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The Dreaded Single Supplement

The beaches of Cancun beckoned. Carolyn Sekerak looked forward to a relaxing week in Mexico with friends from her college days. But even before getting to the hot, white sands of an all-inclusive Caribbean resort, the 29-year-old from Cleveland felt burned. Her friend Becky, the trip arranger, told her that she'd have to pay about $300 more than the rest of them.

The two married couples would pay a "per person double occupancy" rate. Sekerak, on the other hand, had to fork over a single supplement for bunking alone.

"I was ticked off," she said. She asked Becky to call the travel agent and see whether anything could be done.

The response? "It's standard."

Indeed it is, as anyone who travels without a spouse or companion knows. The cost of extra charges for cruises, adventure vacations and other package tours ranges from a minor irritation to the need to pawn fine jewelry.

"I hate it," said Elaine Levin of Rockville, Md. She figures she has spent about $9,000 on single supplements for 12 skiing, biking and spa trips through the years.

The travel industry long has catered to couples and families. But as more travelers set out on their own, companies that ignore the growing hoard of solo vacationers may be doing so at their financial peril.

Some numbers:

•One-third of the adult population travels solo, according to Connected: Solo Traveler's Network, an online singles travel community ( www.cstn.org). That includes people who are divorced, have lost spouses or travel without spouses.

•This year a quarter of a million singles 42 and older will spend more $28 billion on travel, according to 30,000 respondents to an AARP survey.

No one relishes paying the single supplement, whether they travel in princely or pauper style. Solo travelers usually perceive their choices as pay up or stay home. But a third option is available: trips with low or no single supplements.

Finding those trips takes some effort. But they're out there.

Value bookings

Some tour companies see value in wooing the single vacationer.

"It makes sense for them to do it, and it's time for them to do it," said Kathy Sudeikis, vice president of corporate relations at All About Travel, a travel agency in Mission.

Why is there a single supplement? Hotels generally charge by the room, not the number of people in it. And tour prices usually are based of two people sharing that room.

Technically anyone who stays alone at a hotel pays a "single supplement" when paying the same price for a room as two people. But that concept doesn't seem to stir the rage that the words "single supplement" do.

An angry client complained to Stephanie Turner of Brentwood Travel Service in St. Louis about being charged extra for traveling alone. Turner's explanation: "The room is the room. This is what it costs. The hotel can't sell the other half of the room."

Still, independent traveler Ted Marcus of Los Angeles resents what he calls the "Inviolable Law of Double Occupancy."

"This implies that double occupancy is an inviolable law of nature, like gravity or the speed of light, that can neither be changed nor questioned," he said. Solo travelers should question it and let executives at tour companies and hotels know their concerns.

Single rooms do exist. They can be found in hotels in Europe and South America. But experienced travelers say they're nothing to write home about.

"It's like a walk-in closet," Turner said.

A smattering of places do cater to solo travelers, treating them almost like full vacation citizens. The BodyHoliday at LeSport on St. Lucia hosted so many solo travelers that, six years ago, the St. Lucia resort built a new wing with 29 rooms for singles, all with queen beds.

Other facilities may want to take note of the resort's success.

"We do not have enough garden rooms," said Daniel Brown, the resort's deputy general manager. "We're thinking about building more."

In the United States an organization called Club1, which arranges singles events in Kansas City, St. Louis and Richmond, Va., also puts together vacations for singles. The prices are per person. Period.

"We try to keep it as single-room as possible," said owner Debbie Rance.

Guests who share can get a discount. "Some people don't mind sharing," Rance said. "Others really don't want to do that. We try to give them the option either way."

One place Rance works with is the Mistral, a small, family-run hotel in Crete that has been hosting single travelers exclusively for 13 years. Prices are per person, single occupancy, in double rooms.

"I wish I could find a place like that in every country," she said. "It's wonderful."

Another steep price break for solos can be found this year at Club Med. From April to October the company offers a 70 percent discount on the single supplement at its resorts in the Caribbean, Mexico and the United States.

No quarter

On the flip side, some travel companies make no concessions at all. The cruise industry has some of the steepest penalties for traveling solo, in some cases charging 200 percent.

"More and more people are excited about traveling, and it's the exact kind of thing that stops them from being completely adventurous and going on their own," said Sudeikis, former president of the American Society of Travel Agents.

