Single Supplement Scourge Can Not Escape Unavoidable Arithmetical Logic

It is fair that a single traveler should pay less for a small single room/cabin than two people together would pay for a larger shared room.  But when are single supplements fair and when are they unfair?
It is fair that a single traveler should pay less for a small single room/cabin than two people together would pay for a larger shared room. But when are single supplements fair and when are they unfair?

Every so often, a travel writer/journalist who is contracted to write a regular column on travel topics finds themselves short of creative ideas and staring at a deadline.  So they reach back into their pile of perennial favorites and dust off a story that has been covered countless times before to fill their column with, even though they have nothing new to say or offer on a well-worn topic that has no new developments to discuss.

Perhaps there’s nothing much wrong with that, per se, but when the subject also shamelessly panders to the views of ill-informed readers rather than attempts to educate them as to the actual realities of the situation, it becomes an unfortunate waste of space and a needless killer of trees.

The topic of single supplements seems particularly vulnerable to mistreatment.  It is definitely controversial, but rarely given a fair hearing.  The New York Times recently had an article on single supplements; you can decide how valuable and essential a contribution to the sum total of human knowledge it is.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I travel all too often by myself, as a single, and I have to confront single supplements too.  I don’t like paying more than I have to for anything, but I’ve never considered single supplements as being unfair, because I see both sides of the coin.  You should appreciate both sides too – it won’t make you feel better at paying more money, but at least you won’t feel quite so unfairly exploited.

Why Single Supplements Exist

To answer this question, think about what would happen if there were no such things as single supplements.

If there is to be no single supplement, this implies that room rates would double when two people are in the room.  If one person pays $100 for a room with no single supplement, how much do two people pay for that same room?  The answer has to be $200 (ie $100 per person) and while that might seem to delight the hotelier, it creates two new problems.

The first problem is that whereas a ‘single supplement’ upsets one person, a ‘two people together surcharge’ upsets two people.  That’s not a good marketing strategy – to double the number of people your pricing policy upsets!

The second problem is if the hotel (or cruise ship or whatever) finds itself with a room that it can sell to two people for $200, or to one person for $100.  If it thinks it is going to be full, what does it do?  Of course, it stops selling rooms to singles and only sells them to couples.  Which means you not only have couples upset at paying twice what they think they should for the room, but you also have singles upset because although in theory they wouldn’t pay more for a room than a couple traveling together, the hotel won’t sell them the room.  And now you’ve upset everyone!

The Unavoidable Arithmetic

This is the paradox of single surcharges.  You can’t easily have a situation where people traveling alone and people travelling together pay exactly the same price – someone is going to either pay more or less, or receive more or less.

Another way of looking at single supplements is to redefine them as ‘flat rate pricing’ – a less negative term, for sure.  A hotel or cruise line or whoever/whatever could say ‘We charge a flat rate of $x for our room/cabin – it is up to you whether you have one or two people in it’.  Or perhaps it could be described as a ‘Second person stays for free’ bonus.  🙂

One can understand how a hotel might justify charging a little more for two people in a room.  They might have a slight increase in wear and tear on the room, a slight increase in laundry, a doubling of water consumed, toilet paper used, that sort of thing, so it is fair to consider the $100 room for one person might be sold as $110 or so for two people, and years ago that was common.

On the other hand, offsetting the slight extra wear/tear/usage by two people is the hotel’s hope that two people might mean twice as much other revenue.  Twice as many meals and drinks, twice as many movies rented or phone calls made, twice as much dry-cleaning, and so on.  Which brings us back to the logic of two people staying at exactly the same rate as one.

There’s another issue, too.  Fair or not, back when small surcharges for two people in a room were common, many people would complain ‘Why should we pay an extra fee, because you’ve already given me the room, and how much extra does it cost you for a few more sheets of toilet paper and a few more gallons of hot water?’.  Perhaps more to the point, some people would cheat – even the thought of saving a mere $10 or $20 was enough to have people booking rooms as singles and then sneaking in a second person.

This of course upset hoteliers and created massive tensions between guests and the hotels they were staying in.

So now most hotels have a flat rate for the room, whether one or two people stay in it.  Doing this is the easiest and simplest solution, and avoids more arguments than it causes.

An Exception to Single Policies

It is not uncommon in Europe to find hotels that also have single rooms at lower than twin/double room prices.

