Updated Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 09:56 AM
Ah, the holidays. The perfect time of year to be with the one you love the most: yourself.
If you are unmarried, divorced, widowed or simply apart from friends and family this holiday season, no need to wallow. Because while others are stuck in traffic on the way to Grandma's house, you, dear reader, have the opportunity to be cosseted in a Venice cafe. Or learning Spanish on a Costa Rican beach.
And chances are, you won't be the only one. While there is no data showing precisely how many people travel alone during the holidays, solo travel overall is a growing trend, say travel professionals. Internet searches for "solo travel ideas" are up by more than 50 percent, and searches for "solo travel destinations" are up by more than 60 percent year over year, according to Google.
Tour operators, like Abercrombie & Kent, are seeing more interest from solo travelers. The company, whose group luxury tours have traditionally attracted couples and families, has had a 29 percent increase in the number of solo travelers this year compared with last year.
Some of these travelers are striking out on their own; others are meeting up with friends. Those looking for romance are joining singles tours or — for company minus the come-ons — group tours open to all.
Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, said that the number of unmarried travelers seeking general group tours (as opposed to strictly singles tours) is on the rise, especially around the holidays.
"It gives them camaraderie and companionship when they want it," she said, "and the ability to be by themselves when they want to be by themselves."
When planning a tour, keep in mind that the phrase "solo traveler" typically refers to people traveling on their own, be they married or unmarried. That means tours for solo travelers draw not only eligible singles but also people with no romantic ambitions. "Singles" tours, on the other hand, are generally just for those seeking love connections.
Not sure where to go? Maybe the following ideas, culled from conversations with a variety of travel experts, tour companies and friends, can help you decide. No list like this can include everything, but perhaps it will spark an idea or two. Whether you want to ski moguls in Vail or ease into geothermal seawater in the Blue Lagoon, there's a trip that will make you glad you won't be home for the holidays.
Solo travelers like big cities for obvious reasons: top-notch museums, restaurants, theater and night life. Usually walkable and often made more accessible by mass transit, cities can keep costs (and stress) low. Mind you, this kind of trip is for travelers who feel comfortable navigating a strange city, who know when to exercise caution and when to let go.
"I like the European cities in winter," said Anne Banas, a practiced solo traveler and executive editor of Smartertravel.com, a vacation deals and guides site. "It's offseason. It's cheaper."
And many travelers say they have a more authentic experience in the winter because the locals are not away on vacation. Winter also means holiday markets, shorter lines at museums and an excuse to kiss the day goodbye in a cafe.
For those looking for a contemplative escape, Alison Bing, who has written 40 books for Lonely Planet, suggests Venice in winter, where the only traffic you'll hear is footsteps.
"You cannot find a more serene place," she said.
Winter coats and boots are a must though, especially if you're there on acqua alta (high water) days, when tides and winds cause the Venetian Lagoon to rise, leaving everyone ankle-deep in water.
"Venetians love going out to bars when it's high water," said Bing, who has made the trip on her own and adored it. "Everybody takes the opportunity for an early happy hour."
For a cosmopolitan stew of eastern and western culture, Bing recommends Istanbul. Explore the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and the city's many elegant nightclubs (including one called SuAda that has its own island), then indulge in an ideal solo activity: being scrubbed at a Turkish bath (if you're accustomed to the gentle exfoliation offered by American spas, gird yourself).
One of the most frequently recommended cities for solo travelers is Dublin. While small, it still has a lot to see, be it the National Gallery, Dublin Castle or, as Banas suggests, the inside of a pub.
"It's just such a warm type of people," she said. "You go inside, there are fireplaces roaring. There's something very homey. And it puts you at ease right away." (She recommends staying at a bed-and-breakfast instead of a hotel because it's conducive to meeting other travelers, particularly during breakfast when guests gather and plot their itineraries.)
