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« Join a group hike in Rock Creek Park and find plenty of company | Main | The very essential traveler's guide to bathrooms »

July 20, 2009

Comments

Ted

I can certainly relate both to your friend's experience and to your advice. I took a cruise by myself two years ago, after years of my parents urging me to take a cruise. They thought it would be good alternative to my usual solo vacation, since they enjoy cruising and always find it particularly easy to meet friendly people. I decided on a local four-day cruise from Los Angeles that my parents had taken twice. It also had the advantage of being inexpensive, even with the 200% single-occupancy penalty (i.e., I paid double).

Like your friend, I suffered early on from overly high expectations. From what I could tell I was the only singleton on the ship, and indeed everyone did "break down into families or cliques." The staff apparently were unaccustomed to solo travelers: Starting with the lifeboat drill they were continually asking me "Who are you with?"

But unlike your friend, I wasn't seated by myself. My table for six included: A young pair of lovebirds who were so absorbed in smooching, whispering, caressing, and feeding each other that they ignored me (and everything else). An older couple who were clearly out of their element-- the taciturn husband barely said a word, while the wife repeatedly told me she had never heard of anyone taking a cruise alone. There was also an empty chair, and me. I thought about asking for a new table assignment, but having observed that the other tables were either mega-tables for large groups or small tables for couples, I decided it wouldn't be worthwhile. Which was probably the wrong decision, in hindsight.

Although I was disappointed (though not really surprised) not to find the expected abundance of friendly people, I did meet a few. Early on I met a gay couple who were experienced frequent cruisers, and who were happy to explain things and answer my stupid questions. I kept running into them throughout the cruise. Not quite what I was looking for, but they were pleasant friendly people and I was glad for their company. But even they confessed they would "never have the guts to take a cruise alone."

That seemed to be the recurring theme of the cruise. I met a woman who turned out to be leading a group of people in a seminar about a software program. She also couldn't believe I was taking a cruise alone. The only other people who were inclined to talk to me were senior couples. It was always the same scenario. When the conversation inevitably turned to our families, I politely listened to them tell me about their grandchildren. And then I said I was single, never married, and cruising alone. There was a pained expression, the overly-long pause ("Oh my God! What should I say?"), and then "You're so BRAVE! I could NEVER do that!" Yes, men as well as women provoke that reaction.

That said, I wouldn't call it "lousy," and I wasn't "crushingly lonely." I know myself well, and I have lots of experience with solo vacations. So once I discovered I was "alone in a crowd," I treated it as a solo vacation. In San Diego I took the Coronado ferry to a restaurant I had enjoyed on a previous solo trip. I walked around Avalon (Catalina Island) as I had enjoyed doing on a previous solo trip, and then ran into the gay couple and walked around with them. And when the ship was docked in Ensenada, I decided it wasn't worth getting off (which my "new friends" later confirmed). I practically had the ship to myself, so I spent that day exploring it and reading. Again not what I expected, but having adjusted my expectations by then it was entirely fine.

I'm very glad I took the cruise. For one thing, my parents could stop "nudging" me about it. And I could see how a cruise could be very enjoyable under the right circumstances. I will wait until I have a suitable companion before I consider another cruise. But if I ever decide to cruise solo again, I will do some careful research to make sure my expectations are realistic. I'll start by finding a travel agent who has experience with both cruises and single customers, and ask her to find something with an interesting itinerary that also is likely to have other single passengers.

Chris Vaughan

I'm sorry your friend didn't enjoy her cruise. I've cruised solo several times, and I've found a few secrets to getting connected.

1) On the very first day, as soon as you board the ship, go to the dining room and talk to the MaƮtre d'. Tell him you are travelling alone and would like to be placed at the largest table available with other people. They have always gone out of their way to make sure I've been grouped with other people of a similar age. The large table ensures that even if some folks skip the formal dining room, you'll still have dining companions.

2) Don't do anytime or freestyle dining. You'll sit alone. Blech.

3) STAY OUT OF YOUR CABIN! I cannot emphasize this enough. Get up, get out. In fact, I'd recommend solo travelers always get the cheapest inside cabin, first to save money and second, there is no temptation to while away your days on a balcony alone.

4) Participate! Take a highlighter and mark things you might want to check out on the daily schedule, and then go do them! Being involved in the goings on will get you connected quicker than camping out on a chair by the pool with a book.

5) Use Cruise Forums (CruiseCritic is my choice) to chat on the roll calls and meet other people before you sail. Usually there will be a meetup on the first day, and you'll be ahead of the game by already "knowing" some people you'll be on the ship with.

I am not an extroverted person, but by doing those things and putting myself "out there" by starting up conversations with people, I've had wonderful times on solo cruises. Everybody else is on vacation too, so they're relaxed and more friendly than they might be at home. Yes, it takes a little more work, but the potential payoffs are huge, and the friends and memories you'll make are ample reward.

Ellen

Hey,

Thanks Ted and Chris for those insights. All of you thinking about taking a cruise for the first time now have some excellent advice to go by.