These are physically smaller rooms and typically only have one single bed in them.  You’ll find these particularly in hotels that have been converted out of other types of buildings, with a mix of different room shapes and sizes.  The hotel finds itself with some rooms so small that it just can’t sell them with two beds as a twin room – they are so small you couldn’t fit two beds in the room, often!  So by designating the space as a single room, the hotel increases its capacity and also has some lower priced rooms for singles.

Whereas a room for two might sell for eg $100, a room for one might sell for $70.  This means in effect the ‘single supplement’ is only $20 instead of $50.

Due to both a lower room rate and also a smaller room, the hotel is probably getting the same level of return per square foot of room space, and singles get a bit of a break but have to accept a tiny room and single bed in return.  Interestingly enough, when confronted with the choice between a tiny single room at a lower rate and a normal twin room at the twin room rate, a lot of singles happily pay extra to get a more spacious double room, even though traveling alone.

Some cruise lines have recently started offering very small cabins with no single supplement, with their clear calculation being that they are getting close to as much money, per square foot of cabin space, from a small cabin with one person in it as they would with a larger cabin with two people in it.

Situations When Single Supplements Might Be Waived

Having explained that single surcharges are unavoidable, let’s now contradict ourselves by looking at cases when the single surcharge might be waived.

This can sometimes happen when a hotel or cruise is looking at what seems to be excess capacity on a given cruise or night, and they are keen to bring in some more business.  Waiving a single supplement in such a case is less likely to have an opportunity cost associated with it – ie, there is little chance that accepting a single person into a room/cabin will displace a booking for two people instead, and by waiving the single supplement, they hope this might bring in some more bookings,

Cruise lines in particular have self-imposed restrictions on much of their former last-minute discounting these days, but one way they feel able to discount without causing problems is to waive single supplements.  Cruise lines are used to this concept, because their thinking is generally along the lines of ‘rate per person, assuming sharing twin’, and so it is mentally easier for them to waive the single supplement and still show their accountants a good rate per person on the cruise.

Hotels find it more difficult, because their thinking and reporting is not net rate per guest, but instead is net rate per room.

How Much is Fair for a Single Supplement

This is a very subjective question, isn’t it!  And, yes, we do agree that some level of single supplement is usually fair when traveling alone and enjoying the sole use of a resource that could also be used by two people together.

The answer in part can be developed from a base assumption that it is not fair that the company charging the single supplement should make more money out of one person than out of two.

So, if the company is providing a room for the night and nothing else, and if it also expects to have a good chance of selling the room to two people in any event, then a single supplement could be almost twice the per person/share twin rate.  But if the hotel is also including breakfast, then obviously the hotel is saving money by only needing to serve one breakfast rather than two, and if the hotel expects to be half empty, then it would probably want to have a low single supplement on the basis that any business is better than an empty room for the night.

On the other hand, if the company is a tour operator, with their package fee including meals, coaching, tours, and other items, all of which are per person rather than per room and unaffected as to if the person is traveling along or with another companion, then the single surcharge should be much less, because it is only with the hotel rooms that the tour company itself has to pay more for people traveling alone rather than in pairs.

3 thoughts on “Single Supplement Scourge Can Not Escape Unavoidable Arithmetical Logic”

  1. My objection is not to the pricing but to the advertising. When a hotel sets a price for a room, that is reasonable. A cruise ship or an inclusive tour should not advertise a “price per person” unless one person can buy the trip for that price. If a particular room on a ship were advertised as “$4000 for one person and $6,500 for a couple traveling together,” it would become obvious that we are dealking not with a “single supplement” but with a discount when two people share a room. All that would be lost is the illusion that the trip is cheaper than it actually is.

  2. My son was going to travel with a group on an all inclusive holiday, sharing a room with his girlfriend. Each paid £1700.00.
    When he was unable to go on the holiday for personal reasons at late notice, the holiday company kept his £1700.00 and wanted to charge an additional £950.00 single room supplement on top! £1700.00 if he went on holiday and consumed their food and drink and enjoyed their facilities or £2650.00 if he stayed at home. How can that be fair?

    1. That’s beyond unfair. Absolutely outrageous. I think you might be writing from the UK, and while I’m unfamiliar with the exact legislation, I’m fairly sure your son has legal recourse under terms of trade type legislation.

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