25 tips on connecting with locals when you travel
By Evelyn Hannon, Founder, JourneyWoman
Remember back to your first day in grade one? You came into school excited but a bit worried that you wouldn’t have anybody to talk to. Who will you play with at recess? Who will sit beside you in the lunch room? Well, hold that memory because setting out on a solo journey could include much the same set of emotions.
I’ve never been afraid to travel solo. I’ve been doing it for the last 37 years and I love it but I do work on ways of meeting folks along the way. It’s important to me. I feel cheated if I don’t connect with the locals. I’m bored if I don’t chat with other travelers along the way.
Here are my 25 plus tips for making friends along the way…
1. Seek out connections even before you leave home. Chat with women who’ve travelled before you. Make note of their tips, advice and contacts. Some of your best adventures will begin that way.
2. Speak to your friends and neighbours who were born in the country you’re travelling to. There is a grandmother here or a sister there who will happily provide some wonderful connections for you. (And, even if they can’t suggest contacts to you they will certainly share their expertise on how to dress appropriately and stay safe. This is a perfect time to ask).
3. Become a member of an organization that fosters the exchange of homestays. Women Welcome Women, promoting visits between females in over 60 countries, is a perfect example and a practical way of getting to meet the locals.
4. Join SERVAS an international network of hosts and travellers building peace by providing opportunities for personal contact between people of diverse cultures and backgrounds.
5. Avoid large, impersonal hotels. Opt for a more friendly bed and breakfast experience where guests enjoy the morning meal together and often linger with coffee and great stories.
6. Many solo travellers tend to choose hostels because they are looking for travel partners. Take advantage of that fact. Don’t like eating dinner alone? Pack your favourite tuna fish casserole recipe and offer to cook dinner for your new hostelling pals. You will be very popular Journeywoman.
7. Eating in a cafe? Keep an English book or newspaper on your table. Inevitably someone will recognize either the book title or the newspaper and will strike up a conversation. Likewise, you can be the first to comment if you notice someone reading a book that you’ve already enjoyed.
8. Look for restaurants that offer communal seating at large dining room tables. Journeywoman has tried this at the warm and welcoming Pain Quotidian bakery, bar and cafe all rolled into one as well as Wagamama a chain that serves tasty noodles dishes worldwide. The fun part of these restaurants is you never know who will sit down beside you and what the conversation will yield.
Bonus — Don’t tell a new friend where you’re staying…
Never tell a new pal you’ve met on the road which hotel and (gasp!) what room he/she can find you in. If arranging a rendez-vous meet the person at a neutral yet busy spot. Leave a note in your room describing who you are meeting and where. In case you run into trouble authorities will, at least, have some idea of your circumstances.
9. Log on to twitter.com. Open an account and put out a call for information. You’ll be amazed at the wealth of knowledge that comes back to you about women’s organizations around the world.
Ed. Note: We all know that cyberspace is imperfect. Please test any online relationship before you provide personal information in your correspondence. If you and your mentor choose to meet in her city please do so in a busy place like a restaurant, shopping mall or train station. Good luck with this travel connection and have fun with it!
10. Are you a teacher, lawyer or doctor that belongs to a professional organization at home? Through them, you can connect with professional women’s groups around the world. If you’re in town on the right date, try attending one of their monthly meetings or excursions.
11. Do you enjoy public speaking? Make yourself available to speak to women’s groups when you are abroad. Don’t charge for your informal talk. It will establish a lot of goodwill and new friends in the city you are visiting. For example: If you’d like to meet and mingle with a whole range of empowered businesswomen in Tokyo, come along as a guest to one of the monthly FEW (For Empowered Women) networking events. You can check their website at: http://www.fewjapan.com/
12. Check out expatriate websites like Expatwomen.com and make connections with some of the women there. Ask how you can meet them, help them. You’ll be amazed at the reception that generally comes your way.
13. Are you a runner? To get you started here is a SiteJogging jogging tour in Rome. You could join other travellers for fun and exercise when you’re away.
14. If you have a special interest, pursue it at your destination. For example: Are you a bridge player? Google your destination to track down a club that welcomes visitors. For example, check this link in London England.
15. Check museum bulletin boards and websites for the Singles Nights many of them advertise. This is always a good opportunity to munch and mingle in good company. Here are some example listings for singles museum events across North America.
Bonus — I met my friend on a solo rail journey…
Twenty-two years ago I met Soo-Tsu on a train going from Chicago to Albuquerque. He and his family were from Malaysia; Soo-Tsu had just graduated from university in the USA. He was twenty-two then and I was fifty-eight. Despite our age difference, we spoke for three days as the train crossed the country. I remember how intelligent and gentle he was then.
