Know Your Goal
I’ve seen Stonehenge. It’s a pile of rocks. If you were to erase my memory of seeing the Eiffel Tower or Machu Picchu, I can honestly say that my life wouldn’t be drastically different. But the people I’ve met traveling have left lasting fingerprints on my life that I won’t ever forget.
If you only want to travel so you can go sightseeing and take selfies in front of famous monuments, that’s fine. But you can stop reading here.
My goal when I travel is simple: I want to have unforgettable experiences with new and interesting people.
When you’re alone, you have no choice but to meet people. When you travel with friends, they can serve as a crutch. You can stand in the corner of the bar and chat among yourselves about familiar things. They exert a certain gravitation force that makes it harder to walk up to a new person and introduce yourself.
When you’re alone, befriending new people is much easier. When they find out you’re alone, they’re much more likely to invite you to join them.
I’ve heard girls complain that they can’t travel alone because it’s too dangerous. While it can at times be more challenging for women, that shouldn’t hold you back. I met a girl who hitch hiked through South America alone. I know another girl who traveled alone for a year and went to all the –istan countries of Central Asia by herself. You can do it.
And here’s the thing: if you meet new friends, you can always take safety in their company.
If you’re already traveling with a group of friends, it’s obviously not the end of the world. Just make sure they’re people who share similar values as you. If you want to go museums and they want to go to clubbing, you’re going to have problems. Make sure that they are fun people who you truly enjoy spending time with. Because traveling together will bring out any latent problems in the relationship.
Stay in Hostels
If I win the lottery tomorrow and become a gazillionaire, I will travel the world. And I will stay exclusively in hostels.
It’s a more adventurous and fun crowd. Many other guests are traveling alone and are open to meeting new people.
Read the reviews before booking and see if they have a good ambiance. Look for words like “fun” and “social.” If they have a bar in the common area, all the better. Don’t be afraid of 6-8 bed dorms, as it’s even easier to meet people there. I’ve had many fun nights that began while chatting with my bunkmates as I unpacked.
There are many apps to find and book hostels, but HostelWorld is the best. If you can’t find a hostel there, you can’t find it anywhere.
Starting a Conversation
The first thing I do when I arrive to a hostel is sit in the common area and try to strike up a conversation with anyone around. So how do you start a conversation with someone new?
I typically open with, “Hey, where are you from?” It’s a simple question that no one has a problem answering. It is such an easy conversation starter that opens many further discussions.
“Brazil? My cousin went there recently. Is it true that you have the most beautiful women in South America?”
“Latvia? I know this is a really stupid question, but what language do you speak there?”
“Singapore? Wow. What brings you so far away from home?”
After all, this is the reason I travel to begin with: I genuinely want to learn new things about different people. Everyone you meet traveling has a unique story. Everyone loves talking about their country and teaching people something they care about.
The more you do this, the better at it you become. When you’re heard so many facts about random countries, you can direct the conversation better. Maybe you know a few words in their native language. Maybe someone told you a strange custom and you can ask if it’s true (just be careful to never insult or demean their customs and always try to be humble.) Even better if you’ve visited their country before.
If there are people from multiple countries gathered together, it compounds itself as you begin comparing and contrasting different cultures. It can lead to hours of fun.
It all starts with, “Where are you from?”
Form a Group
I try to do this as quickly as possible when I arrive to a new city. This usually happens in the hostel common area. Take charge: don’t wait for someone else. After you have gone around and met all of the people, bring them together. Ask what everyone has planned for that night. Try to use the word “we” as much as possible.
“What should we do for dinner tonight?”
“Does anyone know a good bar with live music we could go to?”
Guys, don’t just try to talk to girls. Invite everyone. The more the merrier. If you can assemble a large group of people and organize and outing to a fun place and everyone has a good time, you are the hero. And girls love a hero.
Over the years, I’ve met groups of people traveling and we still keep in touch. We still have inside jokes. Everything is more fun with a group.
My personal favorite is the free walking tour. Every hostel will have flyers with information about free walking tours at the front desk. They usually last 1.5–3 hours and you give them a tip at the end. I typically leave around five Euros, if it was good. But whatever small amount of money you have in your pocket is usually enough.
If you aren’t in a hostel, you can still find them:
• Look on Facebook. Start typing Free Walking Tour + name of the city and see what comes up.
• Google “free walking tour.” Although many of them don’t have websites.
• Go to the central square in the city (you know, the one with the big statue of the guy on the horse) at 11:00 AM sharp and look for someone with a brightly colored umbrella. I know that sounds strange, but I’ve done this many times and it works.
