Setting sail as a single traveller can be an intimidating idea, especially if you’ve never done it before. But more and more solos are taking the plunge – and cruise lines are going all out to make them feel welcome. Taking a quiet moment out on deck of Fred. Olsen Cruises’ Boudicca in the Indian Ocean sunshine, my peace was gently interrupted by half a dozen fellow guests who took up residence on the loungers beside me.
As they were chatting and laughing, I presumed they had come on this cruise as a group. I struck up a conversation and, noting the different regional accents among them, enquired as to how they had all met. “About two weeks ago, over dinner at the start of this cruise!” said one. “We all came by ourselves and now we’re all friends.”
Later, I was talking to Jim, a single man in his late 60s whom I had got to know. As a solo traveller, what had made him choose this type of holiday? “How else could I see exotic places like Africa and Mauritius?” he said. “There’s no travelling involved apart from day trips, the food is great and I even get my favourite beer on board. It’s all so easy.”
Cruising as a single traveller is certainly a growing phenomenon. “With more Google searches for ‘solo travel’ than ever before, the popularity of travelling alone has undoubtably risen over recent years,” comments Andy Harmer, director, UK & Ireland for industry body CLIA. “The same can be said for cruise holidays, which are a fantastic option for solo travel as they take away the stress that can come with travelling alone on a land-based trip.”
With the help of Cruise Critic members and fans of Fred. Olsen Cruises who have taken the plunge to travel alone, we’ve taken a good look at the pros and cons of sailing solo. You’ll want to know how to avoid the pitfalls, how to budget and how to make the most of your time onboard. And for all but the most extrovert of travellers, we’ve come up with some all-important strategy tips on dining, exploring ashore and breaking the ice with new friends.
Solo cruising is certainly on the rise need more than anecdotal -- can we get a real stat for this?; you only have to look at the number of ships being fitted with single cabins to spot that trend.
People travel alone for all sorts of reasons, not just because they are single and very rarely because they are looking for a partner, too. I recently sailed with Gerard, a 65-year-old from Norfolk, whose wife gets seasick, yet understands that he loves life on the ocean waves. On the same trip, I met Melanie, a single woman whose friends’ tastes are incompatible with hers. “Some of my travels to places like Africa are too exotic for them,” she says. “I’m very comfortable travelling on my own. You always make new friends on cruises.”
Sailing solo for the first time alone can be difficult but many find it rewarding. Cruise Critic member Megeric sailed to the Norwegian Fjords. “I had never cruised on my own before, though I had cruised with my husband before he passed away,” she comments. “This was my first experience with Fred. Olsen. I can honestly say that I enjoyed every minute. From being greeted at Greenock, to leaving the ship after eight days, I felt safe and well cared for. I enjoy my own company at times, and there were ample places to sit and read if I felt like it. I met a new friend on the cruise, and we will keep in touch. I was apprehensive about going solo, but am so glad I took the plunge!”
Member WalkerC tried a mystery cruise and comments: “Everyone was very friendly, as I find is usually the case on Fred’s ships, and even though I was travelling alone, I was never short of someone to chat with if I wished.”
Enjoying a Baltic cruise, single passenger Agathachristiefan says: “Fellow passengers I found to be excellent company, most extensively travelled and good fun.”
While I do often travel in company, I adore the freedom that comes with doing exactly what I please as a solo traveller. As a veteran of more than 20 solo cruises, these are my top tips.
By far the most important consideration for solos is the ship – both its size and by whom it is operated. Don’t assume bigger is better; there are those who will say that a ship crammed with 4,000 passengers can be a lonely place.
I once shared a dinner table with a couple on a 3,000-passenger ship. We got along exceptionally well and, expecting to bump into each other frequently from then on, did not bother to arrange another meal. Yet I didn’t see them for the next five days, simply due to the size of the vessel.
Having said that, on a very small ship it can be difficult to avoid the very annoying person who joined you for breakfast on the first morning!
It’s all about choosing the right cruise line and having a strategy once on board to achieve the right balance of sociability and solitude that suits you. With a little forethought, it is possible to combine plenty of me-time to read, sunbathe, try out the spa – and explore ashore with memorable moments in good company.
Avoid ships with lots of children’s facilities on board unless you really want to spend your holiday surrounded by boisterous families. There are plenty of adults-only cruises and others that have only minimal facilities for children. Avoiding the main school holidays is a given if you have the flexibility to travel whenever you want.
In my view, a small-to-medium sized ship of, say, from under 800 to 1,400 is ideal for solo travellers, and each of Fred. Olsen’s cruise ships fits perfectly within this category. On board you’ll enjoy a warm, sociable atmosphere as you cruise to dream destinations around the globe in pure comfort and classic style, meeting people and creating friendships that will last a lifetime along the way.
All cruises will have some single travellers on board but some lines have more solo-appeal than others. Look at the language they use; if ‘romance’ and ‘couples’ crop up frequently, you might want to think twice, unless you’re completely content with a table for one. A token ‘singles’ mingle’ in the bar isn’t enough, either, if you’re hoping for a sociable holiday. You want a cruise line that actively welcomes solo travellers.
