Anyone who is, or has been, single has experienced the moment. It's the one where you spy a great price for a tour or cruise – only to see it gilded with the dreaded asterisk. Sure enough, it's a twin-share deal that requires a travel companion.
For the world, coupledom is always preordained. Not everyone has – or wants – a sidekick. But the good news is that the travel industry is finally starting to cater to independent travellers who don't want to be financially penalised for daring to globetrot solo. Some companies are even hosting trips – including cruises – dedicated to solo travellers.
One such company is Intrepid Travel. After noting that more than half its guests – about 75,000 people a year – were travelling alone, the company responded by offering solo-only tours to places such as Morocco, India and Mexico. The move proved so popular that this year it announced tours for an even more marginalised demographic: single parents who want to see the world with their children.
Dyan McKie, Intrepid's brand manager of family adventures and the single parent of a five-year-old daughter, handpicked the destinations, Thailand, Vietnam, Egypt, India, Morocco and Costa Rica. She says the tours provide "instant travel companions for the child and the parent", along with a shared understanding. "You have the same kind of pain points in parenting [such as the fact] they want you all the time," she says. "Single parents possibly put overseas travel in the too-hard basket … but what we're trying to do is make it easy for them."
For luxury active travel company Butterfield & Robinson, solo women travellers in particular stand out. Over the past five years, it has experienced a rise of more than 50 per cent from this demographic signing up for trips such as Italian Lakes Walking and Portugal Biking.
At World Expeditions, solo travellers have risen from 48 per cent to 56 per cent of group travellers over the past two years. "We believe this rise is directly related to the nature of our active trips," says Sue Badyari, World Expeditions' chief executive, "which see travellers venturing into remote locations where the security of a small group is desirable."
There's also a strong social element, she says, with solo travellers not only attracted to meeting like-minded people but benefiting from their collective encouragement to achieve something they might not have done on their own.
Other companies are seeing this solo surge. Insight Vacations experienced a 15 per cent hike in solo travellers from 2016 to 2017, with guests most interested in Scandinavia, Croatia, Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Over the same period, sister companies Trafalgar reported a 21 per cent hike in solo travel and Uniworld's solo passenger numbers jumped by 35 per cent, with women comprising 59 per cent of this demographic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, half of those travelling with youth-oriented brand Contiki are doing so solo.
Cruise devotees can find solo bargains – if they look hard enough. Expedition ship Eco Abrolhos, for example, offers up to four solo lower-deck cabins on its 14-day Kimberley cruises at the twin-share price of $9355 a person (kimberleycruisespecialists.com.au).
European river cruise line Riviera Travel is running two eight-day river cruises in November – a Danube cruise from Budapest on November 1 and Burgundy, River Rhone and Provence cruise on November 6 – for solo passengers only with no supplement (rivieratravel.com.au).
Still, recognition of solo cruisers is generally so poor that at last year's inaugural Solo Travel Awards, no winners were announced in the ocean or river cruise categories.
Last month, Lonely Planet published The Solo Travel Handbook. The guide covers not only solo-friendly destinations (such as Berlin for the nightlife and Rome for the culture) but gives tips on non-awkward ways to meet people and how to get a stranger to take the perfect snap of you. Traveller's list of the best solo-friendly destinations takes into account multiple factors – perhaps it's the friendliness of the locals, the safety of the destination or the pull of the country's extraordinary attractions. Sometimes, though, it's all about that excellent deal for one.
THE DESTINATION Sri Lanka
PERFECT FOR The solo seeker of a compact tropical escape
TELL ME MORE Sri Lanka is enjoying newfound stability following three decades of ethnic war. Go looking for leopards in Yala National Park and elephants in Kaudulla National Park. Chill on one of the palm-fringed beaches or catch a few quality waves. Reaching the country is also easier – last year, SriLankan Airlines launched direct flights between Melbourne and Colombo. Sri Lanka's compact size (it's a smidge larger than Tasmania) also makes it an attractive proposition for solo travellers who don't want to endure long-distance travel (the six-hour train journey between Kandy and the hill-country village of Ella is touted as one of the world's prettiest train rides). The island nation is home to friendly people, eight World Heritage-listed sites including the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, highland tea estates that come wreathed in morning mist, and atmospheric colonial architecture and fortifications in cities such as Galle.
THE TOUR Soul & Surf offers south coast getaways crammed with surfing sessions and yoga classes, as well as activities such as guided meditation and river canoeing. Guests stay at a 12-bedroom villa near the low-key surf mecca of Ahangama. Soul & Surf will appeal to outdoorsy women looking for a revitalising getaway. Beginners can find their feet (goofy or otherwise) at sheltered beaches while more experienced surfers can ride the reef and point breaks. Seven-night packages start from £820 ($1447) a person.
