“Don’t you get lonely?”
That’s one of the questions I get asked most often when I tell people I travel alone (perhaps second to “Where is your boyfriend?”, but that’s for another article).
Here’s the secret about solo travel: you actually make more friends than you would if you traveled with a friend or partner.
When you travel with someone you already know, you don’t need to push yourself to make conversation with new people or go places alone. There’s always someone you can count on when you want to try a restaurant, check out a bar or take a class.
When you travel by yourself, you’re forced to do all of these things without a trusty sidekick, no matter how awkward it feels—otherwise, you’ll wind up eating meals alone in your hotel room and not really seeing much of the place you’re in. And when you put yourself in social situations as a solo traveler, you’ll find that people are naturally drawn to you and are eager to start a conversation.
I now make new friends whenever I travel alone, and I do this without staying in hostels, which is the go-to way to meet people while traveling. Don’t get me wrong; hostels are great, but they’re not for everyone, and they’re definitely not the only way to make friends during solo travel.
After fourteen years of traveling alone and living abroad three times, I’ve figured out a formula for making new friends while traveling: Bold body language, a shift in mindset, and a willingness to see each social interaction as an opportunity to build a new friendship.
Fake It Until You Become It: Act Like You Belong
In one of my favorite TED Talks, Amy Cuddy advises people to fake being confident until they finally become it. By adopting the behaviors and body language of someone who is confident, powerful, and in-charge, you will eventually embody those qualities yourself.
This can be applied to solo travel, too. When you go places alone, tell yourself that you belong there, and that you are 100% comfortable being alone in any given social situation. Then adjust your body language accordingly.
For example, when I was in Medellín, Colombia the other week, I wanted to check out a bar that is popular with the locals, but I didn’t have anyone to go with. I went alone, ordered a beer, and stood outside along a wood table. I made sure to face the area where the majority of the people who had come in groups were seated.
I stood up tall, rolled my shoulders back, leaned against the wood ledge, and began to people watch. When I crossed eyes with someone, I didn’t look away quickly, and I didn’t spend the whole time looking down and feeling self conscious about being alone. I acted like I belonged—actually, I told myself I belonged, and then I embodied that.
This can be especially uncomfortable when traveling in a culture like Latin America, where people tend to always do things in groups—you’ll likely get some weird looks—but you just have to push through it.
By projecting the feeling that you belong completely in whatever situation you put yourself in when traveling solo, you’ll eventually start to feel like that way, and others will think you belong there, too.
You’ll also feel a lot more confident starting conversations with new people, and you’ll notice that people naturally gravitate towards you and want to know what you’re up to.
Sit At The Bar
I’ve had amazing nights out and made great new friends simply from doing this one thing over and over. If you go out to dinner alone, or if you want to check out a nightspot, don’t sit at a table; grab a seat at the bar.
This works for two reasons: one, if the bartender isn’t super busy, she will probably make conversation with you. Most bartenders are naturally charismatic and enjoy talking to new people (and, well, that’s kind of their job). This gives you something better to do than stare at your cell phone, which can make you seem not very approachable.
You’ll notice that the people sitting next to you, or the other bartenders, often get pulled into the conversation; all of a sudden, you’ve got a great group conversation going.
If the bartender is busy or just not that friendly, make conversation with whoever is sitting next to you at the bar. When people are sitting or standing in front of a bar rather than at a private table, they are usually more receptive to chatting with new people.
And if the bartender is already talking to someone next to you, listen to the conversation for a bit and then ask them about something they said. When I was traveling in Cartagena recently, I was able to make friends with a number of people simply by overhearing that they were from New York and then introducing myself and saying I grew up in New York City.
See Every Social Interaction As An Opportunity to Start A Conversation
When you’re at home going about your day-to-day routine, it’s easy to get comfortable and shut out most of the world around you, especially people and circumstances that don’t relate to your next destination or activity. You’ve already got a group of friends, and you’ve got things to do, so why talk to new people?
Traveling alone is a great reminder that every social interaction is an opportunity to make a new friend.
For example, I made several friends while working from a coffee shop in Medellín simply by asking if I could use the outlet near them to charge my computer and then starting a conversation around a simple question, like “Where are you from?”
Sure, that kind of small talk is trite, but just think of it as a way to get a conversation going. You can quickly move on to a more interesting subject.
So, when traveling solo, treat every social interaction—from asking someone for directions to asking them if the seat next to them at a café is taken—as a chance to extend the interaction with a little more conversation (and possibly make a new friend).
When I was about fifteen, I remember my mom telling me I was very shy, and I hated that this was true. I desperately wished I could be effortlessly outgoing and charming, but, in reality, I clammed up in social situations. Even throughout my early 20s I felt like I had all these things I wanted to be able to say to friends and new people I met (ideas, opinions, jokes), but I was too self conscious to open my mouth without heavily filtering everything that came out of it.
Three things helped me get over this: realizing that if you simply be yourself, people will like you a lot more than if you hide behind a veil of shyness; moving to another country without knowing anyone; and forcing myself to learn how to make friends while traveling solo.
Solo travel pushes you to redefine your preconceived ideas about who you are, especially if you’re shy. If you test out these three tips, you’ll find that solo travel isn’t really all that “solo”, and you’ll build friendships that could last years—even a lifetime.