This story looks at solo cruise travel from the perspective of an unlikely cruiser, a long-distance hiker who had her doubts about traveling by ship – until she tried it.
Women solo travelers are a growing demographic for a variety of reasons. You name it. Some are widowed, some are divorced, some never married, and some simply prefer traveling alone.
On August 10, 2018, BBC 4’s Woman’s Hour broadcasted a radio program that interviewed women solo travelers. The BBC cited that 59 percent of women in England and Wales are single, divorced or widowed, contributing to an increase in the number of women searching for solo holidays in the past three years. Men, according to statistics cited in the broadcast, are only about half as willing to travel alone. You can listen to the broadcast here.
Here in the United States women not only seek solo travel, but also epic adventures. The summer 2018 publication of Journeys: The Official Magazine of The Appalachian Trail Conservancy featured an article about women on the Appalachian Trail. The article was penned by Jennifer Pharr Davis, who has completed many solo thru-hikes of long-distance trails, including the fastest recorded thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (2011), averaging 47 miles a day.
Clearly, women are eager to venture out – often with trepidation. I know. In 2007, I found myself in Springer Mountain, Georgia, at one end of the Appalachian Trail, with a 30-pound backpack strapped on my shoulders. I was nervous, not knowing if I would complete the journey, but seven months and 2,100 miles later, I summited Mount Katahdin in Maine, the Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It was a life-changing adventure.
Now in my fifties, I still seek adventure. I haven’t given up long-distance hiking, but I’m finding new ways to satisfy my adventurous side – often on cruises. Two types of cruises have particular appeal to me: river cruises and expedition cruises. I appreciate that both types of cruises are on small ships, and while the expedition cruises, in particular, speak to the adventurer in me, river cruises allow me to explore in a relaxed style that I have come to enjoy.
I’ve done a couple of river cruises – on the Douro and the Danube. In November, I’ll be cruising to Antarctica.
As I browse the cruise line websites for research that I do for River Cruise Advisor and Avid Cruiser, I find myself repeatedly thinking, “this is the way to go, this is so doable for solo female travelers of any age or background” – women like me.
What I am discovering is that there are as many different types of cruises as there are women.
Why are cruises the perfect platform for female solo travelers?
- You don’t have to be Wonder Woman. I do see a parallel of how female solo cruisers can reap the same rewards and benefits as I have from solo backpacking and travel. That said, you don’t have to be an epic adventurer to enjoy solo traveling aboard a small ship on a river or on an expedition cruise. River and expedition cruises have “standard” on-shore excursions and sightseeing tours that are typically included in the cruise package. Many cruise lines also provide optional guided adventures, either for a charge or at no cost, such as kayaking and biking. Solo female travelers can customize their cruises to suit their desires.
- Safety. On river cruise ships, passengers are required to scan their key cards when going ashore and to scan them in when returning. That way staff can keep track of guests. The process adds another layer of comfort, knowing that the ship won’t leave without you, for example. The crew can also advise you on areas of cities to explore on your own. One afternoon on an Emerald Waterways Douro river cruise, I had the opportunity to explore Porto, Portugal, by myself. I informed the front desk crew, and they provided me with a map and suggestions of sights to see. For both the Douro cruise and my Danube cruise (which I did on Riviera), the crew was ever-present on board and on the docks to greet me when I returned.
- Traveling with other solo travelers can be fun. I enjoyed sharing my shore excursions with other guests. On one tour I spent time and conversation with a lovely lady in her late 70’s who was widowed. I admired her for traveling solo. I also found it easy to venture out on my own. Our tour guides were very well organized and kept track of everyone. I was able to break away from the group and rejoin later because the guide stuck to the time schedule and gave directions to meeting points.
- Solo supplements and single cabins. Some cruise lines, such as Lindblad, have single occupancy cabins for your own space and private luxury. Other cruise lines allow for single occupancy in larger cabins but may have an extra fee, referred to as a single supplement. For Antarctica cruises, a few companies – Oceanwide, Ponant and Quark Expeditions – can arrange for a single person to share large cabins capable of sleeping four with other solo travelers. When you book the shared cabin, the company asks you to specify male or female preferences, providing added comfort to the idea of bunking with a stranger.
