I don’t know about you, but for me, travelling is a lot more than simply seeing the sights. Of course I want to visit the Louvre on a trip to Paris and yes, I’ve been to Lady Liberty in New York, but what really makes a trip is to meet people while traveling, to meet ordinary people like you and me, people who live, work and play in the city or country you’re visiting! And no, that doesn’t mean you have to strike up a conversation with every person on the street! Check out the following tips on how to meet people while traveling.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few decades, chances are you’re familiar with Couchsurfing and AirBnB. The former offers free accommodation on somebody’s couch, the latter paid accommodation in a spare room. On both occasions you will be staying with locals, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to ask them about the places they shop, where they eat and where they drink! There’s no better way for getting a local’s point of view! Store away your Lonely Planet and let them give you a real, authentic feel of the place!
Every big city has “meetup”-groups. Simply put they are social gatherings created by people with similar interests. There are meetup-groups for all kinds of activities: walking groups, foodie groups, book-lovers groups, …It’s a great way to meet locals that have similar interests to yours. Have a look at www.meetup.com and type in the next place you are traveling to. I’m sure you’ll find some great ideas!
Being in Madrid around Christmas, not knowing anybody and despite my rustic Spanish, I decided to go to one of the meetings in the city. It was one of my best ideas ever! I met up with an Argentinian bunch for New Year’s eve and together we painted the town red until the early hours!
In Belfast, the city I lived in for 6 years, there was a monthly Travel Meetup group, where locals, newcomers and visitors to the city shared a few drinks while plotting over future travel plans.
3/ Virtual Tourist
Virtual Tourist was a worldwide travel community where travelers and locals shared their advice and experiences, long before Facebook and/or travel blogging was around. The site was all about ” meeting the people behind the places”. Its members did not stay “virtual”, but met and still meet up on a very regular basis!
Every year there was a big Euromeet, where nearly 100 of travellers flock together for a weekend of laughter, food and visits!
Thanks to Virtual Tourist I spent one week in Tel Aviv with Nathalie, went to the Eurovision Song Contest in Düsseldorf with Sabine and had a great meeting with several VT-members in Copenhagen!
Unfortunately TripAdvisor, the company that bought VT in 2007, decided to close the site down in February 2017.
The millions of tips might have vanished, but the friendships and meetings survived!
4/ Slow travel
It’s pretty simple really: the longer you stay, the more chances you’ll get to know the local community!
I volunteered in a small mountain village in Spain, a place with +/- 100 inhabitants. My social integration went a little something like this: I met Silvia, the cleaner at the place I was volunteering at, she was involved in the local women’s community who invited me to prepare Easter celebrations with them and before you knew it, I found myself dancing around the main square at the village fest!
Those things don’t happen if you pass through places like a whirlwind, so … learn how to slow travel!
5/ Embrace the occasion!
I was having a quiet drink in the old town of Faro, Portugal, when a local group of friends walked up to me, asking if I wanted to join them! We shared a few drinks, a few stories and had a great night out!
Sometimes you just have to keep an open mind and embrace the occasion!
A tribute to the people I met on my travels
I still recall the friendliness of the Scottish and Thai people I met, I can vividly (well, more or less) remember the drunken nights I spent with some Albanian locals; and the Bulgarian women who gave me a lift and a home for the night will always be engraved in my memory.
But some people just ticked that extra box. They let me be part of some special moments, they let me into their lives and hearts and without them my experiences would never have been the same. This is a tribute to them!
1.Zibi from Poland
I was standing in a milk bar in Krakow, staring at the indecipherable menu that was only written in Polish. In the communist 1960’s Polish milk bars (bar mleczny) were cafeterias offering cheap food to labourers. Nowadays they serve an endless queue of students, pensioners and whoever’s in need of a traditional basic cheap Polish meal.
I must have looked pretty desperate when a middle-aged man approached me asking if he could help. He introduced himself as Zibi and asked me if he could order some real Polish specialties for me. We had lunch together, but Zibi insisted on telling me what he ordered after I finished the soup. It tasted alright, so I wasn’t too worried…
I liked Zibi’s company and after he finished his job at the liquor store, he took me around Krakow to taste some more delicacies. I had a great time tasting dried sausages, cheese and of course the famous bison grass vodka, known as Zubrowka! Before we said goodbye, Zibi told me that the name of the dish I had for lunch was ‘Flaczki”. Never knew that tripe soup could taste so good…!
2.Silvia from Spain
It was during my first volunteering experience in Spain that I met Silvia, the cleaner of the boutique hotel I was helping at, and a proud inhabitant of Cartajima. Silvia was involved in the local women’s organisation and invited me to celebrate the famous Semana Santa with her and the other women of the village. A few weeks after our first meet, she met me at the village club house to help preparing platters of ham, olives and cheese. I found myself among a group of gossiping Spanish women, feeling blessed that I could be part of all this! The next day, there was a huge celebration on the square, where I ate and drank with the locals as if I were a true part of the community! All this thanks to Silvia!
3.Uma from India
I met Uma near Connaught Place, one of the most modern parts of New Delhi. He was looking shy and handed me a little ‘Mars’ chocolate bar to welcome me. I had been chatting to Uma for a while via the “Virtual Tourist” forum and we decided to meet up during my trip to India. Uma asked me if I wanted to eat at a typical Indian place. “Nothing fancy” he said “the only thing on the menu is chicken and you have to eat it with your hands!” I was the only foreigner and the locals had a great time watching me eating the saucy plate without putting it all over me. I felt truly privileged! Uma was a very educated man but above all a very sweet person! I truly hope to meet him again one day so he can teach me more about this very fascinating place on earth, called India!
4.Shaqe from Albania
We were walking around the market/carboot sale of Berat, Albania. “We” means Shaqe and I. I met her while helping out at Berat Backpackers. She was the local cleaner and although she spoke as much English as I spoke Albanian, our smiles seemed to connect instantly. We communicated via signs and Google Translate. She taught me some Albanian and I taught her how to count in English. Every morning Shaqe gave me some delicious byrek (Albanian cheese or spinach pie) to start the day. Shaqe and I were the perfect example that you do not need to speak the same language to understand each other!
5.Kinga – nomad
She was sitting quietly on the garden swing, as if she was contemplating. This timid looking girl was called Kinga and just like me and about 70 other people, she had come to Valeggio sul Mincio, Italy, for a travellers meeting.
Kinga was a well-travelled girl, she left with 500 dollars in her pockets to America and came back 5 years later, having hitchhiked all over the world! All over, except the African continent, which was her dream. I met Kinga a second time in Belgium for a night of drinking and dancing and again she came across as a timid, contemplating soul, a free spirit as she liked to call herself.
In 2006 she finally made her dream come true and left for Ghana! On the 9th of June, the sad news reached me: Kinga had died of cerebral malaria. I still cherish the book she wrote about her big hitchhiking adventure: “Led by destiny”. Her friends and family have created the Free Spirit foundation for the Ghanian children Kinga worked with. I still often think about Kinga and if anyone has been an inspiration, it would definitely have to be her!
Do you have any more tips on how to meet people while traveling? Have you met any “special” people on the road? Would love to hear your stories!