First things first: There's no need to pity those who make the choice to cruise alone. The liberation of a solo cruise, of not having to be responsible for anyone's pleasure but your own, allows you to appreciate the experience on an entirely different level than when you're with a friend, spouse or family member. How often are you able to make your our own vacation choices, able to amble and contemplate life on your own terms?
There is a difference between being a solo cruiser and a single cruiser. While single cruisers tend to want to find others with whom to congregate, those who choose to cruise solo have to be comfortable with the concept that they are responsible for their own good time, whatever path that takes. To be alone is a choice. That choice, however, doesn't always guarantee a fabulous cruise vacation. In this coupled-up world, a solo can find it difficult to negotiate the obstacles inherent on most larger cruise ships, from harried and inattentive maitre d's to programs and activities that make it difficult for a solo to participate.
And then there's the issue of cost. A solo or single cruiser creates "spoilage" in cruise-speak. In other words, not only does it leave an empty bed that doesn't add booking revenue, but it also means a missing body to add auxiliary revenue from drink sales, casino use, shore excursions and spa treatments. A single or solo can expect to pay between 150 and 200 percent of the published cruise fare to cover the cost of the "missing" passenger, but, in an effort to fill bunks, more lines are waiving these fees.
For the North America-based solo, it used to be that luxury lines offered the best deals and the most amenable services. That's starting to change, as Norwegian Cruise Line's recent mega-ships, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Epic -- along with Royal Caribbean International's upcoming Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas -- now have solo cabins. European cruise lines, from big ships to small, high-end ones, have also been proactive in this area for a long time.
(For pointers on traveling solo, read our Solo Basics article.)
Here is a look at the best lines for those who like their "alone time."
Why: P&O's Azura, which launched in 2010, offers 18 dedicated single cabins for solo cruisers. Britannia (debuting March 2015) will follow suit, with 27 single cabins of its own. Plus, several other P&O ships, including the Ventura, with 18 solo units, have since had singles-friendly cabins installed during refurbishments.
Special Extras: P&O's solo cabins include both inside and outside options and have a "boutique hotel" feel to them. Special touches include complimentary water and a "pamper pack" on arrival. Each cabin has a single bed, a flat-screen television and a vanity/writing desk and drawers, plus a bathroom with a shower.
Discounts Available: Cabins are priced for one, with no solo supplement, but they do sell out quickly since they're so limited in number. Don't expect any last-minute deals on these staterooms.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Why: Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Epic was the first ship in its fleet to feature studio cabins (128 in all) targeted at and priced for solo cruisers. The line continued the trend with Norwegian Breakaway Norwegian Getaway, which each feature 59 studio cabins. Upcoming new-build Norwegian Escape (entering the market in October 2015) will likewise feature 82 studio units. Four studios have also been added to Pride of America, which sails year-round in Hawaii.
Special Extras: A full-size bed, flat-screen TV and private bathroom are all squeezed into these 100-square-foot accommodations. Although all studios are inside cabins, each has a window that looks out onto the corridor. Four different colors of ambient lighting jazz up the room, but the biggest perk is access to an exclusive, shared social space called the Studio Lounge. It's a sleek hangout area with its own large-screen TVs, coffeemaking facilities, a bartender at certain times of the day and daily hosted predinner gatherings (from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.).
Discounts Available: The studio cabins are priced for solo travelers, with no extra supplement to pay.
Holland America Line
Why: Holland America Line is renowned for catering to solo cruisers. There are plenty of programs that don't require partners and activities that can be delightfully solitary or a means to meeting others. (The culinary programs, from hands-on workshops to wine tastings, are tons of fun.) The Single Partners Program, available on most voyages, offers hosted onboard solo traveler events like cocktail mixers and games. It also proposes a roommate-matching service, pairing passengers of the same sex with others who want to share -- and guarantees you'll pay only the agreed-upon price, even if no partner can be found.
Special Extras: Singles are invited to dine together (by advance request), and, on voyages of 40 days or more, gentleman hosts are available for dancing and dining.
Discounts Available: Typical rates run from 150 percent to 200 percent for solos. Holland America doesn't offer any special solo deals.
Why: Silversea doesn't offer "single" cabins, but its occasional special fare deals mean that a solo traveler can sail alone without a huge penalty. Their typical solo fares are 25 to 75 percent above the double-occupancy rate. Singles make up about 10 percent (pretty significant in cruising) of the line's passenger base. Another plus: With just 296 passengers on Silver Cloud and Silver Wind, 382 apiece on Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper and 540 on Silver Spirit, solo cruisers find it easy to feel at home. Some of the enrichment programs and special-interest cruises ensure a compatible mix of people with like interests, solo or not.
Special Extras: A welcome reception with Champagne is held on every voyage with a large number of solos. Most voyages of more than 10 days also have gentleman hosts onboard as dance partners and shore excursion escorts.
Discounts Available: Solo fares are often as low as 125 percent of the regular fares, but occasional sales can bring single traveler rates down to 110 percent. The line is quick to point out that these fares are "capacity controlled and subject to availability." In other words, book early.
