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What the Cruise Lines Don’t Want You to Know

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I’ve been a solo cruiser for a very long time and almost always by choice.  If you’re just about ready to commit to your first solo cruise or only have a couple solo adventures under your belt, here are some things to know that the cruise lines don’t tell you. 

Or they simply don’t want you to know.  Period. 

And remember, cruising solo doesn’t mean it’s a singles cruise!

Cruising solo at the sailaway party on deck of Koningsdam.
No qualms about cruising solo aboard Holland America’s Koningsdam, heading out on a 14-day voyage from Ft. Lauderdale to Rome.

What the Cruise Lines Don’t Want You to Know About Cruising Solo

Experienced solo cruisers never hesitate to set out on their next cruise.  We love to cruise solo on a whim, take over an entire stateroom, do what we want when we want to do it.  All looks really rosy.  And it usually is.

What cruise lines and experienced solo cruisers don’t tell you about cruising solo probably isn’t what you’d would expect.  It’s not a singles cruise.  I can’t stress this enough.

Cruising solo: it’s not about being alone on your balcony under a beautiful moonlit sky.  Or having no one to schmear suntan lotion on your back. 

It’s not about the occasional awkwardness of dining alone in a crowded main dining room. Or even having an end-of-the-cruise glass of champagne by yourself.

These situations are all part of being a solo cruiser; a challenging side to a solo cruise that we, as solo cruisers, adapt to and accept in order to survive.

How to Plan Your Solo Cruise

Norwegian Epic Studio Stateroom for the solo cruiser.

1.  Reserving Your Stateroom

You probably know where I’m going with this one:  the DSS – Dreaded Single Supplement.  When a cruise line can fill a stateroom with two people, why should they give it away for the price of one?  Most times a solo cruiser will pay 200% for the stateroom. 

It depends on the cruise line whether or not to charge the solo cruiser double the taxes, fees and port charges.  Yes, they do that and in my opinion, that’s wrong.  Especially when you’re already paying 200% of the base cruise fare.  Choose wisely before you book.

Solo staterooms are usually MORE expensive!

Maybe you’ve heard that some ships have dedicated solo staterooms.  There’s Norwegian Cruise Line, Cunard, Holland America, Royal Caribbean to name a few.

If you think that booking a solo cabin will save you money, think again.  You’re paying for the uniqueness of being in a new, sometimes tiny, single stateroom. 

Unfortunately, a solo cruiser who buys a pricey solo stateroom will often pay more than if they reserved a double-occupancy stateroom.  Even with the hefty single supplement.  It’s important to watch for promotions for reduced single supplements. 

Then compare the prices for a solo stateroom vs. the standard double occupancy stateroom.  If you’re flexible with the time of year to cruise and not fussy about stateroom location, you’ll probably find that you can get a double occupancy stateroom for the same price or less than a solo one. 

Watch for Promotions

Despite the price differences, solo staterooms are trendy and quickly sell out.  Occasionally, if you reserve far enough ahead (like 18 months) you may be able to get a decent rate on a solo stateroom.  But even so, it’s crucial to closely monitor your cruise line for price drops.

If your cruise line drops their rates before your final payment, you might be able to change your solo stateroom to a balcony stateroom for less money.  

2.  Dining as a Solo Cruiser

Britannia Dining Room aboard Queen Mary 2
In the Britannia Dining Room aboard Queen Mary 2, there are many tables for two that you can request for yourself.

If cruising solo isn’t challenging enough for some people, dining on a ship as a solo can be terrifying.  If you’re not comfortable dining alone in a land-based restaurant, your shipboard dining experience should be a little better. 

On a ship you have dining options.  Retreat into your own world at the Lido buffet or one of the sandwich or pizza bars.  But if only for social reasons, the Main Dining Room can be a lifeline if you need one.

If you request a large table in the dining room, be forewarned.  Even if you’ve requested to sit at a large table with solos, there’s still the chance of a mix-up.  Your waiter could lead you to your table on the first night, only to find that the others at the table are all cozy couples. 

That’s happened to me a few times.  Right after dinner I went straight to the Maître d’ and remedied the situation for the next night.

