These two words strike dread — not to mention resentment — in the heart of a solo traveler. Consider for a moment the cost of a superior ocean-view room on a Royal Caribbean International seven-night Alaska cruise. For two adults, it’s $1,539 each. For a single traveler, the cost is $2,843 — an additional $1,304.
Single supplement? Or single penalty?
Royal Caribbean is by no means alone. Supplements are a widespread industry practice in both the cruise and packaged tour industries. Travel companies say that these surcharges (which are generally anywhere from 10 to 100 percent or more of the standard rate) are justified because most accommodations, whether in a hotel or on a ship, are priced for double occupancy.
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“To sell that stateroom to only one person,” said H.J. Harrison Liu, a spokesman for Royal Caribbean, “that wouldn’t necessarily make business sense for us.”
Solo travelers, as one might imagine, tend to have a different view of supplements.
“It’s the bane of the single person’s travel existence,” said Bella DePaulo, a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies what she calls “singlism,” or the ways in which single people are stereotyped and discriminated against (it’s also the name of her most recent book).
Supplements have been around for decades, but with each year they become more out of sync with the nation’s demographics as the United States grows increasingly single. According to figures released last year by the Census Bureau, there were 102 million unmarried people 18 and older in America in 2011 — more than 44 percent of adult residents. That’s up from 92 million in 2006, which was 42 percent of residents 18 and older. It won’t be long before half of the country is unmarried.
Of course, many unmarried people live with a partner, so not all of them are traveling solo; yet married people aren’t all traveling in pairs either. About 12 percent of U.S. adults, married or unmarried, plan to travel solo this year, up significantly from 7 percent last year, according to the American Express Spending & Saving Tracker. And if companies make it more affordable for people to travel on their own — by dropping supplements and offering deals to solo travelers the way they offer deals to couples and families — that number might climb even higher.
A number of tour companies — including Rick Steves’ Europe, Backroads and G Adventures — attempt to take the sting out of supplements by offering a halfway measure: They will waive the supplement if solo travelers agree to be matched with a roommate. In some cases, if the travel company cannot find you a roommate, you get the room to yourself. Singles travel companies like AllSinglestravel.com offer roommate matching with that guarantee. No matter what, be sure to read the fine print. For instance, SinglesCruise.com notes that it “accepts no responsibility for roommate matching incompatibility such as sleep patterns, snoring, noise or age differences.”
Those who want to select their own cruise buddy can try sites like CruiseMates.com, which has a message board where users can post roommate requests.
It’s nice to have these options, but for many solo travelers, roommates are something they left behind in college — and they want to keep it that way. The reasons for that range from the obvious inconvenience of rooming with a stranger to a more profound idea that DePaulo, of the University of California, refers to as “single at heart.” It’s the notion that some people are single not because they can’t find a partner but because, as she puts it, “single is who they are” and “how they live their most authentic life.”
These are people who want “to regulate their own space and time” — all of which is at odds with having a roommate when on vacation, let alone one they don’t know.
DePaulo thinks charging single supplements is ultimately a silly business decision. If travel companies drop the surcharges, they might lose money in the short term, but in the long run they would gain the loyalty of millions of solo travelers.