Finding Friendship on the Road

“Brooklyn’s too cold tonight
& all my friends are three years away.
My mother said I could be anything
I wanted — but I chose to live.”
– Ocean Vuong, Thanksgiving 2006 (from Night Sky with Exit Wounds)

Solo travel can be a lonesome experience, and the prospect of encountering such feelings is off-putting for many would-be solo adventurers. But traveling alone doesn’t have to be lonely, even for the introverted explorer.

I was reminded of ways in which I have made friends — both long-term and temporary — while traveling on my own over the years thanks to a New York Times article that offered advice for making friends. There’s some good advice in there, but it’s not for everyone.

Sometimes I get to take pictures with people I meet in Tokyo

One of the main points the article makes is that solo travelers should stay in hostels because it’s a more social experience. I’m going to say that this is partly true. I’ve had experiences at hostels that were overwhelmingly social and others that were not. When I stayed at the hostel in D.C., I wasn’t there to make friends so much as I already had plans to meet friends who lived in the area (also, the hostel did not have a great social space). The same goes for the hostel I stayed in on a one-day layover in Tokyo — I chose that one for comfort and location. The second hostel I tried in Tokyo was because my friend insisted on staying there, and ARTnShelter was a more social space, particularly as it had its own bar.

But hostels can be hit and miss. Sometimes a hostel that’s known as a social place will not have social guests at that particular time. I feel it’s best to set expectations low for the hostel experience to avoid disappointment.

Sometimes you need to find the right neighborhood, like Shimbashi in Tokyo

Added to the hostel experience though, is the idea of free walking tours. Hostelling International, for instance, offers a lot of free or low-cost activities like this that provide opportunities to interact with fellow travelers. This is how I became friends with a Brazilian visiting Boston — we were on the same walking tour, decided to grab lunch after, and then set out on our own tour of the city for the rest of the day. I even welcomed her to New York a week later.

But you don’t have to go on a hostel tour. Many cities around the world now have free walking tours (my friend in Prague even runs one) — they’re not entirely free as you’re expected to at least tip your guide. And even paid tours are great for socializing. My tour of Banteay Srei in Cambodia led to an encounter with a Dutch expat who agreed to go biking with me the following day. There was also the Australian I met on a tour of Nam Coc, Vietnam, who joined me for chả cá afterward — it’s a meal that requires at least two people.

drinking vientiane
I met some locals in Vientiane because I walked over with beer

The New York Times article also mentions Airbnb Experiences, which sound interesting, but I’ve never tried them. These are activities hosted by locals that can be booked along with accommodation. I haven’t used Airbnb in a while — it’s been so long that the experiences section is entirely new to me. But I did get a nice little tour around Halifax from my hosts during my first stay via the platform.

Of course, there’s always social media for those of us who aren’t so socially adept. Twitter in particular has helped me make friends around the world. It even got me to meet my roommate in Taipei. Most recently, a social media connection gave me an amazing tour of Mexico City — I wouldn’t have known to go to some of these places had it not been for her.

At the very least, I have found Twitter to be helpful in getting some advice for places to visit. There are a lot of travelers on there who are willing to help with an itinerary.

My only additional piece of advice is to go to bars and chat with people. Ask what they’re drinking. Or talk to the bartender so much that the bartender passes you off to a regular.

And sometimes, making friends on the road is about luck. On my first solo trip in years to Panama, I started up a conversation with a couple of Canadians while boarding the flight. Turned out that they had the seats next to me. I somehow convinced them to get a room at the hotel where I was staying when we arrived, and then we split a room at the beautiful bed and breakfast in Casco Viejo. Having travel companions for a couple days was a great experience, but it was entirely based on luck.

Sometimes I want to enjoy the sights on my own

There is no guaranteed way of making friends while traveling on your own. It requires effort. And for some of us, that amount of effort can be difficult. The best advice I can give about making solo travel less lonely is to keep at it — whether you make a connection or not should not determine how much you enjoy the travel experience.

How have you made friends on the road?

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