There are more solo travelers than ever before, and like any globetrotter, they also have a bucket list of things to do abroad. But just because they go alone, it doesn’t mean they do everything independently — many book tours and activities as a way to meet others while having a new and memorable experience. So there’s a huge opportunity for tour and activity operators to tap into the solo travel market.
But what do solo travelers look for when it comes to in-destination experiences? Certainly, there’s a thought process behind where they visit, what they do, and who they book with. Not everyone shows up to an unfamiliar place with a backpack, but no plan. As a solo traveler myself, I know how much goes into making these decisions.
For example, months before leaving for Central America, I read about volcano boarding on Alex in Wanderland — my favourite travel blog. Almost immediately, I knew this unique activity was something I couldn’t miss. So as I journeyed south from Belize, I kept it in the back of my mind, and by the time I got to Nicaragua, I remembered the orange coveralls from her photos.
Since I had been following her travels for a while, I trusted her recommendation and wanted to go with the same tour company. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to find their website and learn more about their offerings. Once I saw the tour package included a free tank top and one night’s stay, I was hooked and ready to book. What budget backpacker could turn that down?
To make a booking, however; I had to navigate the streets of Leon for their office. Of course, I could’ve sent an email, but I only planned to stay a couple of days and didn’t have time to wait for a reply. Even back then, I knew it would be easier to do this online the same way I reserved accommodation.
This got me thinking — how do other solo travelers build their itineraries? If tour and activity operators knew more about their booking journey, they could better serve this growing market and increase sales. So along with looking at 2018 solo travel statistics, I asked other solo travelers at Checkfront to see what they had to say.
What motivates solo travelers
About 59% of solo travelers go by themselves because they want to see the world without having to wait for someone to join them. And 45% prefer the freedom that comes with solo travel. There are no compromises — they get to go whenever, wherever, for however long. Most importantly, they only have to pay for things they want to do.
And thanks to technology, solo travel is now more feasible — anyone can do it. Google Maps makes it easy to get around. Airbnb is an affordable option over a dorm room. Plus, you can find useful information about any destination online. As Angela puts it, “you just have to be willing to make friends or enjoy being alone with your thoughts — luckily, I’m pretty great.”
Of course, solo travelers share common fears like running out of money, having valuable items stolen, getting into dangerous situations, and missing out on life back home. But many would agree there’s nothing quite like realizing your independence and finding out you can tackle anything that comes your way.
“One time in Germany, I got lost in the U Bahn (their subway system) because they were doing construction. All of the lines had changed, and they were only announcing the changes in German. It took all the power in me not to cry because I kept going in circles. Eventually, I figured it out, which made me realize that I was strong enough to navigate by myself and didn’t have to break down to find out a solution.”
Sales Dev, Checkfront
For the most part, venturing off alone is safe and nothing to worry over. Julianne says that as long as you are aware of your surroundings, and trust your judgement, you’ll be fine.
How solo travelers plan their trip
Whether it’s a six-month trip or two-week vacation, many solo travelers research thoroughly in advance. Maybe it’s because they dream of their upcoming trip while working full time. Or perhaps it’s because they’re nervous about going somewhere new alone and want to know as much as possible beforehand. Either way, 23% choose their destination four months prior to leaving.
During the research phase, Google and TripAdvisor are the go-to resources for learning more about a destination and what to do there. Bobby-Joe says they look for less busy locations that are better than the tourist hot spots. As for Scott, he decides where to go based on the experiences he can do there.
“One of the best days in Mexico was visiting the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserva. It included a walk to see ruins, a boat ride on the lagoon, and a float down the canal. There was no one else around, the water was crystal clear, and the mangroves made a canopy overhead. Taking the time to research what an average tourist doesn’t know about turned out to be the most relaxing experience of my life.”
Office Manager, Checkfront
Along with that, Susan, Ryan, and Angela seek inspiration from travel bloggers. Since most are candid about their experiences abroad, Ryan sees where they went, where they stayed, and what they did. From there, Angela also checks their Instagram profiles — or that of a tour operator’s — just to help her picture having the same experience.
While solo travelers plan their route early on and get some ideas for things to do, many don’t book tours and activities until they arrive. And part of that is because they want to be flexible in case the weather is terrible, or other options pop up. “I tend to plan the first and last few days of activities. Then I have a wish list, and let everything else fall into place.” Julianne notes.
What they want for in-destination experiences
Often, solo travelers are comfortable exploring on their own. But for sightseeing and adventures, Sam and Bobby-Joe prefer to go with others. So both join tours because they automatically get put in a group, and through the shared experience, make new connections. Like Angela, who went on a late-night ghost tour in Savannah that started with meeting strangers in a historic graveyard — an eerie way to break the ice.
With that said, 88% of solo travelers want to go off the beaten path. 38% want to participate in adventurous activities that also get up close with nautre — like hiking, kayaking, zip lining, and surfing. And 53% hope to engage with locals, so like Julianne, they’ll mirror what the locals do, or like Ryan, book an experience to learn about the local culture — such as a cooking class.
“Some trip highlights have been enjoying a home cooked meal from an old Swiss lady, a meet-up at a local cafe in Milan, and doing an impromptu performance at a pub in Northern Iceland when a musician didn’t show up for their gig. Local experiences are the best way to meet people and create unique memories.”