THE DESTINATION Americana Music Triangle, US
Beale Street, Memphis. Photo: Shutterstock
PERFECT FOR The solo traveller music lover hankering for a road trip
TELL ME MORE The Memphis-Nashville-New Orleans triangle in America's deep south gave rise to nine distinct musical genres such as blues, gospel and rock'n'roll. While it would take weeks to explore the entire trail (while also enjoying gigs in clubs, cafes and juke joints), you can also simply delve into the sections that interest you most. Don't worry if you're on your own – simply pull up a pew and strike up a conversation with the nearest patron. You might also get a red-hot tip on what else is going on in the area.
THE TOUR Pick up a rental car from Memphis airport, explore the clubs of Beale Street and repent for your sins on Sunday morning at the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church near Graceland where former soul singer turned pastor Al Green may be leading the prayers and the singalong. From Memphis, it's a 90-minute drive to Clarksdale, Mississippi where legend has it that bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. The small town hosts live blues music every night of the week. Check out Red's Blues Club, one of the last of the delta's genuine juke joints, on the other side of the railway tracks. Stay just out of town at the Shack Up Inn where a night in one of the kitschy shacks starts from $US75.
THE DESTINATION Bordeaux, south-western France
PERFECT FOR The single traveller wine aficionado needing a designated driver/captain
TELL ME MORE Bordeaux's Garonne River might be a temperamental beast, with its wild tidal movements sometimes turning the day's planned cruising into a bus trip, but who cares when you're drinking wine this good in countryside this pretty. Bordeaux is both a region and a city with a newish landmark in the shape of La Cite du Vin – an avant-garde wine museum that's playful, informative and a little risque. River ships dock in the heart of the city, allowing for easy exploration of the revitalised riverbank that's flanked by honey-coloured neo-classical limestone buildings. Be sure to visit Miroir d'eau - the world's largest reflecting pool.
THE TOUR Uniworld's eight-day Bordeaux, Vineyards and Chateaux river cruise is one of its most popular cruises for solo passengers – look out for deals where the single supplement is waived or reduced. Enjoy an excursion to Saint-Emilion – a medieval village that's home to a partly subterranean church.
THE DESTINATION Peru
PERFECT FOR The lone traveller foodie and ancient history buff
TELL ME MORE More than 40,000 Australians visited Peru in 2016, with numbers growing at about 15 per cent a year. We flock not only to marvel at the ancient bolthole of Machu Picchu – revealed to the world only in 1911 by American explorer Hiram Bingham – but also to enjoy the culinary revolution exemplified by high-level restaurants such as Central and Astrid y Gaston. If the budget doesn't stretch to these Lima hotspots, pop into Tanta in Miraflores – a casual eatery from Gaston Acurio, father of haute Peruvian cuisine.
THE TOUR Intrepid's nine-day Classic Peru for Solo Travellers tour (from $2695 a person twin-share, add a supplement for your own room) travels from coastal Lima into the dizzying highlands where it can take a day or two to adjust to the altitude. In Cuzco, visit the market (order one of the astounding tropical juice combos) along with the chocolate museum before heading into the Sacred Valley. After overnighting at the foot of Machu Picchu, the group heads to these famed Incan ruins. The tour also includes Lake Titicaca where you stay in a local family's home.
THE DESTINATION The ends of the earth
An emperor penguin colony in Antarctica. Photo: Shutterstock
PERFECT FOR The solo traveller nature lover eyeing the final frontiers
TELL ME MORE Sometimes, all that's left for modern-day adventurers is to explore the planet's icy extremes, ogling the glittering icebergs, snapping the wildlife and listening for the crackle of calving glaciers. These journeys aren't easy – tales of the infamous Drake Passage, for instance, can deter the hardiest of travellers from venturing to Antarctica. However, those who undertake the arduous journey will find extraordinary camaraderie aboard the cosier expedition ships, with plenty of opportunities to mingle with fellow passengers during shore excursions and the evening entertainment. Use the journey to take a tech break and reconnect with your fellow humans. Head to Antarctica to see penguins or to the Arctic for polar bears.
THE TOUR For solo travellers, the price of a polar cruise can be prohibitive. Look for companies that offer same-sex cabin match-ups in exchange for waiving the single supplement. Chimu Adventures is one that offers this deal (if you want your own cabin, be prepared to pay 1.7 times the advertised price). Its 10-day charter voyages to Antarctica aboard the 118-cabin Ocean Atlantic in 2019 costs $7895 a person for a standard cabin. The same ship will explore Spitsbergen, between Norway and the North Pole, for eight days in June 2019; a standard cabin costs $5539 a person (both fares discounted until February 28, 2018).
