Some people say that traveling solo is about discovering yourself. While I agree, I believe that’s only 20% of it. The other 80% is really about getting over your fear of talking to strangers. Any time you order food, ask for directions, or do practically anything you are obviously talking to people you don’t know. But of course, simply telling a shy person “Don’t be shy!” is pointless. Instead, here are real, practical ways for you to spark conversations with anyone you meet, anywhere.
It’s scary to feel rejected or not properly acknowledged even by someone you don’t know, but think about the whole thing this way: The beauty of traveling to a foreign land is that you get to leave your old emotional baggage and a life of the familiar behind. That, in a sense, includes your previous identity. You can be anyone you want to be (though not in a creepy identity theft sort of way, obv), which is also in some way shaped by the environment you’re in.
If you want to be less shy, start practicing not being shy. If you stumble, that’s okay, you have no one to impress. Here’s the bitchy truth: no one truly knows or cares about who you are or where you’re from in the first place, so you truly have nothing to lose. Once you adopt this mindset, it becomes a little easier to push yourself to talk to people you don’t know. And the more you do it, the better you get.
Basically, see every new encounter as an opportunity to recreate yourself.
Still, I recognize that starting conversations can be tricky if you don’t want them to die in a sad pit filled with your own tears of self-pity within 20 seconds. I wasn’t very good at it at first either, but eventually, I came up with a few tried-and-tested tactics to help make conversations go smoother and feel less forced…and actually get people to like talking to you.
1. Actually Be a Tourist and Be Open to Suggestions
There’s no use pretending you’re not a tourist or a newbie. Embrace that naivety because it’ll actually work to your advantage.
Most locals can tell and treat tourists differently, in a good way but also sometimes in an exploitative sort of way. I’ve found that people are usually willing to answer questions if you’re lost or are genuinely curious about the city. The perfect people to talk to are baristas, bartenders, restaurant wait staff. They tend to be less intimidating and are used to fielding a ton of casual questions from people anyway.
Ask various questions, like “What’s the best thing most tourists don’t know?” or “Where’s your favorite place to go on a Friday night when you just want to relax?” or “What would you take a friend who’s visiting from out of town if she likes <something you’re interested in>?” You’ll notice that these questions are designed to get them talking about something only they know and like. When you get them to open up like that, it makes them a bit more engaged versus asking “What do you like to do?”
And if you frequent that coffee shop or restaurant, it’s worth actually checking out one of their recommendations so you can go back to them and share your impressions. Them bam, you just found a way to bond and make a new friend.
Don’t try to act like you’re not a tourist. Be curious and ask questions about their city. Most people are really happy to share information if you ask the questions like the ones I suggested above.
2. Bond With Your Fellow Tourists
If you want to meet other travelers, you can head over to a popular tourist spot. They’re popular for a reason and sometimes worth checking out yourself.
Oftentimes you’ll spot a solo traveler like yourself trying to take a selfie. Here you have the opportunity to bond over your shared sense of the unknown, the novel, and the exciting with a fellow traveler. To test if this person is someone you want to hang out with for a couple of hours, offer to help the person take a picture. Assuming they say yes, you can now casually ask them some questions about why they’re here.
Because you’ve helped them out, they’re much more likely to be more open about themselves. See if they’re also traveling alone, and if they are, note that you are too and then ask if they’d be okay with buddying up for an adventure. It could be big or small. There was one instance where I really wanted to try a dessert shop near a popular destination, but the portion was too gigantic for myself. It’d have been a waste of food and money.
Luckily, I came across another solo traveler– a girl from New Zealand–who looked like she was trying to take a selfie. I noticed that the object behind her was too large to be fully appreciated in a selfie, so I offered to take a better photo for her. She was happy to let me do it, and afterward, I threw the following invitation: “By the way, if you don’t have anything to do for an hour, I passed by this great-looking dessert shop that’s popular with the locals and was thinking about getting some of their famous ice cream. Do you want to join me?”
Duh, who says no to ice cream?
You can find cool tourists and travelers at…*drum roll* tourist destinations.
3. Make Your Interests Known
As a traveler, you more than likely have things that can be great conversation starters. On my travel backpack sit a PaRappa the Rapper, a Gudetama keychain, and anime stuff that I swap out every so often. They’re easy to spot and broadcast my interest in cute, geeky things. I did this intentionally for people who recognized these characters. I mean, anyone who’s played PaRappa or adores the silliness of Gudetama can’t be all bad. There were a surprising number of occasions, in fact, where people weren’t shy about coming up to me to point out my good tastes. More importantly, they did the hard part of approaching me, so at this point, we had something to talk about.
It doesn’t have to be keychains. Maybe it’s a book you’re reading, a notebook you like to scribble or doodle in, or a sticker on a water bottle. Some of your belongings can be so bizarre that they will draw someone’s interest, so having these things visible often make a great ice breaker and inevitably lead to conversations about what you or the other person is doing here (in the city or shop).
At the same time, be smart about where or what you want to draw attention. In some countries or tourist areas, you don’t want to draw too much attention to yourself.
You’ve probably got some cool stuff that could make great conversation starters. When you’re at a coffee shop next time, leave the out in the open to draw attention.
4. Make a “Wrong” Assumption
Not too long ago, I sat at a coffee shop in London and noticed this dude next to me typing away on his new Macbook with TouchBar. I said jokingly, “You must have a ton of dongles in your bag.” (Hey, it was a reach.) He immediately pointed out that he didn’t, but opined that it was a frustrating design flaw and warned me to wait for the next iteration. This led us to talking about Apple, technology, and the best fish ‘n’ chips in London (it’s Bailey’s).
Okay, so I went out on a limb and I had to have been somewhat observant and updated on technology, but the point is, people normally don’t like to tell you squat if it feels like you’re interrogating them. They do, however, love to correct you when you’re wrong (don’t we all?). I learned this from speaking coach Sharí Alexander.
So if you want to talk to someone or continue a conversation but you’re not sure what to say, try making a simple, innocent assumption, as long as it’s not deeply personal. Don’t worry if you’re wrong because if you are, they’ll gladly correct you and reveal more information about them, which leads to more things to talk about.
Next time try making an innocent assumption (e.g., “This place is the hands-down the best ramen in the city.”). If you’re wrong, you still start a good conversation.
5. Have Little “Gifts” to Give
Wherever you go, you’ll find cheap trinkets and doodads at souvenir shops. I always make sure to pick up a couple of interesting ones that aren’t lame magnets, keychains, or anything heavy. For example, in Japan, I picked up a handful of shrine charms. If there’s nothing interesting like that, I’d settle for a bag of M&Ms or something sweet that can be shared.
As Peter Shank (whom I learned the M&M tip from via Sol Orwell) points out, M&Ms are cheap and a great way to bring a smile to someone’s face, which can make you smile. Smiles all around, folks, so everybody wins. As OSHO preaches, “A little caring, a little sharing, that’s all life is.”
Gifts come in handy for when I meet cool people and want to help make someone’s day more awesome. You don’t want to pelt just anyone with gifts like Oprah might. Usually, I reserve gifts for people like my Airbnb hosts, fellow Airbnb guests, and people I meet at Facbeook groups or events.
Small gifts like souvenirs or postcards you’ve picked up from your travels or even sharing M&Ms and snacks are a great way to automatically make interactions more pleasant.
The underlying theme for all of these tips is to be pleasant and cordial, but also be helpful to others so that they would, in turn, be helpful to you. We’re creatures who like to reciprocate. Note that this article was a slightly edited and expanded version of my The Solo Traveler’s Guide on How to Meet People While Traveling article.