Amsterdam is another top choice. Sure, there are must-sees like the Van Gogh Museum's temporary stay at the Hermitage Amsterdam, the Anne Frank house and Rijksmuseum (which is undergoing renovations until 2013 but is giving visitors the opportunity to view highlights from the Golden Age by Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer all in one place as part of an exhibition called "The Masterpieces"). And there are new attractions like the Eye Film Institute and the Museum of the Amsterdam Canals. But visitors can also enjoy a beer at any number of lively bars (editors at TripAdvisor like In de Wildeman, which serves hundreds of varieties) or dance into the wee hours in clubs in Rembrantplein and Leidseplein. For a quieter evening, see a film at the Art Deco Tuschinski Theater, where patrons once went to hear Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf perform. An advantage of going when it's cold? You might get the rare opportunity to ice skate on the frozen canals (in fact, the Canal Ring will be enjoying its 400th anniversary in 2013).
In London, you can stay warm wandering the usual tourist spots (Westminster Abbey, the National Gallery, Harrods) or bundle up for seasonal treats like Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, where you can sip a cup of mulled wine and mingle around one of the biggest ice rinks in Britain.
And don't dismiss Paris as solely a destination for love-struck couples. Several solo travelers I spoke with give this city high marks not only for its beautiful shops and attractions but also because there are few more satisfying places to stroll (and loaf) by yourself. I've done it on my own, even meeting an intriguing stranger or two simply by sitting alone in a park. That's tough when it's too cold out to feel your fingers, but where better to spend a winter's day than a Paris cafe? In November and December, Christmas markets (ideal for sampling regional food) pop up in wooden chalets throughout the city, including the Champs-Élysées, the Boulevard St.-Germain and the Trocadero.
If money is tight or if you want to stay closer to home, there are many options in the States.
Las Vegas has long been a draw for solo travelers, particularly generations of men inspired by its Rat Pack roots. Yet even Vegas veterans will find something new this winter, like the Act, a 15,000-square-foot nightclub from the creator of the popular New York variety theater the Box, which plans to serve cocktails and theatrics while encouraging lots of audience participation. For foodies, the first Nobu Hotel is opening, enabling guests to order Nobu room service and snacks from the Chef Nobu minibar. It's not all Sin City these days. For women like me — uninterested in gambling, cigars and Celine Dion — there are new high-tech "stay well" rooms at the MGM Grand that supposedly help guests reverse jet lag (with blue-light therapy), get healthier skin and hair (by infusing the shower water with vitamin C) and even breathe better thanks to purification systems designed to reduce allergens, toxins and pathogens in the air. Tune in to the Stay Well television channel when you arrive and Deepak Chopra will welcome you to your room.
Travel experts also gave nods to Miami — for sun, sand, salsa, biking and night life that is so accessible all you have to do is step outside your hotel onto Collins Avenue or Ocean Drive. They also like San Francisco, where travelers can walk to many of the city's highlights, like the Ferry Building Marketplace and the Lands End trail in Golden Gate Park. The modern new Lands End Lookout visitors center and cafe offers views high above the Sutro Baths ruins.
Nature and adventure
"By an overwhelming majority, the solo travel market is much more female than male," said Bob Simpson, who helped create Abercrombie & Kent's nascent "solo savings" program, which targets solo travelers by offering them savings on select escorted programs and departures. (A tab under "travel interests" on the company's website will pull up "solo travel" tours.)
He estimates that the solo travel market in the United States is 70 percent female and 30 percent male. But listen up, ladies: Adventure travel — hiking, scuba diving, mountain climbing — is an exception.
"It's 60 percent men and 40 percent women on extreme adventures," Simpson said.
The challenge is to find an adventure that not only fits your budget but that also attracts the kinds of people with whom you want to share a tent or a scuba tank.
Abercrombie & Kent offers group tours for travelers with deeper pockets than most, like a 14-day Kenya and Tanzania Wildlife Discovery tour (from $9,110). Popular adventure programs include trips to Mount Kilimanjaro, the Galapagos and a holiday cruise to Antarctica, on which about 10 percent of passengers travel alone, Simpson said.
"I think it's not as intimidating because you are going to be with more like-minded people on a trip like that," he said, adding that this year's holiday cruise is sold out but that travelers are booking for next Christmas.
Companies like REI and Contiki (for ages 18 to 35) also offer adventure tours to places like Belize, Patagonia, New Zealand and Australia.
