Traveling solo is a testament to our resilience and independence. And with a 42 percent increase in single-ticket bookings since 2015, according to Hostelworld, more travelers are flying solo than ever. While traveling solo comes with a unique set of benefits — the itinerary is solely up to you, you can go at your own pace, and you don’t run the risk of getting sick of your travel companion — it also comes with challenges. Loneliness and difficulty meeting friends rank high among them.
Here’s the thing, though: Research from Johnson and Wales University found that those who feel less lonely to begin with gravitate towards solo travel, while those plagued by loneliness in their everyday life tend to shy away from solo travel since it’s more difficult to manage away from home. If you belong to the latter category, you might find a confidence boost in placing yourself in a vulnerable position and combatting your loneliness abroad.
“Sometimes meeting people with whom you hit it off is a matter of chance,” said Miriam Kirmayer, Ph.D. candidate, therapist and friendship expert. “Instead of defining success by the number of new friends you make, recognize and reward any steps you take to approach someone new.”
For some folks, traveling solo is liberating, while for others, it can feel isolating. If you find being on your own is not quite your speed or you’re hoping to return with pen pals, here’s your guide to making friends while on the road.
Watch body language
Kirmayer noted closed off body language is a self-fulfilling prophecy — we wear headphones and turn our backs to others when we’re anxious about socializing, but it can leave us feeling lonelier than ever.
“So much of what we communicate has nothin to do with words we use,” she said. “It’s easy to overlook the messages we put out into the world with our body language.” Uncrossing arms, smiling, and making eye contact (that means putting away your phone) can all suggest a level of approachability.
But it’s not enough to seem approachable. You need to actively engage a group or individual to reap any social rewards. Kirmayer said to look for signs they’re open to socializing, like they ask questions, listen intently, share personal stories, and have already made other new friendships of their own.
Get into a routine
We often travel to escape routine, but it’s something you might want to adhere to in order to meet new friends. According to resilience expert Michael Ungar, Ph.D., author of Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success, “Familiarity makes it easier to feel a part of a community and may draw you into relationships.” Return to the same coffee shop each morning, or head to the pub in your hostel each night.
Wherever you go, Kirmayer said it’s crucial you feel comfortable. “Making friends and approaching new people can be uncomfortable enough on its own, even in the comfort of home. The last thing you need to do is to put yourself in a place where you feel as though you’re struggling to fit in or connect with whoever else is present,” she said.
Booking flights and hotels is only half the battle. It’s how you use your time at your destination that largely determines the quality of your relationships. Instead of roaming aimlessly, Ungar suggested booking walking tours or activities to guarantee close proximity to other like-minded individuals. For a greater chance of getting paired up with a fellow traveller, try a cooking class, said Kirmayer.
Take care of yourself
Your hostel amenities might not be world-class, but personal hygiene counts for a lot — both in the way others perceive and their ability to tolerate your presence.
“A senior physician advised me when I first came into surgical practice, ‘Always carry breath mints with you. Bad breath can cost you $150,000 a year.’ I laughed when he said that. I still laugh when I think about it. He was dead serious, though, and he was correct,” said Dr. John Chuback, personal development and success training expert, and author of Make Your Own Damn Cheese: Understanding, Navigating, and Mastering the 3 Mazes of Success.
“If you’re seated next to someone on an airplane or train for example, they’ll avoid conversation if you’ve got bad breath.” He said the catch here is to avoid gum as an alternative. Chewing mid-conversation can be considered rude, and we often chew louder than we think.
Traveling is the perfect opportunity to resurrect chivalry from the dead. “Be polite at all times. Sadly, this kind of behavior seems to be on the endangered species lies. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s a wonderful way to conduct yourself and an easy way to make a new friend,” said Chuback. Start by holding open doors and elevators, and offering to help fellow passengers lift their carry-on bags into the overhead bin.
A genuine compliment goes a long way in putting the other person at ease. “I always see a shirt or tie I would love for my collection, so I frequently tell strangers ‘I will trade my tie for your tie right now!’ I always get a chuckle,” said Dr. Herman Williams, physician and board-certified coach, and author of CLEAR! Living the Life You Didn’t Dream Of.
Keep in mind that there’s a fine line between paying sincere compliments and making disingenuous comments in order to get a person’s attention. Be genuine, and a genuine connection will follow.