Some people are adept at quantum physics. I know hotels. I've seen more hotel rooms than a New York City call girl on speed-dial. For years I've poked around lodgings throughout the world for consumer guidebooks, and one thing I've learned is that you never know what you'll find.
Checking out a hotel room in St. Thomas, I walked in on a guy sitting at a desk, naked. He invited me to stay but I declined. In Bermuda, I opened the door and found a couple asleep in bed. I don't know who of the three of us was most surprised.
That said, quirky isn't my thing all the time and it likely isn't yours. Sometimes I seek a cozy B&B that replicates some of the comforts of home; sometimes, a cookie-cutter chain room with space to arrange familiar clutter. In the end, think carefully about how prominently you want your lodging to figure into your solo experience. Here are a few things you might want to keep in mind.
Before You Book
Your needs and desires may change, sometimes day to day within a destination. If you're spending lots of time in the room, or you're on business where you'll be working with and hosting others, a large space with a plasma TV may work best. If you're in the Canadian Rockies, or near Lake Geneva, or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, a room with a view might matter more than one with Internet hookup. When the weather's great, a balcony is wonderful. If you're hardly in your room, you may prefer to save money for other things.
How much can you afford to spend on accommodations? Obviously money goes further in Podunk than Paris, but even in most big cities you can work within that range, if you're careful. Think creatively about how you budget. If you allocate $100 a night, you don't have to spend that every night: Think about spending $50 for three nights at an inexpensive lodging, then, when it's worth it to you, splurge on a deluxe room with a balcony.
Think about where you want to spend most of your time, especially after dark, and consider choosing a hotel nearby. Finding transportation door to door after that grand dinner or concert can be dicey. Walking alone at night is rarely advisable, and you don't want to be wasting time commuting or waiting for transport when a closer lodging will allow a quick walk or ride, and more time for fun.
When You Book
Book far in advance, especially if you'll be near a destination during holiday and festival times. Do you really want to retreat to the 'burbs after the Toronto film festival? Once, after disembarking from a ferry on the small Greek island of Limnos, I soon realized that I had arrived a week before the hotel opened -- and the few alternative lodgings were filled. I didn't panic. I called several hotels, just in case, told them my plight, and one volunteered to let me stay, even though it was in the midst of a deep cleaning, and not officially open. The manager gave me some linens, I chose a room with a dazzling view of the sea, and I had the entire place to myself. I went into the kitchen and found a spoon and bowl and had some yogurt and honey for breakfast, sitting in the enormous dining room by myself. It was a memorable solo experience -- and the closest I've come to spending a night on a bench. Lesson: never give up.
Strive for best rates. Avoid paying the rack rate -- listed on price sheets -- the rate a place would hope for, but savvy solo travelers can almost always beat. Deal with hotels individually rather than through their toll-free number, as front desks have lots of latitude when it comes to negotiating; the higher the room price, the more the potential discount.
Check the pet policy. If you're traveling with Fido, ensure that the lodging allows pets. Likewise, if you have no desire to mingle with animals, ask about the pet policy.
A Few Words About Safety
Safety first. Select a hotel with room-entry only through a main lobby, rather than separate entrances for each room (Marriott Courtyards, Hampton Inns, and Days Inn are among lodgings designed with security in mind). Avoid ground-level rooms. Even if they're only accessible through the lobby, their windows expose you more readily to thieves. Ask for a room in a well-lighted area. Book rooms with smoke alarms and fire escapes; if not, be extra vigilant: Don't accept a room at the end of a long, isolated hall with no exit. Choose rooms below the fifth floor for access to fire ladders.
Don't let the desk blab your room number. If the hotel staff announces your room, ask for another and explain why. Alert them that you're concerned about security and that you need them to respect that. Have the bellhop accompany you to and from your room if you feel more comfortable.
Avoid stairs. Stairwells may offer exercise, but are an ideal spot for crime. Elevators are generally safer, but don't board one if you're not wild about your car mates, and if you want to back out gracefully, pretend you forgot your key. Have it ready in the elevator so you don't have to fumble at your door. And if someone follows you out and tries to attack, knock on doors and scream for help.
Don't advertise your whereabouts. Don't put the tag on the door that asks for maid service, but do use the "Do Not Disturb" sign and keep the TV on when you're out.
Reject all pop-ins. Don't let a hotel staffer or anyone else in your room unless you're expecting someone; otherwise, call the front desk and ask the person to wait outside for clearance.
