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Getting the most out of traveling alone

Annie Schlechter

Traveling alone on business in Japan, Boston restaurateur Kathy Sidell made sure to find a seat one night at the bar of a Tokyo tempura joint so popular that it’s always packed.

Another American had the same idea. He liked the place so much, the man said, he made it a point to stop in on the way to catch his flight home from a business trip.

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For Sidell, the businessman, and an increasing number of other solo travelers, the question isn’t how to find time for themselves when they’re on the road. “How can you not?” said Sidell, the owner of the Met Restaurant Group. “I can’t imagine in a million years sitting in some generic hotel room or an airport when you’re in a city that’s foreign to you without exploring the people, the culture, and especially the food.”

So many people are combining business with pleasure when they’re traveling alone, the phenomenon has been given a name: the biz-cation. More than one in 10 business travelers and nearly one in four conventiongoers extend their trips for leisure purposes, the consulting firm TNS Global reports. The idea is also catching on among solo leisure travelers comfortable with going on vacation on their own — even when it’s not an extension of a business trip.

“This is definitely a trend,” said Bob Diener, cofounder of hotels.com and president of getaroom.com. “More people are traveling single now than in the past. It’s much more accepted, whereas in the past they might feel embarrassed. And it’s been accelerating.”

One reason is that half of US adults are single, more than ever in the nation’s history. Singles now make up 27 percent of all households. The proportion of single households is even higher in Massachusetts — more than 30 percent — where residents stay unmarried longer than in any other state, according to the US Census Bureau; only in the District of Columbia are men and women older when they marry.

“Statistically, there are just a lot more people living on their own,” said Michael Oshins, a former consultant to hotel companies who now teaches at the Boston University School of Hospitality Management, and who calls this the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” syndrome, after the 2011 movie. “Even in pop culture, there’s more of it,” he said.

Hip, no-frills hotels such as Pod 39 and Pod 51 are popping up, with rooms (above) as small as 50 square feet.

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Technology is also driving the solo-travel boom; social media makes it easier for singles to find like-minded people almost anywhere. So is thrift: European hotels charge singles less. Single theater and event tickets are often cheaper and easier to get than even-numbered ones. And there are usually seats at the bar in heavily booked restaurants.

Some of the other advantages are harder to quantify.

“The beauty is that you’re on your own clock and can choose to do what you want with your time,” said Natalie Chassaigne Kurtzman, a business-development executive in the Boston office of a public-relations firm and a travel blogger who often goes alone on business and for fun. “I think a lot of people are afraid to travel by themselves, but there are so many amazing like-minded people you meet who are in the same boat.”

Slowly but surely, the travel industry is making it easier for them, adding single rooms, dropping single supplements, and expanding common areas in lobbies. From dude ranches to Caribbean hideaways, destinations are also promoting singles-only times.

“Businesses are having to come up with ways to attract that market,” said Andrew Barnard, marketing director at the BodyHoliday resort in St. Lucia, which has added 29 single rooms in one wing of the hotel and caters each September to singles only.

Cambridge-based Overseas Adventure Travel has seen solo travel rise from 22 percent of its business five years ago to 30 percent today. The high-end tour company Abercrombie & Kent had a 19 percent increase in singles bookings last year. And American Express projects that 15 percent of all travelers this summer will go solo.

Hospitality specialists have no shortage of advice for them. Eating dinner at the bar is usually at the top of that list. Sidell’s trick, she said, is to order an expensive wine.

“Miraculously, a seat will appear” at the bar, she said — even in the busiest restaurant.

Hip, no-frills hotels such as the Jane, Pod 39, and Pod 51 in Manhattan are also popping up, with rooms as small as 50 square feet and shared bathrooms but low prices, lots of communal spaces with Wi-Fi and pool tables (Pod 51 has a roof deck where guests can take a glass of wine and watch the sunset), and activities such as free walking tours designed for singles.

Since solo travelers can be more spontaneous than people traveling with family or friends, they can also take advantage of the growing number of “flash” sales at hotels with last-minute vacancies. (The business has a name for those kinds of customers: “flashpackers.”)

Singles can more easily and cheaply score seats for top-tier Broadway shows and concerts, and tapings of TV shows, said Bryan Raughton, concierge at Pod 51 and Pod 39.

Or they can start by just adding a few hours or an extra day to a business trip, which has gotten easier as employers relax the rules on how employees book their travel.

“There’s less managed travel, which makes it easier and more seamless for the solo traveler to say, ‘I’m going to tack on a Friday or a Saturday to my business trip from Boston to Austin,’ ” said Raj Beri, vice president of the travel-booking website wanderwe
.com, which specializes in short getaways. “Even if you just spend two hours for yourself before your business meeting, you can make it feel more like a vacation.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at jon@mysecretboston.com.
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