Those who resolve to get in shape for the New Year may want to try a boot camp or a health resort. In Tulum, Mexico, and Ibiza, Spain, Bikini BootCamp (never mind the name, it's for men and women) is rustic and solo-friendly, with participants gathering for big communal meals (the website notes that many guests are in their 30s). In St. Lucia, at the BodyHoliday, there's little chance of returning home with extra pounds, thanks to Sunset Zumba (Nov. 18 to Dec. 2) and cycling in a new treetop Spinning studio.
Travelers who love nature and adventure inevitably suggest Iceland, where they can climb mountains, descend into volcanoes and float in the Blue Lagoon (about a 20-minute drive or bus tour from Keflavik International Airport). The geothermal seawater there is said to do wonders for the skin, and the spa offers services in the lagoon on a foam raft or wooden bench. No matter that it's winter; the Blue Lagoon stays warm (the low is around 98 degrees). And with fewer daily visitors this time of year, guests are likely to find the spa more relaxing than usual.
Prefer to ski or snowboard?
"Downtown Aspen or Vail, I think, are great for single travelers because you don't need a car," said Brian Corbett, the founder of the luxury vacation club Inspirato. "You can walk to skiing. These towns have developed really impressive night life, too."
Unwinding in the sun
For a tropical getaway, industry professionals say solo travelers opt for all-inclusive vacations. It's easy one-stop shopping, and the many activities (sports, spa treatments, eating, dancing, cooking classes) are included in the price. Furthermore, if you do choose an all-inclusive tropical resort, chances are you will be in good company: Figures culled for The New York Times by the research firm Experian Marketing Services show that singles are more likely than the Internet population as a whole to look for all-inclusive travel.
In Cancún, Mexico's most popular tourist destination (for better or worse), the new Hard Rock Hotel Cancún joins the city's many other all-inclusive resorts. If a driveway shaped like a giant electric guitar and decorative memorabilia from Paul McCartney and Alice in Chains make you feel welcome, you will no doubt find kindred spirits here. More important: It has five bars and lounges, five restaurants, infinity pools, Jacuzzis and nightly entertainment at an outdoor amphitheater.
If Cancún is not your speed, consider spending what could be the end of the world — Mayan doomsday on Dec. 21 — on the Riviera Maya. There will be ceremonies and celebrations at places like the club Indigo Beach in Playa del Carmen. And Condo Hotels Playa del Carmen will not charge guests for the night of Dec. 21 if they book at least three nights. (One of the Condo Hotels properties, El Taj, won a TripAdvisor Travelers' Choice Award.)
The Caribbean is especially alluring this time of year, and although the islands are overrun with honeymooners and families (Club Med being an exception as I learned last fall), there are some good choices for solo travelers, including educational vacations (see below). Corbett of Inspirato suggests the Dominican Republic because of the great services at its many all-inclusive resorts.
"They tend to be fun places to meet like-minded single people," he said.
In Punta Cana alone, one of the island's best known areas, there are scores of hotels, including Altabella Sanctuary Cap Cana Golf & Spa, Zoetry Agua Punta Cana and the Paradisus Palma Real Golf & Spa Resort. That said, given the demographic of tropical resorts, many solo travelers choose to vacation at them with friends.
Cruises are another all-inclusive option. Cruisemates.com, which offers cruise reviews and guides, was the most-visited travel site by young to middle-age singles living in metropolitan areas for the three months ending Sept. 29, according to Experian Marketing Services. But the CruiseMates editor, Paul Motter, said that cruising is not necessarily the best option for young unmarried travelers.
"They think that cruise ships are populated with a lot of single people, and that's not really true," said Motter, who has cruised on his own and describes the demographic as similar to that of Disney World. "It's family and couples oriented," he said. "You cannot count on meeting somebody on a cruise."
To better your chances, he recommends organized singles cruises. Companies like Singlescruise.com, Vacationstogo.com and Singlestravelintl.com fill a number of cabins with single people and often organize trips by age group like 30s and 40s, or over 40s. Cruises to the Caribbean are the most plentiful, but throughout the year you can find trips to other locations like Alaska and the Greek Isles.
