Non-awkward ways to meet people on the road
Arguably the biggest anxiety for the first-time traveller is the thought of being lonely – visions of cold evenings curled around a flickering bedside lamp sobbing into a dog-eared copy of Eat, Pray, Love as a soundtrack of general debauchery from the downstairs party reverberates through the walls.
It’s a fear born of fallacy: travellers, after all, tend to be a social breed, but to guide you through the often intimidating ice-breaker stage we’ve devised a list of simple ways to cultivate companionship on the road.
For further tips on fostering friendship while abroad and similar subjects of importance to the solo traveller, seek out a copy of The Solo Travel Handbook.
Join a walking tour
Not only is this a great (and often free) way to acquaint yourself with a new city, but the nature of walking tours lend to easy conversation. If the group isn’t too large, a good host will ask everyone to say their name and where they’re from, which gives you an easy ‘in’ for striking up conversation with other participants along the way. Stopping for a group meal or drink also presents a great opportunity to socialise.
Over recent years there has been a surge in apps designed to help travellers connect on the road. Chief among them is Backpackr, which helps you meet people ahead of time who will be travelling to the same destinations. While out on the road, EatWith lets you attend dinner parties hosted by local chefs, and Sofar Sounds connects users with musicians hosting intimate gigs in informal venues. There's also a ton of great online travel networks you can join, from Girls Love Travel, a group empowering solo female travellers, to Digital Nomads Around the World, which helps full-time travelling professionals connect and share advice.
Hostels are an essential asset for the sociable solo traveller (and not all are bland, boxy affairs!). Close-knit sleeping quarters foster conversation – or, more frequently, arguments over air conditioner settings – while cool communal spaces provide an ideal platform to bond with fellow travellers over a beer. If you’re not staying at a hostel, check larger hostel websites for event schedules – many host tours, dinners, pub crawls and other events available to non-guests.
Rent a room
Whether it’s Couchsurfing or renting a room through Airbnb, stay at a spot where you can engage with your host. Locals who are willing to share their homes are usually gregarious individuals keen to connect with their visitors and offer local insights that enhance the travel experience. How affable your host is likely to be can often be discerned from the advert, as well as reviews from previous guests. (if you're specifically hankering to chat with natives rather than fellow travellers, see our guide to striking up a conversation with a local.)
Take your meal at the bar
Choosing to eat at a restaurant’s bar not only allows you to bypass a potentially awkward ‘table for one’ dining scenario, but it also gives you an opportunity to chat with diners either side of you (who may very well be eating alone), punters ordering drinks or with the bartender; staff often make an extra effort to chat to solo patrons – and there’s always a chance of a complimentary cocktail.
Join a local meet-up
From cooking courses to tango lessons, classes aimed at visitors offer an opportunity to bond with other travellers over a shared interest, or – depending on the obscurity of the activity – how incompetent you are at it. If you’re struggling to find something that appeals, the Meetup community has almost 30 million members in 184 countries, so there’s a good chance there will be an event of interest during your time abroad: whether you’re after photography tips or a philosophical debate.
Offer to take photos
'Would you like me to take a photo for you?' with the universally recognised ‘camera’ mime is perhaps the least conspicuous way to start a conversation with a stranger in a foreign country. If you spot another tourist straining to snap a quality selfie, offer your expertise; a natural prelude to generalised small talk that may develop into a picture-perfect friendship.
Embark on a group tour
Whether it’s a road trip to a remote village or a multi-day hike through the mountains, intimate group tours offer travel experiences that perhaps aren’t possible – or financially viable – to take on as an independent traveller. Small group sizes create a sense of camaraderie, especially when undergoing challenging activities, while long cramped car rides necessitate chit-chat to make the experience tolerable.
Volunteer your time
Volunteering provides travellers with specific skillsets the opportunity to benefit the local community in which they’re visiting. It’s also an excellent way to mix with both locals and fellow volunteers during projects and often constitutes an extremely rewarding experience. However, the pitfalls of the volunteering industry – dubbed as ‘voluntourism’ – can be tricky to navigate. Make sure you research any potential organisation thoroughly before signing up to ensure your experience creates more benefits than harm.
Just say hello
Travelling is perhaps the only situation in life where almost everyone you meet will be actively looking to make friends. Other solo travellers are detached from friends and family and are likely to be seeking sociability. The human species has survived for 200,000 years because of our ability to communicate with one another. You’re in a foreign place, nobody knows you; go grab a drink from the hostel bar, slide into that empty seat and say hello to the lonely figure staring haplessly at their smartphone. What have you got to lose?
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This article was originally published in November 2017 and updated in July 2019.