Ten Tips for Cruising Solo
There are a lot of articles written by people who have completed their first solo cruise. While I enjoy their stories, one solo cruise does not an expert make.
Not to say that I’m an expert, but I’ve really been there, done that and have been buying the t-shirts since 1980. That was when I attempted my first solo cruise on a benign three-nighter to the Bahamas. I was hooked.
From the moment I step onboard until the last computer-sounding “ding” as my boarding pass is swiped through the scanner, all I can think is that cruising solo is the only way to go.
Along with my top ten tips, I’ll dispel and/or confirm any deep dark rumors that are buzzing around the internet these days. Male or female (I think there are more female solo-ers these days), I know you will find something here to identify with yourself.
1. Board the ship with a smile. Even if you aren’t the most intrepid traveler and have your doubts that you can do this, hold your head high and act like you belong there. Why? Because you do! Traveling solo is not a dreaded condition nor should it be perceived that way. But since you will be in the minority of cruisers, be prepared for the Snoop Sisters or Hercule Poirot lines of questioning. Simply shrug it off and move on.
2. Find a bar and bartender. My first transatlantic crossing (seventeen days, no less) could have been ruined by a man who called himself, “Spaghetti Eddie,” if not for a wonderful bartender named Goran. Here’s a “trick” I learned several years ago.
Shortly after the pre-cruise muster drill and before dinner, I scout out a bar that looks comfortable, has wifi and the bartender seems to love his job. My goal is to find my own “Cheers” for the duration of the cruise. Completing my bar-trials, I settle in on what I want to call my safety zone. When the bartender serves my drink, I tip him a $20 bill or the equivalent in Euros, if needed. A conversation ensues. Soon he knows I’m a solo guest and that I would like to have a place to go for a drink without being bothered by random drunks or overly chatty bar-flies. If I want to get online and not be stuck in my room or an internet café, I can sit at this bar, type, people-watch, sip and relax.
So what about “Spaghetti Eddie?” He was an older man (hey, everyone “looks” older than us, right?) with a deep tan, who roamed the bars dressed in a white suit, white patent leather shoes and a flowing long white scarf. After one obnoxious encounter, my bartender interceded. I don’t know what Goran said to Eddie, but he never came near me again. It’s $20 well spent. And another cash gratuity at the end of the cruise is also much appreciated.
3. Make friends with the front desk staff. Except for the wee hours of the night or during show times, the front desk staff can be bombarded with unfounded complaints and unreasonable requests from unruly passengers. They need a smiling face once in a while. At the first port of call, I try to find a local bakery or chocolate shop and bring back a sweet treat for the front desk people. If there isn’t a shop ashore, even a box of candy from the gift shop is a nice gesture. A little kindness goes a long way.
4. Dining room dithers. Here’s your dilemma: early or late seating, open seating, large table, small table, dine alone, food court, specialty restaurant. Whew. So many choices. What’s a solo guest to do?
Large table vs. small table: On some cruise lines, the maître d’ or a computer matches solo passengers to dine together. I like this. Occasionally, though, I’ve been seated at a table for ten where I was the only non-coupled diner. Sometimes this has been a lot of fun. Once on formal night, though, I was the only one who showed up. Boy, did I feel stupid. No one said that they were all going to different specialty restaurants. I immediately asked the head waiter for a table for one. He escorted me to a wonderful little table within minutes. For the entire dinner I was treated like royalty. This became “my” table for the duration of the cruise and was a highlight of my trip.
Avoid a small table at all costs. My worst nightmare occurred when I was seated with one couple and another solo passenger. I had nothing in common with any of them, requested a table change after dinner and spent the rest of the cruise avoiding them at every turn.
Early or late dining: Early (or main) seating generally attracts an older or family crowd. Late dining is great, especially if you like to do activities after dinner or spend time in port until the gangway is hauled in. With late seating, you don’t have to scurry back to your room, shower/change and rush to the dining room. This is especially important on a European cruise. Hungry? Get a snack to tide you over until 8:30PM.
Food court / specialty dining: If you’re tired of making idle chatter with total strangers night after night (this is common on the “open” seating options) or just want to reflect on your day, opt for the food court or specialty dining. For the food court option, I’d suggest bringing a book, laptop or some other object to stake out your solo table. Otherwise, you are left to your own devices to juggle a tray, beverage and your book while wandering aimlessly to find a table. For me, dining alone at a specialty restaurant is a delight. You’ve paid for the experience so getting a solo table is easy. The wait staff is also uber-attentive and eager to make this a positive experience.
There’s no reason not to enjoy your solo cruise dining experience. If it isn’t wonderful one night…simply move on to another option for the next evening.