When the tour begins they’ll give you a long spiel about what you’ll see, then you begin walking. Don’t wait until the end of the tour to begin speaking with people. Start right away. Walk up to someone your age who seems interesting. Or a couple. Couples love talking to new people.
And what should you say? Guess what…
“Hey, where are you guys from?”
As you walk, try to make plans for later in the day. Or when the tour ends, you can say, “Anyone wanna grab lunch? I’m starving.” Or “Anyone wanna walk to that castle that the guide pointed out?”
Walking tours are my favorite, but you can also do this on bus tours, bicycle tours, or (god forbid) Segway tours. I met an American girl on a bus tour in Ireland last year. She was sitting in the seat next to me. We went out together in Dublin that night. We still talk occasionally. She’s currently backpacking in Asia.
If you are new to travel and not as comfortable traveling alone, you can also take one of those one-week (or longer) bus tours that includes hotels and sightseeing trips. I personally don’t like these because I find it a boring and contrived way to travel, but some people do. I took one around Morocco and made great friends on the trip.
Most hostels will offer a Pub Crawl at night. I don’t particularly love Pub Crawls because they take you to dingy bars and give you sweet sugary shots. Butttttt… they are a good way to meet people. I do this as a last resort if I haven’t already made a group of friends at the hostel.
Not only does this provide you with an opportunity to stay for free, but people are usually happy to show you around their city. (Note: I’ve never done this because of my loyalty to the hostel life, but many of my friends swear by it.)
They also host events in many cities on a regular basis. I was in Galway, Ireland recently and I noticed there was a CouchSurfing meetup that night at a local bar. We met a group of fifteen people at the back table. People came from Mexico, Serbia, Australia, Switzerland, South Africa, etc. They all came there to meet new people. We all went out to another bar together later that night until it closed.
This site has events for people based on shared interests. I used to go to a writers Meetup in Madrid and listen to people complain about unpublished YA manuscripts and getting page views on their blog about recipes for raising a vegan child abroad. But it was always interesting.
In most big cities, InterNations hosts meetings every month or so. Their events were always popular among expats when I lived in Peru, although I never went because I used to be antisocial. In Tenerife—where I live now—they have events every month (whereas the CouchSurfing meetup is every week). They try to bring together people from all different countries—a gold mine for meeting new people.
They don’t have these everywhere, but where they do, they’re a great way to meet people. In Madrid, for instance, on any given day there were probably five different language exchanges at various bars. Where I live now, there are only two a week.
The point of a language exchange is to get together with other people at a bar or café to practice languages with each other. They’re usually not formal gatherings, just a bunch of people who agree to meet at a certain time and place. In Madrid, many guys went to them in order to meet girls (not me, of course.)
You can find them on Google or on Facebook or by looking for signs outside bars. Sometimes bloggers will aggregate lists of them with schedules.
I met my current group of friends in Tenerife at a language exchange. I couldn’t even imagine my life without these guys.
My friend used to do CrossFit in Madrid and she made a bunch of friends through it. When she traveled to different places, she would also find a CrossFit gym with a daily rate. What better way to meet people with shared interests?
If you practice jiu-jitsu, go visit a local gym. When I was fighting MMA, I used to look up fighters from countries I wanted to visit. I chatted with fighters from Spain, Ireland, England, Brazil, and Thailand as I planned potential trips.
My friend is a good salsa dancer and meets tons of people in salsa classes in Madrid. He even travels around Spain for competitions. The girls love him. In fact, I am kind of jealous.
When I was in Peru, I met an Austrian guy in a surf class and we went out to the bar that night. He recently messaged me and invited me to visit him in Austria and go skiing.
My friend belongs to a running club here in Tenerife and meets tons of locals. Hiking clubs exist. They have Facebook pages.
Tinder, Bumble, Badoo, OK Cupid. All of the ones you use back home (don’t lie!) work in other countries. On Tinder, you can pay for the premium version and start swiping before you even arrive to a new city. Sometimes people will ask, “How did we match if you aren’t here yet?” I am always honest about it. I say that I am using it to meet local people. “Maybe could you give me some recommendations on places to visit?” Or I joke that I’m “searching for a local guide to show me around.” Winky face optional.
This is also a great trick to practice a foreign language. When I was starting to learn Portuguese, I paid for Tinder pro so that I could swipe in Brazil. And I learned a ton from talking to girls there.
I met an English girl on Tinder when I was in Madrid almost a year ago. We both spoke Spanish and Portuguese. We still talk every day. She is one of my closest friends. It’s been a hugely rewarding relationship. She’s coming to visit me next week.
