“You know people everywhere!”
“You have an insane network of people.”
“I go to Spain, I come home with one friend. You go to Spain, you come back with 150 friends.”
I can’t count how many times I’ve been told any one of these when travel comes up in conversation with friends. Whether it be during brainstorming on where to visit next or recommending a city, I seem to have the innate (and subconscious) power of offering up relationships I’ve kindled across the globe. “I have a friend we can stay with,” or “Let me call my friend in __(insert random city here)__ for you…it’s only a 20 minute train ride from where you’re heading, and I know she’d love to meet up for a coffee.”
Since every time I take the Myers Briggs personality test I end up right on the border of introvert and extrovert, I’m always surprised that someone thinks I have such a large network of contacts. When I travel, I prefer to travel solo. Solo travel is where I found me. Perhaps it’s where I honed my extrovert skills, too. I’ve got friends in over 50 countries, and I feel welcome to visit any of them at any time.
If you’re an introvert or intimidated by the thought of approaching strangers on your travels, or if you are terrified to travel alone, I promise you that it can be done and you’ll be cracking out of your cocoon and flitting away before you know it. I’m old school. I don’t like to live on my smartphone (or even have it out much) while I travel. I play with trending apps, but I love to use the old standby methods. Here are a few resources and tips that have helped me find friends in all places.
Travbuddy is a low-key mix between Facebook, Meetup, and MySpace. It looks as old school as it sounds (I like to think of it as the pre-version of the Tripr app), but I have used it to meet many people on my long weekend trips. Create a profile to introduce yourself – here is my profile (the Facebook element). Most likely, you’ll soon have a community of people welcoming you and commenting on your profile or journals (the MySpace element).
The key to Travbuddy is entering your destinations and travel dates. This allows you to find and be found by other people who are heading to the same place at the same time as you. You can drop them a message, or find travel groups (the Meetup element). Often, I have met a person for dinner and they invited along another person they’ve met. This opens up incredible opportunities! For example, I met a travbuddy for dinner in Rome. She is from Tanzania, but was living in Ireland for the past decade. She invited along a local Roman guy she met on the site. By the end of the meal, we had all exchanged information and invitations to visit one another or our friends and families in our home turfs. That’s three countries to add to the travel list! I really enjoy travbuddy because I meet travelers and locals alike.
CouchSurfing is known as a great way for traveling cheap, but is often overlooked as a way to open up a network of friends. If you’re really intimidated by traveling alone but don’t want to miss out on the benefits of staying with locals, CouchSurfing is for you. The great element of CouchSurfing is that users can verify their profiles to assure others that they’re the real deal. Additionally, when you host or travel with someone, you can leave references for one another to build up confidence for potential hosts and surfers.
CouchSurfing is an easy way to share a local meal or to reminisce on your time in your favorite country by hosting a traveler from there. It’s also a great way to connect without involving accommodations by attending meetups through the site or finding travelers attending events you are interested in. I love CouchSurfing because it offers a way to see a city in a way you would never have seen it on your own, like my experience with immersing in the jazz scene in Madrid. I’m such an advocate for it! I’ve hosted CouchSurfers that I’ve clicked with immediately and feel I can call their couch a home away from home when I need to get away. Some I’ve ended up visiting repeatedly, many I’ve connected with on Facebook and beyond, with some I’ve befriended their friends and created relationships in more countries, and one even came to my wedding! Here is my profile for a taste.
It may seem pretty obvious, but when you’re sharing a room with 3-11 strangers, you’re bound to meet someone. Don’t be afraid to open up! You’re on the road, away from your comfort zone, and chances are you are traveling solo because you wanted to get away from your zone. If you don’t talk to anyone, you will never see them again. If you do talk to someone, guaranteed you will at least have a drink together, if not an adventure, and you’ll keep in touch. Talking with my bunk mates, I’ve shared local travel finds and experiences, as well as networked to meet people that they met on other legs of their travels. Hostels also may have community dinners, excursions, or activities where you can meet a slew of travelers.
If you want to play it safe and avoid awkward conversation when finally going out of your comfort zone, Meetup is your magic. Search for groups of interest in the location you’re traveling, and you’re sure to meet someone that you have a common thread with. On Meetup I’ve taken French lessons, crocheted with elderly women, had weekly chats in Spanish at a cafe, played board games until the early morning, gone salsa dancing, learned about local religions, and been invited to a sweat lodge.
Disconnect to Connect
Put away the phone. The best relationships I’ve made have been by forgetting cell phones even exist. I try to strictly use my camera when on a long haul trip. Strike up a conversation after taking a picture for someone. Walk deep past the Old Town to a butcher shop where the bustle of tourists becomes a dull hum. Attend a concert put on by a local school choir in an old cathedral. Ride the bus and use the few words you know from your phrase book to strike up a conversation with the nonna or the bus driver (I talk to bus drivers a lot!). Happily eat alone and talk to the server. Breathe in your surroundings. You don’t need 117 pictures of the Eiffel Tower. If you only look at the scenery through the screen on your phone, you may miss a great street food cart, a used book store, or a local casually reading his daily newspaper on the sidewalk. These are all great opportunities to meet people and know the place a little better.