Over the past few months of my travels I have been lucky enough to attend local ceremonies, have long and amazing meals with people who were complete strangers just a few days (or minutes) beforehand, and to make friends for life from all around the world.
I’ve come to realize that there isn’t anything particularly ground-breaking or special that I’m doing to get these invites. It just requires a few very simple steps to eat with, travel with, and spend time with locals. Doing so provides an opportunity to really get to the meat of travel, having the best food and drink, sharing the best stories, and coming home with the best and most authentic travel experiences.
Here are ten ways to meet locals while traveling:
1) Travel solo
I champion solo travel a lot in this blog, mainly because I truly believe it is the best way to travel. While a lot of traveling couples will argue that they still benefit from very unique and authentic travel experiences (and I’m sure they do!) the reality is, when you travel solo, you are focused on everything around you instead of who is with you. Your world is opened up more and that in turn makes you more open.
Moreover, a solo traveler is easier to accommodate than a duo or group. It wouldn’t have been possible to get a motorbike tour of Bologna, hitchhike in Java, or meet many of the awesome people I’ve met if there had been more than one of me. Plus, there is a certain level of intrigue that goes along with being a solo traveler – especially a female one. Locals tend to want to help and take care of us more.
2) Talk to strangers
The worst piece of advice I can think of is, “don’t talk to strangers.” It seals off the potential for meeting all kinds of interesting people and having awesome adventures. Most of my best friends were once total and complete “strangers” whom I met on a bus, via social media, or in a hostel dorm room.
Strike up conversations with as many people as you can, as often as you can. It doesn’t ever hurt to simply talk to someone.
3) Move slowly
Staying in one place for a longer period of time is helpful for a myriad of reasons: it’s cheaper, provides the opportunity to gain a better understanding of local culture, and most importantly, often results in getting to know the locals better.
Blasting through towns and countries quickly, trying to fit in as much as possible, in reality turns into more time spent on busses and planes and less time truly appreciating the destinations themselves. To me, it kills the whole point of traveling.
4) Head off the beaten path
People in small towns are simply friendlier. They are also much less likely to see tourists often and by extension, are probably less tired of them. There’s an element of fascination with an outside guest when he/she is a rarity.
For example, in Malaysian Borneo, locals would warmly say, “welcome!” when they saw me walking around with a backpack on. In overly-touristed Phuket, Thailand, however, I was simply seen as a walking wallet.
5) Travel during off-seasons
There are fewer tourists when it’s not peak season and simply put, less competition with other travelers for invites into family homes.
6) Couch surf
Couchsurfing is one of the best ways to meet locals, especially who can speak English. Couchsurfing meet-ups are a great way to get to know locals and foreigners living in the city without having to actually stay in anyone’s house, if the thought of that makes you uncomfortable. That said, staying with a local is the absolute shoe-in for having dinner with him/her, and getting to see a place from a local’s point of view.
Though it sometimes gets a bad rap, some of my best experiences came about as a result of couchsurfing. I absolutely love the service and think it’s an awesome way to make connections.
7) Always be open and friendly
It’s often as simple as smiling at someone or striking up a conversation if you can tell the person seems open to chatting. Trust your intuition and you’d be surprised how easy it is to meet genuine, amazing people.
8) Offer your services
My trekking guide in the Italian countryside, Stefano, used to travel around offering to help with anything that needed doing around farms or small shops when he was younger. This helped him travel longer with less cash and gave him authentic experiences he could not have otherwise had.
9) Say ‘yes’ more
Traveling can be tiring. It sometimes feels easier to stay in and eat Western comfort foods rather than gaining the motivation to go out and be social. However, there’s just one shot that we get at life and saying yes more can lead to wonderful things.
Accept invites, attend events, and put yourself out there as much as you can. You never know what kind of beautiful adventures it may return.
10) Learn some of the local language
Lastly, learning some (or a lot) of the local language is a great way to hang out with locals. Though I didn’t speak Italian or Bahasa and still got invited to local events, the Chinese Malays did love it when I was able to address them in Mandarin during one of the most ridiculous nights of my travels. I was invited to that party because I was open, said yes, and headed a bit off the beaten path.
Though I don’t mean to oversimplify or suggest that it’s easy in every part of the world to hang with locals, by following the aforementioned tips, you increase your chances a heck of a lot more.
Do you have any tips to add? How do you ensure that you get invited to local events and meals? Do you have any stories to share?