Sometimes a girl’s gotta take matters into her own hands.
As much as it would light up my world to take every trip with a group of my nearest and dearest, it doesn’t always pan out that way. More often than not, I’ve run into roadblocks when trying to plan getaways with other people -- we often find that our timing is off. Or our budgets don’t align at the moment. Or we have different travel styles. Then there was that time I wanted to move to Thailand for a while and couldn’t get anyone to join me… Hmm.
So, I found myself jetting off in a party of 1 on a handful of journeys over the past year. Being by myself in a new continent has forced me to shed my shyness more than I ever had before. As a result, I’ve entered countries knowing no one, and left having gained unforgettable experiences I got to share with others, lifetime friends, and people who I wouldn’t hesitate to hit up whenever I return to their city.
Even so, I’m very introverted and I still consider myself shy (my friends would tell you otherwise, but it's true). Conquering that shyness hasn't come naturally, but with practice -- when I moved to LA I had a very small network of friends, so I found networking mixers and social events to go to either by myself or with a friend if I could grab one. I practiced being approachable, introducing myself to strangers, and just putting myself out there.
Now I feel more comfortable with speaking to anyone in a room, however, I’m still working on climbing out of my shell more. The truth is, I could probably be alone for a week and still find ways to entertain myself. But when I’m traveling by myself, I make it a point to open up. I make new acquaintances, I find friends, and I make sure I’m never alone for a full day.
Here are 4 primary ways I’ve made friends on the road:
1. Through online travel communities
Joining various travel communities has opened my world and allowed me to meet all kinds of people to share experiences, meals, and adventures with. There are communities out there with many different niches, like traveling solo in your 20s, solo travel to Europe, backpacking, etc.
For a while I was an active member of Travel Noire District, a private group where members can discuss all things travel in various channels sorted by subject/destination. A group of members traveling to Thailand last November planned a fantastic Thanksgiving dinner that some of my Chiang Mai friends and I joined. We had so much fun that evening -- and ate GOOOD! It ended up being one of the most memorable Thanksgivings I’ve had. I’m so thankful for that community (pun not intended) and the special women I met in both Thailand and in Indonesia because of its existence.
Where to Find Travel Communities
Social Media is a good starting point. Many travel communities either exist via Facebook group, or have an easy to find Facebook page. I’m part of “Chiang Mai Digital Nomads” and “Black Women Travelers.” They have been great places not only for finding events to attend and people to meet, but for accessing resources (i.e. up-to-date city guides), asking and answering questions, and finding out about cool stuff.
Meetup.com - Find people nearly anywhere based on a common interest.
Couchsurfing.com (Events) - I’ve never actually couchsurfed with a stranger (yet!), but I have found group activities to join through Couchsurfers’ events section. I met people through volunteering at an orphanage in Chiang Mai, an opportunity I found on Couchsurfers. In Singapore, I went to a yoga class I saw on CS and ended up meeting a really sweet local. She took me exploring on an island the next day and then to get our eyebrows threaded -- we had a grand time (ladies, you know how important it is to leave your brows in the hands of someone trustworthy). Just head to their site, type in the city you're traveling to, and select 'events' to see what gatherings you might find interesting.
For fellow young black travelers, there are several up and coming communities for us that have really taken off. One of my favorite bloggers wrote an article highlighting them: ‘For Us, By Us - 5 Black Owned Travel Groups You Should Know About.’
2. Staying in hostels
I’m speaking to Americans specifically here -- It’s time we discard our negative notions about hostels. Before my first hostel experience, I was weary of staying in shared spaces and icked out about them from the nightmarish horror movie. But after giving hostels a go for my first time, I became a believer. Guys, I still feel an eruption of confetti and flashing lights inside when I think about how much fun I had with my hostelmates in Lisbon, Barcelona, and Ibiza.
Hostels can be a great place to make friends as a young traveler. And to make sure your experience is stellar -- do a thorough search on Hostelworld.com to make sure you pick the right one, and book it in advance, especially if you’re traveling during the region’s busy season. Check all the photos, make sure the hostel is clean, has at least an 85% satisfaction rate, is easy to access, and has a great vibe. The reviews will let you know if it’s more of a partygoers’ hostel or if it’s a quiet and relaxed environment. (I’d go for something in the middle).
If you want the social atmosphere of a hostel, but would still like the privacy of your own room, there are hostels that offer private rooms. Check them out!
I won’t lie, my eyes roll just mentioning Tinder. While I’m not a fan of the whole swiping concept or online dating in general, I know that the international travel community uses it a lot and it’s not all about hooking up. And, I can say that I had two really fun Tinder date experiences -- once while traveling solo in Singapore and once in Chiang Mai. My Singapore date gave me a fun personal tour all around his city, and it was actually kinda romantic! (Weird for a Tinder date, I know right!?)
So yes...It’s worth a shot!
4. Saying hello
This may be my last point, but I’d say it’s the most important. It doesn’t involve apps, websites, or an internet connection at all (gasp) -- just our good old social skills.
Though it rarely happens to me here in the US, I find it common for someone I don’t know to strike up a conversation with me when I’m abroad. I’ll be in my hotel or in cafes, and someone beside me might say hello or ask what I’m working on. From there, we’ll start a whole conversation and sometimes join each other for food. Before I know it, I've got a new friend.
Recently before I left Chiang Mai, I was at a restaurant wrapping up from dining alone and a lady sat down at a free spot at my table. I happened to ask her where she’s from and found out she’s a DC-area native like me. We got to chatting, found out some crazy coincidental things we have in common, and agreed to grab Thai food when we both got back to DC. In Bali, I met two funny French guys who were staying at the same villa, and we ended up going out to hit the town later that night. Those chance introductions tend to make for great lunch/dinner/dancing dates!
I’ve realized that little things like a smile or a simple “hello” can make you more approachable and more likely to make acquaintances with new people. So whether you’re chilling at your hotel pool, attending a cooking class, or sitting for coffee -- make it a point to speak to people. If the conversation flows, make suggestions to find something fun to do, and say yes when they offer you! You never know what strangers may become future travel buddies and and long time friends - or at least a fun time for the day.
I share these and more tips in '21 of My Favorite Travel Resources' -- a brief, downloadable guide with all my favorite travel sites and apps. It's yours free when you subscribe to PBU's monthly tales, trips, tips, and occasional personal notes.