Let’s just say I took a LOT of selfies on my solo cruise. (Photo: Annie Daly)
“Are you with the entertainment?” a woman in pearls asks me in the elevator on the way to dinner.
“Nope, I’m just a regular passenger, here by myself,” I reply with a smile, as I watch a puzzled look spread across her face.
When I get to the dining room and request a table for one, it’s more of the same. “Just you tonight? No one else?” my waiter inquires as he pulls my velvet chair out and helps me get settled.
“Yep,” I answer nonchalantly, wondering why he’s feeling the need to confirm my solo status. “Just me.”
Let it be known: I’m no stranger to solo travel. I’ve traveled through Europe on my own, and I recently spent an entire month backpacking through Australia by myself. I don’t even think twice about exploring a new city alone, or enjoying a glass of wine sans drinking partner. It’s so normal to me.
But apparently, going on a cruise by yourself is not that normal, a fact I quickly learned when I went on a two-week solo sail through Asia this month. When I got the assignment to go on Oceania Cruises’ Nautica ship, sailing from Hong Kong, China to Bangkok, Thailand, with multiple stops in Vietnam along the way, I was ecstatic. I figured it’d be similar to my most recent solo experience in Australia, but with pho instead of Vegemite (a welcome change, might I add).
My beautiful home for two weeks. (Photo: Annie Daly)
What I failed to realize, however, is that cruising without a social crew isn’t really a thing people do. The majority of passengers go on them with their significant others, or with big groups of friends. This was especially true on my cruise, where the average age of the 684 passengers was 68, and many of them were retired.
In my defense, I was practically a virgin cruiser before my solo experience, which helps explain my oblivion. I’d been on one cruise with my family before, but I don’t think it really counts, because it was a super short two-day sail, only from Los Angeles to Ensenada, Mexico. I was also 18 years old at the time, and my cousins and I thought it was so cool that we could drink legally that we spent the weekend “taste testing” all of the different brands of tequila — so I don’t really remember much. (Sorry, Mom.)
Point is, when I first got on the ship, I didn’t exactly know the cruising way. And then, once I figured out that I was like a fish out of water — or, in this case, a fish on top of water — I started to feel uncharacteristically awkward. But after spending two weeks on board, I can say with full confidence that I now understand the secrets of ship life. And I may just be hooked. Here are seven things I learned about cruising while cruising solo.
All by mysellllf in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. (Photo: Annie Daly)
1. The dining area is kind of like a middle-school cafeteria. When I rolled up to the buffet table on the morning after I first realized I was the odd man out, I filled up my plate to the brim, as one does, and then proceeded to awkwardly stand there with my tray, contemplating my seating situation like a seventh grader trying to find the “cool” table in the cafeteria. I was half expecting some kind woman to notice my hesitation and pull a Forrest Gump, saying, “You can sit here if you want,” but alas, no one did. Finally, I settled on a table in the back, where my chances of being spotted were significantly lower. Who knew a cruise ship could bring me back to the days when I still wore braces?
Table for one, please. (Photo: Annie Daly)
2. Every single meal is a pearl-worthy occasion. As a 30-year-old millennial, I frequently toe the line between pants and “pants,” i.e. leggings that in my mind are 100% pants. It’s just something my generation does. But on a cruise ship? No way. Every single meal is an occasion to bust out your best dress-to-impress attire, including your prettiest makeup and your most sparkly shoes. Even if you’re dining by yourself, it’s best to have on at least one piece of flair, lest you be considered underdressed.
Related: Surviving the Cruise Ship Buffet
3. “Cruising” is a go-to verb. And one who cruises is a “cruiser.” I learned this fact from a 70-year-old couple whom I met on one of my shore excursions. I started chatting with them on the tour bus, at which point the husband said to me, “Of course we’re cruising. We’re retired, we live in Florida, and so we’ve turned into cruisers. What else would we do? It’s amazing.” The man had a point. On another note, I certainly hope I’m that self-aware when I’m 70.
4. It’s all about dropping your “number.” No, not that number. I’m talking about the number of cruises you’ve been on. One of the things that people love to talk about on cruises is other cruises they have already been on, or future cruises that they’d like to book. Put another way: Cruise culture is a whole thing. Once you’re a member of the pack, it’s all hands on deck. Literally.
I hung out with this couple in the pool one afternoon. They’ve been on over 30 cruises! (Photo: Annie Daly)
5. If you want to make friends on board, you may have to “make the ask.” After I was on the ship for a couple of days, a couple in their 60s whom I kept seeing around the hallways came up to me and asked me to have dinner with them. They were super nice, and they filled me in on the social norms of cruises. “Cruise ships are funny,” they began, “because you see the same people over and over again, and you sort of know them, and you smile and wave in passing like you’re old friends. But unless you make a concerted effort to befriend them, they’ll probably just stick to their social circles, and you to yours.” Considering I didn’t have a social circle to begin with, this was excellent advice, so I took to “making the ask” from that moment on.
My boozy dinner with my new friends! (Photo: Annie Daly)
I “made the ask” and hung out with these lovely women one day. (Photo: Annie Daly)
6. The cruise ship staff is a really fun bunch. Think about it: These employees have chosen to ditch the typical 9-to-5 office life and travel the world while doing what they love. It’s understandable, then, that they are all very cool, unique people with their own stories to tell — so get to know them. I got to be good friends with the tech guy on board the ship, and he told me lots of stories about his travels, and his decision to leave his whole life in Mumbai, India behind to set sail. I also got a massage and then proceeded to hang out with my masseuse, who was so passionate about his job. He told me that there is nothing in the world he’d rather be doing than making people feel good on vacation. Overall, I always knew that cruise ship workers were interesting, but I had no idea how open they’d be to hanging out with passengers. Try it!
Related: Explore Now: Practical Tips for the Solo Female Traveler
7. When in doubt, slow down. I live in New York, where everything moves so quickly, I often go to bed feeling like I just woke up. And when I first boarded the ship, that mentality had not yet melted away. We were at sea for a full day before I finally realized: What’s the rush? Everyone else seemed to be chilling, enjoying the day’s events at a leisurely pace, so I decided to do that, too. And that’s the thing about cruises: You think you’re in it mainly for the sightseeing, and for the most part, that’s true. But cruises are also a great place to learn to stop and enjoy the beautiful ride.
Give yourself permission to sit back and kick it. (Photo: Annie Daly)