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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Have Cyberfriend Will Travel

Telegraph, 9 June 2007

Have cyberfriend, will travel

'Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter,' wrote Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, after what was presumably a very sociable fishing expedition.

'A few days later, our trip to Marrakesh is booked: shopping the souks, gawping at riads and being pampered in hammans'

Other well-known travellers would no doubt agree: Samuel Johnson and David Livingstone both famously enjoyed the benefits of companionship on the road.

Today, Britain has 15.4 million single travellers - up from 9.6 million a decade ago - and while some happily embark on trips by themselves, most still prefer the security, companionship and economy of travelling with someone else.

Until recently, if friends or family didn't share your interests, it meant signing up to a singles' holiday, joining an agency or cruise, or posting an advertisement in a newspaper or magazine such as The Spectator.

But as people began to book their holidays at the last minute, this process became outdated. Something quicker and more efficient was needed, and it was only a matter of time before the internet came to the rescue. Travel networking was born.

Social networking sites such as MySpace, which allow like-minded people to meet and chat over the web, have been big news for a couple of years. What's new is that travellers have joined the party.

In the past year, about 25 internet-based clubs have been set up with the sole aim of introducing holidaymakers to each other and helping them meet people local to an area they want to visit.

The advantage is that instead of being confined to a four-line advertisement or an agency's questionnaire, travellers have entire pages to themselves - a kind of cyber CV - on which to post photographs, list their favourite destinations, their likes and dislikes and describe the kind of companion they are looking for.

On some sites, such as MySpace's travel arm , launched in April, you can even post your home videos. People simply contact those who share their interests and weed out the rest.

If you are a single traveller, the chances are there's something for you. High society? Asmallworld.net is an exclusive, invitation-only club whose members are rumoured to include Naomi Campbell, Paris Hilton and Quentin Tarantino. Pensioner? Retiredbackpackers.com hooks up adventurous oldies. If you're looking for love, Travelhotties.com cuts to the chase, matching people looking for romance, while Welcometraveller.com connects people with local hosts.

There's no need to worry about your street cred, either. "A few years ago there was a stigma attached to meeting someone on the web, but now it's normal to be looking for a travel companion online," says Tom Hall of Lonely Planet, whose Thorn Tree website was one of the first to connect travellers.

How much time you spend with your fellow traveller is up to you: you can search for someone to join you on a gap year, or for a local to meet for a drink and a dose of insider knowledge. You don't even have to meet. Many people just exchange tips by email.

There are, or course, risks associated with meeting people over the web. Information is rarely checked, and the person in the flesh can vary wildly from a persona that has been crafted over a keyboard. But for the most part, communication is friendly and horror stories tend to be more of the "we didn't get on" variety rather than anything sinister.

According to Christine Davies, a former producer of the BBC's Holiday programme who set up a travel-networking site, the Thelma and Louise Club, after searching for a companion herself, the chances of getting on with someone you meet in cyberspace are about 60 per cent.

"It's a spin of the roulette wheel, but when it works, it really works," she says.

Her company boasts dozens of success stories, including that of Chris Baker, a recently retired pharmaceuticals manager from Perth, Scotland, who went on a two-and-a-half week holiday to South Africa earlier this year with a woman she met on the site.

"I love travelling and have reasonable funds to do it in luxury, so I was looking for someone in a similar position,'' she said.

''Jill and I both had a burning desire to go to South Africa, so we did, and had a super time. We went diamond shopping, ate in lovely restaurants and went to wildlife reserves. We got on really well, with no cross words, and spent 90 per cent of the time together. We'd both be happy to travel together again."

Travelchums.com, one of America's biggest travel networking clubs, has had its share of successes too, and its first marriage. Its home page is crammed with endorsements from customers, including a pair who got on so well they wrote: "We are twins separated at birth." So, is travel networking really a land of limitless potential? What would happen if a thirtysomething like me tried to find a companion? Armed with my dream holiday itinerary, I log on to find out.

I choose Davies's Thelma and Louise Club, set up for women looking for companionship. Named after the 1991 film starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, it's aimed at adventurous women of all ages, although most members are between 40 and 65. Britons make up the majority, but Americans, Europeans and Asians are there too.

As well as connecting single travellers, the club, which is free to join, organises regular group holidays, from trekking in Nepal and cruises round the Caribbean to shopping excursions and city breaks. Road trips are on the itinerary, but the Grand Canyon, scene of Thelma and Louise's famous cliff exit, is not. "It would be tempting fate," says Christine.

