How to Save Money on Solo Travel
by Ed Hewitt
Solo travel can have any number of upsides -- less advance planning, more spontaneous decision making, a loose schedule and, many say, a heightened sense of what is going on around you, which is one of the fundamental reasons to travel in the first place. Not having to share every moment with someone else can sometimes let you hone in on the things that you really want to see and do, and to test yourself in the world as well.
But while solo travel can be great for your sense of self, it is usually not so favorable for your dollars and cents, mainly because you have to foot the full tab for everything. On other trips you might split the cost of a hotel room with a traveling companion, but when traveling alone the expense is all yours.
Since so many travel costs assume two or more travelers -- for example, the typical hotel room is configured (and priced) to accommodate two or more people -- there is an almost built-in surcharge for your nonexistent traveling companion. In some corners of the travel industry, most often on cruises and tours, this so-called "single supplement" is tagged onto the bill to cover the alleged costs and hassles of having a solo traveler along.
Hostels, homeshares, couch surfing, and flopping with friends and acquaintances are all good ways to get around the built-in lodging surcharge, but these tactics are not always available. Additionally, for travelers who are not comfortable living in communal settings or staying with strangers, these are not always attractive options.
You may be surprised to learn that when pricing out chain hotels on the major booking sites, you can find marked price differences when searching for only one guest instead of two. A Ramada in San Diego was $30 less for a single traveler in a recent search; a Best Western in Biarritz was about 15 percent less for a few different rooms.
It also turns out that some independent hotels sell smaller rooms specifically targeted to solo travelers at discounted rates; for example, the Pod Hotels in New York City. Searching the Web also can produce some good resources; the London Toolkit, for example, has a good listing of affordable single rooms in the city.
Finally, family-run hotels and B&Bs often offer smaller, single-bed rooms simply due to the layout of their buildings; these are particularly common abroad. It may take a bit of Web searching, but they are out there.
Another consideration before you book is whether the hotel offers an airport shuttle, or if there is an easy public airport transport option nearby; you can save a ton of money and time getting to and from the airport this way.
A car rental is another expense that is often shared and therefore offers a disadvantage to the solo traveler -- you are paying not only the daily rate but also the fuel, tolls and parking fees yourself.
The simplest advice is to search on the smallest car class you can find; if it's just you and your bags, you don't need much space. You might want to get a car that at least has a trunk, though; that way you can hide your stuff since you don't have anyone to keep a lookout when you are checking into a room or grabbing some food.
It's often worth asking yourself if you really need a car at all. In many parts of Europe, for example, buses and trains will get you almost anywhere a car could take you -- even small villages -- and for a solo traveler they will usually be cheaper. (Don't forget to look into rail or bus passes if you're planning extensive travel.)
For shorter distances, instead of reaching into your pocket, reach deeper into your leg muscles and rent a bike. This has two advantages; first, it should save you money not only on the rental rate but on all the parking, fuel and other ancillary costs as well. Second, it offers you a ton of freedom to take detours, stop at will, get the lay of the land and mingle with locals. For many people, these freedoms are at the core of the urge to travel solo after all, and a bike affords a type of freedom a rental car can never match, usually at a far lower total cost, even after the daily rental expense.
For sure, this is a more effective tactic in bike-friendly cities like Amsterdam and Paris, but it's not unthinkable even in a place like Los Angeles if you are staying in certain neighborhoods, such as along the coast.
Find Free Stuff
One of the luxuries of traveling alone is that you set the schedule -- and you can do so to take advantage of free museum days and hours, free concerts, street festivals and more. In Paris alone, for example, many museums (including the Louvre for part of the year) are free the first Sunday of every month; ticket prices at the Musee d'Orsay drop in the late afternoon, and the Paris Museum Pass grants discounted admission to dozens of popular collections.
To find free offers and discounts, the oft-ignored tourist bureau can help heaps, with schedules, listings of free attractions, coupons and welcome cards that often include public transportation.
Food and Drink
Shopping for your own food and meals can have many rewards; for one thing, you can learn a whole lot about the locals by by figuring out how they shop for staples. To turn the tables for a moment, in our own country a trip to a giant Walmart is likely a revelation to a foreign traveler who has never been in one, and you can learn similar lessons about others elsewhere when you go shop in their local stores.
For the solo traveler, eating alone in restaurants can be interesting, but may become boring or awkward after a while -- but bringing your own meal to eat on a bench in front of a famous monument or fountain never gets old.
When researching lodging, consider place with a kitchen; not every meal of the day merits a restaurant experience, and you can get a lot of mileage (and savings) out of making your own meals.
When it comes to hostels, even if you don't want to stay there, you can tap into the community and save a bunch of money by frequenting hostel bars, many of which have cheap drinks that are even cheaper during happy hour. They are also often packed with fellow solo travelers, offering a chance to socialize and meet people.
High-end hotel bars offer a different stripe of the same experience, and many have an affordable bar menu or even free snacks. For the cost of a drink, you can munch on nuts or chips and see how the other half lives to boot.
If you do want to eat out, many travelers choose to sample the better restaurants at lunch time, where lunch specials let you try similar food at a lower cost.
Finally, if you do stay in hotels, factor in the cost of breakfast when booking; a cheap hotel with no breakfast may end up costing less overall than a slightly more expensive place that does offer breakfast -- and there is probably no other meal of the day that lends itself to some quiet time for a solo traveler than the morning meal.
Whether you are staying in hotels or hostels, Wi-Fi can be an additional and unwelcome expense. It is definitely worth checking when you are doing your hotel research -- an affordable hotel becomes a lot less attractive when you add $14.95/day for Internet. And, of course, roaming charges on your cell phone can be brutal.
To beat these costs, free Wi-Fi connections at coffee shops, museums and especially public libraries are all good solutions for a solo traveler, as most of these places also offer some exposure to the locals.
Make Flexibility Work for You
When traveling alone, it is sometimes less critical to arrive everywhere on time -- so if there was ever a chance to take an airline up on being bumped from an oversold flight, this might be it. You want to be sure it is worth the effort and lost time though, so drive a hard bargain at the gate desk. For more information, check out our story on bumping and overbooking.
Finally, keep in mind that traveling solo means that there's no one to force you to spend money on an activity you're not interested, a hotel room that's outside your budget or a souvenir you think is tacky. If you spend as much as you want but only on the things you care about most, it is all inevitably worth it.
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