People Operations Manager, Checkfront
All around though, most gravitate toward authentic experiences — usually what a destination is known for — as well as something they’ve never tried before. For example, Scott went to Little Corn, Nicaragua specifically to get certified as a scuba diver, and Angela did the same in Koh Tao, Thailand. After all, solo travel is all about challenging yourself and learning new things.
What they look for in solo tour companies
Of course, safety is a top priority. The last thing solo travelers want is to wind up in a foreign hospital without family or friends for support. So part of assessing whether a tour company can be trusted is to look at their website, and see what safety standards are in place. Ryan says that a professional looking website influences his decision to book with a particular operator.
Passion is also important. On the About Us page, Scott reads the origin story to make sure the owners and guides love their tours and activities, as well as the destination in which they serve. That’s because they’re more likely to go above and beyond to deliver an incredible experience. For instance, they might offer to take photos of their guests, and as any solo traveler knows, it’s a challenge getting pictures of yourself.
“My first-time scuba diving, a pair of cleaner shrimp landed on my fingernails, acting like an oceanic manicurist. Mind blown, I looked at my instructor. She made a heart sign with her hands, and we continued. For me, it was a moment where the world suddenly got a whole lot bigger, and my instructor got to witness that.”
Account Executive, Checkfront
Conscientious solo travelers perform a similar check. They look over an operator’s core values to ensure they implement sustainable practices. For Julianne, she tries to support family-owned businesses that respect the environment and community, as well as distribute the money fairly. And Angela loves wildlife tourism but is aware of animal welfare, so she’ll only book with operators that care for them.
Finally, when it comes to the tour and activity package itself, Sam looks for positive online reviews. As long as it’s a quality experience, includes something she likes and has justified pricing, she’ll go even if it’s a couples tour. Susan does the same, and also adds, “I love tour services that pick me up at my hotel because local transit is a stress point for me. The easier, the better. I’m inevitably there to relax and explore.”
How solo travelers book experiences
When traveling to developing regions, it’s sometimes a challenge to make reservations in advance. Bobby-Joe discovered this in Mexico. Since it’s mostly a cash country, there wasn’t a whole lot they could book ahead of time. Instead, they looked up options for what they wanted to do and then decided upon arrival whether they still wanted to do it.
That’s why many solo travelers are free-spirited abroad. They understand this circumstance, and that it’s sometimes better to keep an itinerary open. As Susan puts it, “you may receive a hot tip from another traveler, so it’s good to leave some free time in your schedule.” Research can only get a solo traveler so far anyway. No one can really know what a destination has to offer until they do some exploring, or receive recommendations from locals.
As such, in-destination bookings are popular amongst solo travelers. But those that wait until the last minute still try to book online. Often, this is the first course of action. While they can certainly seek help from the front desk where they’re staying, or even wander around to find the tour office, it’s just easier to go on their device. And according to our mobile booking study, about half of all bookings are made on smartphones or tablets.
“Being able to book on my mobile device is non-negotiable for me because I always leave some free time for last minute adventures, and I rarely have access to a laptop or desktop while in-destination.”
Director of Marketing, Checkfront
If it’s possible to book in advance, however; Scott says that he tends to choose tour and activity operators with an effortless booking process. Usually, he gets the information he needs from the website and looks at the Book Now page for availability. Then he likes to follow simple booking steps to check-out, and receive instant payment and booking confirmation. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but that’s ideal.
Key takeaways for tour operators
Keep in mind that this information covers the age range of 20-35. And since every solo traveler is different, it doesn’t apply to all. That means you should always know your target audience first, and then adjust accordingly.
But there are some common themes you can consider to provide a better experience for solo travelers from start to finish — like you do for large group reservations. Here are some great ideas to implement today, if you haven’t already:
- Establish an online presence: Solo travelers need to discover you when researching months before their trip. With an optimized website and social media profile(s), they can do some browsing and keep you in mind until they leave.
- Remember keywords and location: While looking for things to do, solo travelers often enter the activity followed by the place in the search engine. So use relevant keywords and post your address on your website, as well as other local listings.
- Publish articles about hidden gems: Blogging is a great way to show up in the search results. And since a lot of solo travelers want to keep off the tourist trail, they might stumble upon your advice, and then look at other pages on your site.
- Provide a unique experience: Think about what you can offer that a solo traveler can’t book anywhere else. Take them somewhere they can’t get to by themselves — like a private beach. Or include intriguing add-ons so they can top it all off with something special.
- Work with a travel influencer: Tour and activity operators don’t do this enough. Lots of solo travelers trust what travel bloggers say. Invite relevant ones out and have them share their experience with their followers. Hopefully, that’ll inspire them to visit your destination and book the same thing.
- Partner with hotels and hostels: Some solo travelers ask the front desk about what they can do in the area. So a partnership with a few will boost your referrals. Plus, solo travelers at hostels usually make friends with others staying there. That means they might convince more to join!
Share your brand story: Let solo travelers know why they should book with you. What sets you apart from your competition? What do you do to make your destination a better place to visit? Answering these questions will assure that they’re making the right choice.
Use digital waivers: Along with informing solo travelers of your safety standards, a liability waiver will tell them that you take safety seriously and keep up to date.
Offer an incentive: To travel for a longer time, many solo travelers stick to a budget. By offering some free extra perks — like swag or even transport — you can easily convince them to book with you.
Take photos of your guests: Not only will this help solo travelers imagine themselves having the same experience, but it will also show them that they’ll get a picture out of it, too. After all, why even do something if you can’t put it on Instagram?