I plug my details into the four-page questionnaire and upload my photograph. Application approved and profile page set up, I am free to start searching. They are a mixed bunch: intrepid backpackers seeking like-minded companions, young career women, housewives with busy husbands, and young-at-heart pensioners. Scrolling through them is like browsing through a mail-order catalogue, only instead of buying some CDs I'm shopping for a travel buddy.

To refine my search - the club has 4,000 members - I use the automatic matching service, which links people with similar requirements. It throws up 24 potential travel companions. I decide to poke six of them - not a literal poke, of course, but a virtual one, the cyber equivalent of a friendly hello. Of the three who reply, one can make the same dates as me.

Her login name is Flying Solo. She looks nice. From her profile page, I learn that she is a university educated, 31-year-old living in north London, a social drinker and non-smoker. She lists her hobbies as sightseeing, clubbing, food and outdoor sports.

New to the UK, she has written in her "further information" box: "Looking to meet interesting, fun, adventurous types." Ditto.

After exchanging a few emails, Flying Solo and I agree to meet in IRL - cyber speak for "in real life". It's awkward at first, and feels peculiarly seedy. Why am I meeting a strange woman in a Soho bar on a Friday night?

But I soon get over it. She is a high-profile entrepreneur, articulate, cultured and well-travelled. We talk about our holiday successes and disasters, our likes and dislikes. She has a self-confident air and our discussions are frank and open. "I think we are reading from the same page," she tells me at the end of the evening, and we agree to give travelling together a go.

Back home, a Google search reveals she was recently ranked one of the world's most powerful young businesswomen.

A few days later, our trip is booked: four days in Marrakesh, shopping the souks, gawping at riads and being pampered in hammans - Moroccan steam baths - with one night in a kasbah in the High Atlas Mountains. To save on single supplements, we choose to share a twin room and agree to split bills down the middle.

When we meet again at Heathrow airport, the sense of camaraderie we originally felt is still there and conversation flows easily. It's a promising start.

There's something thrilling about travelling with a virtual stranger. With friends or family you always know what you're in for, but with a stranger you have no idea what will happen next.

Our hotel is an exquisitely restored riad in the Medina: all intricately carved woodwork, cool marble and orange trees.

The benefits of being with Flying Solo pay off immediately. Her haggling skills in the souks, honed by years living in India, are ruthless and she bags us countless bargains. She has an ability to sniff out a tasty lamb tagine, which borders on genius and encourages me to be more adventurous with local delicacies, although I stop short of boiled sheep's head.

Being together in an Arab country such as Morocco allows us more freedom than we would have by ourselves. We wander around Marrakesh late at night, watching snake charmers and fortune tellers, eat in beautiful courtyard restaurants and mingle with the Marrakshi elite in bars and clubs.

I'm painting an idyllic picture, but it's not all mint tea and bougainvillea. After just two days, some of my companion's habits start to niggle at me.

On such a short trip it hardly matters, but if our holiday were longer they would be irritating. She warned me that she was a late riser, but she is rarely up before 11am, meaning I either have to wait for her or go on ahead by myself. She's a poor timekeeper too, rarely apologises when she's late, and leaves all the organising to me.

Worse, she has virtually stopped talking. I'm hardly a chatterbox, but entire mornings go by when she says nothing. We shop the souks in silence. We drive for two hours through the mountains - not a peep. We have a six-course meal, and still nothing. I try to engage her in conversation, but she replies in half-sentences that don't invite further comment.

When I confront her, she seems genuinely surprised, and assures me she feels no animosity towards me. "I'm just tired," she explains, but things don't improve.

Instead of reading from the same page, I now feel as if we are in completely different libraries. I would be better off alone.

By the final day, I have given up. I spend the afternoon by myself in the souks buying last-minute presents, and she stays at the hotel. We meet only to catch our flight home.

Despite the disappointing outcome of my first internet-meets-reality experience, I am addicted to travel networking. I join the party at my desk each evening in my dressing gown and slippers and when "new messages" flash in my inbox, my mind spins with the promise of finding the perfect travel buddy.

So, my advice for anyone wanting to give it a try? Remember that, if good company can make the journey seem shorter, bad company can make it seem like a lifetime.

Read between the lines, take time to find the right person, and stay clear of anyone who eats sheep's brains for breakfast.

Suzy Bennett travelled to Marrakesh with the Best of Morocco