The next time I met Soo-Tsu was when he was travelling through Canada a few years later. Without hesitation, I offered him accommodation in my home and he was just as pleasant then as had been during our first encounter. Many years passed and we kept in touch sporadically. Several years ago Soo-Tsu, who is now living in Singapore, read about me in a local magazine. He contacted me via email and I, in turn, promised to call him if my travels ever took me to Singapore.
I travelled to Singapore last year and we met for breakfast before I flew back to Penang. Soo-Tsu is now 42 years old, much more worldly than the young student I first encountered. He has already earned a bit of gray in his hair; he is as polite, clever and considerate as I remembered him to be many years ago. Once again there were no silences in our conversation.
16. Check with your country’s consulate in the city you are visiting. Are they hosting any activities or exhibits that you can attend? If you were a Canadian visiting China this year you could have attended a piano recital or an art exhibit in Beijing that was sponsored by the Canadian government.
17. Don’t be afraid to participate in the banner events of the city. For example, I was in Sydney during Gay Pride Festivities. I’m neither Australian nor gay but that certainly didn’t stop me from joining the celebration and marching in Sydney’s Gay Pride Parade. It was a real hoot and I met some very charming folks in the process.
18. Don’t have time to volunteer at home? You can ‘do good’ at your destination and I promise it will ‘do good’ for you in return. A perfect example is this travel story about a middle-aged guy who volunteers to take care of babies in Thailand. Click here to be inspired.
19. Take an educational course in the country you are exploring. When I’ve gone on the road for longer than a month I enroll in at least one week-long class along the way. This ensures that, at least, I will have people to interact with for that length of time. Add to it the bonus of learning about my classmates’ culture through their eyes. And, if I’m really lucky I might be invited home to meet their family.
Ed. note: If you are invited to someone’s home and would like to offer a small gift make sure that your offering is culturally correct.
20. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re at an onsen (hot spring bath) in Japan or hammam (bath) in Morocco ask the other women in the changing room about proper decorum. Females are generally wonderful communicators. I’ve started more great conversations by asking for help than one can possibly imagine.
21. Visit the local university. Academic bulletin boards are a tremendous source of cultural happenings. Program content is eclectic and the participants generally very welcoming.
22. Find a female-friendly restaurant you like and keep going back. Once the staff gets to know you, they’ll look forward to chatting with you, time and time again. Some of my best shopping tips came from a waitress in Munich and for three days in San Francisco, my waiter became a dedicated jogging partner.
23. Check the local newspapers for singles’ activities in the city. Here’s a website with access to major newspapers in the world or simply pick up a ‘What’s On’ community newspaper in the cafes you visit.
24. Join a walking tour of the city. It’s a lively introduction to your new surroundings and you’re bound to meet other solo travellers that way. Take the initiative, introduce yourself. Chances are you’ll end up doing some sightseeing together.
25. Finally, when language is a difficulty, invite a local student out to dinner. She picks the restaurant. You both enjoy the local cuisine. She gets the chance to practice her English. You pay the bill. And both of you benefit from the exchange.
Bonus — Create friendship cards…Those women travelling for business always have cards with them to hand out to colleagues they meet along the way. This is considered the correct procedure and good business technique. But what about JourneyWomen taking part in leisure travel? Surely they will find opportunities when they would like to exchange contact information with new acquaintances (really strangers) they meet while exploring the world. In this case, we recommend a more careful approach. Have ‘friendship’ cards printed listing only your first name, your city, and email address. This information is ample for a potential friend and not enough for someone who might use it in anti-social ways.
Eat with locals at your destination
Around the world passionate home cooks create unique and authentic dining experiences served around their communal table. Originated in Tel Aviv, this website platform lists alternative dining experiences with incredibly creative cooks. Eat gourmet and creative meals in the homes of cities you travel to around the world. Expect to be super full, so make sure you wear stretch pants…and expect the alcohol to be flowing. But note: you will need to register for these meals in advance. It is not for the spontaneously inclined. Website: EatWith.com
Bonus — Women’s words on friendship…
You can keep your friends by not giving them away.
(Mary Poole, 1938)
Friendship with oneself is very important; without it
one cannot be friends with anyone else in the world.
(Eleanor Roosevelt, 1944)
Female relationships that work are relationships in which
women help each other belong to themselves.
(Louise Bernikow, 1980)
Constant use has not worn ragged the fabric of
(Dorothy Parker, 1944)
Friendship is an art, and very few persons are born
with a natural gift for it.
(Kathleen Norris, 1931)
Friendships are easy to get out of compared to love affairs,
but they are not easy to get out of compared to, say, jail.
(Fran Lebowitz, 1992)