If you're contemplating cruising on your own, what do you need to know before booking a voyage? Read on to find out how to choose a ship, avoid single supplements and meet people onboard.
Choosing a Ship and Cabin
The industry's trend toward bigger and bigger ships -- think 5,400-passenger Allure of the Seas or Oasis of the Seas -- makes it a bit harder to meet others who may be traveling alone (comparable to the difference between living in a small village versus Manhattan). It can be more difficult to find these fellow solo passengers on ships with thousands of cruisers, and you're not guaranteed to run into the same friendly folks you meet on a shore excursion or at the casino later on in the cruise.
Small ships, on the other hand, tend to be quite social, and you'll see the same faces again and again. Open-seating dinners, smaller excursion numbers and an emphasis on interactive activities (like game play and trivia) are conducive to meeting people and making friends. However, these ships tend to carry an older clientele and a higher price tag, so they might not appeal to young, single travelers.
The good news is that, in recent years, the tide has been turning for solo cruisers, and some of the newest ships out there are now accommodating those traveling alone. Norwegian Getaway and Norwegian Breakaway have joined Norwegian Epic in adding studio cabins that are priced for single occupancy and feature an exclusive, shared social space called the Studio Lounge. It offers a bar, two large TV screens, hosted daily gatherings and a concierge for booking dinner reservations and shore excursions.
Likewise, Royal Caribbean will feature 28 dedicated solo cabins aboard both its upcoming Quantum of the Seas (November 2014) and Anthem of the Seas (April 2015), including interior studios with industry-first "virtual balconies" (80-inch floor-to-ceiling LED screens projecting real-time ocean and port views). Like the standard studio cabins, "super studios," with proper 55-square-foot open-air balconies, will include no single supplements.
European companies have also been ahead of the game with single cabins. Saga Holidays has them in a variety of categories: Saga Sapphire offers 44 single cabins, and Saga Pearl II has 60 single units. For each ship, that's almost 25 percent of the total number of cabins.
(For more details on mainstream cruise lines that offer single cabins, along with pricing policies, read our 10 Best Cruises for Solo Travelers feature.)
In addition, river cruise lines tend to be very welcoming to solos. Tauck River Cruising is dedicating four cabins for solo travelers aboard each of its new riverboats, ms Savor and ms Inspire. AmaWaterways' European fleet also touts single-occupancy staterooms on six of its ships (with priced-for-one rates). Vantage has some solo cabins on its newer ships, and Grand Circle Cruises has a roommate matching service.
Don't overlook some of the other small-cruise specialists when considering your solo cruising options. The small ships of American Cruise Lines (with no more than 150 passengers each) ply American waterways like the Mississippi and boast spacious, 200-square-foot single staterooms (many with balconies) that offer rates devoid of any single supplements. Upscale Hebridean Island Cruises, which sails mainly around Scotland, offers 10 single cabins (out of 30 total) aboard its 50-passenger Hebridean Princess.
Expedition cruises, with their action-packed excursions and intimate onboard communities of like-minded adventurers, are especially well suited to solo travelers, which average anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of their clientele. Lindblad Expeditions sets aside solo-occupancy cabins on all ships in its fleet (priced at least 25 percent less than a standard cabin for two) and also offers a "share guarantee," meaning that you'll sail at half of the double-occupancy rate, whether or not they manage to match you with another solo passenger of the same sex. Island Windjammers offers a handful of annual Caribbean trips exclusively for solo cruisers. Dubbed "Solo Sojourns," solo travelers are matched with same-sex cabinmates, or they can book their own cabins with a 75 percent single supplement.
The Solo Supplement
The biggest hurdle for solo cruisers is the dreaded single supplement. Because most lines don't offer cabins for one, or because the few that exist sell out quickly, they will typically charge an extra fee to a solo traveler who wants to reserve a double-occupancy cabin sans roommate. This surcharge can range anywhere from 10 percent of the cruise fare to 100 percent (which, in essence, means you're paying double -- or the same price as two people sharing a cabin).
This singles "tax" can make cruising on your own an expensive proposition. Here are a few tips for making a solo sailing more affordable:
Shop around for the lowest supplement. Several cruise lines add 50 percent or less to the per-person rate for singles occupying a double-occupancy cabin for certain cruises and cabin categories. Silversea single supplements can be as low as 25 percent on a regular basis. Crystal adds only 25 percent for categories C through E3, 35 percent for categories A1 through B3, 50 percent for categories P1 and P2, and 75 percent for category PH (Penthhouse). Plus, they've been known to drop the supplement to as low as 10 percent on select sailings. Regent Seven Seas offers 50 percent supplements on select cruises booked in advance. (Regular supplements are 75 to 100 percent.) Seabourn offers solos a limited number of suites at discounted "guarantee" fares, meaning the line selects your specific cabin location about 30 days prior to departure, rather than your choosing your cabin number. With this scheme, single travelers pay just a 50 percent supplement on the price of the lowest-category window suites (category A) or verandah suites (category B2 or V1), and the line assigns them cabins in that category or a higher one, depending on space available. Finally, Hurtigruten charges a 50 percent supplement for sailings embarking between September and March (and 75 percent at other times of year); solo passengers booking suites, however, may pay as little as 10 percent as a supplement, while the line occasionally waives supplements entirely via limited-duration promotions.
Tip: Since upscale lines tend to offer price breaks to solo cruisers more often than the mainstream lines, you may find that cruising on a luxury ship with a minimal supplement is a better value than sailing on a mass-market ship with a heavy supplement.