Why: Crystal is one of the most popular luxury lines for solos, who make up to 25 percent of the line's passengers on some sailings. Solo travelers are attracted by the wide range of activities onboard, plus singles' parties, gentleman hosts (and hostesses) and supplements that can be as low as 25 percent for certain categories. Many luxury-minded solos also choose Crystal because it features assigned dining room seating, which is unique in this market segment. (Most luxury lines have an open single-seating dining room.) This set-seating dining policy means you dine with the same folks every night, and the Table for 8 program lets solo travelers dine at the specialty restaurants with other singles. Finally, while Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity are as spacious as mega-ships, they carry only 922 and 1,070 passengers respectively; a sense of community prevails onboard.
Special Extras: Crystal's unique activities include seminars through the Creative Learning Institute, with choices like acting workshops, language lessons, astronomy classes and a Computer University.
Discounts Available: Crystal adds only 25 percent for categories C1 through E3, 35 percent for categories A1 through B3, 50 percent for categories P1 and P2, and 75 percent for category PH (Penthouse). Plus, they've been known to drop the single supplement to as low as 10 percent on select sailings.
Fred. Olsen Cruises
Why: Well-known British like Fred. Olsen, now in its fifth generation of ownership by the same family, has long catered to its traditionally over-55 passengers. The line has dedicated cabins for its solo travelers, provides gentleman hosts, offers exclusive solo gatherings and pairs single travelers together for dinner; they can even arrange companions for solos going ashore, upon request. Fred. Olsen caters mostly to a mature British market, with a relaxed and intimate atmosphere, offering a welcome change for those who choose to avoid the more raucous nature of most mass-market lines.
Special Extras: All Fred. Olsen ships -- Balmoral, Boudicca, Braemar and Black Watch -- offer solo cabins, ranging in number from 40 (Braemar) to 64 (Balmoral). Cozy single cabins, outfitted with just one bed, come in a variety of categories, including a few balcony suites.
Discounts Available: In addition to its dedicated solo cabins, which carry no supplement, Fred. Olsen recently waived single supplements for solo occupancy of certain twin-grade cabins on select sailings.
Why: The cozy atmosphere on Seabourn's small ships assures solos that they won't be overlooked, and getting to know fellow cruisers is easy.
Special Extras: One of Seabourn's lovely traditions is to have its officers and entertainers host tables at dinner -- not only on a formal evening but on just about every night. Solo travelers receive special consideration when it comes to invites, so you really don't have to dine alone if you don't choose to. As well, single travelers will be escorted across the dining room by the maitre d' or other staffer, which is a nice touch.
Discounts Available: Depending on the sailing and the time of year, Seabourn offers capacity-controlled discounts on "run of the ship" A-, B2- or V1-category suites. Solos pay just 50 percent more than double-occupancy passengers, but Seabourn chooses the stateroom locations. (Specific suite requests can be accommodated if solos pay 75 percent more.) Assignments are made about 30 days before sailing.
Why: Costa Cruises has limited single cabins in both inside and outside units on half of its ships, including its two newest vessels, Costa Favolosa and Costa Fascinosa, which have 17 solo cabins each.
Special Extras: This Italian cruise line offers singles' meet-and-greet parties onboard, as well as a full range of other traditional shipboard activities that encourage social interaction among solo passengers. As Europeans love to dance, Costa's newest ships have some of the largest dance floors on the seas. While they don't have dedicated gentlemen hosts, there are plenty of opportunities to take to the dance floor for everything from merengue to polka.
Discounts Available: Single cabins do carry a supplement, but it can be as low as 30 percent above the double-occupancy rate.
Why: Cunard has long attracted solo travelers to its traditional cruise ships and ocean liners, and the convivial onboard atmosphere means that solos can easily make friends with their shipmates if they choose. Cunard does try to accommodate passengers who wish to dine solo, but this depends on how full each voyage is. In general, solo travelers are assigned to tables with other singles. In addition, gentleman hosts are available to whirl single ladies around the dance floor.
Special Extras: Nine midship single-occupancy cabins are being added to Queen Elizabeth in 2014: eight are ocean view cabins, while the ninth is a standard inside cabin. Additionally, solo travelers will never be bored on any Cunard ship with so many activities taking place onboard. You can attend lectures by experts in various fields, see a planetarium show on QM2, enjoy theatrical workshops and performances by members of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, play numerous rounds of team trivia and relax in the Canyon Ranch spa.
Discounts Available: Cunard's typical solo supplement is 200 percent for Queens and Princess Grill and 175 percent for inside, outside and balcony cabins. On occasion, the line offer discounts to solo travelers.
Royal Caribbean International
Why: Royal Caribbean International's Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas will feature two categories of staterooms for solo travelers, with 28 dedicated "studio" cabins on each ship. The line currently offers three single-occupancy interior staterooms aboard the Radiance of the Seas, Serenade of the Seas and Brilliance of the Seas; each room has a twin bed, private bathroom and minifridge.
Special Extras: Sixteen interior studios aboard Quantum and Anthem will feature full-size beds and industry-first "virtual balconies": 80-inch floor-to-ceiling LED display screens that project live images of the ocean and ports. Prefer the real thing? There will also be a dozen "super studios," equipped with real-deal 55-square-foot open-air balconies.
Discounts Available: Royal Caribbean's studio staterooms carry no supplement.
--Updated by Elissa Richard, Cruise Critic contributor