I used to be very hesitant to approach strangers. I would avoid small talk on planes and trains and even asking other people for directions! All this changed when one of my very extroverted friends convinced me to go on a glamping (aka luxurious camping) trip in a popular surf area just outside our city.
As expected, she instantly became friends with a group of people, invited them to dine with us, had a group bonfire session until midnight, and joined surf lessons together come following morning. Believe it or not, before we all had to part ways, we already had a Facebook group chat!
It was at that time (and all the other trips we’ve had) that I learned a lot about how to build a connection with strangers and become friends during and even after a trip. These tips came in handy especially when I moved out to work abroad, and had to go on a lot of business and personal trips by myself.
Here are a few tips that I find very helpful in making friends even when traveling alone:
1. Minimize Distractions 📴
Many travelers are always peering at their mobile phones, laptops, e-book readers, or other electronic gadgets instead of noticing the places and the people around them. We rarely engage in small talk at airports or bus stations, and instead may scroll through a social media feed consuming “inspo” from travel influencers.
So, try putting your tech devices aside and look around you. You might notice that the person sitting beside you is also observing their surroundings or giving cues that they are open to conversation.
If you’re a millennial like me who has existed pre-smartphone era, then you would probably agree when I say I miss the time when there was nothing else to do but talk to friends, family, or even strangers, during a long trip.
If you’re an introverted or shy person, check out my 4 tips for shy solo travelers that will help you step outside your comfort zone and initiate friendships with other travelers.
2. Offer Strangers Genuine Smiles 🙂
Smiles and warm expressions are a universal language. As a frequent solo traveler, I find it easier to approach a fellow traveler, make conversation with a seatmate, or strike up a conversation with a fellow tour group member when they’re smiling. I also think that a conversation will last longer than a couple of questions and answers once I’ve already seen the person smile.
A smile is the universal language of kindness. This means that when people see you wearing a genuine smile, you are giving out the impression that you are approachable.
So whether you are at the airport waiting for boarding, or out to get a coffee from a local coffee shop, be ready to wear your friendliest smile. You can meet friends while traveling anywhere you go.
Side note: Did you know that there are countries where locals smile less or even not at all? It’s true, keep reading to learn more.
3. Research Local Customs
The first time I rode a Romanian train, it was the end of a long travel day. Exhausted, but lucky enough to have an empty (and already disgustingly filthy) seat across from me, I propped my feet up to relax. No less than a half dozen fellow passengers gave me dirty looks before the conductor strolled through the car and angrily gestured for me to put my feet on the floor.
If I’d researched a little about train etiquette, I’d have known my behavior wasn’t acceptable in that culture. Maybe I’d even have had the tools to make a friend on that train car instead of enemies!
Before heading out to your next adventure, whether it’s for business or leisure, research the place, the weather, the food, the accommodation, and most importantly, the culture or traditions of the destination where you will be traveling to.
Aside from your knowledge being a good conversation piece with fellow travelers (“Hey, I’ve read about this coffee shop where they serve the best croissant…”), knowing a lot about the local cuisine and culture might save you from an uncomfortable situation.
I, for one, do extensive research about the place I’m visiting weeks before I travel (at least, when I’m not off on spontaneous travel). In this way, I can become familiar with the place even before I arrive. This has helped make informed decisions before heading out to a restaurant (“I’ve read reviews that they serve the freshest sushi over there!”) and even be seen by fellow tourists as a friendly, helpful traveler they want to hang out with.
4. To Make Friends Traveling, Drink in Moderation ⚠️
For many young travelers, enjoying a city’s nightlife is a fun part of travel. If you’re with new acquaintances, this night can either make or break your forming friendship.
Drinking responsibly can help build trust and respect. Being the life of the party might make you feel popular, but not always for good reasons. Drinking in moderation is also an essential solo safety tip that you should follow especially if you’re traveling alone.
While you don’t need to abstain from drinking completely, keep your wits about you. No one wants to befriend someone they have to tend all evening. Set a limit for yourself or choose drinks which are less likely to impair you to the point of impacting your judgment. As a bonus, you’ll avoid losing half of the next travel day to a hangover.
5. Be Curious & A Good Listener 👂
Listening isn’t just hearing someone speak, it’s actively attuning your own mind to hear, understand, and interpret the meaning behind their words 1 You may not have noticed it yet, but most people enjoy talking about themselves, their achievements, or their pets.
When you have already made that effort to start a conversation with a stranger and they start telling you about their life story- ask questions! Questions show that you are interested and trying to get to know someone. Often, this makes people instantly feel more connected to you.
Be sure to listen attentively and maintain eye contact to show them that you are interested. When they mention a common interest or shared values, let them know without cutting them off. This will definitely help build the friendship foundation and make others feel more warmly towards you.
However, if you find that you don’t share similar interests, don’t immediately dismiss the potential of friendship. If you really feel like a person may become your friend, you can start sharing your own story – disclosing personal information yourself can built a relationship through shared intimacy.
While traveling alone can be rewarding and helpful to find one’s inner peace, making new friends during a trip can be a fun way to have company during the non-solo portions of your trip. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footprints in your heart.” You will never know when you are meeting your new best friend, so go out there and take that risk.
- Tyagi, B. (2013). Listening: An important skill and its various aspects. The Criterion An International Journal in English, 12(1), 1-8.