Travelling alone has its perks: You get to do what you want, when you want; discover new and honest things about the world and yourself; and enjoy an uplifting, mindful travelling experience without someone else's influences. But after a while, talking to yourself and eating another meal without being able to share funny thoughts and observations about the day with an another human get... awfully lonesome.
This post originally appeared on FY!S.
In late 2015, I embarked on a solo trip to Asia that lasted nine months. At first, the idea of going at it alone filled me with excitement and trepidation. No one could deny me from catching Pokemon at parks, seeing how many plates of kaiten sushi I can put away by myself and going on day excursions on a whim. On the flip side, solo travel has its limitations. I couldn't exactly eat what I wanted because the portions were too big, or I was too self-conscious about wandering into a family restaurant by myself. Or I couldn't go to certain places because I didn't feel safe. It didn't take long before I realised that many of my experiences while travelling, while fun solo, could be way more gratifying when they could be shared with a companion or two.
To combat the loneliness of solo travel, I simply started putting myself in (safe) situations that let me meet people while travelling. I've had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with many, many friends -- old and new -- all over the world by using a variety of resources. Some I knew beforehand, but many more I met while I was on the road. I still talk to a lot of them on the reg. Here's what I know.
To Meet People, You Need to Get Over Talking to Strangers
Before we get to the actual tactics of how to meet people while travelling, I recognise that your comfort level with talking to complete strangers is probably different from mine. Many of the things I'm about to discuss wouldn't fly so easily if you're shy, and that's fine. Shyness is not a bad thing, but wanting to meet people while travelling is actually the perfect opportunity for you to build the courage to speak to more and more strangers.
My friends and I at Mt Baldy in Southern California.
It's scary, but take solace in the fact that if you go out on a limb and fall flat on your face, no one knew or cared about you to begin with, so what do you really have to lose?
If anything, you'd gain a little spunk. It's easy to imagine all the ways that you'll get burned, but if you reach out as a traveller, most people -- locals or fellow travellers -- reach right back as long as you're genuine and transparent. And if they don't, it's not you who sucks anyway. Still, talking to strangers is one thing, but be OK with the fact that not every person you meet is going to be your Best Facebook Friend Forever.
You will be forced to talk to a lot of strangers. But the worst that can happen is you get ignored or encounter some rudeness, but that's everyone, anywhere, and honestly, the person isn't going to remember you in a couple of hours.
Five Ways to Make Conversations Easier
When it comes down to it, starting any conversation that doesn't begin and die with, "Wow, some weather today, huh?" is a skill. You wouldn't know it when you meet me, but I am a pretty big introvert. I've bumbled through awkward encounters. I've often struggled to initiate or restart conversations. But I got better at it. I also made it a rule to have conversations that didn't centre around, "So what do you do?" as an extra challenge and also because I despised the question. In the end, I came up with a few things that you could do to let conversations flow more easily.
1. Actually Be a Tourist
There's no shame in being a tourist. Embrace your rose-coloured lenses and sense of uncertainty and wide-eyed wonder (but skip the douchey behaviour, obviously)! Along the same vein, Nomadic Matt points out that you should try joining local tours and groups. "For example, take a small group tour from a local. While on the tour, ask all of the questions you want about local life and what it's like to grow up in that region (without being annoying)."
People treat tourists differently, in a good way but also sometimes in a bad way. I've found that people are usually willing to answer questions if you seem lost and appear non-threatening. Henrik Jeppesen, one of few amazing travellers who's visited every country in the world, told me that he'd go up to strangers with: "'Hi, can you recommend anything to see or do here?' Not only have I met great people this way, but have also been offered a place to stay on nights where I had nowhere to go."
On the flip side, be wary of people who approach you aggressively and seem too Mr Roger's Neighbourhood friendly. You never know, they really could be that nice, but I'd probably bail to be on the safer side.
