*This is a guest post by world traveler and storyteller Adrien Behn
If you’ve ever wondered how to meet locals while traveling, I’ve got some powerful tactics to share, and stories to go with them.
Like this one time when I was sitting around a bonfire in Italy.
It was a night in late September. The earth was cooling, and our group of six strangers-made-friends gathered closer to the heat for warmth.
We were all from different countries, and each of us had our own bottle of €3 wine.
Sipping vino, our group sat around the fire wrapped in blankets, not so different from the way our ancestors did. And we told stories like them, too.
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Our conversation bounced from one topic to the next. With an evening to ourselves and liquid inspiration, we solved every global issue in a night.
At one point, we landed on the topic of schools and what similarities and differences there were between them around the world.
I described what it is like in the USA, and was puzzled by my friends’ response when I said, “Wait, you guys don’t say a pledge of allegiance?”
All the other heads turned and looked at me.
“No, it is only you and North Korea that have your children pledge to your nation’s flag every morning”, noted Nick, from New Zealand.
Woof. Strong comparison.
I looked up at the stars, which seemed brighter in the cold.
Although they were the same stars I stared at back home in upstate New York, they looked different in Italy.
It was a blazing metaphor for how I started to see my homeland, thinking about the same place but from a shifted angle.
A seed had been planted.
It wasn’t just a change in how I saw my country, but the world.
At that point, I’d been bouncing around Europe for four months. It wasn’t unusual to be having long conversations into the night that didn’t scamper away from any topic.
These endless chats were with people I barely knew but felt extremely connected to.
They were conversations about self-growth, purpose, and the universe. About music and gardens and dancing.
And I noticed how the conversations I had abroad didn’t always match how Americans perceived the outside world.
I knew that the world was much more complex than the simple sweeping statements I’d often hear at home.
And above all, I heard about the importance of travel.
Needing A Change
When I returned back to the United States, I was disappointed by how poorly I’d recorded these conversations.
Cut to two years later, and I was dissatisfied with my life.
At home, I felt directionless, so I decided to pick a different path and buy a one-way ticket to Mexico.
Unbeknownst to me, it would be one of the most impactful decisions of my life.
We do things kind of carelessly sometimes, unknowing of the consequences, especially when we are desperate. Anything to get us out of our current situation.
It’s like grasping for an escape hatch that is swinging above your head and you aren’t able to reach.
I felt like I needed something, anything, to get away.
So I booked the ticket, quickly and carelessly; however, this time I wanted to document it better. I wanted to keep track of the conversations I knew I would be having with strangers.
Blogging had never called to me.
But after I booked my ticket, I was on my iPad and saw the GarageBand icon. I played around with it and thought:
“Hey, I could make a podcast.”
(And yes, I know I just made NPR’s executive team cringe).
Building on this decision — a totally nonchalant idea — I decided I would make a podcast that would document my excursions.
Cut to three years later, and I’m writing this blog post from Mexico as I work on the second season of my show, Strangers Abroad.
Meeting People While Traveling & Sharing Stories
I knew travel invited fascinating conversations, and I wanted to record them; but I believed then, and more formally now, that storytelling is a form of immortality.
We still talk about Shakespeare and Homer. When did they die?
Most people’s stories will never gain wide-scale attraction; however, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important or inspiring or impactful.
Everyone I was speaking to confirmed over and over again how travel made them more reflective on themselves as well as how the world actually worked.
They were able to see the fundamentals of who they were outside of their home environments; the ones that form us but can often make us soft.
These travelers were also able to speak to real locals about their country and the happenings within it instead of just hearing it on the news.
Fellow travelers said this over and over again.
If we shared these stories it might inspire others to go out and have their own adventures, suspend their preconceived judgments of other cultures and maybe even help change the world.
I found that the conversations I was having with strangers were just as impactful as the ones I had at home.
Honestly, I believe there are hundreds of potential friends, soul mates, lovers, and companions out there for each of us; but they may live in Hanoi, Oaxaca, or Oslo, and you may never find them if you don’t go out and look for them.
I’ve had women discuss sexual assault with me in Peru (grab that episode here), discussed the importance of storytelling in Bocas del Toro with a man who has been to every country in the world, and had couples tell me how they survive long backpacking trips together.
But to be fair, I’m not a surface level person.
Small talk is like being stuck in traffic — you are always desperate for some good conversation but you end up just getting pre-recorded commercials.
I don’t want to hear a list of the places you have been to. I want to hear about how they changed you. I want to hear about the best meals, and where you saw you needed to grow.
I meet people around the world, and yes, it is weird asking total strangers to be recorded for permanent placement, their voices and stories on the internet for the foreseeable future.
