Solo Cruisers, No Double Required

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010; 1:52 PM

One used to be the loneliest number on a cruise ship. During mealtimes, One would be relegated to the misfits' corner of the dining room or seated with families who aired their most intimate details between bites. On shore excursions, One was an outlier, a solitary snorkel in an ocean of multiples. In the top-deck pool, One swam alone. Worst of all, One was forced to pay for Two, despite One's singular status.

But a few months ago, One's fortunes substantially improved. The reason: the launch of Norwegian Cruise Line's new ship Epic, which pays some long-overdue attention to solo travelers. Unprecedented in the cruising world, the 4,100-passenger boat carved out 128 studios with single-occupancy rates and created an exclusive lounge for soloists, eliminating the creepy factor of cozying up to unsuspecting strangers.

"The industry needs this," said Sharon Kenner, a travel agent who sailed on Epic earlier this month with friends and family. "Solo travelers can now cruise and enjoy the experience without having to be punished for being single. The singles are being celebrated."

Rejoice, indeed. Wave that solitary flag proudly, but don't forget that, in the right circumstances, One can add up to Many.

No matter how outgoing your personality and independent your spirit, solo cruising is challenging. You often feel like the dateless guest at a wedding or the party crasher one mini-quiche away from being tossed out. And then there's the added insult of having to pay up to twice as much for the same experience as those boarding as Noah's pairs. (The economic theory behind the supplement: Since you are taking up room for two, you must spend like two.) At least cargo gets a free ride.

"Before this, cruising was too expensive, unless there was a one-day sale or a repositioning cruise," said Pete Balmain, a Texan who sailed aboard Epic's inaugural Eastern Caribbean voyage in July and returned for the seven-night western itinerary less than two months later. As for socializing, he said, "I'd go hang out at dinnertime just to be with people."

You're not alone, Pete. On the three cruises I'd previously sailed solo, I made some acquaintances - a honeymooning couple from Atlanta, a pair of boozy guys from Florida - but the bonds were short-lived, dissolving after a day at the pool and a few beers in the bar. Meals were especially trying. At one dinner, I sat with a mother and daughter from Miami whose conversation revolved around the daughter's unplanned pregnancy and the cad who hadn't stuck around. I felt like an extra in a "Real World: At Sea" episode.

But on the Epic, the discomfort of traveling alone receded as quickly as the Miami shoreline. Shortly after setting sail, I already had an engagement, the Solo Traveler Gathering in the Living Room. Potential travel companions awaited. All I had to do was locate the 11th-floor lounge on the second-largest cruise ship in the world. Note to newcomers: Give yourself a head start.

"Just because you're single doesn't mean you have to be alone," said Natalie, one of the crew members who facilitated the daily social hour. "You can meet someone and maybe join them for dinner or a show."

On the first night, I met a small assembly of passengers who rattled off their names for what must have been the 20th time. Hello, Lynn, Bob, Mike, Mike and Kevin. Nice to meet you, Cathy, Claire, Cheryl, Brian. Slowly the names shaped into individuals, as we shared the details that made us unique and memorable. Claire, librarian, lives in Arlington, first-time cruiser, in desperate need of beach; Kevin, hails from New Jersey, experienced cruiser, thought he was sailing solo until Mike, a friend from home, decided to tag along; Mike, quick with the impish grin.

For the scheduled hour, we sat around a long white table shaped like an elongated Z, teetering on tall chairs arranged dangerously close to a wall covered in oversize grommets. Our host, Aisha, passed around glasses of champagne, which helped release the conversational floodwaters. In the corner, a scrawled message on a large pad of paper invited solo travelers and singles to make themselves at home in the Living Room and warned children to find another fort. As I noticed throughout the week, however, the message was largely ignored: Interlopers including families and ship contractors tethered to their computer cords treated the space as if it were their own romper room and Internet cafe. To reclaim the space for the solos, management planned to install locks operable only by studio card keys.

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