There's no use pretending you aren't a tourist or newbie. Be curious and ask questions as a way to spur easy conversation.
2. Offer to Take a Picture
If you want to meet other travellers, you can park your butt at a popular tourist spot. You can rest easy knowing that 75 per cent of the people there are fellow travellers, 20 per cent are locals trying to sell or peddle something and five per cent might be thieves or people that are up to no good. That wasn't a very scientific breakdown, but you get the gist.
Oftentimes you'll spot a solo traveller like yourself trying to take a selfie. If you're up for it, offer to help the person take a picture. From there, you can ask if they're also travelling alone and if they'd be OK with you buddying up for a couple hours or a day. This has worked really well for me.
3. Make Your Interests Known
On my travel backpack sit a PaRappa the Rapper, a Gudetama keychain and anime stuff that I swap out every so often. They're easy to spot and broadcast my interest in cute, geeky things. I did this intentionally for people who recognised these characters. I mean, anyone who's played PaRappa or adores the silliness of Gudetama can't be all bad. There were a surprising number of occasions, in fact, where people weren't shy about coming up to me to point out my good tastes. More importantly, they did the hard part of approaching me, so at this point, we had something to talk about.
It doesn't have to be keychains. Maybe it's a book you're reading, a notebook you like to scribble or doodle in, or a sticker on a water bottle. Some of your belongings can be so bizarre that they will spark someone's interest, so having these things visible often make a great ice breaker.
On the other hand, you can be the one to point out what you like. People like compliments if you make it about them. Don't just say, "I like your shoes." You can say something like, "Your shoes look great on you. Where did you buy them?" And that opens up the opportunity to say something about how you're not from around the area and could use some advice and yadda yadda.
As a traveller, you more than likely have things that can be great conversation starters. Keep them visible when you want to attract attention, but of course, be smart about where you do this.
4. Make a 'Wrong' Assumption
Not too long ago, I sat at a coffee shop in London and noticed this dude next to me typing away on his new Macbook with TouchBar. I said jokingly, "You must have a ton of dongles in your bag." (Hey, it was a reach.) He immediately pointed out that he didn't, but opined that it was a frustrating design flaw and warned me to wait for the next iteration. This led us to talking about Apple, technology and the best fish 'n' chips in London (it's Bailey's).
OK, so I went out on a limb and I had to have been somewhat observant and updated on technology, but the point is, people normally don't like to tell you squat if it feels like you're interrogating them. They do, however, love to correct you when you're wrong. (Don't we all?) I learned this from speaking coach Sharí Alexander.
So if you want to talk to someone or continue a conversation but you're not sure what to say, try making a simple, innocent assumption, as long as it's not deeply personal. Don't worry if you're wrong because if you are, they will gladly correct you and reveal more information about them, which leads to more things to talk about.
Next time try making an innocent assumption (for example, "This place is the hands-down the best ramen in the city"). If you're wrong, you still start a good conversation.
5. Have Little 'Gifts' to Give
Wherever you go, you'll find cheap trinkets and doodads at souvenir shops. I always make sure to pick up a couple of interesting ones that aren't lame magnets, keychains or anything heavy. For example, in Japan I picked up a handful of shrine charms. If there's nothing interesting like that, I'd settle for a bag of M&Ms or something sweet that can be shared.
These come in handy for when I meet cool people and want to help make someone's day more awesome. As Peter Shank (whom I learned the M&M tip from via Sol Orwell) points out, M&Ms are cheap and a great way to bring a smile to someone's face, which can make you smile. Smiles all around, folks, so everybody wins.
Small tokens and gifts tend to make interactions more pleasant.
I don't always use these "tricks". It's important to let conversations unravel organically and avoid overthinking things too much. If your interaction has to fizzle out and neither of you feels like talking about the weather again, then for crying out loud, don't force it.