5. You can have an entire cabin to yourself! No more having to equitably divide shelf, drawer, closet and counter space. If you want to watch TV at 2am, there’s no one to disturb. No snoring cabin mate to wake you up or neat freak to tolerate. It doesn’t matter if your roommate is a spouse, relative or a singles-match by the cruise line. In this case, sharing isn’t caring when it comes to being together in a small cabin for many days. Now…if I were in a Penthouse Suite…I’d invite my entire neighborhood!
6. It’s not a “Singles Get-Together” anymore. The word “Solo Traveler” has finally come of age. In the past, these were more like a singles market party than a place to meet fellow passengers for camaraderie. Today, the cruise lines offer cocktail parties, luncheons and coffee hours for solo passengers.
Truth be told, until last month, I never attended any of these events. I’d peek in the doorway, hide behind a potted plant or send in a spy to check it out. I was a total chicken. Until last month aboard the Queen Mary 2 on a transatlantic crossing.
How bad could it be? This was Cunard, after all. So I ventured to the Disco, aptly named G32 after her shipyard hull number, for a pre-dinner meet-n-greet. And it wasn’t so bad after all. Actually, I was one of the younger but certainly not the youngest person there. Drinks were free, hors d’oeuvres were passed and I made contacts that I would acknowledge throughout the rest of the cruise. Hmm. Maybe I should have tried this sooner. In addition to this particular event, every morning at 10:45 there was a coffee hour for solo passengers in a quiet area of the buffet. The Gentlemen Dance Hosts were there to strike up conversation if needed.
7. Jump into the fray! If you are the outgoing type or simply want to soak up the ambiance and listen to music, head over to the disco on the very first night. It’s a great way to cut to the chase and jump right in. You’ll get over your solo travel jitters and realize that hey, it’s not so bad after all! In fact, the senior officers (male and female) tend to congregate at the disco later in the evening. Grab a table for yourself or ask if you can join a table (that’s what you do on ships, anyway). With the loud music, you’re not forced into long drawn-out conversations and can excuse yourself to table or bar hop at will.
8. Going ashore for tours. Sign up for shore excursions. Riding a bus with total strangers is a great way to get acquainted in a hurry. Especially if you are headed for a party boat cruise! Seriously, though, I’ve met people on the tour buses who have become great friends through the years.
9. Take an onboard class. What isn’t offered on ships these days! From “how to use a Mac computer” to culinary demonstrations and Shakespearean acting classes, there’s something for absolutely everyone. Bridge game instructions, scrap-booking, knitting, it’s an endless array of activities. Oceania’s new Marina has the first-ever hands on culinary center at sea. For $69, you have your own professional work-station and taught by professional chefs.
10. Have built-in companionship. If you’re not quite sure if solo cruising is for you, find an affinity group that cruises. Maybe your local place of worship has a cruise planned. If you’re a veteran, there are veteran’s groups to join at sea, alumni groups or even a local radio station. While you are still traveling solo, there will be onboard events and activities where you will find other like-minded passengers to get to know. This comes in handy if you want to explore port cities without a ship’s excursion.
11. Bonus Tip! Find an online cruise forum with a roll-call. I tried this once. I signed up online to meet others who were sailing on a particular cruise. It’s a great way to connect and put a face with an online screen name. One particular online roll call forum even puts signs on the cabin doors identifying their members. There’s always a sailaway party and one or two events throughout the cruise. Two popular ones are CruiseCritic.com and MeetOnCruise.com. Princess Cruises recently announced their own roll call accessed from their Facebook page.
12. Bonus Tip! Avoid paying the dreaded 200% single supplement. Watch for off-season sailings with reduced single supplements. Or try one of the fabulous, innovative studio cabins which are purpose built for the solo passenger. You can find these as inside cabins on the NCL Epic and as inside and oceanview cabins on the British P&O Azura.
Now you know a little bit more of what to do and expect. You want to take that fabulous cruise but for whatever reason you go it alone. Go ahead and sing your lungs out at karaoke, take part in a goofy pool deck competition or do absolutely nothing at all. Chances are you’ll never see any of these people again. Unless of course, you want to keep in touch after the cruise. Finally, solo travelers can enjoy a cruise without having to feel embarrassed.
All the great ocean liners had staterooms for singles. Whether it’s a cost factor or not is a hotly debated issue. Hopefully, once the other cruise lines realize the success that the Epic and the Azura are having with their solo cabins, more cruise lines will include solo cabins on their new builds. It’s long overdue.
Hopefully, these tips will get you on your way to truly enjoy your solo cruise. Smile, be nice to the ship’s staff, step a little bit out of your comfort zone. You’ll be amazed at the fun you’ll have and be proud that you did it.
This last photo sums up a fabulous solo travel experience: the dining room staff of AmaWaterways AmaLegro lined up on the sundeck to wave good-bye to me when I left the ship one day early in Cochem, Germany to catch my train to head home.