THE DESTINATION Vietnam and Cambodia
PERFECT FOR The lone traveller thrill-seeker after a two-wheeled adventure.
TELL ME MORE While not the world's calmest streets, it's fascinating to see what Vietnamese and Cambodian locals can fit onto their bicycles and motorbikes as they go about their day. Both countries are forging ahead after coming through turbulent and heartbreaking times – some of the most poignant visitor sites include Vietnam's Cu Chi Tunnels and Cambodia's Killing Fields. Spend your days haggling for bargains, filling up on excellent food, enjoying a bargain foot massage and seeing temples that showcase incredible artistry.
THE TOUR Experience these fascinating neighbours in an up-close way with World Expeditions' 12-day Ho Chi Minh City to Angkor Wat cycle (from $2450 a person, no supplement if sharing with a same-sex traveller, single supplement $440). Cycle through rice paddies, villages and farmland to reach Kep and Kampot – two charming towns that house faded French colonial villas. The tour also includes two days of exploring the vast temples of Angkor Wat.
THE DESTINATION Scandinavia
Amalienborg Castle in Copenhagen. Photo: Shutterstock
PERFECT FOR The solo foodie and Nordic design lover
TELL ME MORE Scandinavia is as hot as ever. Last week, celebrated chef Rene Redzepi reopened his Noma 40-seater restaurant in a new Copenhagen location that comes complete with an urban farm. Scandi noir remains big in books and television while Scandinavian design continues to appeal to hip minimalists. The only downside is that this is an expensive region to visit – which perhaps explains why solo travellers are keen to explore it via a group tour.
THE TOUR Insight Vacations' 20-day Grand Scandinavia tour (from $8482 for a single room, 1.2 times the price of a twin room) is one of the company's most popular tours for solo travellers. The tour includes seeing the home of the Danish royal family and the place where the Nobel Prize banquet unfolds in Stockholm. Cruise the Baltic to Finland and head to Santa Claus Village in Lapland before finishing in Oslo. Insight also offers 15 to 100 per cent off the solo supplement on select European tours (see its Solo Traveller Savings page).
THE DESTINATION Falls Creek, Victoria
PERFECT FOR The single skier keen to polish his or her skills
TELL ME MORE Falls Creek is said to be the most European of Australia's ski villages – and there's no reason why you can't head to this pretty high-altitude spot alone, especially if you're the only skier in your family or among your group of friends. If you're keen to perfect your technique, sign up for an all-day private lesson with a professional instructor, guaranteeing yourself company for the day. Group lessons can also provide new companions. At night when fairy-lights add a layer of magic to the village, wander among the restaurants and bars where there's plenty of bonhomie on tap. Pop into the English-style Cock'n'Bull pub for a happy hour Guinness or Kilkenny, or savour the apres-ski action at a lively bar such as the one within Astra Lodge.
THE TOUR A six-hour private lesson at Falls Creek costs $680 – far less than you'll pay at a ritzy resort such as Colorado's Vail where a full-day private ski lesson costs $US995 ($1254), not counting lunch and tip.
THE DESTINATION Nepal
PERFECT FOR The solo traveller wildlife enthusiast
TELL ME MORE Nepal suffered a crippling blow when a devastating earthquake struck in 2015, killing almost 9000 people and leaving its tourism industry in tatters. However, visitors are returning to this friendly Himalayan nation to once again hike its stupendous mountains, see the astonishing wildlife and to soak up its ultra-serene vibe.
THE TOUR On the Go Tours' nine-day Highlights of Nepal trip includes two days within Chitwan National Park, home to the elusive Bengal tiger, striped hyenas, the one-horned rhino, Indian elephants and the gharial (or fish-eating crocodile). There's also time to explore Pokhara, gateway to the Annapurna Circuit, and visit a Tibetan refugee camp before returning to Kathmandu. Two 2018 departures – May 4 and December 21 – offer your own room at no extra cost (from $1496 a person). Other departures carry a single supplement.
THE DESTINATION Japan
PERFECT FOR The culturally curious single traveller
TELL ME MORE In Japan, every aspect of life is elevated to high art. Meals look almost too good to eat. Place names are pure poetry. People are supremely polite. Ancient traditions survive alongside ultra-futuristic cities. Nature is regarded as almost sacred. Yet it also has a kooky side, which you'll see if you visit a maid cafe in Tokyo's Akihabara or visit the trendy Harajuku district. In Japan, there's a contradiction around every corner. It's also incredibly safe, with Tokyo topping The Economist magazine's Safe Cities Index 2017. Perhaps that helps explain why travel-booking platform agoda found that Japan is the top international destination for Aussie solo travellers, accounting for nearly a fifth of all solo bookings from Australia in 2017.