Language immersion often makes for an affordable solo vacation (particularly in Latin America) and enables travelers to learn something new while spending time with locals and other students. The challenge here is finding a good school in an appealing neighborhood thousands of miles from home. The website for the National Registration Center for Study Abroad allows users to browse programs by country or by language. You can take courses for as little as one week during the holidays (and stay with someone else's family) in sunny places like Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Mexico. In addition to offering language classes in several countries, AmeriSpan Study Abroad offers "language and fun" vacations like "Spanish and windsurfing," "Portuguese and Capoeira" and "French and wine." There are also language programs specifically for adults 50 and older in France, Spain and Italy.
Road Scholar offers vacations that incorporate education and adventure. And the company's website has several ways to search for a program, including by interest, location, activity level or date. You can also search for "most popular," "budget-friendly" or "last minute" programs, including a 15-night trip to Cuba in January.
Want to give back during the holidays? You can do so, even on vacation. You will have to research reputable programs, though, and be flexible about your travel dates; you can't book a volunteer project the way you reserve a hotel.
Banas likes Habitat for Humanity, through which she helped build affordable housing in New Orleans in 2008.
"You can be a solo traveler, but then you are instantly out in a group of people," she said. "Instead of focusing on being alone, you're focusing on someone else."
And once the project work is done, Banas said, the volunteers usually end up socializing after hours.
"You immediately bond with the people you are working with," she said.
A list of Habitat programs all over the world, including some just for women volunteers, is at Habitat.org.
For travelers with an interest in organic lifestyles, Banas suggests World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a network of organizations that link volunteers with organic farmers and gardeners. Volunteers look at a list of farms that want help at WWOOF.org, choose the one that interests them and then arrange a trip. Volunteers stay at the farm free of charge, although they are not paid for their help. There is a fee (for instance, $30 to use the U.S. online directory) that both farms and volunteers pay to maintain the network.
Other companies create itineraries that blend volunteer work and pleasure, like Handsupholidays, which has a section of its website devoted to "voluntourism ideas for the holiday season," with trips to Costa Rica, Morocco and New Zealand.
To learn more about volunteer travel, you can browse websites like Volunteerinternational.org, Voluntourism.org and Goabroad.com. For ratings and data on some nonprofit groups and charities, try the websites of watchdog groups like GuideStar and Charity Navigator.
Alone and safeSafety is a significant factor in deciding where and how to travel, especially if you're on your own. For women, such concerns can be even more acute. But as veteran solo travelers know, chances are you'll be able to stay out of harm's way if you take a few simple precautions.
Keep the familiar at hand
Alison Bing of Lonely Planet suggests that if you're not an experienced traveler, you should choose a destination where you speak the language or have some connection to the culture, like a family member or friend who lives there (which also means you have a shot at a home-cooked meal). Alternatively, group tours create safety in numbers and, often, include private transportation.
Arranging transportation in advance can reduce aimless wandering. Familiarize yourself with local customs and neighborhoods, and be sure to have the numbers and addresses of local hospitals, police stations and your embassy or consulate handy. That's not the sort of thing you want to be hunting for in an emergency.
Befriend the hotel staff
Yes, they can offer directions and restaurant recommendations, but they can also advise you about which streets or routes to avoid.
Update your status
Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms are not simply showcases for your vacation photos. They can also enable your friends and family to keep tabs on where you're going and when you expect to return. "It's also important to let people back home, who are often more afraid than you are, know where you're supposed to be," Bing said.
Don't be paranoid
Listen to your gut: If a man at the bar gives you the creeps, don't make small talk just because you're afraid of seeming rude. You can "shake off unwelcome strangers," Bing said, by ducking into a store or attraction. But also don't assume that one glance at a stranger and you're going to become the basis for "Taken 3." That defeats the point of traveling. "You can get a little paranoid when you're alone," she said. "If you're too paranoid you're not giving people a chance."
New York Times
DAVE YODER / NYT
A woman photographs snow falling on the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy. Being alone doesn't mean being lonely when you can travel solo over the holidays with city explorations, sunny getaways, adventure outings and educational or volunteer trips.