The decades-long rise in the number of single people has brought many changes. One is that dining alone and traveling alone have become commonplace. It is just no big deal anymore.
Or so I thought.
This past holiday season I traveled to a resort in Mexico and also went on several day tours. My travels included Christmas day. As I planned my trip, I thought nothing of the fact that I was traveling solo. I was just happy to be going.
Again and again, I was surprised by my experiences. Here are a few examples.
- In five days and four nights of travel, including two days of touring and meals in restaurants usually twice a day, I never once saw another person traveling alone or dining alone.
I found that astounding. It is not that I minded. I’m perfectly comfortable on my own and did not need to see fellow solo travelers to feel fine with my own solo arrangements. But after following the trends in solo dining and traveling, and even writing about them, I just never expected to be the only representative of that trend. Maybe it was because I was traveling over Christmas, and many people think of that as a family holiday.
- The language used in talking to and about me as a solo diner and traveler was telling.
The first time I walked into a restaurant, I was greeted with, “Just one?” I decided to let it go. Then the second time, it happened again. And then again. Each time after the first, I replied, “No, not just one. One.” One of the hostesses smiled broadly at my answer. I had the feeling that she got it and even liked it, but I don’t know for sure.
The van from the airport to the hotel was packed with several families. Someone asked whether I was meeting friends or family. When I said I was on my own, there was a pause, then someone jumped in with, “well, at least you will get to do whatever you want.”
It’s true – I did get to do whatever I wanted and I liked that (though I also like traveling with people I see as good travel partners). But I took note of the “at least” part. That seemed to suggest that the person saw traveling alone as something unfortunate, that “at least” had the compensation of choice of activities.
Again, I did not mind that. I just found it interesting. I guess I expected at least one person to chime in with something like, “I’ve traveled on my own, too, and I love it.” Nothing like that happened in the van or any other time.
- I was both hidden away (maybe) and also shown to one of the best seats in the restaurant.
That first time I walked into a nice restaurant and was asked, “Just one?”, I was shown to the worst seat in the restaurant, hidden behind the bar. The restaurant was crowded and I could not see every table, so maybe it was the only seat left.
Every other time, though (in different restaurants), I was either ushered to a fabulous seat, closest to the ocean, or given my choice of seats.
- Some couples were gracious, others presumptuous.
On the flight from Los Angeles to Cancun (I was staying in a place about an hour away), I had the window seat. It was a daytime flight and I was enjoying reading or looking out the window. A couple had the other two seats. The woman, who had the middle seat, said she wanted the shade closed. I wanted it open, so I closed it halfway.
She seemed satisfied momentarily, but then asked me to close it all the way. I told her I didn’t want to sit in the dark. She said it was “really hard” for her and her boyfriend to have the light coming in from the window. (They are traveling from Los Angeles to Cancun and they consider natural light a hardship?) If she had asked me to close it two-thirds of the way because they each get one vote, I would have done that. If there were some medical reason why natural light was hard for them to deal with, I would have accommodated them. But as far as I could tell, it was just their preference. They wanted the shade closed, and they thought their wishes should completely override mine.
On one of the tours, we stopped for lunch at a buffet restaurant. Before we went to get our food, I sat off by myself at a long table. One of the couples motioned for me to sit with them. I was happy to do so, and we started chatting. Then we all went to get our food. When I came back and sat the same place I had been before (at that point, none of the other seats were taken), a woman who was with her boyfriend said that I was in her seat. I thought that was odd; I didn’t see anything left in the place to save it. I gave her a puzzled look. She said that she and her boyfriend wanted to sit there. I moved. It was just too weird to bother contesting it. There was nothing special about that seat, though I was looking forward to continuing the conversation with the other couple.
Maybe it was all just random; I don’t know. If instead those two couples really did think their wishes should override mine because they were part of a couple and I was on my own, they probably did not realize that I felt embarrassed – for them, not for me.
I’m a social scientist, so I’m skeptical about anecdotes. I’d like to see some systematic research that investigates whether these kinds of experiences are commonplace or just a fluke.
In any case, none of the weird behaviors of others or the lack of fellow solo travelers ruined my experiences. I had a great time.