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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
The most common question I get about solo travel is, “Don’t you get lonely?” It seems people’s biggest concern, aside from safety, is the worry they will be isolated and alone.
In reality, the opposite is true. The main reason I travel solo is to meet people, make friends and form the bonds that only seem to happen when you’re out there on your own. It’s not exactly easy, and there is a level of vulnerability involved. But it is possible to forge deep connections while traveling the world alone. Here are six tips for meeting people everywhere in the world you go.
Stay in a Hostel
The single best way to ensure you’re not a lone ranger in a foreign land is to book a hostel. By default, hostels are designed to accommodate solo travelers. From the decreased cost of shared accommodation to a communal atmosphere and outings that encourage socializing, hostels are the best place for solo travelers. And most often, the people you connect with are also solo travelers.
When traveling on your own, it’s especially important to pick the right hostel. Pay special attention to the type of hostel you’re booking to make sure it fits your preference (think: a party spot or a laidback retreat). And take into consideration the demographics of reviewers, which sites such as Hostelworld and TripAdvisor display.
Join a Day Tour
Joining a free walking tour is my go-to activity during my first day in a new city. You get a history lesson and great recommendations for food, drinks and activities from a well-qualified guide. And the free tours are tip-based, so guides encourage engagement, interaction and entertainment, because happy tourists are better tippers. The walks through the city also allow plenty of time for chatting with others on the tour as you go from one spot to another. Often the tours end at a bar where you can continue socializing with others from the tour, and maybe make plans with them to check out some of those recommendations.
The tour doesn’t have to be free or a walking tour. Adventure and bus tours can work just as well. On my tour of the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, I made friends with Sylvia from Barcelona with whom I shared many pints of Guinness afterwards. A year later, my sister and I stayed with Sylvia and her partner while traveling through Barcelona, and a year after that they stayed with my family while passing through Chicago on a tour of the US.
Use Online Communities and Apps
If you want to really immerse yourself in a city or culture, you’ll need to do better than taking pictures and listening to tour guides. You’ll want to meet knowledgeable locals, and if you seek them out beforehand, you’ll have more success lining up a meeting.
Couchsurfing is a great community for travelers and hosts that are passionate about their cities. You don’t have to actually stay with a host, which can be tough to find in popular cities, but many are happy to meet. Send out messages to hosts or locals before you arrive and you’ll undoubtedly find a friend eager to meet up to talk travel or tell you about their city. Even once you’re there, you can find locals and travelers available to “hangout” on the Couchsurfing app.
Instagram can also be a big help when researching locations, as TPG social editors Samantha Rosen and Danielle Vito explained in a recent episode of Miles Away. However, you can also use it to converse with people around the globe.
Simply enter the name of a city, attraction, restaurant or hostel and search “Places.” Then watch the recent stories from that location for tips. Consider messaging people directly and ask for recommendations. You may even strike up a conversation and make a friend.
There are also apps specifically designed for making friends and connections. Meetup events aim to unite people with shared interests or hobbies. Hey! VINA is an app that helps women meet other women, and even the dating app Bumble has a Bumble BFF feature to find platonic friends. Careful, though: If you have a significant other back home and they find Bumble on your phone after your trip, good luck explaining that one.
Actually Talk to People
Once upon a time, before the world wide web, people had to meet other people by starting a conversation using actual words in real life interactions. In a day and age where people feel the need to begin a phone call by justifying why they didn’t just send a text, a spontaneous conversation on the street can seem daunting. But in-person communication has worked for humans since the cognitive revolution, so there’s no reason to stop now.
Of course, etiquette has changed a bit. Try striking up a conversation in the daylight without the help of liquid courage. At a restaurant, ask what the people at the table next to yours ordered. If you see people taking a selfie, offer to take a picture for them. Even just asking for directions or recommendations — information that is actually useful — can be a solid ice breaker.
Smiling and friendliness can go a long way. Sure, most conversations won’t go anywhere, and you may run into language barriers. When that happens, you can politely move on. At the very least, you may walk away with the name of a good lunch spot.
Experiencing local nightlife is also a great way to meet locals or other travelers — maybe the best. But it’s a tough atmosphere to handle alone. Grab a friend from the hostel or someone you’ve met through an app and head out together to make more friends.
Participate in a Group Trip
For many first-time solo travelers, the thought of arriving in a foreign land completely on their own puts them too far outside their comfort zone. For these travelers, joining a yoga retreat or group trip like those run by G Adventures or Intrepid Travel can greatly ease the transition.
First-time solo travel can be especially intimidating for women. Seasoned solo traveler (and TPG senior writer) Lori Zaino documented the rise in female group travel as a great introduction to solo travel.
Joining a volunteer project will also immediately plug you into a group, but take steps to ensure you are actually helping the community, and the organization you’re using is legitimate.
Learn to Be OK on Your Own
Although solo travel is a great way to make new friends, it doesn’t always work out that way. You will spend time alone, and you’ll learn to get comfortable in your own skin with just yourself to enjoy moments. That’s often the greatest breakthrough first-time solo travelers have.
When I was traveling on my own through Myanmar two years ago, I stayed in hostels and met plenty of other backpackers, but no one I really clicked with. Aside from some friendly interactions with locals and joining other travelers for a day to explore cities or to split the cost of a group tour, I spent the majority of my trip on my own.
Bagan was one of my last spots, and at sunrise one day atop a temple, I reunited with a group of solo backpackers I had met a week before at a hostel. They formed a tight crew with a great dynamic in a very short period of time. I joined them for breakfast and would have traveled with them if they weren’t heading out that afternoon in the direction I had just come from. When I left, I reminded them they were lucky to find the group they had because traveling on your own doesn’t always end up that way.
But I’d traveled alone plenty and was fine on my own. I had time for deep reflection — a rarity. And as cliche as it sounds, the greatest friend you make when traveling solo could be yourself.
Aside from my travels with my sister, who was the perfect travel companion, nearly all of the lasting friendships I’ve made while traveling were formed when I was on my own. The highest highs I’ve experienced have been when traveling solo, but also the lowest lows: like when I found myself 36 hours deep in an elaborate carpet-selling scam. But the highs always far outweigh the lows.
If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to email@example.com!
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