Figuring out how to meet people when you travel is one of the hardest but most enjoyable aspects of being a solo traveler. Going beyond checklist tourism to actually experiencing the local customs and culture firsthand. As a solo traveler, you’re in a good position to gain entry into the local community. It’s much easier to forge personal connections one-on-one than it is to do so when you’re part of a group. In the sections below, I list some suggestions on places to go and things to do to forge these connections.
Bring a Ken Follett novel (or other book) to a coffee shop
I don’t know the author Ken Follett, but I strongly suspect he gets paid by the word. I’ve thorougly enjoyed reading his Kingsbridge trilogy, but each novel in it was around a thousand pages long. Because each book is therefore the size of a small elephant, they draw a lot of attention when I pull them out of my bag at coffee shops. People are naturally curious and these books have led to more spontaneous conversations than any other. People want to know what they’re about. They want to know how far into the book I’ve gotten. They ask me how long I think it’ll take me to finish. So if you don’t mind carting around a heavy book you’ll find them to be a near-guaranteed conversation starter.
Express yourself with art
This is one that a good friend of mine swears by. As he travels, he frequently pulls out a sketch pad and starts drawing whatever is going on around him. Invariably, someone will peer over his shoulder to see what he’s working on. If he’s in the mood for a chat, that’s his jumping off point. Like him, you can use any small connections you have with people to begin a conversation. If you’re not an artist, you can look for people doing interesting things, such as painting or sketching or tai chai and ask to photograph them. As long as you aren’t creepy about it, taking someone’s picture can be a great way to get a conversation going.
Join a day tour
Joining a day tour never fails to create opportunities to engage with others. The shared sense of purpose and proximity that the tour offers makes it easy to start a conversation. Because you’ll be communicating with fellow travelers rather than locals, day tours are an effective way to get current recommendations on what to see and what to avoid in the local area.
Do your laundry at a laundromat
There are fewer better places to strike up a conversation than a laundromat. There’s (usually) no alcohol or television, so boredom is almost guaranteed. Everyone is stuck in the same room together for a couple of hours. In most cases, people are unwilling to leave their clothes unattended so they can’t leave. With that mixture, most people sitting in a laundromat are willing if not eager to chat. As with all of these recommendations, the key is to be interesting, not unnerving. So don’t start by asking someone about their underwear or anything like that.
Visit a local gym
Fit people usually love to talk about how they got into shape and how they maintain their figures. They can talk for hours about their workouts, their caloric intake, their current weight, their ideal weight, their goals, their trials and tribulations, and so on and so on. So, if you’re in shape, there’s an entire world of personal, relevant experiences you can share with your fellow gym rats. If you’re out of shape, it’s usually not difficult to find someone who’s willing to take the time to show you the ropes or give you advice on how not to injure yourself.
Talk with vendors at outdoor farmers markets or craft fairs
People whose lives are devoted to creating things like food, crafts, and artwork, generally enjoy talking about them. If there’s an outdoor farmers market or craft fair in the town you’re visiting, find something that interests you and ask the seller about it. Assuming you’re not interfering with their ability to make other sales, they’ll likely be happy to give you the details.
Attend a religious service
If you’re religious, attending a service while on the road can be a great way to meet people. Many religious communities are used to new faces in the crowd, so you’re likely to receive a warm welcome. The beliefs you share can be a solid footing on which to establish a connection. Religions all have their own rules, customs, and expectations, though. So if you’re not religious or practice a different faith, be respectful. Ask someone in advance if you can attend their service.
How NOT to get to know anyone
It’s simple: spend all of your time looking down at your smartphone. Smartphones are unquestionably a valuable resource when you travel. Need to book a flight or hotel room? Log in to your favorite travel app. Don’t know how to get where you’re going or ask for directions? Call up Google Maps and Google Translate. Stuck indoors on a wet afternoon? Access Netlix or your music library. But as useful as they are, they’re also a crutch that creates a barrier between you and those around you. The assumption we all make when we see someone on a smartphone is that they’re busy. They’re communicating with someone else you can’t see. Or we assume they’re doing something important and we shouldn’t interrupt.
As a solo traveler, then, focusing on your smartphone might keep you entertained. It might make you feel less conspicuous or anxious when you’re alone. But that comfort comes at a price. By focusing on the phone in your hand, you’re making yourself less approachable. Which means you’re cutting yourself off from the people and the world around you.
And one last point to keep in mind that relates to the smartphone issue. Your chances of making a connection increase dramatically if you look people in the eye and smile when you interact with them. So be friendly, be respectful, and make an effort. And connect!