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Could group solo holidays help combat the loneliness epidemic?

What is it about travel that solidifies friendships? If you’re stuck in a rut and struggling to make meaningful connections, a lucky-dip trip with a bunch of strangers could be the answer, says Lucy Thackray

Wednesday 04 October 2023 15:56 BST
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Doing a team challenge is a great way to connect with new people
Doing a team challenge is a great way to connect with new people (Emily Wright)

Scrolling Instagram or TikTok, it’s easy to assume that our social lives are back on track. With pandemic restrictions in the rearview, workplaces increasing contact time and the perpetual highlights reel of social media, young people have never looked more socially fulfilled. But the reality is that Gen Z and Millennials are feeling less connected than ever. A report by The Campaign to End Loneliness, published in April, found that people in two younger age groups – 16-29 and 30-49 – were more than twice as likely to report feeling lonely “often or always” than those aged over 70 (9.7 per cent and 8.2 per cent respectively, compared to 3.7 per cent of older people).

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The report also found that higher loneliness levels have persisted since the pandemic – in 2018, around 5 per cent of people across all age groups reported feeling lonely often or always, but since 2021 that figure has lingered above 7 per cent. Across the pond, the US surgeon general Dr Vivek Murthy felt moved to publish a special advisory in May 2023, raising awareness of what he called “the epidemic of loneliness and isolation”.

“Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight – one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives,” said Dr Murthy. Comparing the risk to health caused by loneliness to that of smoking, he urged people to prioritise the loneliness epidemic “the same way we have prioritised other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity and substance use disorders”. A recent article by the American Psychological Association recently pointed to research that says people with strong friendships are more satisfied with life and less likely to suffer from depression, as well as less likely to die prematurely from chronic conditions.

Contiki does group tours to destinations including Greece
Contiki does group tours to destinations including Greece (Contiki)

Luckily for the twenty-to-fortysomething travellers of 2023, the travel landscape is looking more inclusive and sociable than ever. Solo-focused start-ups like Flash Pack (aimed at travellers in their 30s and 40s) and Much Better Adventures (all ages welcome but most aged around 25-44) have joined established operators like Contiki (18-35s) and Intrepid (which runs 18-29s tours as well as all-ages trips) in a bid to get strangers travelling together and forging friendships.

In a recent “Friendship Survey” of 370 customers, Much Better Adventures found that nearly three-quarters had met like-minded people they now consider friends, with 65 per cent overall still in touch with their fellow trippers. “I read a report this year which said it takes about 34 hours to forge a friendship,” says co-founder Sam Bruce. “Actually, in an adventurous setting, I reckon it’s much faster.”

His company’s small-group tours of 12 or so are made up of 70 per cent solo travellers, many arriving on the trip with what Bruce calls “a shared ‘why’”. It could be a three-peak challenge or mega-trek like Sardinia’s Selvaggio Blu Trail, but conquering it together is surprisingly bonding.

“What we’ve found is that this willingness to make new friends is a core part of why people book – we create a space for people to meet and be the best versions of themselves,” he says. “We see our customers booking other trips with the same people, going to karaoke nights after the trip and keeping in touch via WhatsApp groups.”

What we’ve found is that this willingness to make new friends is a core part of why people book

Sam Bruce, Much Better Adventures

In a survey of 2,000 British customers, operator Flash Pack found that the top reason for booking their tours was given as “to meet new friends and travel with people of the same age”. Founder Lee Thompson has spoken about his own struggles with loneliness, and the company’s mission to “create one million friendships”.

For many, the heaviest social slump arrives around their mid-thirties to early fourties. Writer Judy Cogan was 35 when she moved back to the UK from Dubai and felt a sense of isolation. “A lot of my friends had sort of moved on, moved in with boyfriends or got married. It was quite a bump back down to earth,” she says. A friend suggested Unsettled, a digital nomad group which hosts retreats of 20-30 people, incorporating workshops, events, surf lessons and shared meals to get the remote community bonding.