Festivals and Concerts
I went to a country concert in Madrid and met a couple from Florida. They still comment on my Facebook posts. Maybe they’ll read this. And I met a Danish girl there also. She scolded me later when she saw on Facebook that I went to Copenhagen without visiting her.
I’m not into the EDM music festival scene, but some people love that shit. And guess what? They are a great way to meet people while traveling. Over the summer, droves of young people backpack across Europe and swarm to these shows en masse.
Festivals like Oktoberfest, Running of the Bulls, or Carnival are also a great place to meet people. Everyone is there to have fun.
Do the things that you love to do and you will meet like-minded people.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
I met two American exchange students on a bus between Amsterdam and Brussels and we went out to Delirium Café that night. I met a Dutch girl on a bus between Seville and Granada. We went out for ice cream. I still talk to her occasionally. She lives in New Zealand now. I met a Danish girl on a bus between Munich and Prague. We both met fun groups of people at our respective hostels, so we did our own thing and never met up again. I met an American soldier on a train between Rome and Geneva. He was on leave. We took turns buying bottles of wine from the café car. We exchanged books. I still have his copy of Desert Solitaire somewhere.
How do you open the conversation? Come on, you know it by now…
I hitch hiked through Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands last summer. I got seven different rides. Everyone was super friendly and wanted to help out. They loved giving recommendations of places to visit. They told me interesting stories. I am Facebook friends with a Romanian trucker who picked me up. When I visit Romania, I will message him.
There is an app called BlaBlaCar that works in most of Europe. It is a car-sharing program. If someone is driving between Prague and Vienna, they can offer the extra seats in their car at a rate that’s usually cheaper than taking a bus. I’ve taken them probably ten times and I always have great conversations with the other passengers in the car. If they’re from the place you’re visiting they will usually give suggestions. And in Portugal last summer, one driver (albeit unsuccessfully) tried to help me find a hostel when I was in a jam.
Change of Plans
I was at a bar in Budapest when I met an Australian guy and his German girlfriend who lived there. They invited me to a dinner party the following night to celebrate the Chinese New Year (they used to live in Vietnam). I was in town with ten friends and we already had dinner plans. I ditched my friends and went to the dinner party full of Germans. We watched the Super Bowl together and I explained the rules of American football to them. I watched a German guy try vegemite for the first time and contort his face in disgust. It was hands down my favorite moment in Budapest.
I went to Germany over Christmas last year. I knew a girl from Berlin who I met at a hostel in Granada earlier that year. I was up in Hamburg and was planning on heading west from there but she invited me to come to her parents’ house for Christmas dinner. I backtracked to Berlin the following day and had Christmas dinner with her German family. I will remember that night for as long as I live.
Be flexible. Rigid plans are the enemy.
Just Say Yes
Riding on the back of a motorbike at three in the morning in Iquitos, Peru with a girl I just met. Slapping hands with my friend who was on the back of her friend’s motorbike that sped alongside us. No helmets. Dubious sobriety.
Getting in the car with a Moroccan guy I met at a sandwich shop in Fez and getting a quick tour of his city.
Following a man that I just met up a mountain in Cuzco, Peru at midnight to take hallucinogenics in an Incan temple under the almost-full moon. Visiting him when I was back in Cuzco months later.
Drinking a bottle of wine on the shore of the Guadalquivir River in Seville at five in the morning with a group of people from my hostel. Jumping off the pier into the river in my underwear.
Just say yes.
I once spent a night in Wuppertal, Germany. Never heard of it? Me neither. When I tell other Germans that I went there, they always say the same thing: “Why?” Because I knew someone there. I met her while traveling in Portugal. I skipped Düsseldorf and chose Wuppertal instead. She showed me around and explained the history of every statue and building in the city. And she let me stay over.
A word of caution: don’t ask someone to stay with them unless they’re a close friend. I usually just say, “Hey I am coming to town on xyz day, are you around then?” If they offer to let me stay, then I graciously accept. But if not, I am fine staying in a hostel. I know some people who are always milking their social network for free places to stay. It’s annoying. If you want a free place to stay, use CouchSurfing. Don’t message the friend of your dentist’s brother and ask them for a place to stay.
And if you do stay with someone, remember Ben Franklin’s famous dictum: “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”
One of the best ways to make lasting friendships out of fleeting interactions is to open up to people. Tell them about your life and ask about theirs.
