I often look back on my 25th birthday as one of my best. Not because I got the best gifts or because I stayed out until 6am getting wasted and dancing on tables, but because I was a taught a lesson in travel that I will never forget: The kindness of strangers.
I was in Mendoza, Argentina, traveling solo, and it was two days away from the big day. I’ve always been the type of person who hates asking people to celebrate with me or do something for me, because I never want people to feel obligated to do something they don’t want to. Still, there’s something undeniably depressing about spending your birthday completely alone with no plans in a foreign country. So, I decided to take action.
One of my favorite tools for meeting locals on the road is CouchSurfing. While many travelers use the website to procure free accommodation by sleeping on peoples’ couches, I use it for the message boards that allow you to organize activities with other backpackers and locals like meeting up for coffee, planning hiking trips and going for drinks. Joining the Mendoza city group on CouchSurfing I typed a post:
“Hey CouchSurfers. I’ll be in the city from April 15 to 19. My birthday is on April 17 and would love to get a group of people together to celebrate with me. I’m up for suggestions on things to do!”
While I expected a couple responses, what I received moved me to tears. While one CouchSurfer bought round-trip bus tickets for us to hike Aconcagua, another planned an entire asado dinner at a nice local restaurant for me. In the end, 11 people showed up in total. Eleven people that were strangers over appetizers and close friends by dessert. The group ended up dancing and bar hopping into the wee hours of the morning. I still keep in touch with these wonderful people to this day.
This is only one of a number of birthdays I celebrated on the road while backpacking. Some tips I’ve learned through the years on how to make it a memorable one include:
Find Local Friends On CouchSurfing
The above story highlights perfectly exactly why I think CouchSurfing is the #1 birthday planning tool on the road. The reason people sign up for CouchSurfing in the first place is to meet new people, and any excuse to get people together to party and celebrate will be well received. Log-on to the appropriate city forum and tell the group it’s your birthday and you’d love to have everyone go out to a local restaurant or for drinks. You’re like to have a memorable birthday and make new friends in the process.
Spend Quality Time With Yourself
Who says birthday celebrations have to be focused on partying? Sometimes, life on the road means you have little time to truly be on your own, especially if you’re staying in hostel dorms and hanging out with other travelers all the time. Take the day to just spend some time in a peaceful place and reflect on your trip, your life, your accomplishments and your dreams. You’ll end your birthday feeling rejuvenated and in a positive mindset.
Post A Notice At Your Hostel
If you’re staying a hostel there are usually message boards where people post notices about events, jobs, car shares and other happenings. Make a flyer telling people you’d love to organize a little meetup in honor of your birthday and ask the hostel to help promote it. As many hostels organize nightly and weekly events, you can also ask if they can plan something to help you celebrate, like a pub crawl or pizza making party.
Talk To A Local Bar About Hosting An Event With Discounted Drinks
Depending how long in advance you’ll be in your destination, you may want to talk to a local bar about organizing a special birthday happy hour with discounted drink specials. Tell them you’ll help promote the event and decorate for it. It’s been my experience that if you don’t mind holding the party before the bar gets busy, for example from 8pm to 10pm, the bar staff won’t mind hosting something that will bring people in. Otherwise, you can always head to a BYOB restaurant and offer to supply the wine. Hey, who can say no to free booze?
Typically those traveling for an extended period of time are doing so on a budget. Life consists of street food, CouchSurfing and hostel accommodation, free walking tours, self-guided exploration and forgoing public transport for walking. While these are all travel tactics that can enhance a trip, there comes a time when travel fatigue starts to hit you and you need to splurge. Make that splurge be on your birthday. Spring for a day at the spa, treat yourself to a tasting menu dinner at a nice restaurant or enjoy a sightseeing cruise of the city. It’s your special day, and you should do something special to commemorate it.
Have A Skype Party With Friends From Home
Birthdays and other holidays can sometimes make travelers feel homesick. If you’re wishing you could spend your special day with your best friends from home, make it happen by planning a Skype date with your closest pals. You can do a free group chat with anyone you’d like, regardless of their location on the globe. Catch up, play online games, have drinks together and just enjoy some quality chatting time with the people who know you best.
Cross Something Off Your Bucket List
What can be more memorable than crossing something off your bucket list? Think about some of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences you’ve always wanted to have — skydiving, bungy jumping, getting a tattoo, learning a local dance style, going skinny dipping in the ocean — and do it on your birthday. You can also tailor it to have a special local experience, like riding camels in Jordan, taking karate in Okinawa or learning samba in Brazil.
For an alternative birthday idea, think about focusing on a group of people in need instead of on yourself this year. Ask your accommodation staff if they know of any programs you can get involved in, head to the local library or do a Google search to see what your options are. Volunteering on your birthday is a positive and memorable experience that can help you make a positive impact on the place you’re visiting.