I received a lovely email from an American backpacker in Mexico recently, requesting tips on finding pals while traveling. This article is a response. Keep those emails zinging my way, readers! I like them.
(Note: the photos in this article are street scenes from Chiang Mai, Thailand. What a livable, enjoyable place! Look at how pretty the disco ball temple walls look in the glow of night traffic!)
Before you leave on a long trip, you should play the 1972 song “Alone Again, Naturally”; you will have ample occasions to hum it over your months abroad. Great people will come into your life, then those great people will go back home, or they will go West while you go East… and you will be alone again, naturally.
It’s not a bad thing at all to be solo (in fact it is often great), but after that all-important lone regrouping time, you WILL inevitably develop that urge to merge with humanity again. So how do you do it?
Here are a bunch of effective ways to make new travel friends:
1. Stay in hostels with common areas.
Whether or not the place you stay has a communal lobby, roof-deck, or restaurant will make a world of difference in its effectiveness as a friend generator. One of many reasons why Lub-d Hostel in Bangkok is rated among the best places to stay in the world is that its lobby is actually a colossal living room/restaurant/workspace that is packed at all hours with fun, friendly people… and board games!
If you dig around in your guidebook or on online hostel ranking sites, or if you peek into the doors of hotels you pass, or if you listen to the tales of other travelers, it’s easy enough to figure out which hotels will help create a posse for you. As a corollary, staying in a hip, packed backpacker hostel is a poor choice if you just want some quality solo time.
2. Eat alone at populated restaurants, and do a few things to broadcast that you’re bored.
This tactic is shockingly effective. As you eat, keep glancing over at the fun-looking group of folks at the next table, while you (choose any): braid strips of your napkins, take photos of your fruit shake from ten different angles, sigh loudly, push the crumbs on your table into faces, study the clouds intently, read the same page of your book for an hour, etc. Be gracious and lovely when you hear: “Hey, do you want to join us?”
Granted, sometimes this fails miserably, which hurts, but at least you’re left with some cool napkin braid bracelets and an artful close-up photo of banana foam.
3. Use the heck out of Internet social networking sites.
I cannot recommend Couchsurfing.org enough. Even if you don’t use it to get the free, safe housing that locals offer on it, you can use the “see who’s in my area” search feature to find profiles of fun people traveling or living in the same random town as you are. Yesterday I got an email from a random fellow backpacker who is in Chiang Mai, too, and we had a great dinner, talk, and walk! Try it.
Further, make sure to broadcast your present and future locations to a wide range of social networking sites, from Facebook to Twitter, because you will ALWAYS get an email back saying something like: “Hey, my best friend from second grade is living there and would love to show you around the city!”
Sure enough, tonight I have a shopping rendezvous planned with the friend of a random gent from California who stumbled across my blog and sent us an email of introduction!
4. Take a class, find a job, do a language exchange, or volunteer.
Some of the truest, most long-lasting friends made while abroad are the ones created through work or study. You likely have similar interests, you will share common (sometimes hilarious, sometimes traumatic) experiences over the days, and you will have serious time to get to know each other. This is also a particularly effective way of bonding with local folks. Good stuff!
Taking language classes abroad works for making friends for all ages. See this example of Spanish immersion for kids in Mexico!
5. Sign up for transportation or tours that will throw you into arduous situations with a group.
It is a scientific fact that sharing difficult moments with others bonds you. For this reason, you will likely form a strong connection with the people on your 30-hour bus ride, or 2-day boat journey, or 3-day trek through hilltribe villages.
Again, having TIME together is the key, here. When you’re forced to talk with folks for hours on end out of sheer boredom, the boredom often melts away and you get pretty deep and fascinating into life stories pretty quickly.
6. Share and snag people and information.
If you have a good friend or ten hanging around, introduce them to any new friend you meet and encourage their friend love. Similarly, when you meet a good new person, try to connect also with their entire circle of buddies, as their current travel partner may become YOUR new travel partner as locations and plans shift.
Same for information: If you have been somewhere for a few days, offer to help out any nice-looking people you see who seem lost.
There will be many times when you’ll be walking down the street and will overhear an utterly erroneous statement (ex: “Well, I’m sure we can walk there from here”), so it’s friendly and friend-inducing to stop and help. Meanwhile, the next time you’re lost, look around for a wise help buddy!
