Forget millennials. It's their parents who have the money and time to sign up for luxury experiences around the globe. With the aid of digital communications, going alone no longer feels like tragedy but an asset.
The old adage preaches, “It is not where you go, but who you’re with that matters.” But for an aging and affluent generation keen on self-actualization and crossing items off their bucket lists, it is the where, not who, that takes precedence.
“I decided to hike Kilimanjaro solo because it fell on my 50th birthday and, having been a single parent, I found it very symbolic. The strength and fortitude it took to survive was representative of the daily uphill climbs toward a large goal,” said Kristen McCracken, a 50-year-old mother of four who flew to Tanzania alone to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, arriving at Uhuru Peak on her birthday.
McCracken wasn’t completely alone. She booked through luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent and met her 12 companions on arrival — four of whom had also come alone.
“I listened to my friend recount stories from climbing the steepest section of Mt. Kilimanjaro and thought it was a terrifying…and that I should do it. The next morning I called,” said Gay Pollitt, a dentist from Chicago who also traveled to Tanzania alone to celebrate her 50th on the mountain.
Luxury tour operators and hoteliers’ data shows solo luxury travel is on the rise.
Abercrombie and Kent experienced a more than 60 percent jump in solo travelers between 2013 and 2017 with an even steeper 25 percent spike year-over-year in 2017. A&K’s expedition cruises also saw significant double-digit growth in solo guests starting in 2013.
Solo travelers are largely seasoned and older females. Seventy percent of A&K’s solo travelers take at least one overseas trip per year, 70 percent are female, and half are between the ages of 50 and 60.
The growth of solo female travelers has been particularly noted in the outdoor adventure circuit. Last year, 68 percent of luxury operator Black Tomato’s solo travelers were female — a number that the company expects to increase — and the number of women traveling with REI has grown by 60 percent since 2010.
What’s Driving Solo Luxury Vacations
The reasons driving these travelers to invest thousands on adventures that they embark on alone vary.
According to A&K’s traveler surveys, nearly 40 percent chose a trip because their partner didn’t share their interest in the destination, or scheduling conflicts prevented family or friends from joining them. A quarter of those surveyed traveled alone to pursue a personal passion such as wildlife photography, history, or archaeology.
“My partner was not interested in coming and I really wanted an escape,” Sean Harrison, executive vice president of Kingdom Hotel Investments, said. “I love the solitude the mountains give you and the free space in my mind…but also wanted to be able to meet some new people.”
Harrison had previously traveled alone to Patagonia and Everest and found planning vacations solo gives him the flexibility necessary with a demanding job and business travel schedule.
“Solo travel has moved away from pre-conceived notions of the lonely and awkward. Clients are looking to step out for a moment and experience things at their own pace to gain a deep sense of place and focus on well-being or creative projects,” Black Tomato founder Tom Marchant said.
Why Solo Luxury Travelers Choose Group Trips
Small group trips led by a local guide are attractive to solo travelers as they provide the knowledge and experience to make guests more comfortable traveling in new cultures or languages.
“A&K not only made it easier, but they also made it doable. They either offered the option to, or did handle all of the details, which for me, is the hardest part of traveling or approaching anywhere new,” explains McCracken.
There are also high repeat rates for solo travelers. Once a customer finds a home away from home, either in their interactions with staff or fellow travelers, they’re more likely than the average client to come back.
On a recent global roadshow, Singita marketing director Lindy Rousseau spoke with a client who shared that she chooses Singita as she never feels lonely when traveling alone. Having found a balance between interactions with staff or guests and personal time, this client now recommends safari as the ultimate travel experience to her single friends
Singita has a very high repeat rate with specific solo travelers returning to the same lodge for many years.
Luxury safari outfitter Time + Tide has found success among solo travelers who come for a specific hobby or interest — whether it be bird watching in Zambia or fishing in Madagascar — but seek some interaction in down time.
“The format of Time + Tide safaris are ideal for solo travel, as they emphasize connecting travelers to the place, each other, and themselves. While safaris are popular among groups and families, the solo safari is on the rise. We often get those who leave their partners at home because of these niche individual interests,” said Vicky Austin, sales and reservations manager of Time + Tide.
“Our properties offer communal dining options, and a number of group activities to ensure solo travelers feel comfortable to socialize as they wish, when they wish.”
The ability to meet like-minded travelers through specific operators is one factor that increases repeat rates.
“With certain operators, you know the people that you will be traveling with — and this sounds very snobby — are of a certain quality. You know that you are going to have a diverse group of people but that they’re all going to be interesting and they’re all going to be different,” explains Harrison.
While adventure travel such as climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro as well as safaris are both popular with solo travelers, outfitters are also seeing increased interest in destinations such as Finland and Mongolia. Drawn by remote forests and lakes, these destinations offer the same sense of adventure of an African safari.
City Breaks for Solo Travelers
Not all solo travelers are looking to completely unplug in nature, however, and luxury hotels are responding by designing their spaces to better meet the needs of solo travelers.
“City breaks are also popular with individuals and we are seeing the hotel industry match this new demand with some scrapping the single supplement and hotel restaurants being designed to make the solo traveler feel at ease and relaxed when dining alone,” Marchant said.
Black Tomato found that many of their solo travelers work within creative industries. The professionals in particular are seeking retreats that combine peace and quiet with the opportunity to do work.
Harrison echoed the sentiment, remarking how, in his experience, luxury hotels have improved their designs and operations to better suit solo travelers in recent years. It is simple steps such as waitstaff not assuming he is part of a pair or making seating more accessible for solo dining that have the most profound effect on his experience.
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Photo credit: A traveler takes a break while achieving his goal of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro before his 70th birthday. Luxury adventure travel has become more of a solo pursuit in recent years. Samantha Shankman / Skift