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 travel 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.
(See my post: 10 Reasons to Travel Alone)
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.” 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?”
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.
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.
(See my post: A Guide to Free Walking Tours.)
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 many cities they have events every month. 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.)