Lock it all. Lock all doors, and windows, even when you're in the room. Lock valuables in a safe. Lock your luggage. If you're issued a spare room key or key card, don't leave it in your room for someone to take. Also consider bringing your own personal alarm, such as a motion sensor that hangs on the inside doorknob and will go off if the outer knob is turned.
Be your own fire warden. Know where the exits are. In case of fire, stay low and cover cracks in doors and windows with wet towels; wait in your room for help if the door is hot, or break a window if needed, and use that fire escape. Know where your key is, and take it with you in case of emergency. And, on a lighter note, if you're really safety conscious, sleep in something you can run out in. (PJs with attached feet won't do.)
Where to Stay
Following are typical lodgings and lodging arrangements you encounter as a solo traveler.
Resorts for Singles & Soloists: These informal, adults-only resorts have numerous activities and communal dining. Club Meds, among other single resorts, allow you to sidestep the single supplement if you take on a same-gender roommate.
Concierge Floors in Major Hotels: Concierge (or Business or Executive) floors are havens for solo travelers. Security is often heightened, with a floor concierge and special elevators. The exclusive lounge is a comfortable area for schmoozing, reading newspapers, or grazing (usually with complementary nibbles and/or drinks), and a free continental breakfast may jump-start your morning. Ask if these floors are available when you make reservations at hotels catering to business travelers. Rooms are slightly costlier, but the payback is worth it. Chains with these floors include Doubletree Executive Hotels, Holiday Inn Select, Hyatt, and Radisson.
Solo-Friendly Chains: You know what you?re getting when you stay in a chain, and that can be comfortable indeed. Frequently offering good deals for soloists are Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Four Seasons Hotels, Italy's Jolly Hotels, and Sonesta Worldwide Properties. Among the better budget choices are Country Inns & Suites, Microtel Inns and Suites, and the small Park Inn chain.
B&Bs: Bed-and-Breakfasts are right-on for solo travelers. Among the standard amenities are a private room (and often a private bath), full breakfasts at communal tables, drinks in the parlor, the opportunity to trade information and travel stories, a friendly house cat or dog, and pastry and coffee anytime. When researching my book on B&Bs and inns in New England, I stayed at hundreds of properties, and what made or broke them most times were the owners: sometimes in your face, sometimes not around, always different. You never know when you'll come upon a Basil Fawlty or some other similarly memorable character, and traveling solo, you'll often connect.
Homestays: To feel really at home, stay in a home, the easiest way for solo travelers to meet and live with locals. Others may be sharing the house as well, usually with the family, and often there's a minimum stay, maybe a week or so. This alternative varies from deluxe to less private, less charming, and less regulated than a B&B experience -- and less expensive. You may have to share a room or a bath, but if you're willing to spend a bit more, you can often negotiate this. Kitchen privileges are usually included, you'll probably have a key to come and go as you please, and sometimes a private entrance. The family may even guide you around -- maybe for a fee.
Obviously, homes and hygiene vary, so check on this aspect, and get referrals before committing. Some travel packages cover air costs and lodging, and could include a couple of meals a day.
Time-Shares: If you want a comfortable apartment or condo, this is a great way for a solo traveler to make friends and revisit them. And even better, you can probably swap your timeshare for another, somewhere else in the world. These lodgings are kept in good order, with ample space and generic taste, as maintenance is controlled.
General Lodging Sites
Connecting: Solo Travel News. Network on the Web, find B&Bs, hostels, resorts, and discount hotels. Caveat: the network accepts site listings as offered and makes no independent effort to review or verify claims.
SoloTravelPortal.com. Get the skinny on single rooms. An accommodations page is updated frequently.
Small Hotel Chains
Red Carnation. Choose from nine luxury boutique hotels in England, South Africa, Switzerland, and the United States. 877/955-1515.
Relais & Chateaux. Strictly administered, deluxe group of independently owned chateaux, country houses, manors, and quality restaurants worldwide that cater to solo travelers. 800/735-2478 or 212/856-0115.
The Springs Resort and Spa and Andalusian Court. Spanish/Moorish-style boutique resorts with spas and fitness centers. 619/297-0009.
These tips are excerpted from author Lea Lane's Solo Traveler. Lane is a contributor to Fodor's travel guides and a world traveler. For further info about solo traveling, check out Lea's website, Sololady.com.