People often tell me it must be easier to travel when you’re a couple because you aren’t forced to seek companionship from others. That’s true enough, but in some ways, I find it harder to meet people for that very reason -- they assume you’re not interested because you have each other! At least in Barry’s and my case, we love hanging out with folks, but it doesn’t happen without effort on our part.
We found this out the hard way many years ago, when we were stuck in Malaga, Spain, over Christmas. Not a bad place to be, but we didn’t know anyone and felt lonely. During the day, we wandered aimlessly around town and finally chatted with a tourist from a cruise ship, which briefly buoyed our spirits -- but even so, I was really glad when the day was over. That experience had a silver lining, though, because it prompted our decision to be more proactive about meeting others when away from home.
Here are 10 suggestions we’ve found to be effective for connecting with other people as a couple.
1. Take The Initiative
Recognize that people will assume you’re fine. They’ll think you have all the companionship you need within your couple bubble, so you’ll have to be the ones to reach out.
2. Don’t Buy Into The “Couple Culture”
We have many single, divorced, and widowed friends who have educated us about the dominance of “couple culture.” When invited to a couples’ party, they say they often feel like a fifth wheel. Personally, I find the rigid geometric square of two couples in a social situation to be frustrating. Barry and I find we often prefer one member of the couple to the other, and we end up subtly competing for that person’s attention. Worse, even though we try to be polite, we probably neglect the other one. Adding one or two singles to the group takes the pressure off and mixes it all up.
3. Spend Time Apart
One of the best ways to meet people as a couple is to spend time independently, and then introduce the person you’ve met to the other. I met our Canadian friend Bietta 40 years ago on my own, but she’s long since become close to both of us.
During a 14-hour layover at a Singapore airport 20 years ago, Barry met a young Austrian woman on her way home from Australia, and they ended up having an in-depth conversation about her career and future. She has since married and had two children -- and three years ago, we all got together in the Czech Republic!
4. Take Risks
Although I’m usually an extrovert, sometimes I feel a little shy starting a conversation. In Merano, a town in Northern Italy, Barry and I were wading in the river with locals when we noticed a dark-skinned family who definitely looked different. Since I grew up in foreign countries, I’ve always been drawn to outsiders. After Barry prodded me, I ventured a bit closer and blurted out something. It turned out they were from Pakistan, where I’d lived as a teenager. Suddenly we had a lot to talk about! They ended up inviting us to their home later that week for lunch. We still stay in touch by email -- all because Barry encouraged me to take a small risk.
5. Bring People Together
When we were staying at a hotel in Trabzon, Turkey, Barry and I invited all the international travelers there to join us on the upstairs terrace for a party. Singles, couples -- it made no difference. Nothing fancy -- folks brought their own drinks in paper cups. We even invited the guy at the reception desk, Mr. Nagy, to join us. We had a great time, listening to people’s border adventures and other travelers’ tales.
In Guanajuato, Mexico, where we live part-time, we invite friends over to participate in freewriting evenings, where we all begin with the same prompt, and then read aloud. We’ve hosted singles, couples, and people of various nationalities, each person writing and reading in their preferred language.
6. Invite Locals Over
We like to break down the local-tourist barrier by reversing roles. For example, in towns where we’ve studied Spanish, rather than waiting to be invited to their homes (which has never happened!), we ask our Spanish teacher and their families over to our hotel or apartment for drinks and botanas (snacks). We call our Spanish teachers our “paid friends,” because most of the time we visit with them during a class!
7. Embrace Families
We met Tish and Richard, a French/British couple, while bicycling in the French Pyrenees. They have since become a family of four, with two daughters. While visiting them in England, France, and even in Borneo, we’ve enjoyed watching the children grow up. One of my favorite memories is of two-year-old Ella and me in the back seat of the family car in Borneo giving each other sly, furtive looks, producing peals of giggles in both of us. It’s one of those memories that only I can treasure, sadly, because if I mentioned it to her now (at the regal age of nine), she’d probably reply, “Say what?”
8. Go Outside
The outdoors is a great leveler and equalizer. We find it easier to meet people outside than in, even in once-friendly public places like cafes, where everyone nowadays is buried in their iPads or smartphones. It turns out there's evidence for this. Dr. Jessica Finlay of the University of Minnesota found that older adults felt especially comfortable in parks and other natural settings talking to strangers. It’s the most natural thing in the world to pet someone’s dog or comment upon the view.
We’ve found this to be true many times. For instance, 10 years ago, while hiking the Coast to Coast, a trail across northern England, we made friends with Hasnah, whom we met while holed up on a rainy day in a bunkhouse (a small hostel) in the village of Keld, Yorkshire. The next day we tromped through marshy fields to a nearby pub. Since then, we’ve visited with each other in Britain, Spain, and Mexico. I love casually telling people, “Oh, we met while walking across England.”
Similarly, three years ago, while hiking in the Austrian Alps above Innsbruck, we met a Minnesota couple and their two adolescent kids on the trail. We walked, chatted, and had coffee the next morning, when I showed off my folding bike. We’ve been Facebook friends ever since.
9. Forget About Age
Barry and I, at ages 78 and 69, respectively, are usually much older than the people we meet while traveling. If we expected to socialize just with people our own ages, we’d be out of luck. So we don’t. Barry’s closest friend in the States is less than half his age.
10. Use Technology To Meet People
We’ve met folks through couchsurfing (“changing the world, one couch at a time”), meetups, and Airbnb Experiences. In Sicily, our generous host, Maria, made us feel like honored guests when she invited her couchsurfer friends from all over the island to a party at her home to meet us.
We took part in an interactive couchsurfing group in Tallinn, Estonia, where we explored our cultural identities in writing, facilitated by a visitor from Vietnam. Later, one of the participants, a man from India, invited us to his flat for dinner.
In Amsterdam, we discovered on the internet a Spanish-language conversation group at a cafe. Of course we joined in, eager to practice Spanish, since we weren’t having much luck learning Dutch. (Folks from the Netherlands are famous for breaking into elegant, seamless English the moment you try a halting word or two in Dutch.)
Since that long-ago, lonely Christmas Day in Malaga, I’ve learned it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether you’re single or a couple, if you want to meet people, it’s not hard. The very nature of travel invites it. Just be open, friendly, curious, and willing to take a risk, and it’ll happen.