So what should we look for?
Clare Ward, Director of Product and Customer Service for Fred. Olsen Cruises explains: “We want to bring the world closer to all of our guests, and that includes those who are travelling solo. Our crew work hard to ensure that those travelling on their own do not feel alone, and once on board, solo travellers will find events designed exclusively for them to help them get to know others also holidaying by themselves.”
On a typical Fred. Olsen ocean cruise, Ward tells us, about one in eight guests will be travelling solo. This figure can rise to one in five for cruises lasting several weeks, so there will be plenty of people just like you.
Many solo cruisers have put their thoughts on reviews website Feefo. “First-class service from Fred. Olsen,” says one. “Fantastic food, lovely friendly staff, great for solo travellers, amazing itinerary, great price, ease of access to local port for embarkation.”
Thoughtful service from the crew is clearly a key element, as another guest observes: “I love Fred. Olsen as a solo traveller. They cater for solos. The crew are helpful, kind and polite,” while another remarked: “The crew are so very friendly and helpful. This is even more important for solo travellers like me.”
Whichever ship you choose, if you’re new to cruising, take a guided tour of the vessel as soon as you can; you don’t want to miss that special bar, or quiet corner of the library. Fred. Olsen Cruises offers these orientations on every cruise, along with a New to Cruising get-together and a New to Cruising representative who’s on hand to answer questions.
Look out for ships that offer a range of participation events, such as cookery, line dancing or watercolour painting classes. On longer Fred. Olsen cruises, you may even be able to join a passenger choir if you love singing. Although not specifically aimed at solos, these events are a great way to get chatting with guests who have similar interests. You could sign up for the onboard Book Club as well; on every cruise, a book is nominated before departure so you can be ready for lively discussion once the book club meets.
Team quizzes – popular on smaller and medium-sized ships – are also worth attending; I simply look for a couple or a threesome who are taking part and ask if I can join them.
Shore excursions are an ideal and safe way for exploring new places, in the company of fellow travellers and an expert guide. Embrace adventure, too; Fred. Olsen’s ships are all equipped with RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) that offer high-speed rides but also take you closer to beautiful and remote shorelines, or hard-to-reach beaches.
At the top end of the ‘solos scale’ are those cruise lines who lay out the red carpet for singles with all sorts of activities and events, although there’s never any obligation to join in. Fred. Olsen, for example, arranges singles meet-ups and other specific activities and will even pair you up with a fellow traveller for shore excursions if you prefer. If you enjoy dancing, skilled hosts are on hand to whirl you around the floor. These dance hosts are experienced at spotting singles who’d like a spin, so you don’t have to pluck up the courage to ask – and it doesn’t matter if you’ve got two left feet, either.
While there are always people who have the money to stump up double the fare to occupy a cabin for two, cost is usually a major consideration for those travelling alone.
Much fuss is made about single supplements. All cruise lines charge these, to an extent, for one person occupying a cabin designed for two. Cruise lines would argue that one person in a cabin takes up a similar amount of space to two sharing – and will spend less than a couple on items such as drinks and shore excursions.
Increasingly, though, cruise lines are bowing to consumer pressure and catering for solo travellers. Most brand-new ships, especially the larger vessels, now have specific solo accommodation, including suites and cabins with balconies.
Several older ships have been fitted with single cabins during a more general refurbishment. The number of these rooms can be from more than 100 down to a token single figure, but it’s a welcome trend. On top of this, cruise lines often reduce, or scrap single supplements on certain cruises, so you could end up in a double cabin, paying the same for your cruise as those sharing rooms.
To get the best of these single deals, be flexible. The cruise industry is highly competitive and it’s worth looking out for special offers for solos. If you’re not committed to a particular date or destination, you can grab a bargain. Check on the Fred. Olsen Cruises website; there’s a section specifically dedicated to cruises with no single supplement. Many of these have a short lead time but you could snap up a deal as much as six months from departure.
Think about the kind of accommodation you want. The cheapest form of accommodation on any ship is the single inside cabin. It won’t have a window and it may be on the small side but maybe to you, the cabin is simply somewhere to sleep. You may yearn for a balcony, but there’s an even better view just a short walk away on an outside deck. Rest assured, too, that the style and comfort of your single accommodation will be the same as all the other cabins and you can expect similar facilities to a good-standard hotel room. You’ll have a private bathroom, an interactive TV, air conditioning, mini-fridge and tea and coffee making facilities.
Some companies, including Fred. Olsen Cruises offer a range of cabins to suit individual needs and budgets, from cosy insides to rooms with a window, from doubles for sole occupancy to suites.
On-board costs can vary considerably, so work this into your budget. You’ll usually get better value, especially when the pound is weak, on ships that use British pounds and don’t automatically add tips to bar bills.
Perhaps the biggest fear for those travelling solo is dining alone. Personally, I don’t much care for company over breakfast and I am happy to eat lunch on my own during a day at sea. But I overwhelmingly prefer to have dinner in company.
