I recently wrote about safety tips when you're traveling on your own. But soloing can be lots of fun, and it's easy to meet interesting people. Here, some tips on how to meet others while traveling, adapted from my book, Solo Traveler: Tales and Tips for Great Trips.
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?"
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 guidebook, 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. 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 the Greek Islands, southern Italy, the Philippines 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.
Where to Meet People
Bars are classic "meet" markets, but be careful if you're not interested in romance, because bars are filled with people who are looking to hook up -- and who may misinterpret your desire to make friends as a desire to make love. (Then again, you may be interested in a fling. If so, be cautious;It's complicated enough at home!)
Share a table, eat at a bar, linger in a cafe and you'll meet others. Something about food and talk and easy, comfy interacting. Maybe it's other patrons who will chat you up; maybe the waitstaff. Go to one place a few times, and you'll probably be treated as a regular.
If you're away on business or taking a class, you'll discuss, assist or commiserate, and that means connecting then, and sometimes, after.
Public transport is an easy way to meet people for casual chats. If you're sitting next to someone, start with that smile. By the end of the line, you may have made a new acquaintance.
During Special-Interest Travel
Shared interests are ideal when you want to meet others, and can lead to long-term friendships. Join a group or tour for a day or an entire trip, doing just about anything from snorkeling to cooking to biking to antiquing to bird-watching, to... you name it. Google your interest to find out about travel opportunities.
Where People Congregate
Hang around bookstores, museums, airport lounges, and upscale hotel lobbies, and you're making yourself available to meet certain types. Hang around casinos, bars, and you'll find others. Malls, concert halls, hairdressers, houses of worship, coffee shops -- pick and choose.
Over the Internet
Sites can lead you to other travelers, looking to meet and share from all over the world. Just be cautious, as the web universe is just like the real world -- filled with all types of people, great to awful.
More Specific Tips for Meeting Others
Want people to notice you and start a conversation? Wear something like a colorful scarf, interesting cap, unusual pin. (But stay within your comfort level and local customs, or the wrong people may be the ones who notice.)
Carry a guidebook, pipe in if you hear others talking and can help, and have tips handy.
Carry Useful Items
Umbrellas, sunscreen, bug spray are easy-to-share props to meet others. And you can offer your paperback to someone nice when you've finished reading it.
Walk a Dog
Fido can be an excellent conversation starter, and an excellent protector as well, when needed.
Offer to Take a Photo
Folks traveling together don't get many chances to be in photos together, so offer and you'll make some quick acquaintances. Or ask someone to take a photo of you (preferably someone with their own camera -- no need to hand off something expensive to just anybody).
These are just a few ideas. Use your head, trust your gut -- and bon voyage!