Everyone told me not to travel solo during a pandemic.
Especially not to learn snowboarding, a sport that not all travel insurance policies cover. It didn’t help that I wanted to visit a country where I don’t speak the language.
Administrative matters — such as Covid tests, vaccination certificates and health declarations — would be painful for a solo traveler, I was told. I could also catch Covid or injure myself while snowboarding overseas.
It made sense, but I didn’t know anyone who could go with me. So I joined a Singapore tour group to South Korea.
I didn’t know it when I booked my trip, but I was part of a trend of solo women travelers who are joining group tours as tourism finds its feet again.
The Singapore-based agency I traveled with, EU Holidays, said many more solo travelers have joined its trips since it restarted international tours in September.
The numbers are small, but there has been a noticeable increase, according to Wong Yew Hoong, director at EU Holidays.
Before the pandemic, he said, solo travelers rarely joined their tours “because they normally plan and travel on their own,” he told CNBC Travel. Now they are, and most solo travelers are women, he said.
In other parts of the world, this trend started before the pandemic.
The Canadian-based travel agency G Adventures said solo travelers made up 51% of its bookings this year — and 70% of them are female, up slightly from 2019.
The solo travel trend has grown exponentially over the past four years, according to Melissa DaSilva, North America president of The Travel Corporation’s tour division, TTC Tour Brands. TTC owns travel agencies such as Trafalgar and Contiki.
“The pandemic has certainly spurred interest even further,” she told CNBC, adding that TTC Tour Brands has made more single rooms available and reduced or waived extra fees for single travelers in response to solo travel demand.
The SoFe Traveler Network, which organizes tours for solo female travelers, said bookings have reached about 60% of pre-pandemic levels.
Even married people are traveling solo because they have different interests from their spouses, said Bruce Poon Tip, owner of Just You, a solo traveler specialist that organizes adult-only tours.
The pandemic made people more determined to tick off their “bucket list” destinations, said Tip, who also founded G Adventures.
“[But] couples don’t necessarily have the same lists, and so they’re traveling separately,” he told CNBC.
According to Just You’s website, women usually make up around three-quarters of travelers in a solo travel group.
‘Don’t wait’ attitude
Solo travel is typically associated with flexibility, and group tours are seen as rigid. So why are female solo travelers signing up for this style of travel?
In my case, I wasn’t alone by choice or because I wanted more freedom. I spent weeks trying to find friends who would agree to come with me.
G Adventures’ Tip said people who travel now are “early adopters,” but their friends may not have the same appetite for risk. That was the case for me — many of my friends said they were still concerned about Covid.
But it was also difficult to find someone whose goals and schedule matched mine. I realized that, even if Covid subsides in the coming year, I might still end up without travel buddies, so now was as good a time as any.
DaSilva of TTC Tour Brands described that as the “don’t wait” attitude that many solo tourists have, which she said the pandemic reinforced.
“Don’t wait for a travel companion to want to go to the same destination, at the same time. Don’t wait to tick off your ‘bucket list.’ Don’t wait – nothing is promised,” she said.
I didn’t want to wait, but I also didn’t want to navigate pandemic travel alone. So I joined a tour.
Border regulations, Covid testing and flight cancellations have made it challenging for solo travelers to plan their own trips, said Megan Arzbaecher, a tour manager with SoFe Travel.
“Confidence in travel dropped dramatically, and until it rebounds, joining a solo group tour takes away all of the mystery and worry, because we are on top of all the changing restrictions,” she said.
Safety in numbers
Singaporean Nicole Lim will be going on her first group tour as a solo traveler in May. She said safety was a big consideration.
She wanted to go hiking, but felt it might be dangerous to do it alone.
“Being in Singapore for so long, I haven’t done a lot of hiking and camping. I think it’s better for me to go and find a guide and join a group, so that we can all help one another out,” she said.
Before the pandemic, she said she probably would have asked friends to join her. But after two years without travel, she didn’t want her plans to be determined by whether she had someone to go with.
“If that’s the case, then I’ll be delaying my travels and planning according to another person’s schedule rather than mine,” she told CNBC.
Covid also adds another dimension to safety concerns, given that travelers could need medical care or be stuck overseas.
“The travel agency can take care of you, like help you change [flight] tickets and make some arrangements for you,” said Wong of EU Holidays.
Meeting people, making friends
The majority of women who travel independently still want a social experience, said DaSilva of TTC Tours.
Alison Allaire, a New Yorker who works in operations at an education company, first joined a group tour as a solo traveler some 10 years ago when no one was available to travel with her.
“I think it’s a great social experience, you get to meet people from literally all over the world,” she told CNBC.
She has even traveled with a friend whom she first met on a guided tour. “Being on these trips, I’ve made friends that will be [my] friends for the rest of my life,” she said.
Still, it can be daunting to join a tour group alone. Before I left for my trip to South Korea, I wondered if I would make friends and was prepared to have some meals alone.
After all, traveling with people you’ve just met isn’t the same as traveling with family or friends.
“There’s a bit of fear that like, if I don’t know anyone there personally, then there’s no one to really look out for me,” said Lim, the Singaporean who signed up to go hiking in Bali in May.
But between two options — staying home or being alone in Bali without help, should she need it — Lim said she would choose the latter.
“I’d rather have no one,” she said.