Whether traveling alone or with friends, many people travel to have an authentic cultural experience. And while the idea of talking to and having adventures with lots of strangers can be daunting, making friends when you travel is actually pretty easy.
1. Do What You Do At Home While You Travel. You'll have plenty of time to interact with locals when you're buying stuff from them or paying them for a tour. But if you want to make the interaction more authentic, try doing something you're already good at, something you'd do anyway, with them. For me, this often means basketball or volleyball. As I wrote in this post:
This happens to be one of my favorite basketball courts ever.
2. Ditch your phone. Smart phones kill happiness and creativity. They take you out of the moment. Instead of becoming completely involved in the magic of the present, you're posting photos on Instagram and wondering why you didn't get more Likes on your status update.
While you're doing that, you're not making eye contact with the real people around you. You're making yourself look less approachable. Your expression exudes less warmth, and more seriousness, distractedness and concentration. Read more >
You can update your friends - in person! - when you get back. You can call/email home before bed. But for now, be totally focused and engaged with the present.
3. Ditch the GPS. As the amazing John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley: In Search of America, "The best way to make a new friend is to ask directions."
Read it. It's fantastic.
Easiest ice breaker in the world! When I travel, I like to have some sense of where I am and what I'm doing. But asking for directions is a great way to get people talking. And it's a great way for me to practice my Spanish, Croatian, Polish, or whatever. And for them to practice their English, which is just as important. (Maybe more so - knowing English opens a lot of doors in most countries.)
Another wonderful thing about asking for directions is that the person you ask will often follow up with, "Oh, what are you doing tonight?" "Where are you staying?" And if you've kept yourself flexible, you might end up invited to a Children's Festival or a Half New Year's Celebration - or even just dinner in someone's home. (Again: knowing English opens a lot of doors. I've had people urge me to come with them to their homes, or join them for dinner at a nice restaurant, so I could practice English with their children.)
One minute, I was hiking all by myself. The next...
On the occasions where I hadn't booked a hotel or hostel ahead of time, I'm more often than not invited to stay in the person's home. And, as I wrote in Advantages of Traveling While Female, this has turned sketchy exactly zero times. As long as you make your expectations and boundaries clear (I like to say, "I'll totally stay with you, but I want my own bed," or, "Sure, but I don't want to do anything sexual, FYI."), it doesn't really get dangerous or awkward. But, if at any point you do start feeling weird, leave. Run. Yell. Make a scene. Trust your gut on this.
4. Ditch the guidebook. Guidebooks are silly. They kind of give you a general gist of what a place is like... but mostly they just list a couple of hotels and restaurants, which you could find with your own feet and eyes, anyway.
Want to have a real adventure? Ask a local!
"Where's the best place for dinner?"
"What do people here like to do on Saturdays?"
"Where is the best hiking trail?"
I did that once, and I ended up here:
This secret little local beach was not in the guidebook. A few men were grilling sardines, and they offered me some - they were great, as far as sardines go! - and we had some really cool conversations about life in Korcula, Croatia.
5. Hitchhike. Only if you feel comfortable with it, obviously. And if you decide you feel comfortable with it, but then someone pulls over and you get a weird gut feeling, just tell the driver, "Thanks, but I changed my mind!" "Sorry - I thought you were someone else!"
Better to hurt someone's feelings a little than get murdered, right? (That's one of the top three pieces of advice I give women is, Don't be afraid to hurt someone's feelings or make a scene.)
But seriously. No one's going to murder you while you're hitchhiking. You're much more likely to be murdered by your sibling, best friend or significant other than by hitchhiking. You're much more likely to be raped by a friend or coworker or classmate than a stranger in a dark alley.
People who pick up hitchhikers tend to be either truckers who are super lonely, driving around alone all day, or cool people like yourself who like karma, travel and paying it forward. Either way, they'll have some awesome stories and recommendations for you. Read more >
6. Be willing to try anything. Enter a foot race. Surf. Jump in cold water. Swim in the dark. Get in a little trouble. Eat something that looks a little gross. Remember: Everything's Always Worth It.
I'm not really the kind of girl who sits on a crate and drinks liquor in a liquor store... but when these Peruvians invited me "out" with them, we ended up here. After our vodka and orange juice were gone, we went salsa dancing to an 8-piece brass band until 6am. Waaaaay more fun than the $15 salsa lesson for gringos.
7. Bring some pictures from home. As I wrote in Feeling alone? The best solution may be to travel... alone, "Several times, someone I've met while traveling has asked to see pictures of my home or family... and I haven't had any. It made me feel like I totally dropped the ball on the whole cultural exchange thing."
Remember: the people you meet when you travel aren't the only ones with a unique background. You can learn just as much from them as they can from you - and you should both walk away from this with a fun fact or story to share.
Mi casa. Mi familia cultiva maíz y ovejas. Y los perros!!! :)
8. Smile, laugh and make eye contact. Anyone can master the art of personal magnetism. It literally starts with smiling, laughing and making good eye contact. Follow up with active listening and behaviors of presence. Be authentic, genuine, and even vulnerable. Because self-disclosure and vulnerability is an important part of making friends. As per Kids Make Friends More Easily Than You. Here's Why:
If you want to learn more about this, check out The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism by Olivia Fox Cabane.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there's a decent chance you'll keep running into the same travelers over and over. When I did the W-Trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, I had a small friend group by default: with the W-Trek, you can either go Glacier Grey to the Torres, or the Torres to Glacier Grey. So we'd all camp in the same places every night, whether or not we hiked together during the day.
When I was in Croatia, I ran into the same Australian gynecologist in three different cities. I ran into the same group of college guys on my first and last day of my trip. Long story short, it's a small world. Even if the language barrier keeps you from making friends with locals while you travel, you'll inevitably run into other travelers at hostels, campgrounds and other attractions. If you meet someone you like and it feels right, ask what their plans are. Maybe you're headed the same way, and it makes sense to spend the next day or three together.
(Honestly, I know more than a few married couples who met this way.)
Enjoy your trip - and if there's another awesome way to make friends while traveling that I forgot to mention, let me know in the comments!
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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