So there you have it. You will be alone again, naturally, but when you grow tired of that, there are plenty of ways to find fast friends. Got any more strategies that I’m missing? Share!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is a 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 4.2 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!
Friday 1st of February 2013
It reminded me of my 2 month long stay in Chaing Mai & Pai. The good old "HI" when you make an eye contact and smile back helps too.
Friday 1st of February 2013
Saturday 8th of December 2012
I like I lot of these tips which I'm sure are quite effective.
I do wonder though how you deal with it from the flip side. What if you friend someone and then realise they are not really someone you like or get on with. They just don't see it and you want to end the time together. The problem is they know your itinerary so how can you shake them off?
Sunday 9th of December 2012
Interesting! Well, you can always say that you "need to" head somewhere else alone because (insert story here). You could also be honest and say it's important for you to transition back to alone time.
Friday 7th of December 2012
Just love your blog. So vibrant and such beautiful and inspiring photographs. Have just subscribed to your newsletter.
I have trips booked to Sri Lanka and (separately) to Iceland. I think I'd like to document them online.
Friday 7th of December 2012
Ginny, So happy to connect! Have wonderful travels, enjoy writing, and be in touch!
Imported Blogger Comments
Thursday 27th of May 2010
Dana Grossman said... Lillie, your accounts often leave me smiling, but I actually broke out in a laugh -- in my office -- when I read about your napkin-braiding technique for finding friends abroad! How can someone who writes such prose NOT make friends all around the globe?!
December 2, 2009 7:57 PM
Lillie M. said... Dana,
Thanks!!! You are so sweet!! I hope your office-mates don't think you've cracked :)
So the sort of sad reality is that (as many friends and family can tell you) I actually braid napkins during meals whether I'm bored or not... it just feels good on the antsy fingers. Happy Thursday!
December 3, 2009 2:13 AM
Lauren Quinn said... Good tips. I think I've employed all these at some point while on the road--and come to think of it, these wouldn't be bad techniques to employ at home to meet new people. I love how traveling solo forces you out of your shell (cause I'm pretty shy at home). Thanks for these reminders!
December 3, 2009 2:29 AM
Louisa said... Wow you're a friend-making guru!! Great job. Maybe you could do a part two focusing more on meeting the locals, in addition to other travelers and expats. Do you get to hang out with many people not involved in the tourist sector?
December 3, 2009 5:11 AM
Lillie M. said... Lauren-- I was just thinking I should have put a line in there about how we can use these tricks wherever we are, be it at home or away. Good call!
Because of Spanish language skillz, all the times I've been in Latin America, I've spent the majority of my time with locals. Here, however, the language barrier necessitates a bigger effort to bridge that gap, especially if one is breezing in and out of places so fast!
But yes, hanging with locals is a major reason to travel (duh!), and actually a lot of the tips above work just fine for that: friends of friends, Couchsurfing, work/volunteering/classes/language exchange, asking for help... Number four being the most effective that I've seen.
Another thing I'd add to meet locals specifically would be a homestay, if one can find that option (usually paired with volunteering work), 'cause that's a built-in local social network right there. Dance classes also tend to work, or (not sure if this is an option abroad) Meetup.com-style groups where folks with similar interests unite to, for example, play Scrabble (not that I was a member of seven of these back in Boston or anything...).
And then finally, of course, one of the best way to connect with locals is dating! Give my love to LZ :)
December 3, 2009 11:39 AM
nodebtworldtravel.com said... That is so funny I just wrote about Lub d in my blog post today. Great spot and one of the best hostels I've been to period.
True that people bond over difficult situations. We took a bus from Thailand to Cambodia. It was cramped, we were tired, but we got there safely and managed to become fast friends. Your tips are absolutely on the mark.
December 3, 2009 5:27 PM
Julius said... great advice here, I'll have to try a couple on my own the next time i'm travelling. on the same note you should read that is if you have the time "Never Eat Alone" by Keith Ferrazzi. Graet book on networking or as he calls it, making connections.
December 9, 2009 10:23 PM
Lisa-Marie said... Awesome advice here! Will definately use this in the future when I'm travelling as, sadly, I think I have to start the journey alone, my friends are going to college :( Going to check out Couchsurfing.org now! P.s Beautiful photos! :D xxx
April 11, 2010 1:47 AM