If At First You Don’t Succeed. . . .

by Gray Cargill on September 12, 2012

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I’ve been excited about the Norwegian Epic since I first heard about its 120 staterooms for solo travelers (with no single supplement!). In 2010, I managed to get invited to join a 2 night press trip aboard the ship out of New York City. But it wasn’t until this past May that I was able to go on a real cruise aboard the ship, for a week in the Mediterranean. So how did it go? Not exactly as I expected.

On the surface, the Epic is the solo traveler’s dream ship. In addition to the rooms and prices, there is a solo traveler meet-and-greet in the Studio Lounge (which is exclusive to those staying in the Studio Staterooms) every day at 6pm. There is even a crew member assigned to the Lounge to cover the needs of Studio guests. But don’t think this means you don’t even have to try if you want to have a social life aboard the ship.

Epic‘s Mediterranean itinerary has two embarkation ports: Barcelona, Spain on Sundays and Civitavecchia, Italy (near Rome) on Wednesdays. I chose to board in Civitavecchia so I could have more time in Rome before and after my cruise. As it turns out, I was in the minority. Only 600 of us boarded in Italy; more than 3,000 boarded in Spain. This made a difference. For example, those boarding in Barcelona got tours of the ship on their first day; we didn’t. And it made a big difference to me as a solo traveler as well.

Studio Stateroom

My Studio Stateroom aboard the Epic

During my first three days aboard the ship, despite my efforts to meet people in the Lounge, it became clear that I was at a disadvantage for having boarded in Rome. Most of the solo travelers there had boarded in Barcelona and had three days to get to know each other before I arrived. I felt like the new kid in school.

That’s not to say they weren’t polite–and one man was very friendly and kept inviting me to join them–but for some reason, I felt awkward and shy around them. So while I would stop and chat for short periods, I pretty much went my own way for meals and shows. The crew member assigned to the lounge made no attempt to help integrate those of us who joined in Civitavecchia with the larger Barcelona group.

That wasn’t the way I expected things to go. But I blame myself. I later met two other solos who also boarded when I did—a man who had the same lack of success integrating with the Barcelona group, and a young woman who had successfully joined them. I never had an opportunity to ask for her secret to success, but I suspect she said yes when anyone asked her to join the group for activities. Pretty simple, eh?

But don’t think I’d been crying in my beer all this time. I’d met people in other ways. I joined the roll call for my cruise at CruiseCritic.com and arranged for a shared shuttle to port with a great group of people (Jody and Jeff, Jim and Corinne, Margie and Sue) that I kept running into off and on throughout the cruise. I went to a CruiseCritic meet-and-greet on the first night, where I met some more folks. On Thursday, at a restaurant in Florence, I happened to sit next to Candice and Teri, a mother and daughter duo from California who were also sailing on the Epic. We hit it off and later spent time together aboard ship at dinner, at the jazz club, and in the casino. I was having a good time.


There are plenty of places to meet people on the ship, even outside the Lounge

Still, I wasn’t ready to give up on the solo traveler group. What kind of solo travel blogger would I be if I came home from my cruise having only spent time with duos? On Sunday, when a new batch of solos boarded in Barcelona, I was ready. Even though I was feeling seasick that day, I attended the 6:00 mixer in the Lounge. This was my chance to meet people before they had time to form cliques.

What a different experience!

People were friendly, and we all mingled naturally until the Norwegian crew member assigned to the lounge blew into the room like a fresh breeze. This was a completely different young woman from the previous one. Her name was Vianna, I believe, but she said we could call her V. She was a strikingly pretty girl from Mexico, and she was fantastic at her job.

Right away, she gathered us all around like baby chicks and had us introduce ourselves and say where we were from: Joy, Luis, Cubby, Ursula and Indira (friends from Johannesburg), Paula, Marsha, Colin, Jim, Chris, Robert, Vivian, Tracy, and David. There were others, but I’m afraid I don’t remember their names. There was a foursome from Germany who were chess fanatics and spent their entire time during the cruise playing chess.

V had us play a game of charades to get everyone to guess what we do for a living. Colin, a farmer, mimed milking cows. The rest of us didn’t have it quite so easy. It became hilarious trying to guess everyone’s occupations, let alone those who were retired. V set up group dinners for the next two nights for any of us who wanted to dine together. From that night on, I had as much company as I wanted at all times.

Studio Lounge

Among its charms, the Studio Lounge has a bar area and free coffee and fresh-baked cookies.

One night, V pulled together a group to go to the Svedka Ice Bar. On another night, she ushered us to Bliss Ultralounge for “The Dating Game”–something I probably wouldn’t have gone to on my own. Three members of our group—Colin, Ursula, and David–were recruited to be contestants. It was fun cheering them on. One morning I had breakfast with Marsha, Colin and Chris, all of whom I met up with by chance in O’Sheehans. On my last night of the cruise, I was able to sit and chat in the Lounge with Jim and Cubby for awhile. I have to credit V with really turning things around for me in terms of meeting other solo travelers to spend time with during the cruise.

Before I left on this trip, I worried that I might not have enough “alone time” on the ship. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. I had just the right amount of solitary time and social time. I am an introvert, so I took advantage of the solitary time to recharge my batteries and process everything I was seeing and experiencing in the ports (which was a bit overwhelming, to be honest).

But my biggest takeaway from this cruise was to be more persistent. In the past, I’ve often given up quickly if things didn’t come easily to me in a social setting. And I started to fall into that pattern here, too. If I had given up on my fellow solo travelers after my first couple of less-than-successful nights in the lounge, my overall cruise experience might have been lonelier than it wound up being. Instead, I had a terrific time and met some really interesting and fun people, both in and out of the solo lounge.

