Eye contact and a smile are starters for meeting others, wherever you may be. If someone looks your way, look back and smile, and chances are they will too, the world over. (OK -- there are exceptions: you probably shouldn't grin at the hairy dude in the back alley in Marseilles, or the six-foot hooker on the corner at 3 a.m. But if you do want to meet people, you can make a quick gut judgment, and then smile away.)
Chat it Up
When you've got someone's attention, that's the time to reach out and talk. And because English has become the world's go-to language, you can chat up people just about anywhere. When you're on line, in a restaurant, at a museum, or sitting next to someone at a ballpark, or at a movie. Make a break-the-ice comment -- "Is it always this hot?" "Where did you learn to speak such good English?" You know, basic stuff.
And even if there's a language barrier, you can back up your simple words with a phrasebook, hand signals, and facial expressions. In Warsaw, I managed to order a meal and have a kind of conversation with my waiter just by hand signals. You may not be able to discuss the Big Bang theory, but you may find a fun companion for the moment.
Follow it Up
Focus on questions that elicit preferences and opinions, something more than a "yes" or "no," to keep the conversation going.
"Where would locals eat?"
"What can't I miss, here?"
"What's the best place to ...?"
This sort of thing leads to conversation, which may lead to sharing further experiences as you travel along. In northern Greece I was on the road researching a Fodor's guide, and I asked directions to a local pastry shop from a nice young man, walking a cute poodle. He started to tell me the way to go, then finally said, "It's easier to walk you there. It's right around the corner." I trusted my gut and said, "Sure" (hey, the guy had a poodle!). Turns out he knew the owner of the shop, and stayed to join me for tea -- and insisted on treating me. It was a public place, in daylight, and I trusted my judgment. If I felt I didn't want to walk with him I would have said something like, "Thanks so much. I'm meeting my husband there, but I want to shop first." Safety trumps truth, so always have an excuse about meeting someone, and do carry a cell phone.
Most of us have networked for business purposes, and we can apply these same skills as we travel. Friends, acquaintances, family, and business associates may offer connections. Traveling to Mexico? How about the owner of your favorite Mexican restaurant? He might have connections where you're going.
Consider people who you know even slightly, and who may offer invitations and contacts as you go. I sat next to a famous architect at a dinner party, and knew he had designed many buildings in Buenos Aires. I mentioned I was going there on my own, and he immediately gave me a list of half a dozen creative acquaintances in BA. I was wined and dined for a week -- just because I mentioned my trip to him.
Travel to Friendly Places
We all have places where we feel most comfortable -- maybe it's because of the language, or our studies, or family ties. Being somewhere we like, around friendly locals, it's easier to meet them. Some of my favorite folks live in New Zealand, the Greek Islands, southern Italy, the Philippines, Australia and Canada, and I know I can easily connect there. Conversely, I stay away from areas where for political or safety reasons, I don't feel welcome. (Check out my book, Solo Traveler, for more notes on safety.)