two or more looking their best at the same time.

I can go on the excursions that I want to do, instead of being limited by someone else’s lifestyle or fears or physical limitations. I can do no excursions at all, just get off in port and walk around town, get some exercise and fresh air and see some sights and not worry that my companion is bored. And I can walk as slowly or as quickly as I want, jog if I feel like it or linger to take photos, without leaving someone behind or being left behind myself.

Sometimes the tender captain or the tour operator even feels sorry for you, there all by yourself, and lets you drive the boat.

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Driving the tender boat

Of course, I can also join up with the people on the ship I’ve met since embarkation or on previous cruises or through Facebook groups for that cruise, and be part of a big “cruise family” if I want.

Or I can just stay on the ship, enjoy the relative quiet and lack of crowds while everyone else is out and about, actually snag a clamshell lounge on the Serenity deck or win a trophy in the trivia contest.

I never have to sit through a comedy club performance that I find boring or even offensive because it would embarrass my companion if I got up and left. I never have to sit at a bar while my friend or relative drinks or sit in the casino while he/she plays the slots but doesn’t want to be left there alone. I never feel obligated to go to the gym if I don’t want to, or not go to the gym when I do want to, or get dragged to an art auction, or have to feel bad about saying “I’m really not hungry” in response to “Let’s go grab a bite on Lido.”

Bottom line: When I cruise alone, I’m not responsible for anyone’s day or life or happiness except my own.

Some will say that’s true whether I’m alone or not. Some will say two people can cruise together and still go their separate ways, do things together or do things separately. And I know that works for some people. But it never seems to work out that way for me.

And even if it did, there are still the practical, physical differences when you sail alone. Being cooped up in a space that’s less than 300 square feet (in some cases, a lot less) with another human being is hard for someone who’s used to living with one other person in a 4000 square foot house. Call me spoiled or call me blessed – I’m both – but when you’re accustomed to having  your own bathroom, your own office/study/woman cave, other, quieter rooms to run to if the person you live with gets loud, it’s hard to give up that privacy even for a week-long cruise.

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When I sail solo, I don’t have to worry about my roommate snoring loudly enough to wake the dead after too many of those bottomless wine glasses at the Chef’s Table. I don’t have to worry about a companion who can’t go to sleep without a TV on or music playing – when I can’t go to sleep with it. I don’t have to worry about having a messy cabin mate, or being too messy for a cabin mate who’s even more OCD than I, or just disagreeing about how things should be arranged in the closet, or fighting over the one desk and chair when we both want to use our computers, or having to get dressed and go up to a public deck to use a public bathroom because someone is hogging ours.

Taking the First Step

The first time is the hardest – and also the most special, and the one you’ll always remember. That applies to many things in life, and it certainly applies to sailing solo – particularly for women. My “first time” was on a ship I’d sailed on before (with a roommate), the Carnival Freedom (appropriately named for this cruise); I deliberately picked a familiar environment, and an “easy” cruise – one sailing out of Galveston so I didn’t need to fly to port. I cheated a little and got my son to drive me down so I didn’t even have to contend with parking.

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Solo cruising: It’s all about the Freedom …

There was one couple on the cruise with whom I had sailed before, and I “knew” dozens of others because I had started a Facebook group for the cruise and publicized it on the big cruise groups, so we ended up with a hundred or so members.

In fact, joining (or creating) a FB group for your particular cruise is the very best way for a solo cruiser to get to know some people beforehand and never feel all alone in a ship full of strangers.  This is an especially good idea for your first time.

That itinerary was one that I hadn’t done before – but was going to do again just a month later on a sailing with my husband and many of my best cruise friends. I thought of it as a little bit of a recon mission: I would check out the ports beforehand and then know the lay of the land when we went together.

I signed up for excursions in two ports: one with my lady friend I’d met on a previous cruise, and another on my own with nobody I knew. I had a blast on both. I got to go kayaking, take a boat to “stingray city” and get awesome photos of those amazing animals, climb up a river falls and play with dolphins – all things that the family members I’d cruised with before didn’t want to do.

I had dinner with my friend and her family a couple of nights, with another couple I’d just met on another night, alone on Lido once and in my cabin twice. I met up with the group from the Facebook page for drinks and conversation on the first day and the last night, and I went to the production shows and sat down front where I like to sit (but where whomever I’m with usually doesn’t).

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Working for a living … even on a cruise

It was also a “working cruise” in that I had article deadlines I couldn’t miss, so I had taken my Surface Pro and two small external USB monitors, along with a USB keyboard and mouse. I was able to set up my little “office space” in the cabin and not worry about it being in anyone else’s way, and write whenever I wanted (usually in the wee hours of morning, which was when the congested Internet connection worked best).

I came back from that cruise, for the first time, feeling relaxed and without that sense that I needed a “vacation to recover from my vacation.” I had spent a lot of time alone, and that was good for me. It gave me a chance to recharge my mental, emotional and physical “batteries,” and I returned eager to get back to my husband and pets and normal routine.

Is Solo Cruising Right for You?

I’m not saying cruising solo is for everyone. We’re all different. We have different personalities and different dependencies and we also have different needs at different times in our lives. I wouldn’t have done this – wouldn’t have wanted to this – when I was in my thirties. You need to have developed a certain amount of self-confidence and independence.

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If you’re married, you and your spouse both have to be secure in the other’s feelings. Otherwise one or both will spend the time you’re away wondering whether absence is making the heart grow fonder or the cat is playing while the mouse is away. You have to trust each other, and you both have to be able to get by on your own – both practically and emotionally.