There’s really no need to dine alone on any ship unless you want to. Most ships tend to have open seating for breakfast and lunch, so you just wander in and sit where you like. Nearly always there are tables for six or eight, so I tend to walk in five minutes after the restaurant has opened, look for a table with just a couple of guests and ask to join them.
There have been plenty of times when I have been chatting to other guests and have then been invited to dine with them.
Most medium-sized ships, on which you are seated by the wait staff, have good systems for catering for singles, though it can still be a bit of a lottery. I turn up a few minutes after the sitting has started to avoid the initial queue and tell the front-of-house staff that I am alone and wish to share a table. There may sometimes be a short wait, but I invariably end up on a larger table with other guests, often a mix of couples and singles. Don’t forget that many couples like to meet new people over dinner.
When you book your cruise, there’s a choice of your preferred table size for dinner. My advice would be to opt for the biggest possible table, usually eight, as you stand a better chance of finding new companions. Some cruise lines will seat single travellers together on bigger tables, or mix up singles with couples. These larger tables often turn out to be the noisiest and the most fun in the dining room, to the envy of other passengers. Remember, too, if you really don’t like your tablemates, a discreet word with the maître d’ should do the trick, and they’ll try to seat you somewhere else.
Cruise Critic member Flamenco98 loved the companionship on her trip: “As a widow, I find Braemar to be an exceptionally friendly ship for single people. I have made friends with people so easily and have always asked for a table of six or eight in the dining room, which is a good social mix.” She adds that she had tried other companies but “their ships are too big and single people cannot make friends so easily”.
You may be concerned about the etiquette of a mixed table. For a start, it’s perfectly OK to buy your own drinks. There’s no obligation to offer to buy a round and it could end up terribly complicated. Buy wine by the glass – or get a bottle and ask your waiter to mark your cabin number on it and save what’s left for the next day. You’re not expected to knock it all back in one meal. Alternatively, upgrade to the all-inclusive drinks package, which takes away the need to sign for every drink you buy. On Fred. Olsen cruises of longer than five nights, it’s available from £19 per night.
There’s no doubt that a few people choose to join a cruise hoping to change their single status. Relationships can and do blossom on board ships. Most solos, however, are not looking for a new partner. This means single travellers, especially women, can feel free to socialise knowing they are in a pressure-free, safe environment.
Whereas a single female may feel very self-conscious sitting alone on a stool at a bar in many pubs, it’s perfectly acceptable on a cruise ship. In fact, it’s a fine way to meet other people as they approach the bar. And I’ve had many a long chat with fellow guests while wallowing in the pool or the hot tub, or tucking into afternoon tea after a day ashore.
Male or female, you may find even yourself being ‘adopted’, as I have, by a group travelling together who want to broaden their circle of friends. And if you’re a woman and long to dance, Fred. Olsen’s gentleman hosts are on hand to spin you round the floor in a strictly platonic manner.
If you are new to cruising and perhaps new to travelling solo, I would recommend a voyage of about a week. That way, if you don’t take to life at sea, you haven’t committed too much time and money.
As for destination, my choice would be the Norwegian fjords, where you’ll spend much of the time sailing the calm, sheltered water of dramatic fjords, with constant vistas of mountains and waterfalls. Another great advantage of the fjords is that most sailings are from the UK, so there’s no airport hassle. Fred. Olsen has Norway departures from Edinburgh, Newcastle and Liverpool as well as England’s south coast, which can make the whole experience even easier. All cruise lines will deliver your luggage straight to your cabin and check-in procedures at UK seaports put airports to shame.
Shorter cruises taking in France, Holland and perhaps the Channel Islands also make a rewarding introduction to holidaying at sea.
Once you’ve had a taste of cruising, a longer voyage can be a great way to both escape the British winter and discover parts of the world you may never have thought possible, in safety and comfort. Fred. Olsen Cruises’ mid-sized ships can nip into ports inaccessible to bigger vessels, so you might find a dreamy itinerary that takes you to exotic places like Yangon in Myanmar, Colombo in Sri Lanka and Kochi in tropical Kerala. If you’re not docked close to the nearest city centre, free shuttle buses are laid on to whisk you into town. Who knows? Like many regulars on Fred. Olsen Cruises’ ships, you may take to cruising so much that you end up joining the annual World Cruise, more than 100 nights away, circumnavigating the globe. As Clare Ward says: “Being single or unable to travel with a companion need not be a barrier to seeing the world, and celebrate the freedom that comes with solo travel.”
Are you ready to set sail?
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John Wilmott, who lives close to London, has been a journalist since he left school 40 years ago. For the past 10 years he has specialised in travel and particularly cruising. He has sailed on cruise ships from 40 passengers to 3,000 and never gets tired of watching a new destination approach from out on deck. His best-ever cruise experience was seeing five blue whales in Svalbard. He writes regularly for the Telegraph and his work has also appeared in cruise magazines and other media.
Updated January 17, 2020