Here’s What I Do in the Main Dining Room

On boarding day, I go to the dining room and check out where my assigned table is located.  Then at dinner on the first night, as the waiter leads me to my assigned table, I deliberately walk slow. 

As I get nearer to my assigned table (because I already know where it is), if it looks like it’s all romantic couples or a situation Id’ rather avoid, I keep walking, stop short or do a U-turn.  Then I’ll quietly tell the waiter that I want to go back to the Maître d’ and get a new table assignment.  I’ve done this many times.

Not that I have anything against dining on big cruise ships with a table of all couples. (It’s a different situation on river ships).  But on cruise ships, if I want to be sociable, it’s with other solo travelers or just pals traveling together.  

Even at a table full of solo cruisers, there still might be no one with whom you can relate.  Head for the Maître d’ after dinner.  Just make sure to say that you don’t want your next table near that one.  It could be very embarrassing.  And yes, it has happened to me.  Once. 

3.  How to Navigate in Port When Cruising Solo

Going solo on a recent river cruise, I opted to try public transportation to Strasbourg’s city center. I took a photo of the nearby Maison Rouge hotel as a landmark to find my way back to the tram.

I’m firmly convinced that four eyes are better than two when exploring a new city.  If “mazeophobia”, my made-up name for the fear of getting lost in unknown surroundings, is something of concern, you’ll need to be prepared.

What a solo cruiser should always do when going ashore in an unfamiliar port

  • Make sure to write down the name of your ship, pier, port agent and departure time on a piece of paper.  Sometimes the cruise line daily planner includes it in a corner of the paper.  Tear it out and put in your pocket.  Or simply take a photo.
  • Once again, take a photo of the All Aboard time sign as you leave the ship.  Guessing the departure time does not help.  This will also help you remember where your hundreds of photos were taken on that day.
  • If you’re on a motor coach tour or public transportation, when you step off the bus take a photo of the bus with its surroundings.  Make sure to include a notable or colorful building or some kind of identifier.  I’ve used this ploy a dozen times.

Of course, you’re going to have to turn on your inner radar for anything or anyone that gets too close to you.  With only one set of eyes, you’re on your own.

4.  How to Safely Use an ATM in Port

Cruise lines will offer to exchange foreign currency for you at their Front Desk or Purser’s Office.  They’ll also warn you about money scams in foreign port.  Remember, the cruise lines charge commissions to exchange currency, the same as you’ll find on shore.  It’s the amount of commission that can vary.  I usually avoid currency exchange on the ship, whenever possible. 

Using an ATM in a port (doesn’t matter where in the world) does have some risks.  With no one to watch your back, you have to be extra aware of your surroundings as well as using your PIN and pocketing your new money.  Do it quickly, securely and leave the area.  

Here’s what I try to do in foreign ports. There will be people on your ship that head to an ATM as soon as they go ashore, so I follow them.  How do I know where they’re going?  I listen and watch.  Usually it’s a topic of conversation. 

As I walk to the nearest ATM with them, sometimes I’ll strike up a conversation, especially if we sort of recognize each other from the ship.  As we queue in line for the ATM, I’ll ask if they’ll watch my back as I use the machine.  And then I’ll offer to do the same for them.  

There’s nothing wrong with exchanging currency on the ship.  But usually the commission is lower at an ATM machine.  I’ll even walk into a Currency Exchange if it looks “safe” or if I’m tagging along with other cruise passengers.  And I quickly put my money away before walking out the door. 

Read related:  Top 10 Reasons Why I Love to Cruise Solo

5.  Pre- and Post-Cruise Hotel Stays

If you’re traveling all the way to Europe for your dream Mediterranean cruise or an exciting river cruise, chances are you’ll want to stay a few days at either end of your cruise.  If you’re not familiar with single hotel rooms in Europe, you’re in for a surprise.  

I’ve had hotel rooms so small that I had to walk sideways into the bathroom.  Some rooms are nothing more than a refurbished broom closet with a window.  Seriously.

solo hotel room in Rome
Solo hotel room at the Versailles Hotel in Rome. Anything but “Versailles.”
solo hotel room in Cochem, Germany.
My post-river-cruise solo hotel room in Cochem, Germany. It was lovely.

