Sheila O’Shea loves to travel. But when her husband passed away four years ago, the 55-year-old Calgarian found herself at home more and more. “I don’t think I would have felt comfortable traveling alone and I didn’t always want to go with my kids,” O’Shea explains. At the same time, she was unwilling to give up the pleasures of exploring new countries, experiencing new cultures and, of course, meeting new people.
O’Shea’s solution? She joined the Going Solo Travel Club and promptly headed off to Israel and Egypt. “It was a first-class trip,” she says. “In Cairo, we stayed at the Mena House hotel right across from the pyramids. You could see the pyramids lit up at night.”
Simply being in the company of her tour group was enjoyable, too. “I knew nobody when I went on it,” she says, but “we all clicked. There were 18 of us and it was like we were old friends.” She had such a good time, in fact, that she went on to visit Greece, Thailand and China with Going Solo.
As O’Shea and many others have discovered, traveling alone doesn’t have to be lonely. If you’ve been staying home because you don’t want to face the prospect of being on your own in foreign countries, take a look at some of the new options for single travelers. The Going Solo Travel Club is just one of several organizations that cater to people who want the comfort of friendly faces on the road, but the independence to venture out on their own. “I set up different [activities] for the group but I also include free time for people to explore on their own,” says Gwen Calkins, assistant manager of the club. That means in between touring the Picasso museum, dining and nightclubbing with the group, you have an entire afternoon to explore Barcelona by yourself.
If you’re not into organized tours, but like the idea of having a roommate to defray the cost of your trip, organizations such as the B.C.-based Connecting: Solo Travel Network will help you find a travel companion. Become a member of the non-profit group (fees are $35 to $45 a year) and you can advertise for a trip mate free of charge in the group’s bimonthly newsletter — which also happens to be a great source of solo-travel advice.
In case you were wondering, roommates are just that. Although people have met and married through groups like Going Solo, Calkins stresses that it’s not a place for swinging singles to hook up. “We’re not a dating club,” she says.
Nor should you worry about a getting stuck with a roommate who latches on to you for the whole trip. “It’s unlikely,” says Laurie Keith of Cardinal Travel Tours, a Calgary-based company that offers bus tours throughout North America. “We rotate seats on the bus for more mingling.” Calkins adds, “If we did have such a problem and it couldn’t be worked out, we would move roommates around.” If you’re concerned about keeping your money, passport and valuables in a shared room, she suggests stashing them in the hotel safe — although neither Cardinal Travel nor Going Solo has ever encountered a problem with theft.
From a purely financial viewpoint, solo-friendly group tours can be a great deal for the solitary vacationer, allowing you to avoid the dreaded “single supplement” with which many hotels, tours and cruise lines punish solitary travelers. Both the Going Solo Travel Club and Connecting: Solo Travel Network can help you find a roommate of the same sex to avoid extra fees; the latter organization also publishes a list of tour and cruise options that don’t charge the single supplement, or offer reduced rates. Many companies give you the choice of departing from Canada with the group, or making your own flight arrangements and meeting up with the group at your destination.
Travelers who want to maintain even more independence but would still welcome a bit of company can join Servas, an international nonprofit network of travelers that allows you to stay at another member’s home free of charge, in exchange for the same offer of hospitality to your host when he or she visits your country. Rae Fleming made his way through France by staying with fellow Servas members for two nights at a time. “I stayed at two big houses in Amiens and the hosts were very friendly,” he says. “We had breakfast and dinner together,” thus eliminating what for many folks is the least appetizing aspect of solo travel: eating alone. “I speak French,” he adds, “so there was no language barrier, but I’ve found hosts who speak some amount of English.”
Yet another way for solo travelers to avoid an overdose of their own company is to sign up for a learning vacation. There’s a huge range to choose from, including archeological digs, cooking schools and language courses. Many offer a choice of accommodations, ranging from rooms on-site to local hotels. You and your fellow students will share at least one interest — your studies — and conversation flows easily when you’re learning how to debone a chicken or master the past tense in a foreign language. For instance, through Toronto-based Languages Plus, you can study French, Italian, German or Spanish in the language’s country of origin. Don’t worry, these trips are not all work. You typically spend the morning studying and have the afternoon free.
While solo travel requires a bit more forethought than traveling with a friend or spouse, it’s no less rich an experience. (Some would say it’s better.) Besides, would you rather sit at home? Sheila O’Shea is glad she made the leap of joining a travel club four years ago. “It’s been a great outlet for me as a single person to travel and see places and meet people” — including another woman from Calgary who has become one of her closest friends. “Eileen and I have so much in common,” she says. “It seems like we’ve known each other for 20 or 30 years. Now I talk to her every second day and we’re going to Chile together in the fall.”
This list of single-friendly travel agencies, tour companies and clubs will get you started on your solo holiday. For more than 200 additional options, check the Single-Friendly Travel Directory by Diane Redfern, founder of Connecting: Solo Travel Network ($10.95 in print, $6 online from www.cstn.org or free with membership).
- Cardinal Travel Tours
Packages within Canada and Alaska aimed at travelers 55 and up.
Worldwide tour vacations for 18- to 35-year-olds.
- G.A.P. Adventures
Caters mainly to 30- to 60-year-olds. More than 600 travel itineraries available.
- Going Solo Travel Club
Worldwide tours for mainly 30- to 60-year-olds. No fee for membership.
- Trafalgar Tours
Caters mainly to mature travelers, but also has Breakaway to Europe packages for 21- to 38-year-olds. Share accommodation or room alone for a reduced supplement.
- Travel Buddies Singles Travel Club
Travels worldwide, with no fee for club membership. Bunk with a roommate or room alone for a reduced supplement.
- Trek Holidays
Adventure travel company with tours to Asia, South America and Africa.