“Single supplement” is a familiar term to readers of tour brochures. In the most basic terms it means that if one prefers to sleep alone on a tour, paying the single supplement is the only way to go, the specified number of extra dollars guaranteeing private accommodations sans roommate.
That’s what it means but, as my old psychology teacher used to say: “There’s more to it than that.” At least that was the case with the tour I took four months ago.
Having lived and traveled abroad extensively and independently but always with a companion, I hadn’t a clue about the lot of the solo traveler on a group tour. The only thing I had heard was that many single rooms were small.
Were they ever! But no one had mentioned that the lone tourist also could draw some strange quarters even on a tour promising all first-class hotels. The hotels may be first-class, but that doesn’t mean every room is.
Hefty Extra Charge
My introduction to tourmanship was a 15-day Western Europe trip for which I paid a $425 single supplement in addition to the other per-person charges. The tour, arranged by a respected American travel agency and sponsored by a noted national organization, turned out to be a good choice for women traveling alone, and there were several in the group. No lone men, alas.
We were greeted, guided, directed, counseled and even counted after returning from a sightseeing jaunt.
Unfortunately, the conscientious tour guide traveling with us had nothing to do with room assignments, although it was obvious that there was a prearranged routine. On arrival at each hotel on the itinerary the tour guide went to the front desk to get a list of the assigned accommodations.
When she called them out, the people sharing double rooms usually received their room numbers first, the singles last.
On a tour one bunks where one is put, and it didn’t take long to discover that solo travelers get the leftovers. Considering the length of the tour, 14 nights in hotels in five countries, uncomfortable rooms and/or rooms in undesirable locations were in the minority, but of course those were the ones remembered most vividly.
I can scarcely recall the adequate rooms nor picture the austere, closet-size rooms that reminded me of a ship’s lowest-cost cabin. My journal does remind me of my frustration when billed in a really minuscule room in a European chain hotel in Wiesbaden, West Germany.
“Frugal room with tiny single bed,” I reported. “No place to put anything in bathroom. Now I know what they mean by ‘small.’ ” I didn’t know how good I was having it; the worst was yet to come.
The next afternoon, while we were driving through the spectacular Black Forest, our motor coach turned off the Autobahn onto a side road and there--in the middle of nowhere--was a beautiful chalet-style hotel.
Built in 1936, new for the Old World, it had balconies with filigreed wooden railings, planter boxes brimming with spring flowers and a colorful mural painted on the front wall. I was enchanted and could hardly wait to see my room.
As usual the doubles were given their room numbers first, and then some of the singles were given theirs, but I wasn’t among them. It seemed that three of the solo travelers, another woman and I and the tour guide, weren’t staying in the chalet with the others. Our rooms were in the original old hotel across the road.
How old was it? “1879" was carved above the entrance but a brass plaque commemorated a visit from Goethe, the great German poet, in 1759.
I also learned that young Marie Antoinette had stayed there in 1770, en route to her wedding to the French Dauphin who later became Louis XVI. Perhaps the “1879" referred to the year the hotel had last been modernized. The interior looked as if that date would be about right.
The original hotel was not a chalet but a bleak, stuccoed building with no exterior decoration. About 10 worn stone steps, divided by an iron railing, led to the front entrance and ground-floor guest rooms inside.
A wide, winding, carpeted stairway led to the first floor, what we call the second floor in the United States, the larger windows indicating the grander guest rooms were on that level. Our single-supplement rooms weren’t on that deck either.
They were on the floor above, reached by a narrow, very steep, uncarpeted staircase. The way the risers were constructed one could climb upstairs with the full foot on each step, toes under the step above, but descending it was necessary to sidle down cautiously, hanging onto the railing.
I was amused, sort of, at the obligatory fire instructions posted at the top--a drawing of a little man running toward that precipitous stairway. Lots of luck! There were no fire stairs, of course.