- Onshore group tours and meal times are great opportunities for getting to know other guests and crew/staff. On Emerald Waterways’ Douro cruise and Riviera’s Danube cruise there were plenty of onboard activities. Staff and guests would interact and take part in music, dancing, quizzes, language and creative arts, cooking, and cultural classes.
- But there were times when I wanted quiet time, and I did not want to be in my room. I would go up on deck and watch the sunset, or find a quiet, comfy seating area in the lounge with a cup of tea, a book and a picture window. Some evenings a small group of us would rendezvous on deck to watch the moon and stars and have interesting conversations. Other guests were always friendly, sociable, and welcoming for me to join at their table on the ship, or ashore for a coffee.
- I could find solitude in the cabin too. I enjoyed the big picture window with sliding doors to sit and gaze, mesmerized by the river scenery. While it is not how I prefer to spend my time, most cruise lines provide in-stateroom entertainment so guests can watch movies or television. If you wish to dine in your stateroom, some ships include room service, depending on the cruise line or the cabin selected.
- Adventure with others. Solo cruising is a great way to explore and experience history, culture, and nature. While just cruising down the river can be an adventure, most cruise lines offer guided group tours and more. For example, Riviera cruise line had bicycles that guests could use to explore along the Danube or cycle through Vienna. Antarctic cruises aboard any cruise line include zodiac excursions, where small groups from the ship can board these inflatable flat-bottom vessels for landings in Antarctica. Extra excursions can be purchased too, such as camping on the ice with guides, or kayaking. In Antarctica, both Crystal and Scenic offer helicopter or submarine tours for an additional fee.
- Feminine side. Some expedition cruise lines, such as Crystal, Seabourn, Silversea, and Scenic are luxury cruise lines, with butlers and stewardesses included if you really want to be spoiled. Most river cruise lines have spas, where you can be pampered with facials and massages or get your hair done. Many also have some type of wellness class or small gym with exercise equipment so you can work off the indulgences. Bath robes and slippers provided in your room add to the cozy, nurturing feeling. And of course, most onshore excursions provide opportunities to shop. I enjoyed browsing in a small boutique on board Riviera’s Robert Burns that featured handbags, jewelry, and such. Cruise line websites give you details about what types of soaps, lotions, and potions they provide – Bulgari, Crabtree and Evelyn, L’Occitane, and more.
- Travel At Ease. Many cruise companies offer flight and pre- and post-cruise hotel packages. Transfers are generally included in the price too. This makes getting to and from your ship hassle-free. When you are on the ship, you unpack and settle in your cabin for the entire journey. At the end of each day, you return to familiar friendly faces of the crew on the ship and to the comfort of your belongings in your cabin. During the Douro cruise through Portugal, Emerald Waterways provided a daily agenda/itinerary for the next day. The agenda would outline times, excursions, on board activities and events. This was helpful in selecting which activities I wanted to participate in and what time I would need to be on the bus if I wanted to take a tour ashore. Riviera had their own buses to take guests on tour. I’ve since learned that all river cruise lines have their own tour buses, which is an added bonus – it’s nice not to have to worry about figuring out public transportation in foreign cities.
Bonus: You’ll Come Back Changed. The benefits I reaped from my thru-hike were this: The journey was empowering. It gave me confidence in my abilities, appreciation of being in my own company, and memorable positive life-changing experiences. I met remarkable people, saw amazing places and was awed by the beauty of nature. I had a similar experience on the Douro. The trip was life-changing, and much of what I gained traveling solo by land, I experienced again traveling by boat.
Back home, I still go solo backpacking and love doing so, but all of the factors cited above make me think river and expedition cruising are excellent ways for women to travel solo and to reap similar benefits as I did on my long distance backpacking adventures.
River and expedition cruises can be customized for a diverse group of women and cater to a wide span of ages, interests, activity, adventure, and luxury seeking levels. I would feel comfortable traveling on small ship, river, and expedition cruises for as long as I am able. I see it as a good option for satisfying both the explorer and adventurer in me – and my feminine side when I need a little pampering.
Tamera Trexler compiles pricing charts and other data for Avid Cruiser and River Cruise Advisor.