As well as providing a fix of daily socialising on the two-week trip, Judy says the friendships have flowed into her life since. “Of my group of 30, I’ve kept in touch with six or seven people, from all over the world,” says Judy. “I now have friends in Beirut, Bulgaria, South Africa, San Francisco. I’ve also learned things from them that have gone into my daily life, like meditation.” Cogan says she arrived on the trip feeling nervous and full of mid-thirties anxiety. “It actually really helped with letting go of society’s expectations – partly because I was hearing other people’s viewpoints from different backgrounds,” she says.

Much Better Adventures runs a ‘Raft, Kayak and Hike’ trip in Albania
Much Better Adventures runs a ‘Raft, Kayak and Hike’ trip in Albania (Jessica Thompson)

Sam Bruce agrees that the “total strangers” dynamic can be what makes these connections more meaningful, and often long-lasting. “The word our clients use over and over again is ‘mindset’. With adventure, that shared mindset is an eagerness to try new things, explore new places, essentially having a natural curiosity. And you don’t always find that within your friendship group at home.” There’s a high chance you’ll find it out on the road, he thinks – or halfway up a mountain.

Six group trips to boost your connections

G’s “18 to Thirtysomethings” tours tick that young Millennial to Gen Z box, and this itinerary crosses the length of Croatia, from bar-stacked capital Zagreb to medieval beauty Dubrovnik. Plenty of hikes, nights out and island-hopping boat trips will get the conversation flowing.

Seven days from £799 including basic accommodation, entry fees, tours and all ground transport; excludes meals and flights.

Hike Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit: Much Better Adventures

Expect lashings of “type two” fun – where it’s tough in the moment but fulfilling at the finish line – on this epic trip, where you’ll stay in simple guesthouses and teahouses across Nepal. Heart-soaring mountain views, authentic local experiences and a determined pack of trekkers are guaranteed.

16 nights from £1,227 including accommodation, internal flights and transfers, guides, five meals, porters and permits; excludes international flights.

Contiki’s Seville tour
Contiki’s Seville tour (Contiki)

Vibrant Colombia: Flash Pack

Flash Pack is known for slightly higher levels of comfort and hospitality, with four-star hotels, a private minibus and a speedboat transfer included in this one. Street art, food highlights, coffee tours and salsa workshops characterise this colourful, tasty tour around trending Colombia, with a max group of 14.

Eight nights from £2,400 including shared accommodation, local transfers, two domestic flights, most meals, and guide; excludes international flights.

There’s a lot to see on this magical Indian Ocean island, so your group of up to 24 travellers aged 18-30 will be whizzed around to the highlights. Natural wonders like Sigiriya rock and elephants in Udawalawe National Park are mixed in with village visits and scenic trains.

From £1,301 including 10 nights B&B accommodation, three other meals, coach and train transfers and activities; excludes international flights.

Flash Pack has tours to Jordan
Flash Pack has tours to Jordan (Flash Pack)

Unsettled is a little different than your average group tour – it invites remote workers to come and live somewhere incredible, to meet others and work abroad. However, its winter retreat is all about disconnecting (from technology, that is). A week in Argentina’s lake and mountains region, Patagonia, will involve trekking, rafting and enjoying Bariloche’s Alpine-feel scene.

Six nights from £2,132 including B&B accommodation, all lunches and four dinners, workshops and events and ground transportation; excludes international flights.

Real Central America: Intrepid Travel

Though Intrepid Travel runs tours for solos of all ages, this 18-29s focused tour zips around on-trend Mexico as well as its less-trodden neighbours, Belize and Guatemala. Mayan temples, visits to local artisans, snorkelling, kayaking and market shopping go hand in hand with margaritas on the beach.

From £1,189 including 15 nights’ accommodation, five meals, all transfers, activities and guides; excludes international flights.

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