travel tips

How to Talk to Strangers

Approaching people I don’t know has admittedly never really been hard for me. I am extroverted and pretty bold, so when I need directions I look for the most trustworthy-looking stranger in the area. But actually engaging and talking with strangers is a different story.

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In hostels, I have started up many conversations with strangers, about why they travel and where they had been. This was the way that I made friends along the road and found people to explore with me. Talking to locals can be more intimidating, but also more valuable. Speaking to strangers plays into the oldest form of gathering and sharing information, with those who come from a different perspective than yourself.

It can be very difficult to start a real conversation with someone you know nothing about. They could be weird or dangerous or just rude. You could look like a crazy person…or you could make a new friend, learn more about the places to which you are traveling, or gain better insight into the lives of others.

There’s nothing really to lose by just talking to someone, especially when you are lonely or traveling solo, but the vulnerability of approaching the unknown is scary. So…

Choose the right type of person.

One of the fears of talking to a stranger is that you’ll annoy them or that they will reject your friendship. This can usually be avoided. Simply choose someone who doesn’t look like they are in a rush or in a bad mood. If you are unsure if someone will talk to you or is in a good frame of mind, make eye contact and smile. If they smile back they are probably open to a conversation!

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Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

A large part of talking to a stranger is listening. The goal is not to tell them all about your life, but to hear a small portion of theirs. Go beyond just introductions by diving for more important questions: Where are you going? What’s the best thing that’s happened to you this week? Who do you miss the most right now? What are you currently working to achieve?

These questions may seem like too much for a stranger, but that’s why they’re perfect. One may not feel comfortable asking these of an acquaintance or colleague, but with someone you don’t know is much more reasonable, plus it is way more interesting than small talk.

This painter, was working on a temple wall in Bangkok. She was pleased when I asked to take her photo, and then inquired about her job and the process.

This painter, was working on a temple wall in Bangkok. She was pleased when I asked to take her photo, and then inquired about her job and the process.

Remember that, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” (Dr. Seuss)

And no matter how big. It is essential to remember when meeting someone that they may be very different than you, but surely you have plenty in common. Even if you are a university student from Britain meeting a grandma in Asia, you may share emotions, values, and life experiences.

Recently I did a group activity where a line was read such as, “Step into the circle if you lost a loved one in the past year,” or “…if you grew up in a house with more than fifty books.” It went on and on, people stepping in and out of the circle. By the end, everyone had stepped in for something and for a few of the directions, either everyone or no one stepped in. This was an amazing way that I was able to see that the acquaintances around me had been through so much good and bad. Many of them shared personal experiences with me, even though our personalities or upbringings many have been completely different. So take this with you whenever you are around strangers, or even those you know.


Last fall, I was eating ice cream for dinner in the upscale town of Saint-Tropez in the South of France. I had been exploring with the other volunteers until we bought ice cream and sat down in a park. The town was empty in comparison with our last visit, when it was still summer and the moorings anchored many sailboats and even more yachts. Despite the quiet streets, the music of a nearby wedding spilled into the park. As I was watching the groomsmen play bocce ball, called boule in France, I noticed another figure looking on. He had a hiking backpack and there was a cardboard sign sticking out of the front. Now my curiosity was piqued and soon I was telling my friends that I would be back in a second.

Two of my friends, the man who traveled by foot, and me!

Two of my friends, the man who traveled by foot, and me!

I went to talk to the man, named Mikhel, who I soon saw was not too much older than me, under a mass of unkempt facial hair. He was so nice and happy to have someone to talk to. He was Estonian, but had simply decided one day that he would travel. Mikhel did not have a lot of money, so he began to walk. When I met him he had walked thousands of miles and planned to keep going all through Europe. (I wrote more about him here.) He shared story after story about the kindness of the people he had met along the way, and his techniques for surviving. I took in the stories, the tips, and the way his eyes shone speaking of a life on the road. When we decided it was time to go home, and we parted ways with the man who dreamt of walking across Europe, I was left with a conversation that lingered in my mind for months to come.

So when you are alone in the park and someone sits next to you, consider sharing a conversation. You may meet someone interesting. But you will never know that unless you ask.

A friend of my friend's masseuse in Siem Reap was training to become a tour guide. He gave us an excellent tour of Angkor Wat, the famous Cambodian temple, as well as personal insight into Khmer history.

A friend of my friend's masseuse in Siem Reap was training to become a tour guide. He gave us an excellent tour of Angkor Wat, the famous Cambodian temple, as well as personal insight into Khmer history.

So You've Never Stayed at a Hostel

The idea of staying at a hostel may make you nervous. You've seen the horror movie and heard some weird stories about what happens to travelers who stay at hostels. Sleeping in the same room as a bunch of strangers may seem daunting, but it can also be tons of fun. I consider hostels to be one of the best aspects of travel, especially when I'm traveling alone. They are where I make friends and find useful tips and information about where I am. Still, trying something new, like staying at a hostel, can be difficult, so here's my guide for making the best of it.

Rome was where I stayed at my first hostel!

Rome was where I stayed at my first hostel!