I hate to sound like a cliche, but it’s true. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” That goes for solo travel, too.

Note: I suck at remembering to get photos with new friends I’ve met on my travels, so I have no “people pictures” from this cruise. #BloggerFail.

Barbara November 10, 2012 at 6:55 pm

I had heard about duo’s booking solo cabins…They think it’s fine and brad with glee about how much space they had to store luggage 🙁 If many do that, what’s the purpose of having a place for the real solo’s. Seems very selfish if you ask me.

Gray November 10, 2012 at 7:56 pm

Yeah, it’s a shame, Barbara. I find that most people who are used to traveling as couples haven’t a clue about how much more expensive it is for solos or how slanted the travel industry is toward couples. They’re just not thinking of us at all–not necessarily because they’re selfish but because solo travel isn’t on their radar at all. It’s a lack of awareness.

Nicole September 18, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Came back last week from this trip. And I also embarked at Citavechia. Luckily my oarents were in the same cruise in another balcony cabin, because there were almost no solo travelers on our journey. Lots of duos booked the solo studios, or groups wich all wanted their own cabin. I wanted to try Epic, to see if I would book the trip as a solo traveler, but am not enthousiastic about that. But I do have to say, this trip we came back on board late, because of the citytrips. All solo activities start early around 6 or 7 pm ;(

Gray September 18, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Oh, that is disappointing to hear, Nicole! I’ve been afraid of that happening–families and duos booking the studios so everyone can have their own room–because there are only 120 or so of these rooms per sailing, and once they’re all gone, there are no reasonably-priced options for solo travelers. And it’s just not as much fun as a solo traveler to be in the Studios when everyone else there is not a solo traveler. You might as well sail on any old cruise ship if that’s going to be the case. From the cruise line’s POV, they don’t care who books those rooms as long as they’re full, but it does really ruin the concept of it being a neighborhood for solo travelers if it’s starting to fill up with groups. Thanks for sharing your experience. I hope you found the cruise to be fun despite this.

Eileen Campos / Possibly Pinay September 16, 2012 at 7:55 pm

I’m intrigued. You know how normal sized staterooms allow 2 kids for free (most companies) i wonder if– for single staterooms, you can bring 1 kid (below 12 years old) for free because that’s basically my entire family unit. 😀

love you blog, found it over twitter suggested people you follow. will be reading more as soon as i get some work done. i loooove the layout too! im a new fan!

Gray September 16, 2012 at 8:02 pm

LOL, I don’t know, Eileen, I think you two might be tripping over each other in these rooms…and there wouldn’t be a lot of privacy when you shower. Thanks for the kind words, and welcome to SoloFriendly!

Eileen Campos / Possibly Pinay September 16, 2012 at 11:54 pm

Lol, well, she’s 3 and a half. She doesn’t have a concept of privacy. Hahaha, I just thought it ifit were allowed, then single parent-solo child setup wouldbe cruise-friendly too!

Gray September 17, 2012 at 5:21 am

LOL, oh well, in that case….I would imagine that would be okay.

Dave September 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Gray —

Many thanks for posting this blog. I’ve been thinking about sailing on the Epic ever since I heard about their solo cabins, probably in your previous post about them. Your insights, as always, are incredibly helpful.

— Dave

Gray September 16, 2012 at 12:23 pm

You’re welcome, Dave. I’d recommend giving it a shot. The itinerary should be one that interests you, though.

Kirstin September 15, 2012 at 1:23 am

I think it is the same as turning up to a party where EVERYBODY else knows each other (my kind of Hell). I’m much better at a party where we’re all complete strangers..

Gray September 15, 2012 at 8:38 am

That’s exactly it, Kirstin!

Bess September 12, 2012 at 2:11 pm

I totally understand! It takes me a while to warm up to people, and if I feel like people have already formed a little group, I tend to shy away–even if they invite me to do something. Stupid! Good job on going to the second meet and greet. It’s not very easy to meet new people, but making new connections is completely worth the trouble.

Gray September 12, 2012 at 5:21 pm

I’m so glad somebody understands me, Bess. You’ve hit the nail right on the head with my personality.

Jeff B @ GoTravelzing September 12, 2012 at 11:10 am

I have never heard of a cruise where you could board at different cities. I do see how this would make it difficult to meet people if you were not part of the initial group. It sounds like you had a good time.

Gray September 12, 2012 at 11:52 am

I did have a great time, Jeff B. It’s a fantastic ship with a lot to do and the ports of call were awesome.

Gray September 12, 2012 at 6:10 am

Me, too, Tracy. You are going to love the itinerary! So many wonderful ports and things to do! Glad you chose Barcelona as your embarkation point. It’s really one of the easier places to board, too (compared to having to find transportation from a city an hour away). Barcelona is so much fun–I hope you’re spending some time in the city before and after your cruise.

Tracy Antonioli September 12, 2012 at 7:01 am

Yes, that’s part of the reason I’m choosing Barcelona–because it is at the top of my travel list. I will likely spend a couple of days after the cruise, just because of how the timing works out (I’m back to work this year and all, so my time is sadly limited!)

Gray September 12, 2012 at 11:51 am

Actually, now that I think about school schedules, I’m surprised you can go in May.

Tracy Antonioli September 12, 2012 at 5:50 am

Wow–thanks for this look into the solo life on the Epic. I’m hopefully sailing this same itinerary in May (so I’m open for port tips) but I’m doing it from Barcelona–for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that I’ll be solo, though it seems I now have yet another reason to be glad I chose that as my embarkation point.

I’m really glad NCL is stepping up to the plate in the solo travel aspect. As you now know, cruises are fantastic solo trip (aside from any seasickness…) and I hope this trend expands to other lines.

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