Solo travel: how to keep costs down

Solo travel has never been more popular but the biggest challenge for those doing so is often financial. With extras like single supplements, the final tally can be more than anticipated.

Solo travellers think it's unfair, but hotels and tour operators say it's simply math. Not only do they lose the income from having two people in a room, but they also don't get full value from extras like food and drinks. So hotels and cruise lines tack on the single supplement, much to our chagrin. But with solo travel on the rise, the tides are changing and travel providers are accommodating this trend in a variety of ways.

The author poses in Thailand, hand on hip, lifting sunglasses off her head
Writer Nora Dunn has travelled full-time for 12 years, six of them solo © Nora Dunn

Avoiding single supplements

The dreaded single supplement is the biggest financial obstacle to solo travel. Tour operators advertise rates based on double occupancy, so when a solo traveller signs up they're often charged up to double the per-person rate. However our voices are being heard, and travel companies are reducing or eliminating single supplements. But you need to know what to look for, and how to advocate. Here's how.

Choose tour companies wisely

Tour companies such as Intrepid Travel and G Adventures, and cruise lines such as Adventure Canada are now accommodating for and encouraging solo travel. In some cases, they waive the single supplements for a certain number of solo travellers (on a first-come, first-served basis). In other cases they'll play matchmaker so solo travellers can share a room and pay the lowest rate.

Check deals pages

Janice Waugh, founder of Solo Traveler, has made headway in the industry by featuring companies with no (or very low) single supplements on her regularly updated solo travel deals page. You can also sign up to receive these deals via email.

Book early

The earlier you book, the better. Tour companies often have limited discount spots for solo travellers, and they sell out quickly.

Ask Lonely Planet: what are the best cities for solo travel?

Book last minute

Alternatively, you can book last minute. It's risky, but if there's still space, they may be willing to give it to solo travellers without single supplements to fill remaining spots.

Call and ask

If there is not a solo traveller discount advertised, don't despair. Simply phone to ask for a deal. It never hurts to ask!

Travel in the shoulder season

Your best chance for solo travel discounts are with shoulder season bookings. Companies are more willing to slash prices, since they're not as likely to fill up.

More from our solo female travel series:

Booking accommodation

Booking a dorm bed in a hostel will give you the best rate as a solo traveller, but that's not everybody's style. For hotels, the cost of a room is a flat charge, with no consideration given to how many people are occupying it. This inherently makes it more expensive for solo travellers who aren't splitting the cost with a friend or spouse. Here are some suggestions to keep the cost of accommodation reasonable:

A smiling woman with sunglasses floating down a river on an inner tube on a sunny day.
Solo travel is an increasingly popular option for women © Thomas Barwick / Getty

Hostel private rooms

Private rooms in hostels are often cheaper than hotel rooms. Most hostel rooms have en suite bathrooms, but those with shared bathrooms will cost even less. Additional savings come with access to a kitchen, and meeting other solo travellers at the hostel can be fun.

Hotel single rooms

According to Waugh, more hotels are offering single rooms than ever before. 'The Z Hotels in the UK are a good example of this. It's worth noting, though well designed for efficiency, these rooms are very small and often without a window.'

Capsule hotels

Capsule hotels (which first became popular in Japan, and are cropping up elsewhere) are other examples of solo-traveller-friendly accommodation, albeit stingy on space.

Get free accommodation

Personally I've saved the most money on accommodation by getting it for free, in trade for volunteering a few hours each day. I've stayed in beautiful places around the world and enjoyed culturally rewarding experiences perfect for solo travellers. And it's not all about manual labour; I've enjoyed a wide range of volunteer opportunities over the years. Here's a primer on how to get free accommodation.

Other ways to save

Single supplements and double-occupancy hotel rates are the two biggest gouges on a solo travel budget. But armed with these extra tips, you can make the most of your travel adventures.

Transportation

If you're travelling with companions, then taking a taxi or Uber might make sense. But on your own, you'll save money booking shared vans or using public transportation. UberPool is also a great option, if it's available at your destination.

Tours and activities

'We frequently hear from solo travellers who cannot take a day tour because a two-person minimum hasn't been met by the tour provider,' says Waugh. This isn't a cost issue, but it is a hassle. Consider doing a free walking tour. You'll meet other travellers and get a local inside scoop, plus some customized recommendations from your guide.

Smiling woman looking at glass-domed items at a street market in Naples.
A walking tour could be a good alternative if you're travelling solo © VCoscaron / Shutterstock

Classes and meetups

There are cooking classes, language learning groups and couch-surfing meetups. Waugh likes Global Greeter Network for meeting locals and learning about a destination.

Opportunities to cut your budget

Now for the good news: according to Waugh, solo travellers have some extra opportunities to save money! Flights are an example: 'Not all economy seats are the same price. If there's only one seat left at the lowest rate, a solo traveller will pay that rate. If a couple books two seats at a time and there's only one seat left at the lowest rate, they'll pay the higher rate for both seats. Also, last minute theatre tickets are much easier to get single seats for. And remember, even if you aren't offered a discount, don't be afraid to ask; you never know.'

Nora Dunn travelled full-time for 12 years, over half of which were solo. On her website The Professional Hobo, she helps readers manage lifestyle logistics (like earning/spending/saving/managing money) so they can travel indefinitely.