Do people really want to travel solo or is it actually a way to make friends? A recent piece in The Guardian presented solo travel as being on the rise and, at the same time, argued it was because people are seeking new connections. Is this not a fundamental contradiction?
Similarly, a recent Forbes piece dubbed 2024 “the year of solo traveler”. It spends a large part of its wordcount discussing why people are reluctant to travel alone, while arguing it’s a growing trend and a great way to meet people. What on earth is going on?
If there seems to be a contradiction here, between the search for friendship and the search for solitude, it could stem from the fact that many supposed “solo” travel specialists actually train their guides in creating friendships and camaraderie among their groups, because they think that’s what people want. If you like, they are trying to offer a post #metoo, less cheesy, less pimp-like version of the “singles holiday”.
They create WhatsApp groups or invite you to join them on social media before your trip has even started. Which begs the question: do people really want to “go it alone” (as ABTA puts it), or, as these companies believe, are they on the hunt for new friendships?
A lone star has risen
It’s true that the lone star of solo travel appears to have risen, according to data across industry sources. While the majority of us still travel with partners, friends or family, the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), says the proportion of solo holidaymakers has increased almost threefold over 12 years from 2011.
Selected travel companies cited across the press now attribute between 46 and 60% of bookings to lone adventurers and say the trend for solo travel has been the “story of the last decade.”
And if anything, that movement is accelerating. A RadicalStorage roundup on the topic notes that online searches using the term “solo travel” are up by 236% from April 2020 to April 2023, and that half of Airbnb bookings are for solos.
Hell is other people
The image of solo travel has changed, as has solo eating in restaurants. For a while there on social media, the lone voyager staring mindfully into the middle distance while striking a yoga pose on the edge of a remote lake actually became an aspirational sight.
We came to envy solitude because it was presented to us over and over as a way to escape dull routine, the non-stop demands of ubiquitous connectivity, and “other people” – and to reconnect instead with ourselves.
We’ve all heard that “Hell is other people”, and Sartre’s 1944 axiom was not a new idea. In the 18th century already, Wordsworth was pondering how we can process the raw emotion of experience. He came down on the side of giving ourselves time for “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. He heavily emphasised the “tranquillity” part, preferably in nature.
Wordsworth was perhaps one of the early “slow travel” proponents, railing against the scourge of crowding and consumerism in poems like The World is Too Much With Us (1807) and celebrating instead the “untrodden ways”.
Recent “experience” has arguably changed us again however. The experts all say that the threat of imminent death posed by Covid-19, as well as its interminable lockdowns, made us more impatient than ever to tick items off our bucket list.
As a result, many people are simply not prepared to delay their travel plans anymore and are too impatient to wait for friends or family to be available to join them. Still, they are not fully prepared to be completely alone – with women in particular (46% of them according to RadicalStorage) still understandably too concerned about their safety to travel fully solo. The search for a midway, an organised and likeminded group, is a sensible way to manage those concerns.
There is another reason why you might seek a nuanced version of lone travel. The cost. It’s 47% more expensive to travel alone (on average), says RadicalStorage again, than to go away as a couple.
Practical or paradox?
Perhaps there is nothing more behind the “lone-but-not-alone” paradox than practical explanations, such as safety and cost. Others however argue we are now seeking a different kind of togetherness.
Many people spent a great deal of time by themselves in lockdown, or, if not “by themselves” exactly, then in a surreal world of semi-solitude. Some were bombarded by a continuous and exhausting round of zoom calls and Google Meetings. Others were forced (sometimes for the first time) to try to meet a range of people’s mental and physical needs and found themselves ill-equipped to do so.
Coming out of that context, the notion of lone travel, getting away from it all, but with a safety net and the chance to have a meaningful in-person connection with a someone who is not sitting behind a desk or a screen, could well have some appeal.
Each to their own
Travel influencer Janet Newenham, says The Guardian, has demonstrated that “solo travel can be admirable”. Indeed, she is presented as a true solo voyager who “avoids groups”. Yet, she declares “co-living” spaces are her thing and says she seeks out “expat groups” wherever she is, adding, “So I’m in Mexico now, and this morning I’m going to a brunch for female entrepreneurs. Everyone is here with the intention of meeting new people – last night there was a taco bar crawl.”
At this point, I feel bound to say: Holiday Hell, to my mind at least, is an “expat” networking brunch with a bunch of loose acquaintances. And the idea of “recollecting a ‘taco bar crawl’ in tranquillity” sounds like a euphemism for food poisoning. But, I suppose, each to their own – and you can bet there’s a travel company willing to cater to that.