Keep tabs on the latest solo "sales." Many cruise lines offer price breaks on occasion, depending on the season and on how many cabins are booked on individual ships. Some deals we've seen recently include single supplements reduced to 25 percent on fall and winter South Pacific cruises onboard Paul Gauguin or seven-night Greece cruises on the luxury yachts of Variety Cruises.
With regard to river cruises, look to Tauck River Cruising for waived single supplements on entry-level cabins aboard all of their European itineraries, and reductions for their higher-tier cabin categories on select itineraries. AmaWaterways periodically posts promotions that waive its normal 50-percent single supplement (available in most cabins) on select itineraries. Other lines like Avalon Waterways and Uniworld also advertise reduced or waived fares on a number of itineraries, while even European barge companies, with their smaller ships (with as few as just six to 12 passengers), are reeling in the singles with enticing deals. Try European Waterways, which eliminates single supplements on select sailings.
Other small ship cruise lines also offer noteworthy deals. Star Clippers has waived single supplements on nearly a dozen of its weeklong tall-ship Mediterranean sailings. Finally, upscale French cruise line Compagnie du Ponant, sailing to all seven continents on yacht-style ships, often runs itineraries with no single supplements.
These offerings can change from week to week, so keep checking back, or sign up for cruise line email alerts to find out about the newest promotions.
Tip: If you can be flexible about your travel plans, some cruise lines may extend last-minute solo discounts on close-in sailings. They're not always well-publicized, so be sure to ask your travel agent if there are any sales currently. Also check the Cruise Critic Solo Cruisers and Singles Cruises forums for news of the latest solo deals.
Consider sharing a cabin. Sharing a cabin with a stranger might not appeal to everyone, but it does mean savings. Fewer lines are offering roommate matching services than in the past, but Holland America still tries to match up solo travelers. You ask to be paired with a same-sex roommate when you book, and if the line can match you, you'll pay no extra supplement. If a partner's not available, you'll still cruise solo at an agreed-upon fare.
Expedition line Lindblad Expeditions offers a similar "share guarantee," as does Quark Expeditions via its "request share" program. International Expeditions does the same, though IE ups them all by waiving single supplement fees entirely on select cabins for their Amazon and Galapagos cruise departures.
Tip: If you're interested in finding a roommate, and the cruise company can't help, you might have luck with matching services, which pair travel-minded single people for a fee. Members of these services post their travel plans and information about themselves, and it's up to each member to contact those who sound like compatible companions. Alternately, look for travel-related message boards. Some of these allow people to post that they're looking for someone to travel with them.
Also, singles-only travel companies will usually try to match up cabinmates when they schedule cruises. They book groups on regular cruises on major cruise lines, insuring that you'll have solos to keep you company onboard. They also usually offer a group leader and special activities for your group in addition to the ship's activities.
Once You've Booked a Cabin
There's an art to traveling singly -- and happily. Unless you're cruising solo to get away from people, here are some suggestions for mixing and mingling.
Get involved. The best way to meet people onboard is to take part in activities, so choose a cruise ship offering things you like to do (beyond the de rigueur singles' social), such as intriguing programs, classes or workshops. In that arena, two standouts are Cunard's QM2 -- which has teamed up with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and Royal Astronomical Society to offer a wide array of lectures and workshops -- and Crystal Cruises, which has an outstanding overall series, featuring language, music and art programs, as well as compelling guest lecturers.
Make friends with the cruise director. If you tell the cruise director you want to meet other singles onboard, he or she might be able to help with introductions.
Try the piano bar. Sociable sing-alongs are a good way to make friends. Veteran cruisers know to visit the different bars and lounges the first night at sea. That's when other singles are most likely to be roaming to see who is onboard, and if no one is around, they might not return.
Choose compatible dinner partners. If you opt for traditional onboard dining with an assigned dining time and table, you'll be seeing your dinner companions every night, so it's important that you enjoy them. Do not be shy about asking a maitre d' for a new table if the passengers at your original seating aren't compatible. Requests to be seated with other solo cruisers will often be honored if possible. Also, most families choose early dining, so opt for a later seating to find more like-minded dinnermates. If you've chosen a flexible dining plan, request to be seated at a table with other diners, if possible, rather than eating alone.
Take the ship's shore excursions. This is a favorite tried-and-true way to meet others; the wackier the excursion, the more likely there will be a bonding opportunity.
Connect with your shipmates pre-cruise. Cruise Critic's Roll Call threads allow travelers on the same sailing to get acquainted and plan excursions, happy hours and dinners together -- before they even embark on the ship. You'll come onboard feeling like you already know people on the. Plus, you can sign up for Meet & Mingle parties on Azamara, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Silversea, Holland America, and Crystal to meet other Cruise Critic members aboard your ship.
Hand out calling cards. This is a great tip for a solo trip on a mega-ship, where it can be easy to lose a potential friend in the crowd. You might meet someone you'd like to see again but never run into them by chance. If you make up cards with your name and cabin number and hand them out to new acquaintances, they'll know how to reach you to arrange to get together again. (As always, use your judgment when giving out your cabin number.)
Choose a theme cruise. In addition to dedicated singles cruises, theme cruises -- focusing on topics like music, dance, politics, wellness and sports or film stars -- are a great choice for solo travelers. These chartered sailings feature a wide range of mixers, activities and lectures for participants and often have support staff onboard to facilitate events. The exclusive onboard activities are a great way to meet people, and you have an easy conversation starter since you know that everyone shares at least one common interest.
--Updated by Elissa Richard, Cruise Critic contributor