Hostels Are an Easy Way to Meet Travellers, But They're Not for Everyone
Staying at hostels is an obvious way to save on travel funds and meet other travellers. They're fine for solo travellers… at least temporarily. I actually chose to avoid hostels myself, only choosing to stop at one or two in the last year or so. I avoid hostels for the following reasons:
- People tend to be too young: I'm not a crotchety "get off my lawn" sort of person, but in my experience, the hostel crowd gets too wild for me. I'm not interested in partying it up any more. It's fine occasionally, but I'd much rather spend my days not hungover and useless.
- Lack of privacy gets old fast: If the party crowd is your thing, there's still the issue of privacy, of which you really have none. So take that into account.
- You can't get much work done: This is probably the biggest disadvantage for me. As a freelancing nomad, I get emails or work done at odd hours of the day sometimes, so if I had to work when coffee shops were closed it'd be really inconvenient to find a suitable place for focused work.
Hostels are fine for up to a week-long stay, but eventually, you might get tired of the lack of privacy and hanging out with other travellers. Other travellers are cool people to meet, but the real travel experiences come from meeting and befriending locals. And that's why I much prefer to stay at Airbnbs.
Hostels are great for meeting travellers, but would be difficult if you're a remote worker, not in the party mood or want privacy.
Your Airbnb Host Is Your 'In' to More Locals
I've written a huge guide on to how to use Airbnb and ensure you pick a suitable Airbnb for long-term stays anywhere in the world. It's convenient for long-term travellers like myself, but I also make it a point to stay with a host who also lives on-site and is a local.
Most hosts are friendly toward travellers, some go above and beyond and others still might charge you if you want them to show you around. You should note these in the description and check out the host's personality and reviews before you book an Airbnb.
Usually, I try to bring a small gift for my host upon meeting him or her as a "thanks for having me" sort of gift (yes, even though I'm paying). I've found this to be extremely helpful with warming them up to me a bit more. I seem less like a weirdo traveller, and there's a greater chance that they invite me to do things with them. I also ask plenty of questions about what they like to do and eat, so after a couple of days of knowing them, it's easier to throw out an invitation to do or eat something they like. Eventually, this leads to meeting their friends, too. Plus, a lot of the time I get to meet the other Airbnb guests (if the host rents out multiple rooms).
I will note that not all my Airbnb host friendships have panned out the way I mentioned, but if the chemistry is right they are definitely a fantastic way to see, eat and do local things, as well as meet other locals. Similar services like Couchsurfing and BeWelcome can also connect you with other local hosts.
I usually stay with Airbnb hosts who are locals and love to make friends with them to learn more about the city. Oftentimes, this leads to me meeting their friends and more locals.
Your Social Network Is Very Powerful, So Use It
I'm active on social media, so I usually let the interwebs know where I am or travelling to. Before I go anywhere, I might tell Facebook where I'm headed and add, "Who's a cool friend of yours that you think I should know?!" This results in a fair number of connections with friends of friends, who are often open to hanging out and sometimes becoming my own good friends.
Kanpai with my good friend, Justin!
Then there's Twitter and Instagram. I've been lucky to have a healthy following that isn't afraid to tweet back at me or message me on Facebook or Instagram to let me know what they think I should do or see. I appreciate these tips. There have even been instances where people reach out and ask to meet up. I've obliged with almost every request.
Of course, I'm always concerned the person is actually a psycho, so I make it a point to meet in public places during the daytime. So far they have all been wonderful people, but still gotta be smart and safe.
If you don't have a following, that's OK. You can use social media to follow your favourite people or search certain hashtags and reach out to other travellers. For example, on Instagram, any hashtag with the city's name and something like #travel spits out a ton of people also travelling. Comment or message them! This takes effort obviously, but remember, nothing good happens from taking no action.
