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This post was written by Matt Kepnes of Nomadic Matt, one of the most popular travel blogs on the web. Matt is the author of the New York Times bestselling book How To Travel the World on $50 a Day, which had a huge influence on my decision to travel the world for a year. He is also the creator of the Superstar Blogging course, which I credit to helping me grow this blog. Needless to say, I am super excited to have Matt share some advice on how he’s learned to deal with loneliness over the last decade of traveling.
When it comes to long-term travel, one of the most common obstacles faced by travelers is something that almost nobody ever expects.
While we’re busy planning our trip, we tend to prepare for the obvious: we learn how to book cheap flights, we sign up for the best travel credit cards so we can travel for free, we download maps and apps and get any vaccinations we may need. We research the best travel insurance and tell our credit card companies we’re traveling and automate as many bill payments that we can.
We’re usually on the ball when it comes to making lists and preparing all the practical stuff because there are tons of travel blogs and guides that you can use to get the tips and information you need.
But once you get on the road, there’s an obstacle you can’t really prepare for — especially if you’re an introvert or struggle with social anxiety.
That obstacle? Loneliness.
I’ve always been an introvert so when I first started traveling the world I was loathe to break out of my comfort zone to deal with the growing loneliness I was feeling.
Wouldn’t adventures just fall into my lap? Wouldn’t I just stumble into impromptu conversations with quirky and charming characters?
That’s how it happens in the books and movies I had spent years reading and watching. Shouldn’t that be happening to me too?
Well, it didn’t.
That’s when I realized I was going to have to take action if I wanted to meet new people.
So that’s what I did.
These days, while I’m still an introvert who battles with anxiety, I’m also much more comfortable and confident when it comes to meeting people. I host events, I’ve given talks and lectures, and I’m at ease chatting to travelers in hostel dorms.
But it wasn’t always like this.
In the beginning, I was lonely and anxious and nervous breaking the ice. Fortunately, after a lot of trial and error, I learned a few tips and tricks to help combat loneliness when traveling. It won’t be easy to overcome, but if you make an effort you’ll see results.
To help you on that journey, here are 6 ways to overcome loneliness while traveling.
1. Start Small
Travelers are usually a friendly bunch, but if you’re not comfortable inviting people from your dorm out for drinks (let alone just starting a conversation with them) then you’ll want to start small.
Build up your confidence by smiling and saying hi to travelers in your hostel or hotel when you meet them. Keep it simple. If they ask follow-up questions, great! Let the conversation flow. If they don’t, that’s ok too. You’re just laying the groundwork. You don’t need to become a charismatic emcee overnight. Just focus on making progress. Smile, say hi, make eye contact. That’s it.
2. Try Asking for Advice
One of the best ways to break the ice when traveling is to ask for advice — even if you don’t need it. Ask if they have any food or drink recommendations for your destination or if they’ve found any hidden gems worth exploring. People love to give advice so give them a chance to chat and share their experiences. That will get the conversation moving — and you may even pick up some extra tips.
If they are well traveled, try asking them for tips regarding your future travels. (I’m thinking about backpacking New Zealandnext. Have you been?)
Sure, you can Google all of this (and you probably already have) but getting insider advice is not only going to make sure you have a great experience but it helps break the ice and opens you up to other conversations.
3. Be aware of your body language
When you’re trying to meet other travelers or locals, make sure you’re aware of your body language. Do you look approachable? Are your arms crossed and your eyes hidden behind sunglasses? Do you have headphones in?
Body language speaks volumes so make sure that, even when you’re alone, you look approachable. That will make other travelers much more likely to say hi or start up a conversation.
Also, try to give clues to help other people start a conversation with you if you’re not ready to start one yourself. If you’re reading a book, make sure people can see the cover. If you have a favorite band, wear their shirt when you travel. Little clues like this open the door for other people to comment and compliment you, which is a great way to break the ice.
4. Use the sharing economy and social media
These days, there are tons of apps and groups you can join to help you meet other travelers. Here are 3 you should embrace:
1.Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing has a “Hangouts” app that you can use to connect with both travelers and locals alike (even if you’re not staying with them). You can meet for coffee, a meal, or to go out to a museum or other attraction. You’ll find a good mix of locals and travelers on the app, and it’s really easy to organize group events too if you’re not comfortable 1 on 1 with someone.
2. Meetup.com. Meetup.com is a platform that connects you with locals who share an interest. Like to swing dance? See if there is a club in your destination. Love to go trail running? Check and see if there is a weekly group. No matter your interest, chances are there is a local group you can connect with on the platform. That will help you meet like-minded people and give you something to talk about as well.
3. The Nomadic Network. Joining a travel Facebook group like The Nomadic Network can help you connect with anyone in the area and get suggestions from travelers who have been in your situation. The Nomadic Network is a community I created for this very reason because I struggled when I was on my first trip abroad. You can join the group and make friends, get tips, and share your advice. It’s everything I wish I had when I started traveling (and we host tons of in-person events all around the world too!)
5. Be generous
One of the best ways to win over travelers is by helping them save money (who doesn’t like saving money?). If you’re staying in a hostel, try cooking up a huge meal and offering it to everyone. You’ll easily make friends that way and get a conversation started.
If cooking isn’t your strong suit then just substitute it for what you are good at. Cut hair, give tarot readings, teach people how to juggle, make a bunch of cocktails, lead a yoga class — anything can work.
By bringing people together and offering something for free, you’ll endear yourself with the community and get people excited to hang out and chat.
6. Learn to spend time with yourself
Inevitably, you’re going to be alone on the road — sometimes for days at a time. The best way to get over being lonely is to learn to entertain yourself. Take up a hobby or break out of your shell and try something new. Take a class, learn a new skill, or do something that forces you out of your comfort zone like camping or skydiving. Personally, I hate adrenaline activities but to break out of my shell I went on a huge canyon swing when I was backpacking Australia. I didn’t love it, but it definitely got me out of my comfort zone.
Anything to help you develop a new perspective and shake off the routines of the road is going to be helpful in the long run.
If you can learn to embrace your solitude while also working hard to improve your social skills when you’re with people, you’ll be much better positioned to conquer any budding feelings of loneliness that develop as you travel the world.
At the end of the day, traveling alone doesn’t mean you have to always be alone. As long as you’re willing to put in a little work, you’ll be able to meet tons of people while you travel. It just takes some effort. Things won’t fall into your lap like they do in the movies. You need to take the initiative.
The initial stages may be awkward and uncomfortable, but they are worth it.
Remember, travelers are a friendly group of people. We’re generally quite open, relaxed, and optimistic. We’re always looking to meet cool people — people like you!
So don’t worry if you’re feeling uncomfortable or out of place. We’ve all been there. Sometimes it’s inevitable, but more often than not there are people nearby you can talk to and maybe even travel with.
You just need to take that first step and find them.
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Lora is a full-time digital nomad on a quest to visit every country in the world and pet as many dogs as she can along the way. Over the last 15 years, she has traveled to 70+ countries and six continents solo. She currently calls Puerto Vallarta, Mexico home and enjoys ending each day with sunset and tacos on the beach.