Up Steep Steps
After clambering up those steep steps, burdened by my carry-ons, I was greeted at the summit by the affable hotel proprietor. He seemed glad to see me as he ushered me to my room, remarking jovially that it had been waiting for me for eight weeks. I could see why.
In the late-afternoon light from the small dormer window I saw a room best described as “rustic.” It looked as if it had been furnished from items stored in the attic.
It had a narrow wooden single bed, the mattress covered by a sheet, with a bed pillow but no top sheet or blanket. The only covering was a feather-filled quilt that slipped off the bed a lot during the night, I discovered later.
Other furnishings included a worn wooden table with an embroidered cloth, a wooden wardrobe, and--the modern piece de resistance-- a telephone, on which I never succeeded in getting an outside line.
Between the bedroom and a primitive bathroom, obviously not in the original hotel, was a tricky, raised wooden doorsill one had to step over carefully or trip and fall headlong.
In retrospect I wonder why I didn’t have enough sense to protest at being put in such a place and in such a room. I’m sure our affable host expected me to, which may be why he had come up all those stairs to welcome me. Had I complained vociferously enough he might have found me more comfortable lodgings. As I didn’t, he didn’t.
That’s one bit of advice I would relay to other solo tourists: Complain if you are given an unsuitable room. It just might get you a better one.
The people who assign tour rooms have no way of knowing the needs or physical condition of the travelers who will occupy them. Fortunately, I was in good enough shape to cope with all those stairs, but there were others who were not.
I met one of them as I was leaving the building for a hike in the Black Forest. An elderly heavy-set woman who walked with a cane was painfully climbing those 10 stone steps to the front entrance of the antique hotel. A member of another tour following the same route as ours, she too was a single-supplement traveler who had been banished to the old building.
“Didn’t they know you walk with a cane?” I asked. “These steps are difficult.”
“Our tour guide does,” she said, but the crafty hotel proprietor had assured her she would be occupying Goethe’s room. I wondered who had been conned into thinking she had Marie Antoinette’s.
No Lake Views
The next night we were in Lucerne, Switzerland, in a hotel boasting that 80% of its rooms overlooked the lake. Guess what?
My immaculate little room, which reminded me of a hospital room I had once occupied, overlooked villas and flats behind the hotel.
However, a compassionate couple invited me in to see the glorious lake view from their room. I knew better than to complain about my room, sensing that not having a view was one of the solo tourist penalties, but in England I finally did complain.
The weather was cool and the room assigned me, in a charming hotel in Kent, was spacious and attractive. I glimpsed it only right after checking in, because we had arrived so late, due to heavy traffic, so our tour guide told us not to change, just to leave our things in our rooms and come right down to dinner.
So it wasn’t until after a post-dinner walk enjoying the English countryside that I returned to my pretty room to get ready for bed. It was then I realized it was suffocatingly hot in there. The window was open but the cool outside air was having no effect on the temperature inside. I felt the radiator--cold--and seeing no other source of heat I called the front desk to explain the problem.
The clerk promised to send a maintenance man immediately, and minutes later he arrived. I told him I had checked everything I could think of, and that the window was open but it was still hot. Would he show me what I had overlooked?
Right Over the Pool
The maintenance man nodded solemnly as he too felt the cold radiator.
“It really is sweltering in here,” he confirmed, “but I’m afraid it can’t be helped. You see your room is over the swimming pool, and it’s heated 24 hours a day.”
By then it was too late to ask if another room were available, and as I had to get some sleep before another early departure it was a hot night in cool Kent.
Oh, well, if I had only two really uncomfortable rooms, plus a couple that were disappointing, in the nine hotels in which I stayed, those aren’t bad odds.
Would I pay the single supplement if I take another tour? You betcha! Having a private room and bath, no matter how small, after a long day of sightseeing is worth every extra dollar.
As for those frequent early a.m. departures, I’ll never know how people traveling in tandem manage to get bathed, dressed and packed while sharing accommodations.
I do have one tip for a woman traveling alone: Don’t take anything with a back zipper you can’t reach by yourself.