Even with trust, there are many people, married or not, who just aren’t comfortable being alone with themselves. The silence drives them as crazy as the constant presence of other people drives me. Extroverts get their energy from their social interactions, and the solitude that introverts crave feels like a prison sentence to them.

That doesn’t mean extroverts can’t or shouldn’t sail solo, but it means that in order to enjoy it, you’ll have to do it differently from the way I do it – filling your days and evenings with activities that will bring you a lot of human interaction. Luckily, both solitary and social activities abound on board a modern cruise ship.

Some people don’t find the monetary aspect feasible. It may be important to them to get a balcony (or better) cabin, or to cruise more times per year, than to have the cabin to themselves. They don’t spend enough time in the cabin – some say they’re only there to shower and sleep – for it to matter. Some just want to sail as cheaply as possible, and that means always splitting the cost with a roommate. That’s a decision we each have to make for ourselves.

Looking for Love from the Cruise Lines

Cruise lines seem to be slowly coming to the realization that the solo cruiser represents a growing market segment – one that, in many cases, has extra money to spend. Some cruise lines have begun to offer lower-cost, smaller cabins designed for one person. Norwegian’s is probably the best-known of these offerings but Carnival Corporation’s Cunard line has single interior and oceanview staterooms on its Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria and Queen Mary 2.

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Royal Family: Carnival Corporation’s QV2 (Cunard) in the foreground, and Vista (Carnival Cruise Line) in the background

Carnival ambassador/evangelist John Heald often polls the readers of his Facebook page to get an idea of what customers want, one of his recent questions had to do with what special cabin types cruisers would like to see on Carnival Horizon (“Vista’s Sista” that is under construction and scheduled to launch in 2018) and/or the “mega ships” that will come after her. One of the multiple choices was “Single cabins – for solo cruisers.”

To me, that means Carnival is at least considering going this route on a future ship. I would love to see them take it a step farther, and build those solo cabins around a common lounge area, similarly to the way they designed the Family Harbor area on the Vista. It would be great if the lounge had a 24 hour coffee/latte/cappuccino/espresso machine like the Family Harbor lounge, maybe a Swirls machine, bite size appetizers in the evening and perhaps a wine dispenser like in the Library Bars. You could have nice sitting areas where solo cruisers could get together and get to know each other, and perhaps a concierge to help soloists plan activities.

Adding solo cabins and/or a solo lounge area is a gamble, and not so easy to retrofit to older ships. If Carnival doesn’t want to go “all in” at this time, there are other ways they could show their appreciation to their loyal solo cruisers.

  • Cut the single supplement to 150% instead of 200% of the double occupancy per-person rate. I think we all realize that the cruise line would lose money by charging the same per-person rate for one person in a standard cabin, but it would help a lot to not have to pay double.
  • If solo cruisers do have to pay double, give us double loyalty points. Getting to the next loyalty level faster would make the extra cost a little more palatable.
  • For fun’s sake, change the wine allocation to allow us to bring on two bottles instead of just one, since we’re paying for two.
  • Stop putting minimum passenger restrictions on cabins. If I want to book a specific cabin and have it to myself, and I’m willing to pay what it would cost for 3 people, I should be able to book it. Some cabins on some sailings require that you have 3 or even 4 people in them.

Some cruise lines that don’t have single cabins will sometimes offer solo discounts on some sailings. Instead of paying 200 percent of the regular per-person rate, you might be able to go solo for 150 to 180 percent. Always check into the possibility of solo rates when you book;  you never know until you ask.

The Bottom Line

The answer to “Should I go solo?” is really dependent on your bottom line. Not just the numerical one at the bottom of your Net Worth spreadsheet, but the emotional one that determines whether a week or more as a “lone ranger” will end up being the best thing that ever happened to you or the biggest mistake of your cruising life.

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It starts with being honest with yourself. Does the idea of coming back “home” to an empty cabin after the day’s excursions or the evening’s on-board activities fill you with dread, or with longing to be there right now?  Are you the one who’s used to handling problems when they come up – lost luggage, credit card mixups, a perpetually dripping cabin faucet – or do you always depend on a spouse or other roommate to take care of such things?  Are you willing (or better yet, eager) to get to know your fellow cruisers beforehand through Internet forums and/or after you get on the ship? Are you afraid to sleep in a room all alone, far from home, or do you relish the solitude?

You can’t force yourself to be a whole different type of person, and why should you? If you know that you’re more comfortable when someone else is close by (as in, in the same room), if you don’t feel a need for time alone or you get plenty of that on the job or at home, don’t try to be a soloist. Sail with someone else. As a bonus, you’ll save a lot of money on cruise fares.

What if you’re truly ambivalent about going solo? Maybe you’re curious, mildly interested, but hesitant because you’re not absolutely sure it’s right for you? In that case, my advice would be to go ahead and give it a try. Sometimes when we push ourselves outside our comfort zones, we discover new things about ourselves. After all, it’s only a cruise – not a lifetime commitment. You might want to start with a short sailing – three or four days. That way, if you hate it, you haven’t wasted a whole week of vacation. And if it leaves you wishing for more, hey, that’s an excuse to plan another cruise soon.

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About debshinder

Technology analyst and author, specializing in enterprise security. Author of or contributor to over 25 books, including "Scene of the Cybercrime." Fourteen-year Microsoft MVP, married to Microsoft FTE Tom Shinder, and proud mom of two wonderful grown-up human children and three amazing Japanese Chin pups. In my spare time, I love to travel - especially on cruise ships - and write about my grand adventures.
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