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.
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.
Hostels have 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.
(See my post: A Complete Guide to Hostels.)
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 how beautiful the women are?”
“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 language. Even better if you’ve visited their country before.
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’ve met all of the people, bring them together. Ask what everyone has planned for that night.
“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 a fun outing where everyone has a good time, you are the hero. And girls love a hero.
Free Walking Tours
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.
(See my post: A Guide to Free Walking Tours.)
As soon as the tour starts, walk up to someone who seems interesting.
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?”
You can also do this on bus tours, bicycle tours, or (god forbid) Segway tours. But I find walking tours to be the best because you have more of a sense of group unity as you walk.
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 took one around Morocco for a week and made some great friends.
Most hostels will offer a pub crawl at night. They can be a great way to meet new people (while getting wasted). I usually do this as a last resort if I haven’t already made a group of friends at the hostel. Or if you’ve made friends at the hostel and can’t decide on plans for the night, you can always rely on the pub crawl for a good time.
CouchSurfing not only provides you with an opportunity to stay for free, but people are usually happy to show you around their city.
They also host CouchSurfing 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.
The CouchSurfing app also has a feature called Hangouts, which allows you to see fellow users who are near you. You can ask them to hangout and make plans to meetup.
In most big cities, InterNations hosts meetings every month or so. Their events were always popular among expats when I lived in Peru. 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.
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.
(See my post: Meetups: Four Places to Make Friends While Traveling.)
The point of a language exchange is to get together with other people at a bar or café to practice languages. They’re usually not formal gatherings, just a bunch of people who agree to meet at a certain time and place.
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.
(See my post: A Guide to Language Exchanges.)
Sports and Activities
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 find a CrossFit gym there. 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.
Tinder, Bumble, Badoo, OK Cupid. All of the ones you use back home (don’t lie!) work in other countries. You can ask, “Maybe could you give me some recommendations on places to visit?” Or joke, “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.
Festivals and Concerts
I went to a country music 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.
Over the summer, droves of young people backpack across Europe and swarm to EDM 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 you love 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. She lives in New Zealand now. I met a Danish girl on a bus between Munich and Prague. 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 hitchhiked 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. Every time I take it, 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 tried to help me find a hostel when I was in a jam.
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, are you around?” 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!”
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.”
Or just a statement.
“Hey, I saw your photos from Japan. They look amazing. Hope you’re doing well.”
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: “Please visit me!” And I mean it.
Want to hear about more adventures? Check out my book about fighting professional MMA in Peru: The Cage: Escaping the American Dream.