But I found out how to make people comfortable enough to open up to me and share some very personal aspects about themselves.
So, I do think that I am a very open person and you have to push yourself to be open. It is all too easy to just stare at Instagram while people are getting to know each other in your hostel or while you are at a new cafe.
But here are some ways to approach people and strike up a friendly conversation.
How To Connect With Locals While Traveling
Do you find the idea of meeting people while traveling daunting?
Below I share my best tips for not only finding locals and connecting with others but having more meaningful interactions.
1. Learn Bits Of The Language
Try to learn bits of the language that go beyond “Where is the bathroom?”.
Phrases I always try to learn include “please” and “thank you”, of course, but another one that is equally important is how to say “cool”.
I will struggle through a grammatically broken sentence in Mexico; but if I end it with “chido” (cool) the locals go crazy, wondering how this gringa broke their code.
Most importantly, it shows that you are trying to be respectful and are interested in being in their country instead of touring around and expecting to be spoken to in English.
Now, if you can speak more of the language or are in a country that shares your mother tongue…
2. Give Genuine Compliments When You Meet People Overseas
No matter where I am in the world or whether I’m talking to a cashier, a waiter, a bartender or someone else, when I meet new people I seize the moment to compliment them.
People are normally caught off guard because everyone is just in their own world.
However, if you say “I like your shirt!” or “Where did you get your nails done?” it can help someone get through their day.
If I am being served by someone I always ask how much longer their shift is and try to be empathetic if they look tired.
Showing that you see what they are feeling goes a long way. It’s one of the best strategies to meet new friends while traveling.
3. Ask People Questions
People love talking about themselves.
Focus on questions about other people’s experiences.
Asking about someone’s life is less controversial than asking them how they feel about things, but know you run the risk of getting a wide variety of stories.
I have had Mexican designers open up on how they feel purposeless to me and women tell me how they were abused as children.
If they unload on you, you don’t have to say anything more than “I hear you” and sit there with them. Most people just want to be heard.
Of course, most people probably won’t get this deep with you upon just meeting, but know that these kinds of stories may surface.
Need help coming up with conversation questions?
4. Talk To Locals About Food
You can always ask them about their favorite local food and the best places to eat it.
Food is a unifier.
People typically love their home cuisine and want to share it with outsiders.
Whenever I am in a cab, I always ask the driver what their favorite meal is and where to get it. They usually light up — because they have been driving for a while — and tell me where the good stuff is and where to avoid.
It will always strike up conversations and, bonus, you’ll get a great meal out of it.
5. Truly Listen To Others
After you ask someone a question make sure to listen instead of blazing over their response and talking about yourself.
The truth is, many of us are not great at active listening. Instead, we’re just waiting for our turn to talk.
You can demonstrate that you are listening by responding to the feelings the other person is expressing and asking more questions.
Also, eye contact is important.
If the thought of staring into someone’s eyes makes you uncomfortable, gaze at the space in between their eyes.
6. Tell Your Own Story
After you have asked questions and have genuinely listened, tell the person you’re speaking with a story about your life that relates to theirs.
Storytelling is an invisible form of currency that we pass around. We are addicted to it and have created a world based around storytelling through photos, writing, art and, of course, conversation.
Hopefully, telling your own story will show that you and this person — who may have grown up thousands of miles away from you — possibly have more in common than you originally thought.
7. Be Kind To Everyone You Meet
Hopefully, this is a no brainer.
If you come from a country that might hold some negative stereotypes about the one you’re visiting, being kind can go a long way.
8. Know Topics To Avoid During Conversations With Strangers
Try to avoid talking about politics and religion, as you might find that you make friends with those who sit on the opposite political side as you.
That being said, be mindful of where the conversation could go.
I once had a conversation with a taxi driver that started out great but he quickly veered away from his work as he decided to share some pretty racist statements.
If you get to a point where you don’t want to go any further, don’t.
9. Live Like A Local
By this point you hopefully have a solid understanding of how to talk to strangers, but how do you find these people?
A big piece of advice:
Try to live like a local.
Find someone who can take you around, show you their city and give you context into what you are exploring.
I’ve found that, very often, people love showing off where they live.
Here is an example:
I made friends with a chef in Mexico City which was the best decision for my time there — though, the worst decision for my weight.
We would walk around from taco to torta stand, and he would explain to me the history of the food and how to tell if it was good or not.
He would tell me stories and rumors about the streets we were walking down and point out murals hidden like Easter eggs around the city.
10. Do What You Love
Focus on what you love doing and what you want to experience.
Whether it is a local or another traveler, you will find like-minded people when you go to places that interest you.
