The need for community hasn’t gone away in the age of social distancing. And for many solo travelers who still want to enjoy the camaraderie, safety and convenience of traveling with others, the answer is group tours.
Annie Shurtleff, a 75-year-old from Tulsa, frequently travels solo with organized groups (36 trips and counting), most recently on a fall foliage tour of New England with the nonprofit educational tour company Road Scholar. “I have never let being a solo keep me from things,” says Shurtleff, who adds that one of the biggest benefits of joining a group is “the people I meet.”
Most of the solo travelers signing up for these trips are women: About 65 percent of solo customers booking with the U.K.–based Exodus Travels are women, as are 70 percent of solo travelers with Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.).
And they aren’t necessarily single — some may have a spouse who is unable to travel or has different interests. “We never use the term single,” says Matt Berna, managing director of Intrepid Travel, which catered to some 350,000 travelers worldwide in 2019, about half of them solo.
Their attraction to group trips seems to be growing in the COVID-19 era: Road Scholar reports a 20 percent increase in solo travelers compared with pre-pandemic levels; Exodus Travels has seen a 9 percent increase, and EF Go Ahead Tours’ individual bookings have more than doubled.
Typically about a quarter of participants on Road Scholar’s trips are travelers signing up alone, but this year they make up nearly 29 percent of all participants, says director of public relations Kelsey Knoedler Perri. “Our solo traveler community has been on the rise over the past 10 years, but this is by far the largest leap.”
She surmises that the growth may be at least in part fueled by travelers eager to get out of town after spending nearly two years adventure-starved by the pandemic — so eager, they don’t care if they can’t find a friend or family member to join them. “We have people calling saying, ‘Where can I go now? I want to go next week!’ ” says Robin Brooks, director of marketing at Exodus Travels, whose customers’ average age is 65 and of whom 67 percent are traveling solo. The company’s trips to Italy, Portugal and Costa Rica are booking up particularly fast.
Brooks also points to the fact that tour companies will stay on top of the complicated COVID-19-related rules around the world, so their customers don’t have to — a big advantage for people who aren’t keen on trying to navigate evolving testing and vaccine requirements on their own. “Everyone wants a lot more hand-holding now,” she says.
Peggy Reynolds, 62, of Long Island agrees: She went alone on a group trip to Iceland in May with EF Go Ahead Tours, after getting vaccinated for COVID-19, because family members she would usually have traveled with were either not vaccinated or still hesitant to travel. She says it was the best travel experience she’s ever had — not only because she met some wonderful people, but “it was great having everything planned ... I could really sit back and enjoy myself.”
Upcoming Trips for Solo Travelers
Prices do not include airfare. Note that most trips below have more departure dates than the one listed.
Explore Machu Picchu (8 days)
Departs: May 14, 2022
Starting cost: $2,999
Snow-capped mountains, sprawling citadels, cliffside terraces — see the landscapes of Peru on this guided tour departing from Lima. You’ll uncover the secrets of the Sacred Valley, including Incan ruins and salt pools, and wander ancient towns like Urubamba, where you’ll sample pachamanca, a traditional dinner cooked in a stone oven. And that’s just your second day. The highlight, of course, is the 15th-century Machu Picchu, glorious in the morning mist surrounded by the Andes.
Sicily for Solo Travelers (8 days)
Departs: Sept. 3, 2022
Starting cost: $2,809
The joys of Sicilian life are the focus on this tour exclusively for solo travelers. Marvel at cathedrals, piazzas, palaces and a Greek amphitheater with views of Mount Etna. You’ll also immerse yourself in Sicily’s famous food culture and learn to shop, cook and dine like a local, sampling wines, gourmet desserts and stuffed arancini. You can extend the eight-day tour with three days in Rome.
Japan’s Cultural Treasures (two weeks)
Departs: Aug. 15, 2022
Starting cost: $3,695
This small-group trip explores the breadth of Japanese culture in two immersive weeks. Hear taiko drums, watch sumo, sip matcha and learn ancient arts like ikebana (flower arranging). You’ll meet the people, too, including a monk who will teach you Zen meditation. The trip includes plenty of free time, particularly in the evenings for those wanting to sample the nightlife or soak in the hot springs of Mount Fuji’s foothills. Bonus: No single supplement.
The Great Smokies: Trains, Cherokee and Appalachian Culture (6 Days)
Departs: Sept. 11, 2022
Starting cost: $1,549
Road Scholar’s ride through Appalachia features local experts to enrich your understanding of the places and people you’ll encounter. Learn about Cherokee legends as you listen to music played on the Native American drum, flute and rattle. Tour a Civil War battlefield with a historian. Travel by train through the Great Smoky Mountains and meet a conductor who shows you how vintage locomotives are restored. Other itinerary favorites: the underground Ruby Falls, bluegrass performances and Rock City.
Portland to San Francisco Discovery (6 days)
Departs: July 8, 2022
Starting cost: $1,913 - $2,250
You’ll get loads of natural beauty and delicious food on Intrepid’s new small-group (12 travelers max) trip through the Northwest. It will include exploring the fantastic culinary scenes in Portland and San Francisco, plus unique experiences like shucking oysters at Hog Island Oyster Co., and enjoying a fresh-salmon picnic lunch with the First Nations people of Warm Springs. You’ll also visit Crater Lake National Park and see the spectacular redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument. The physical rating is “comfort,” so it will involve some walking, kayaking and biking, but no strenuous activities.
Tips for Choosing a Solo Trip
1. Try to avoid the single supplement. You’ll hear about the dreaded single supplement, the surcharge most tour companies add if you’re not traveling with a plus-one to get the double-occupancy rate on lodging. But many tour companies will give you the option of being assigned a roommate to avoid the single supplement. Berna of Intrepid Travel says most solos do so; only about 20 percent decide to pay the supplement, which averages $300 to $500 a trip, to have their own rooms.
2. Look for deals. Sometimes you can find specials where companies will drop the extra charge for solos. O.A.T., for instance is offering to waive single supplements on 92 percent of the 30,000 spaces reserved for singles each year.
3. Choose the right activity level. Most tours rank their activity levels by difficulty. You’ll find everything from fully accessible trips by bus to hard-core adventures hiking, biking, scuba diving and more. Tour directors can sometimes make alternative arrangements if you prefer to skip a more strenuous activity. If you’re curious, just ask.
4. Consider age groups. Some travelers like to be with people of different ages, others prefer to be among others of their own generation. You can always call a tour company to find out what age groups they cater to, and note that different trips may attract different kinds of travelers. At EF Go Ahead Tours, most travelers are in their 50s and 60s. The average age of a Road Scholar participant is 72 (but you’ll find that travelers are a bit younger on more active trips), while Intrepid Travel customers’ average age is about 54. ElderTreks caters exclusively to the 50-plus crowd.
5. Strike a balance between free time and group time. Choose a schedule that works for you. One thing to look for when considering itineraries is how many meals are covered with your trip. Included meals (except sometimes breakfasts at the hotel) tend to be served in a group setting, while meals on your own give you the chance to explore as you wish.
Cheryl Rodewig, a longtime journalist based in the U.S. Southeast, has written travel stories for Roadtrippers, Fodor’s, Modern Woman and more.