I’ve been traveling solo full time for more than two years now, and I’ve met great people from Costa Rica to Argentina, from Europe to Africa, and from all over New Zealand. I regularly feature my new friends on my website. During my time traveling solo, I’ve learned to be more outgoing, to embrace unique opportunities, and to accept invitations, and I never feel alone.
Here are a few ways to start a conversation and make new friends on your travels, no matter what country you’re visiting.
1. Smile And Make Eye Contact
This is the easiest way to meet someone with the least amount of effort. It only requires that you stop staring at your phone and start looking at the people around you. It works everywhere in the world, and it doesn’t require special language skills. Simply look around, and when someone who looks friendly returns your gaze, smile intentionally. A lot of the time, this simple gesture will lead to a hello and a great conversation.
I suggest starting with people of the same sex or with couples because, in certain places, you might give the impression you’re trying to meet someone. (Of course, if you are, then go for it!) I’ve also found that this strategy works best when you -- and the person you’re smiling at -- are in an enclosed venue, such as at a restaurant, in a museum, or on a train.
2. Offer A Compliment
One of the best conversation starters is a genuine compliment. You have to mean what you say -- don’t just say something to get a conversation going. Genuine curiosity and mutual interests lead to the best conversations.
I love bold styles and colors, and I’ve started conversations by complimenting anything from hairstyles to shoes to accents. If I want to know where to find what someone is wearing, I have the perfect lead-in to a conversation about that person and their interests. Be on the lookout for people whose attire, reading material, or behavior interests you, and then walk over to them and give a compliment. This can be used any place, even while walking around outside.
3. Jump In On A Conversation
I’ve made some great friends because someone was saying something I found funny or interesting and I made a joke or honest remark about it. My first night in New Zealand, I was dining alone, and the woman next to me started telling her friends a funny dating story. I leaned over and said, “Sorry, but now I have to eavesdrop on your conversation!” She turned around and when she saw that I was alone, she invited me to her table.
You need to have a genuine interest in the conversation before piping up. Also, don’t be upset if this only gets you an annoyed stare. Just smile and chalk it up to not being a good connection for you. I find that this method works best if, instead of intentionally eavesdropping, you simply let the conversation catch you by surprise.
4. Ask Where Someone’s From
This is a question that applies to everyone and can be used anywhere. It’s the perfect icebreaker question, whether you’re on a tour, on a train, or in a restaurant. If you speak several languages, it’s a great way to open up a dialogue if you hear a familiar accent. You’ll get a chance to practice the language -- and possibly meet some people to spend time with during your stay.
5. Help Someone Find Their Way
If you see someone standing in the middle of a street staring at a paper map or at their phone, there’s a good chance they’re having trouble finding something. Walk over to them and ask if you can help. Even if you don’t know a place perfectly, you might have information that would be useful to another tourist, and, at the very least, you’ll have done a good deed. You might end up heading in the same direction and making some new friends.
6. Dine Alone In A Cafe Or Restaurant
If a restaurant isn’t busy, talk to the waiter. Ask them for local tips -- where to go, where they eat or drink with their friends, and how they like living in the area. Waiters are often friendly and can be a great resource to help you enjoy your time in a new place.
If a restaurant is busy, make eye contact with and smile at one of the people at a table next to yours. Or, use one of my other recommended strategies to start a conversation. If you end up speaking with people with whom you have a great connection, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to join their table!
7. Frequent A Particular Venue
This is my number-one tip for getting friendly with locals. If you’re spending any amount of time in a city, I strongly recommend getting to know at least one local. I’m still in touch with coffee-shop owners, hotel managers, and tour guides from around the world because I used their services repeatedly. In many countries, when the staff of a local venue sees you more than once, they'll take an interest in you.
Two years ago, I discovered the Vaca Purpura coffee shop in Costa Rica. It caught my eye because I love cows and coffee. I hopped on an empty stool and ended up talking to the owner, Karen. I went back every day for a week, discovered Karen’s passion for travel and coffee, met her friends and family, and even got invited to dinner with her and her husband. Today, we’re still in touch.
8. Be Willing To Accept Help
If you’re a savvy solo traveler, it might seem that you can take care of everything on your own, and it can be hard to accept help. I’ve learned, however, to immediately accept offers to join someone’s table, share a tour, get a ride someplace, and more.
My eyes were opened to the value of this kind of help while in Costa Rica. I hiked up to a waterfall in a small town. On the way, I passed a man on the otherwise empty road. My instinct told me he was trouble. He tried to get me to accompany him to his “secret place.” I refused, but was scared of what would happen when I returned on the same road. At the waterfall, I met a lovely couple, and we spoke for long enough that they offered me a ride back to my hotel. I gratefully accepted.
9. Take A Tour
Local tours are a great way to get to know people. When you spend several hours or a day with the same group, it becomes easier to converse, especially if you’re shy. The advantage of the tour is that you have the opportunity to befriend both the other tourists and the tour guides.
In November of 2018, I got friendly with Jackie from England on a day tour in Thailand. She celebrated my birthday with me, and we’ve stayed in touch. Last year we even met up in Santiago, Chile.
In February of 2018, I took a tour in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, and the tour guide took pity on me when I slipped and fell into the mud during a long hike. He held my hand and walked backward to help me down the rest of the slippery trail! Over two years later, Julio still checks in on me to see how I am.
A year ago, I took a tour in El Calafate, Argentina, led by Fran. We joked around and developed a wonderful friendship. He’s now working in Christchurch, New Zealand, and now that I’m stuck in the same country, he’s become a local source of comfort and friendship.
Solo travel offers you a fantastic opportunity to meet people from around the world. It’s a great way to step outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself to be bolder than you might otherwise be. Remember that age isn’t a barrier to any of these tips. You’ve got nothing to lose, and you might just gain a new friend.