Single Supplements: Fair or Unfair?

There are few things more annoying than paying for something, thinking that other people are paying less for exactly the same thing. The single supplement, an additional payment that single travellers pay for joining a group tour, seems designed to penalise those who, by choice or through circumstances, choose to travel on their own.

How did single supplements originate, and why do they exist? Experienced tour leader and travel agent Stuart Barrie explores this emotional issue.

“Why should I pay more just because I am travelling on my own? It’s not fair. I am being ripped off. It is discrimination. It’s a tax on single travellers!”

The single supplement causes more complaints and disquiet from travellers than just about any advertised feature by a tour or cruise company. It is often believed to be unfair discrimination against single travellers.

I must provide a disclaimer upfront: I have worked in the travel industry for over 30 years for several tour companies, and although I empathise with the ire expressed, I think it is misplaced.

The origin of the single supplement

Ever since Thomas Cook ­– the “grandfather” of group travel – started taking travellers to the Continent in the late 1800’s, the way the price of a tour is advertised has caused debate and strong opinions.

Because group travel is a deeply social activity and provides a sense of security, it is attractive to single travellers. With an ageing baby boomer population, the fact that women generally outlive men, and the increasing wealth of the modern traveller, it is not surprising that a proportion of travellers on group tours are single travellers – and of those single travellers, the majority are female.

Which leads to the obvious question: why do travel companies appear to penalise these customers by making them pay more?

The answer is they don’t. The practice of advertising travel costs on a per person twin share basis, rather than per room, dates from the late 1960’s and was a marketing technique to make travel appear more affordable to an emerging market.

In terms of clever marketing tactics, it worked, and continues to work to this day. In fact, as a marketing ploy, it ranks up there with the British Airways offer of a ‘free flight to Europe’. In reality, if you wanted to fly to a European city with BA, you were forced to fly though London. You were not getting a free flight, you were suffering the inconvenience of an extra stop on your journey!

What is the true cost of having a room to yourself?

Accommodation costs are a significant portion of the total price of a group tour, representing anything from 25-60% of the overall cost. Hotels sell rooms to travellers, not beds, in the same way than a cruise company sells cabins, not bunks. How many people actually occupy the room or the cabin does not alter the price.

In order to make the cost of travel look more attractive (in other words cheaper) the assumption is that the majority of travellers are couples and the advertised price can be halved. During the 70’s and 80’s the majority of travellers on a once-in-a-lifetime group tour were couples, and even today single travellers only make up approximately 30% of the leisure travel market.

The challenge for tour companies is how to advertise their tours to appeal to the largest number of customers. Costs of a group tour are made up of per person costs (such as meals, museum entry, etc) and fixed costs which are divided between the number of travellers (such as coaches).

Generally, the cost of the hotel room is divided between the average number of travellers using the room (that is, per person twin share). The tour company could advertise the cost based on per room and then offer a discount if two people shared a room, however this would make the tour seem very expensive.

In some of the older European hotels, one way of lowering the single supplement is to allocate smaller, less well-positioned rooms to single travellers. While these rooms are cheaper, you get what you pay for. Couples get the room with the view, while single travellers end up in “the maid’s room” or the “closet under the stairs”. This trick can’t be pulled in newer European hotels and most hotels in Asia and America, as they tend to have standard sized rooms throughout.

The single supplement is not a rip-off: you are just paying for the cost of the room. Are you being discriminated against? Not if you get an equivalent room to the twin share travellers, but have it all to yourself.

The “no single supplement” tour: how is it possible?

If all of the above is correct, then how can some companies advertise tours which have no single supplements? I would argue that you should be very wary of companies advertising “no single supplements”. Someone, somewhere along the line, has to pay for the cost of the hotel rooms.

If a tour company expects a majority of single travellers, then it makes sense to base the advertised price on sole occupancy of hotel rooms. However, here the shoe is on the other foot. If you are sharing a room with someone on a “no single supplement” tour and paying the same price as the single travellers, then you are effectively paying too much and cross-subsidising the cost of travel of the solo travellers.

While this may be effective marketing, it is not exactly ethical business practice.

A measure of value

The single supplement is actually a very accurate guide to the quality of the hotels used in the tour package. If it seems too cheap (anything less than one eighth of the total tour cost) you should be very wary of the hotels being used. If it is very high (greater than one third), then there is not really much included in the tour apart from the hotels.

The one golden rule in the modern age of group travel is that if you are travelling on your own on a group tour and paying a single supplement, then make sure you actually do get exactly the same quality of room as your fellow couple travellers. Don’t do this on the first night of the tour, but invite yourself to have a look at your fellow travellers’ rooms – with an excuse such as wanting to check the view or the outlook! If you are in a smaller room, then you have every right to complain.

If travelling alone and booking a hotel room online, try to put a fictitious second name into the booking to ensure you are allocated a proper double room. Reception staff may still try to downgrade you at check-in, so suggest that the other person is arriving later on.

The single supplement may not seem fair, however it is at least a true transparent cost. I would much prefer knowing upfront exactly what I am paying for, as compared to a marketing ploy that distorts the price for everyone else. Wouldn’t you?

Stuart Barrie

Stuart Barrie is a social historian with strong interests in modern history, and in particular Europe and the USA in the twentieth century, and lately modern architecture, especially the residential architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. The development of his latest interests arose from the intersection of the Bauhaus Movement and the Prarie style of architecture developed by Wright. Stuart has a BA from Macquarie University and a MComm from the University of NSW and has been leading tours for over 30 years.


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