Ellen

Richard

For me the key question in your article is #4. "Are you doing something you really want to do?". If you choose a cruise, a tour, or even a local Meetup outing with a focus that matches your interest, then your expectation will be focused on the history, wildlife, scenery, or whatever that interest might be. If you happen to meet some other friendly people along the way, then that's a great bonus!

Of course, doing your homework first, and finding a cruise, tour or outing that attracts other solos with similar interests greatly increases your chance of landing that bonus!

Ellen

Exactly! The key to success is doing something you love, or something you've always wanted to try or see; being flexible; and not expecting perfection.
Hope for the "bonus" of meeting friendly people but don't count on it.

Ted

I'd be curious to know how your friend accommodated to the situation after the first day, as you imply that she was not "crushingly lonely" during the rest of the cruise. I hope the cruise turned out to be a valuable learning experience that was enjoyable in its own way, as mine was.

Regarding Chris' remarks, I also joined the queue at the maitre d's station at the beginning of the cruise. I explained that I was alone and wanted the largest available table. He obliged with a table for six, which he said was the largest available (apparently because of the mega-tables assembled to accommodate groups). But as I subsequently discovered, that's no guarantee that any of the other people (or empty chairs) will be compatible.

For a while I thought I would be eating alone at a large table. On the first night, the other two couples at my table arrived so late that I had already ordered my meal and started on my appetizer before the first of them finally arrived. The staff (who were apparently unaccustomed to singletons) compounded the awkwardness of sitting alone surrounded by tables full of animated families and groups by repeatedly asking me if I was expecting other members of my party.

The Lesson Learned is that if the situation on the first night is clearly unsatisfactory, definitely go back to the maitre d' and request a new table. It seems that dinner companions exert an inordinate influence on whether a cruise is enjoyable. The assigned dining room table provides a "forced" opportunity for sustained conversation, and thus offers an opportunity to get to know other passengers that isn't available elsewhere. Even my parents admitted to that. But I still haven't decided whether sitting next to a smooching couple ensconced in their own lovey-dovey universe is more or less uncomfortable than sitting alone.

I suspect that Chris is also right about "freestyle dining," based on what I experienced in the buffet for breakfast and lunch where I did sit alone. The tables were occupied with couples, families with toddlers, and cliques who consistently ignored me when I sat at an adjacent unoccupied or partially-occupied table. Whenever I found a table apparently occupied by a single woman and asked if I could join her, the brusque response invariably was "my husband (or boyfriend) is getting lunch." They probably thought I was hitting on them or something, and were probably just telling me the truth. But it was quite the opposite of the "vacation" friendliness I expected.

I also tried the Cruise Critic forums (from which I received the advice about going immediately to the maitre d'), but the "roll call" never turned up anyone going on my cruise. It's a good thing to try, but there are no guarantees.

Again, I think the best advice is to get professional help (i.e., a travel agent) in finding the right cruise. A large ship marketed exclusively to couples, families, and groups like the one I was on clearly is not the right choice.

Richard makes an important point that applies to more than travel. When I graduated from college and entered the Singles Market, it took me far too long to figure out that going to any "singles event" that's solely a "mixer" that offers only "mingling" for the sole purpose of "meeting someone" is inviting frustration and disappointment. At least in metropolitan Los Angeles, the dirty little secret of these "events" is that many people are there to hang out with friends and have little interest in meeting new strangers. If you go there alone and don't know anyone, you'll likely be miserable and disappointed.

It's far better to choose activities that are interesting and satisfying in themselves regardless of whether you meet anyone. It's also important to have realistic expectations. If you expect only to enjoy the "event" or place because it's something you're interested in, you won't be disappointed. You'll probably also appear happier and more at ease, and thus more attractive to anyone who might be looking to meet you. Singles "meat markets" (or singles cruises, for that matter) are best suited for people who genuinely enjoy dancing and mingling and are energized when they're in a crowd of strangers. Otherwise, something else would be a better fit.

Ellen

Ted,

I agree with all of your points. The only comparable experience I've had to a cruise, in terms of the size of the group I was joining, was Club Med.
Club Meds have clubs geared to certain demographics - kids, singles, families - so you'd be wise to research which is which.
The several times I went to Club Meds they did a great job of seating me with people at every meal and I always ended up with some companions, if not really fun friends, by the end of the week. (see the "Do-Club Med" category here on the site)
The one time I didn't find anyone I enjoyed, all week, I at least got to try the flying trapeze! It was awesome. Talk about a great memory. Despite the lack of a social life. Also went horseback riding, which I love.
Ted, I also agree, I'm not up for a singles cruise. Or a singles much of anything - except a small biking or hiking or kayaking group type situation, where it's not all about partying and staying up all hours flirting.
As for my friend on the cruise, she said the rest of the trip improved. She ended up talking to some people at various places, whether dinner or elsewhere. My guess also is that she changed her expectations of what the cruise was going to be about and got used to the scene as it was.
Ellen

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