Compare prices with your cruise line and booking a hotel on your own.  Then factor in the cost of transfers to the hotel and then from the hotel to the airport (assuming you will fly home!).  Chances are, you’re better off not doing this through your cruise line.  Cruise lines love to package pre- and post-cruise hotel stays and usually the price is double of what you can find online.  

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with these tiny single hotel rooms, many of which are much smaller than your average interior stateroom.  But if you reserve a single room at a hotel in Europe and expect something the size of your typical double room in a hotel in America, it doesn’t exist. 

If you’re slightly claustrophobic, reserve a double room.  Just like on a ship, you’ll pay a premium to have the room to yourself.

Back in the U.S., a pre- or post-cruise hotel stay as a solo may find your room at the very far end of a corridor.  I don’t know why this continues to happen. 

Before I got wise to this scam, several hotel stays that were “included” with my cruise, I ended up being the very last room at the end of a very long corridor.  Not a great location for a solo female traveler. 

Now I always tell the hotel clerk at check-in not to put me at the end of a hall.  I want to be near an elevator.  And if you are stuck at the very end of a hallway, you’ll soon realize that rolling luggage on carpet isn’t always easy. 

6.  Pre- or Post-Cruise Land Travel

stack of suitcases on rack on train
That’s my trusty burgundy suitcase at the bottom.

Are you taking a train or several trains in Europe before or after your cruise?  As a solo, you must be prepared to lift your luggage up three or four steep steps to board.  Then you have to figure out how to hoist your luggage into the overhead bin.  There are no equivalents to Amtrak’s Red Caps in Europe. 

BE AWARE!  In some countries, a man might follow you onto the train and offer to life your luggage.  Check to see how he is dressed and if he has any luggage with him.  This often happens to Americans, and not just solo travelers.  

After you say yes and they stow your bags overhead, they’ll ask…rather demand…payment.  It’s a huge scam and can get a little dicey when you decline to pay because you thought it was free.  

So after all that, when you get to your destination, be prepared to get your bags down from the overhead bin, drag them through the narrow aisle and finally down the train steps to the platform.  On top of all this, there are people behind you eager to leave the train before the doors start to close. 

Get ready to grab your bags and down the stairs as efficiently as you can.  With luck, a passenger behind you might offer to help.  Just watch your belongings.  

Know where and when to board your train and be prepared.

My BEST advice is to know exactly where you need to board.  That’s easy to do in Europe.   Memorize your coach number and look for signage where it will stop.  Also memorize your seat number. 

You can find this information online and on the departure board the train station.  As soon as the departure board posts your train’s platform number, do your best to be at the front of the pack. 

If you bought a 1st class ticket with a reserved seat, there will still be a mad crunch to board but not as bad as in 2nd class. When you board, look for your seat number usually under the overhead storage. 

The second worst part after boarding is finding a shelf to stash your biggest suitcase.  Assuming that you didn’t fall prey to one of the non-passengers offering to help you, wheel your luggage to your seat and politely ask someone to put it in the overhead shelf. 

Even though I’m used to hauling luggage on and off of trains, I simply cannot lift my suitcase over my head to reach the shelf.  Since no one ever offers to help, I always have to politely ask. 

Insider Tip for Solo Women and Luggage:  Men wearing Armani suits, especially in Italy, are your least likely candidates to offer their assistance.  Young men in jeans are your most helpful. Maybe you remind them of their sister or mother!

Read on:  More Tips and Advice to Finally Plan Your Solo Cruising

If you’ve read all of this and don’t feel daunted by any of the above then it’s time to plan your solo cruise!  As long as you know the potential downside for cruising solo, then hopefully you won’t be in for any surprises.

Once you become a savvy solo cruiser, hopefully right after your very first solo experience, none of these points will matter anymore.  Just try it.  Maybe take baby steps first like with a short 4-5 day cruise.   Weekend cruises tend to be party ships but the four- or five-day cruises which are mid-week, attract a different, usually more staid crowd. 

If you want to cruise solo, just do it!  But I’m warning you…it’s addictive.

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