11. You Don’t Have To Be Friends With Everyone
Making connections does not mean that every person you meet will be a lifelong friend.
And that’s fine because they shouldn’t be. It sounds exhausting.
However, micro-relationships — little interactions with strangers and people that pass through your journey — can be just as impactful.
If anything, they can be more fun because it is a random moment in your life that you and another person get to share, and may never do so again.
12. Gain Some Gender Perspective
I completely recognize that being a white woman is a probable reason as to why it has been easy for me to make connections on the road.
For instance, I’ve heard that it is more difficult for men to CouchSurf because they are often perceived as more threatening.
I was fortunate to stay with a lot of single men who never thought anything more than just having me stay at their house.
However, there is a psychological term called Sexual Over-Perception Bias where men interpret women’s friendliness as a sexual advance. In these situations, it’s important to reiterate that you are friends with them and set the boundaries you are comfortable with.
The good news is that there are many great destinations for solo female travelers and that this style of traveling is becoming more of the norm.
13. Use Great Resources To Meet People While Traveling
I am a big advocate for CouchSurfing because, not only does it provide free accommodation, but you are automatically interacting with people who are open to meeting foreigners.
You also get the perspective of living like a local, which is an ideal experience.
It is a surefire way to have a local’s point of view whether or not you can actually hang out with them. I have gone to underground bars in Zagreb, concerts in Panama City, and have understood large Spanish markets because of it.
Prefer the comforts of a hotel over sleeping on someone’s futon?
CouchSurfing also offers a great app for travelers to meet, as you can ask locals on the platform if anyone is available to grab a coffee or show you around.
Depending on how big the community in a city is they may have meetups, as well.
For instance, I’ve gone to lucha libre fights in Mexico City, expat holiday events in Berlin, and rooftop parties in Panama — all with CouchSurfers and other travelers.
Through this platform, you can stay in a local home.
You’ll be able to choose if you’d like the entire home to yourself or if you’d prefer to have the local there too, similar to a homestay.
You can also stay in some incredible accommodations, usually for much cheaper than a hotel. Think European castles, private villas, gorgeous woodland cabins, seaside retreats and more.
By the way, if you’ve never stayed in an Airbnb you can click here to get $40 off your first booking!
Airbnb now offers experiences offered by locals.
Locals set the prices, though experiences are usually budget-friendly, ranging from $5-$100.
Experiences showcase everything from classic walking tours to offbeat adventures to entering local homes for an activity.
Explore Hollywood with a ghost hunter in Los Angeles, snorkel mystical cenotes in Mexico, hike waterfalls in Thailand and more.
During your experience, you can also meet up with other travelers while sharing stories with new friends.
Meetup groups are based on interests, whether that be travel writing, astrology, wine, vegetarian food or something else.
It’s a great way to find locals who also share similar passions and meet friends abroad.
Time Out Magazine typically has a good selection of what is happening that week and weekend in major cities.
Additionally, you’ll find great restaurants and attractions to explore.
Tinder (& Other Dating Apps)
I have gone on plenty of platonic dates with people who were just interested in meeting someone new and having an adventure in their own city.
Again, it is so much better to have a local perspective to a city — and maybe even a potential romance, if you want that.
However, if you are just looking for friendship, be extremely clear and set expectations for the interaction before meeting. This is the best tip for using Tinder as a travel social network.
Know where you are going ahead of time and how to get home and don’t feel pressured to drink more than you want to.
Follow these tips, and you’ll likely find that Tinder and other dating apps make great travel tools.
I recently lived in Mexico City for a month and joined all of the expat Facebook groups.
This allowed me to meet a lot of locals just by asking for recommendations or if anyone was interested in giving me a tour of architecture, gardens, or museum recommendations.
These groups typically post meetups, as well.
14. Take Time For Gratitude
At the end of the day, ground yourself in gratitude for all of those that you meet.
It isn’t always easy to meet locals while traveling, and it can be even harder to have a meaningful conversation with them.
When you do, be thankful, and let this gratitude bolster your confidence for future interactions.
So, are your fears of not making friends abroad evaporated?
Do you feel more confident about approaching locals and strangers while traveling?
I hope this helps you make deeper connections while traveling.
How do you meet locals while traveling?
Any tips for creating deeper connections abroad?
About Adrien Behn
Adrien Behn is the creator and host of the travel podcast, Strangers Abroad. It is a series of conversations she had with strangers she met while backpacking, where she discusses travel advice, self-growth, and stories from abroad, focusing on the importance of getting out of your comfort zone. She is also a live stage storyteller, can bake a mean pie and is a member of my Travel Blog Prosperity community.
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