The shy backpacker’s guide to making friends

Posted on 29 March 2016

Hostels -


If there’s one assumption about backpackers that really needs to be challenged, it’s this: that they’re confident. That anyone who chooses to step out into the unknown, and who chooses to stay in shared dorms with strangers, must be naturally self-assured and gregarious.

It sounds convincing, but it simply isn’t true. We’ve all met travellers who’d rather dive into a good book about the city they’re in, or sip a coffee in the corner of a café, than hit the bars. Some of you reading this probably are that traveller.

Being quieter or shy shouldn’t stop you from heading out into the wide hostel-filled world. If you genuinely prefer your own company, track down smaller hostels that cater for families or couples rather than those with large common rooms and regular theme nights – you’re more likely to find a quieter spot to be left to your own devices.

And if you’re the kind of shy traveller who does want to make friends, well, there are strategies that can help you. Here are some things to try:

Sign up for a walking tour or a pub crawl

A shared activity makes conversation so much easier. There’s a constant stream of things to talk about – new experiences, new sights, funny moments. You don’t have to root around for topics because they naturally present themselves. A simple ‘Isn’t that incredible?’ or ‘How beautiful!’ will break the ice.

Ask open questions

Avoid clichéd openers like ‘What’s your name?’ and ‘Where do you come from?’ They’re really monotonous, and can come across as pretty blunt. Instead of inviting one-word answers, invite stories – ask someone what they’ve been up to during the day, what their plans are for tomorrow, or how much they’ve seen of the area.

Look for props

Be alert to what people wear or carry with them. They’re clues to what make people tick and what will prompt a good pow-wow. By paying a compliment and opening conversation, you’ll come across as super friendly.

  • What a great camera! What’s your best shot yet?
  • Hey, that t-shirt is great. Where did you get it?
  • What an unusual necklace/ bracelet. Where did you find it?
  • Have you been to the XYZ yet? What did you think?
  • Funny, I was in [insert name of place on their t-shirt]. Where did you stay?

You can switch this one around too – make sure you’re carrying or wearing something that will help people start talking to you.

Awkward silences

The best way to avoid or get through the dreaded awkward pause is to have listened and be actively involved in the conversation. When the silence hits, refer back to something that was said earlier and take it down a different path.

  • So you studied history. Where were you at uni?
  • So you did a bungee jump – I don’t know if I could. Were you scared?

Get your cook on (but time it right)

Cooking can be wonderfully social, but peak time in a hostel kitchen is often too hectic to strike up a good conversation. So head in early, when there are just a couple of people rustling up meals.

A friendly ‘Hmm smells good’ is an easy opener... but be careful of looking like you’re after a freebie! Start your own cooking, and maybe crack open a bottle of local wine and offer your fellow cooks a glass. Who’s going to turn that down while their pasta boils away?

When you’ve talked about recipes and shared the kitchen tricks your mum taught you – and picked up some new skills from your new friends – sit down at the kitchen table and tuck in together.

Head to the bar

Timing’s everything with this one too. If big crowds aren’t your strong point, avoid Friday night. Pop down earlier in the evening or during the week. When it’s quiet, the bar is a great spot to meet people over a peaceful drink. And again, think about physical conversation starters – wear an interesting tee, carry a popular cult book or go through some of your best photos.

Get arty

Ok, so you’re not going to travel with an easel and a set of paints. But a sketch pad and some pencils are easy to carry and make a great talking point. Head to the common room or the sun terrace and start doodling. People can see what you’ve produced, appreciate it and leap into conversation. The same goes for any arty or crafty activity: knitting, crocheting, origami, you name it...

Smile and be happy

And finally, this could be the most important piece of advice. Smile! When you smile, people warm to you. It’s as simple as that.

Now, go on. Pluck up some courage and get out there. Once you’ve started your first conversation, the rest will come much easier.