I perfected this skill last summer when I was walking for thirty days on the Camino de Santiago. I would meet someone and spend eight hours walking together through fields of wheat. We quickly got past the surface-level questions. I found myself telling them about the most embarrassing and traumatic things that have happened to me. The time I was suicidal. My worst breakups. Struggling to fit in at school as a kid. And it’s an amazing feeling when you really open up to someone and they open up back.
One night I played a card game with two Danish people I had just met. The cards contained prompts with thought-provoking questions, like “Have you ever had a religious experience?” or “When do you feel most alone?” We talked about things that I’ve never admitted to anyone. They learned more about me in one night than some of my best friends know. They are both still very close friends and I later visited both of them in Denmark.
I was in a bar in a small town in Ireland a few weeks ago with a girl we just met at the hostel. We started playing Never Have I Ever, and before we knew it, we were talking about our most embarrassing sexual experiences. Like, really funny stuff that I definitely can’t write about here. It was, in a weird way, the most fun night of my trip. I just talked to her again yesterday.
Obviously know your boundaries and don’t be a creep. With some practice though, opening up just becomes a normal state of being. Solid friendships are built on trust and openness.
It’s important to always keep your plans open and flexible. I personally never plan more than a day ahead unless I absolutely have to. So I can shoot off to Paris with someone I just met, if I want to.
Often times, I decide where to travel next based on the people I meet. If you are traveling long term or backpacking, you can make plans to meet at another city down the line. Or visit their hometown along your way. There is always a way to meet again.
I met three British people in Spain this summer. We traveled together for two weeks. When two of them returned home, I went down into Portugal with the third. Then I later met her in Munich for Oktoberfest. And then she came to visit me in Tenerife. I visited another one of them in Seville. The four of us have a group chat and we still talk almost every day.
My mom tells a story about a cross country road trip she did when she was younger. She agreed to meet another group of friends in a certain place on the other side of the country at a specific date and time. If they weren’t there, then tough luck. No cell phones, no internet.
She also jokes that when she was a kid, you would meet someone on a trip and exchange a few letters, then never speak to them again.
Thankfully for us, Facebook has revolutionized communication. If you add someone on Facebook, you can always shoot them a message. And you can see where they are traveling and they can see where you are traveling.
I always try to post photos of where I am traveling. Sometimes, I get messages like, “No way! I am in Barcelona also!” Or “Hey, my town is not far from there, you should come visit!”
If you don’t have WiFi or a mobile plan when you meet them, write down their names so you can add them later and message them as soon as possible. If you have an unlocked phone, you can get a SIM card at the airport or bus station when you arrive to a new country. Usually a one-month prepaid plan is not too expensive, depending on the country. I paid 10 Euros for 1GB of data in Portugal this past summer.
In many countries, people use WhatsApp to communicate because you can send messages to/from any country through the internet for free.
In the digital age, there is no excuse to not stay in contact.
How to Keep in Touch
What’s the point of meeting people if you aren’t going to keep in touch? I’ve always been able to keep in touch with a vast network of people and I didn’t even realize exactly how until recently. It’s just something I do naturally. And it’s fun.
You know when you’re sitting around your apartment with a few free minutes and you don’t know what to do? Here’s what I do: I scroll through my old messages on my cell phone. I go back a few days. A few weeks. A few months. Look at the familiar names. Send them a message.
It can be something you’re curious about.
“Hey, did you ever make it to Krakow? What was it like? I’d love to go someday.”
Make a statement.
“Hey, I saw your photos from Japan. They look amazing. Hope you’re doing well.”
Or something generic.
“Hope you had a good Christmas and New Years.”
Ever get a message from someone and you reply, “I was just thinking about messaging you this morning!”
Only you didn’t.
Don’t be that person. Message them first. You will never have regrets about losing touch with old friends.
Posting on someone’s Facebook wall for their birthday doesn’t count. In fact, I almost never do that. It is a somewhat cheap and meaningless way to contact someone. If they’re so important, message them.
Here’s the key: this is not some trick to fool people into liking you. I do this because I genuinely want to know what is going on with them. It makes my day better to know about the interesting things my friends are doing.
Have you ever had a friend who only messages you when they need something? It’s annoying. On the other hand, if you keep in touch properly, you will never be that person. When you do happen to need a favor or a piece of advice, it won’t be an out-of-the-blue message, but simply part of an ongoing conversation.
You will start to notice weird coincidences as you keep in touch with people. Maybe they are traveling at the same time you are. Or to the same place. Maybe you can connect them with mutual friends. Or you can meet friends of theirs. It’s a small fucking world.
Pay it Forward
I always tell people: “If you are ever in Tenerife, please visit me!” And I mean it.