During the off-season cruise lines can become more flexible.

"Depending on how busy the cruise is, they won't double-hit you," said John Craig, a partner at Pathfinder Travel and Cruises in Olathe.

But some cruise companies go even further. Tauck World Discovery has reduced or waived the single supplement on 54 departures on 19 cruise and tour itineraries in the United States, Europe and Canada. The average savings is more than $1,200.

"They routinely sell out very quickly," said Tom Armstrong, a Tauck spokesman.

General Tours World Traveler also is waiving the supplement on three small-ship river cruises in Europe this year — on the Rhine, Mosel and Elbe rivers. Two to three cabins on each sailing are available for the "Singles Ahoy" deal.

Things may get better for solo sailors soon. According to a report from Carnival UK, the trend for singles and one-parent families to go on a cruise will continue to the point where it will become "viable to design ships with single accommodation sold for the same per person prices as double cabins."

Peter Shanks, chief commercial officer Carnival UK, said: "Single supplements have always been contentious for most travel companies."

Roomie option

Another way to avoid the vacation single supplement is to get a roommate, either through online travel matching services or by going with companies that pair up guests

Alina M. Lopez Marin of San Francisco was paired up for a nine-day trip to the Galapagos.

"I found my cabin mate to be pleasant and thoughtful, so cabin-sharing is not the worst thing in the world if you are a solo traveler," she said.

Kira Zack, spokeswoman for G.A.P Adventures, says most guests don't spend a lot of time in the room. "At the end of the night, it's just a place to lay your head."

Other companies, such as Austin-Lehman Adventures, are just starting the practice.

"You never know who you've lost because someone looks at the catalog and " said Dave Wiggins, a company consultant. says, 'I'm not paying that,' Bookings increased 15 percent after the company offered to pair up guests.

Playing roommate roulette, however, means that sometimes you lose. And then you spend your vacation behind closed doors with a stranger.

Ted Marcus of San Francisco disdains what he calls a "Hobson's choice of penalties" — accept a roommate or pay extra. The "inevitable" annoyances of sharing a room with a stranger can seriously mar the vacation, he said.

Elaine Levin of Rockville, Md., avoids that risk.

"I like my privacy," she said. "I live alone, and I don't want to go on vacation and downgrade my accommodation."


Bypassing single supplements
•Go off-season.

Tour companies, cruises and hotels are hungry for anyone's money when they haven't filled up. "Everyone gets more creative in the off-season," said St. Louis travel agent Stephanie Turner. Prices may drop in half.

•Get a travel agent.

A travel agent can alert you when companies drop or lower their single supplements. Journeywoman.com lists a few agents who work with solo travelers.

More ideas | H5


Getting around the solo circuit
•Negotiate.

Wheedle, whine and beg for a discount. Or just ask nicely, "Any deals I don't know about?" If arriving last-minute, ask for a discount and be willing to walk away — if there's somewhere else to stay.

•Avoid package tours with single supplements.

Book your own lodgings in hostels, bed and breakfasts or guesthouses that have single rooms. Some B&B's run solo traveler specials from time to time.

•Double up.

Many tour companies will match you with a roommate at no cost. Or match yourself up at sites such as thelmaandlouise.com, travelchums.com and Friends in Travel (groups.google.com/ group/cstn-friends).

•Check for special solo-friendly weeks or properties.

South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island, Fla., promotes an "anti-girlfriends getaway" with no single supplement from May 27 through the end of October.

The Triangle C Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyo., has a week for solo travelers, May 26 to June 1, and again in September. Prices are per person.

•Be a savvy Web user.

Web sites such as www.cruisecompete.com and www.zicasso.com have cruise and tour companies competing for your business.

•Become a member of hotel loyalty programs.

Even if you don't use a particular hotel much. When you are a member, hotels might be more willing to lower prices or sweeten the deal.

•Book last-minute.

You're going single. You're flexible. Book travel last-minute at sites such as www.lastminute.com, www.lastminutetravel.com, www.kayak.com and www.11thhourvacations .com.

•Shop around.

If you can't avoid the supplement totally, shop around for package tours that keep single supplements low.

First published in the Kansas City Star. All rights reserved.

 
2007 Ellen Perlman. All rights reserved.