THE TOUR Some of Inside Japan's small-group tours feature no single supplement, with some departures allocated to solo travellers only. One such tour is the nine-night Tokaido Trail itinerary (from $3752 a person) that includes Tokyo and Kyoto. There's also time for a day trip from Kyoto that could take you to Hiroshima on the bullet train or to nearby Miyajima, the island famous for its persimmon-coloured torii gate that becomes partially submerged at high tide. The itinerary includes the city of Kamakura, home to a famous giant bronze Buddha dating from the 13th century. In Hakone National Park, home to Mt Fuji, travellers will have to share a room in a ryokan (traditional inn) – a quintessential experience where you sleep on futons rolled out onto sweet-smelling tatami mats. You can also bathe in indoor and outdoor onsen (hot springs), an experience that comes with its own set of nuanced rules.
LONE VOICES: TIPS FROM SOLO TRAVELLERS
HAYLEY CORKIN, 26, DIGITAL MEDIA EDITOR
"Unlearn stranger danger. Nothing bonds people like travel. Being in the same place as each other already gives you common ground. Being solo you will have, 'come and talk to me' written all over your face. Put yourself in situations that show you're open to new connections – hostels, bars, museums or public walking tours are a great place to start. Failing that, organised tours are a great place to start for first-time solo explorers."
Sydneysider Hayley Corkin explored 10 African countries in 2017, touring with Acacia Africa for two months and travelling solo for a month. See acacia-africa.com
BRENDAN GALLAGHER, 59, MUSIC PRODUCER/PERFORMER
"At the first chance, let people know you're an Aussie when ordering a coffee or checking into a hotel. Most of the time, this is a good thing in Europeans' eyes. Even if you know where you're going, ask directions – preferably in the local language, bad accent and all. They'll appreciate the effort. Next thing you know, your new friend has driven you to your destination and you're having a spritz on a cobblestone laneway at 11.30am, you've got the guitar out and the bar owner is showering you with free food."
Sydney-based Karma County frontman Brendan Gallagher travelled solo to Italy eight times in the past nine years. A random meeting with guitar player Aldo Betto in 2009 led to the recording of new album, Short & Sweet, with Betto and The Magnolia Orchestra in the Tuscan seaside village of Porto Santo Stefano. See BrendanGallagherMusic.com
ALISON SCOTT, 34, PUBLIC RELATIONS EXECUTIVE
"I spent a month backpacking through India and found an emerging hostel scene that offers a lively, social alternative to more traditional guesthouses and hotels. Some of my most memorable experiences were on tours offered by hostels – street food in the alleys of Old Delhi and the flower and spice markets of Varanasi. I booked most of my train travel at the station. Tourists are now allocated berths in a 'foreigner carriage', so this meant there were usually a couple of other English speakers in the car. While you still get the iconic experience of Indian train travel, it's nice to make friends on those 12-hour train trips."
Former Sydneysider Alison Scott moved to Washington DC following her life-changing solo trip to India.
CHRISTIAN SPENCER GILLON, 31, BEAUTY SALON OWNER
"Be open to all people, possibilities and situations. But if you feel like you shouldn't be somewhere, then you probably shouldn't – listen to your instincts. If you've eaten something you think is a little precarious, have a glass of straight scotch afterwards. It fixes any stomach bug."
Christian Spencer Gillon, owner of Melbourne's Spencer & Co hair and beauty salon, has travelled through Asia, North America and South America, flying solo for much of it.
Ten tips for going it alone
* If dining alone feels excruciating, choose a restaurant where you can eat at the bar and chat to staff or watch the chefs at work.
* Ask locals for tips on where to eat, drink, stay and play. A simple question could lead to a great experience not found in guidebooks.
* A guide provides instant company. Join a free walking tour, a group day tour or splash out on a private guide.
* Steer clear of renowned honeymoon destinations such as Bora Bora, Fiji and Hawaii.
* Focus a trip around a passion. It's easy to find like-minded people on a big bike ride, for instance, or at a music festival.
* Learn the art of small talk. Open with a compliment; steer clear of politics, race, religion and negativity.
* Think your hostel days are behind you? Many modern hostels feature private rooms with en suites, plus a packed calendar of activities and outings.
* Some hotels, such as Vancouver's The St Regis Hotel, offer free long-distance phone calls. Phone home – or use Skype – to stay in touch with family and friends.
* Have a book on the go. It makes waiting time fly by – plus it's a conversation-starter (unlike a phone).
* Smile and be nice to people. Those two simple things can get you far.
Join writers and editors from Traveller, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, alone with our hand-picked experts on our exclusive reader tours to some of the world's greatest destinations. See traveller.com.au/traveller-tours