Jodi Ettenberg, from food and travel site Legal Nomads, touches base with experts in her chosen field. "I find that meeting over your passion project or interest is the best way to do so," she says. "For me, that's food. I've taken to contacting fellow food-obsessed people who are locals or expats in the place I'm visiting. I ask them if they have meetups or events they can suggest for me to meet others with similar interests. While it's also fun to meet people serendipitously, striking up a conversation at a restaurant or market, this way I get to not only make some new friends, but do so in an industry I'm passionate about."
Use your social media to see if you can connect with friends of friends, or heck, even followers and people you admire.
Camp Out at Lounges, Bars or Coffee Shops with Wi-Fi
All travellers have one thing in common: The need for Wi-Fi. If you head to a Starbucks, McDonald's, a bar or lounge that offers Wi-Fi, you're almost certain to bump into other travellers there.
Seek Out Local Facebook Groups
I used to play a lot of ultimate Frisbee. On a whim in Tokyo one day, I decided to check on Google if there were any local Frisbee groups. There were, and they led me to a Facebook group that was active and had practice every Tuesdays and Sundays. They were about to have a pick-up game in two days. Here was my opportunity to enjoy something I loved doing anyway -- in another country no less -- and meet new people. I only had to make the trek to show up. I was hesitant at first because not knowing a single person was terrifying, but I'm glad I made the effort. They were very welcoming; I met new people and friends that I still talk to today.
Since this discovery, I've made it a point to figure out what I wanted to do at a certain destination and Google it. Be it "sumo wrestling tickets in Japan", "learn archery lessons" or "make panda rice balls in bento lunch boxes", I made sure to search and then check Facebook groups for those interests within the city. More often than not, these groups have a combination of expats, fellow travellers and English-speaking locals that you can message and meet.
Facebook groups are an awesome way to meet English-speaking locals and transplants.
Find People on a Number of 'Meetup' Websites and Apps
Everyone immediately thinks of Tinder and Meetup.com, but there are actually a ton of websites that help connect you to other travellers and people who want to meet. Some are specific to countries, such as LEVART in Japan, but here are a handful that you can use anywhere:
- Hacker Paradise: Hacker Paradise is a travelling community of digital nomads and other location-independent professionals. They go on multi-month trips, but you can tag along for as little as two weeks if you want to develop more professional relationships.
- TravBuddy: TravBuddy combines the usefulness of TripAdvisor and Yelp, but is also a platform that lets you meet other travellers.
- ePenPal: This app connects you with locals from all over the world, and the best part is that it translates your messages for you (via Google Translate so it's not perfect).
- BonAppetour: This is like Airbnb but for dinner.
- Badoo: Badoo seems to be a cross between Facebook for non-friends and a dating service. You get to meet with locals, even if you're on a time crunch, but keep in mind that a lot of people use this to hook up. Depending on what you're looking for, Badoo may or may not be for you.
You can also find local events on Facebook and Yelp to go to. The 21st century is amazing like that.
Above All, Keep Yourself Safe
Of course, you need to balance all of these things with safety. In particular, when you meet a stranger via any of these channels or even get into an Uber or Lyft, send a picture and profile of the person with someone you trust. If anything at all seems off about a situation or person, move on. Don't feel bad about bailing.
As a solo female traveller, I try not to let my FOMO get the best of me if I feel really uncomfortable about a situation. Whenever I travel between places or go off on a new hike somewhere in the mountains, I tell my friends back home, my host and whomever where I am and when I expect to be back.
It's important to designate someone to take action after a certain number of days of not hearing from you, or you run the risk of that person "waiting and seeing". Usually, I say something dire like, "If you don't hear from me by this day, please call Liam Neeson and start looking for me." I remember to check in so they don't worry or call Liam for no reason. I wouldn't want that happening.
It should be clear by now that you have so many tools at your disposal to meet people that the only things you really need are a desire and a moderate amount of effort. And even then, there are no guarantees, but it doesn't hurt to try. Bottom line, making friends and meeting different people are just like back home: You need to be proactive, keep an open mind and emphasise safety!
Top photo by Oskar Krawczyk via Unsplash.