  1. Hostels are for everyone! A few hostels have age limits, usually between 18 and 30. However, there are plenty open to everyone. Some hostels are even known to be good for traveling with a family or younger children. So just run a few Google searches and see what you can find. Treehouse hostels, eco-hostels, hostels in former jails--there's a hostel for every traveler.
  2. If your parents/friends/loved ones are worried, let them know that you are capable and there are safety measures. Most hostels are very safe, but be sure to choose one that has security cameras, locks on the dorm doors, and a 24 hour desk. Use your common sense and be aware of any possible danger.
  3. Choosing which hostel to stay at is simple and only requires one thing: research. Check out hostelworld.com, lonelyplanet.com, and hostelbookers.com. You should find out the cost of an average night wherever you want to go. For example, $8 a night for a hostel in northern Thailand is normal versus $25 a night for a dorm in western Europe. Also look at what neighborhoods are most central and safe. Use the search filters on the above sites to cross-examine the highest rated hostels and the cheaper hostels. When you've found a few make your decision off of the reviews. Because even if a hostel offers a lot of great amenities, it may be hard to meet people. Or if you don't want to stay at a party hostel, you will want to check out the vibe before you book. What I look for in a hostel: a competitive price, a common area to hang out and meet people, freebies (like breakfast or a pool), a good location near public transportation, safety measures, and cleanliness.
  4. Be social. When you arrive and move your stuff in, strike up conversation with people in the dorm, in the hallway, or even in line for the bathroom. I like to take my iPad or a book to the common area and sit for an hour or two, to meet new people. This is the best way to find someone to go to dinner with or get tips on what is worth visiting in the area.
  5. Take advantage of the everything the hostel has to offer. Some hostels have guides, free maps, snacks, etc. Most of the time they will hold your bags the day of arrival and departure, so you can explore or do activities without lugging around your worldly possessions. One hostel I visited in Siem Reap, Cambodia organized group outings on whiteboards to lower the cost of transportation and help travelers find friends. Another hostel I visited in Rome had free pasta nights and a complimentary nighttime tour of the city!
  6. If you don't like the hostel or are uncomfortable staying there, leave. Check to see the policy on leaving before the end of your booked stay, sometimes they will give you a full refund. This is also a reason to only book the first few nights if you are staying for a while. That way you can move if you don't like it or book a longer stay after a few days. But a traveler should never feel obligated to stay in a place they feel is unsafe. And if there is something wrong with your room or the people in it, speak to the management. A good hostel with take care of any problems for you.

So if you've never stayed in a hostel, give it a go. I find that some of the coolest people I meet are from hostels. Not to mention, it is one of the cheapest ways to have a secure and (usually) comfy bed while traveling.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand I stayed at a hostel right next to the moat. I met some cool people and we went to check out the Sunday walking market, seen below.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand I stayed at a hostel right next to the moat. I met some cool people and we went to check out the Sunday walking market, seen below.

Experiencing the World with Slow Travel

Slow and steady wins the race. This phrase is oft-overused and carries the connotation of hares and tortoises. However, it applies perfectly to my way of travel. That is not to say that I enjoy 10+ hour plane rides -- I simply enjoy 'slow travel.'

This means spending more time in a country or city than the average traveler. If you stay at a hostel in Southeast Asia, you undoubtedly run into handfuls of people visiting 5 or so countries in under three months, and visiting cities for two or three days at a time. I won't deny that I've done this when I have an itch to see a new place. In fact, I spent just over 48 hours in London, England. And I saw a lot. But the places I dream of returning to, the people I miss the most, the landscapes that fill my sketchbook are from the cities and countries where I really spent time. this usually means two to four weeks (the latter limited by my current funds and a U.S. passport).

For me, slow travel is when I can truly settle into a country, learn its customs, and meet its people as well as other travelers.

This also usually means that I am not staying in a hostel or hotel. Mostly because I could never afford to stay in such a place for too long. Better to spend two weeks living and working with an Austrian family an hour's train ride from Vienna. Better to create a makeshift family with three 20-somethings in the south of France, cooking dinner together every night. Better to bond with kids that can speak elementary-level English in Cambodia. (How I found such amazing opportunities.)

I wouldn't know how to count and say phrases in five or so other languages if not for slow travel. This way of seeing new places includes getting out of the touristy pockets where most people can speak some English. Also, it means really tasting a country, not eating at tourist-geared restaurants where the menu is not in the local language and everything is twice as expensive as the road-side shack.

This doesn't have to be in the middle of the country-side or even really after two weeks of travel. A friend at my hostel in Bangkok, Thailand and I sat down to lunch on a corner, where the red plastic chairs were filled with Thai business men on break. A fellow customer had to translate for me when I asked for my dish to be vegetarian.

So yes, taking more time to explore is better in a new place. But also, please explore deeply, finding the nooks and crannies of a new place. Travel to tiny villages and visit farms. Ask the woman at the market where to eat dinner. Get a little lost amid winding alleys and small shops. Drive until your car breaks down. (Yes, I have done that.) Learn to say more than 'thank you' and 'hello' in the native language. Talk to locals.

So take my challenge and really take the time to see a place and be there. Experience it.

This post was brought on by a conference I attended at Hostelling International in Washington, D.C. where Elena Sonnino of Live.Do.Grow. and Fran Holuba of the White House spoke about study abroad and young people in travel. Thanks for the inspiration!