Being around strangers all the time can be intimidating. No one knows you or the value that you might bring. So every interaction is an opportunity to make a first impression. When you’re around the same people all the time, people grow to know each other and the opportunities to make or change an impression grow fewer. Traveling means you have to constantly be putting yourself out there, but you’re in control of how you present yourself to each new friend.
Most people who know me don’t see me as having a big problem with social situations. I’m fairly outgoing, and willing to make a fool of myself in front of strangers for any reason at all (and sometimes no reason), but I still find it hard sometimes to be putting myself out there all the time. The pull of a comfort zone can be a strong one. I have learned some tricks, though, that might help you if you’re out backpacking/traveling and want to find new friends and start deconstructing those artificial comfort zones. You might be traveling solo and are starting to feel lonely in the crowd, or you might be traveling with one or more other people and just need to mix it up. Here are a few of the best ways I’ve found to meet new people while traveling:
Hostels have been my number one way to get social on the road. It’s so easy. You have friends built into your accommodations. Often you can make friends with the people staying in your room, but even if you’re not feeling the vibe (or if your roommates don’t speak the same language as you), most hostels have lobbies or bars that you can hang out in and find other travelers with similar mindsets and interests as you.
Sometimes you might even have similar travel itineraries and then you have a new travel buddy. Fro example, I met someone in a hostel in Munich and then stayed in touch. We were going in opposite directions but were able to meet up several weeks later in Budapest.
I actually wrote a whole blog post just on why hostel roommates are great. You can find it here.
Most cities have some sort of tour you can take to learn more about the city. A tour guide will walk around with you and point out places of interest and tell you about some of the history. Sometimes this is a walking tour, sometimes it’s on bicycles, sometimes it involves a boat. In any case, tours are full of other travelers and tourists who are guaranteed to speak your language. Since you’re committing to an hour or two of spending time wandering the city with these people, conversation tends to come up naturally. Oftentimes this can translate into spending the rest of the day together, or at least going out for a beer after the tour.
One advantage that this has is that it’s not just the poor backpackers that you might meet in a hostel. You have people from all walks of life. I even met a guy from Romania who had just moved to Hamburg for a job and went on a walking tour to get to know the city he was going to be living in. So sometimes you can even meet locals, which is nice.
If you’re into drinking and partying (which tends to happen when people are on holiday), why not use alcohol as a social lubricant? Pub crawls typically start at a specific location or bar and then move around to three or four different bars or clubs. In Europe, it will cost you €10-20 depending on where you are, but there are typically some number of free drinks and free entry to clubs. A common occurrence is a free welcome shot when you arrive at each new bar, but some crawls will have an amount of time set aside (usually at the first bar) where the bar is open and you can drink as much as you like. Potentially dangerous, but cost effective. The final destination is often a dance club and the tour guide will leave you there to finish the night as you see fit.
Once again these crawls are usually full of travelers, but sometimes locals will go on the crawl just to have something new to do in their own city. Everyone is like-minded, out to have a good time, and has their inhibitions lowered by copious amounts of booze, so it’s easy to strike up a conversation.
And even if conversation is difficult, you can always just dance. Dancing is an international language. A wise woman once told me, “Hips don’t lie.”
Obviously, these tools will get you nowhere if you don’t open yourself up to the experience. You have to be putting yourself out there. Sometimes it’s as simple as walking around in a hostel/bar/public place and listening for people who speak your language. When you find some who look cool, those are you new comrades. All you have to do is walk right up and introduce yourself. You’ll never know if those people could be your new best friends. You might end up traveling together, or getting good travel recommendations from someone who’s already been where you’re going, or they could even offer you a place to stay wherever they may be from. Who knows? You could even end up falling in love and getting married and living happily ever after with a random person you met traveling. It does happen sometimes. If you’re not open to it, you’ll never know.
This can be nerve wracking at times. It’s so easy to stay in your comfort zone. I met a couple who had been traveling together for three weeks and they said I was the first person they had really met on their journey so far. I was dumbfounded. How is that even possible? They were nice people, but I think they were doing it wrong. The people you meet and the new relationships you develop are such a huge part of why travel is so great.
You can even apply these principals at home! People who don’t do much traveling tend to stay in their groups and cliques. Sticking to the relationships you know is a really easy, comfortable thing to do, but there are so many wonderful people to meet even in you hometown. Traveling is good practice, but these concepts can be taken anywhere.
Comfort zones are made to be broken, and I’m fully committed to indiscriminately destroying mine. So get out there in the world, meet new people, and start living just outside your comfort zone. It’s the only way to grow.