How to Make Friendly Connections When Traveling

The conversations, like many others I had with people on trains, derived an easy candor from the shared journey, the comfort of the dining car, and the certain knowledge that neither of us would see each other again.” – Paul Theroux

Living in Nicaragua on Ometepe Island for over a decade, we effortlessly made friends with locals, tourists, and other expats. I was thrilled that the world came to our doorstep where we could share our experiences with travelers new to Nicaragua, as well as move beyond what I call “surface conversations” with longterm expats.

Now that we are somewhat nomadic travelers for months at a time, I worried about making friends throughout our journeys. Was it possible to leave cherished connections behind and stoke new connections on the road? Would we be lonely? How do we meet locals and likeminded travelers and will those connections be fleeting or long lasting?

As we age, it is more difficult to establish connections with other adults for a number of reasons: work commitments, family obligations, and demands of everyday life. As a retired expat, it was easy to establish likeminded connections because we all left family behind, so we became family sharing our traditions, holidays, language, and lives abroad.

It was depressing returning to our home in the states. Most of our friends and family lived far away. We are retired, so the work connections we once had faded to Christmas cards and Facebook likes. Plus, we didn’t fit in anymore. We had seen too much, traveled too far, explored other cultures from different perspectives, and we live in a really RED southern state, so that gives you an idea of how we are or aren’t accepted.

Therefore, we travel. Travel experiences create opportunities that force you to interact with — and cooperate with — strangers. Although, most people don’t travel to meet people, we thrive on making connections with people from all walks of life and all countries. One of our favorite places to make connections, however fleeting, is on public transportation.

Our train was late. We had tickets from Bratislava, Slovakia to Budapest, Hungary. The Asian people with the giant pink suitcases were getting on the same train, so we watched them to see what train they boarded. We had reserved seats, but we had no idea what car we were in and we couldn’t find any car number on our tickets.

Trains appeared and disappeared and our new Asian friends remained sitting on the bench beside us. When, finally the giant pink suitcases in my peripheral vision moved toward the train doors, we ran to the closest car and hopped in. Just in time too because the train pulled out of the station as I took my last big step up into a crowded car.

We were jostled and bucked into school backpacks littering the tiny aisles. Excuse me. Oh, I am so sorry. Did I run over your foot with my suitcase?
Three cars were packed with school children looking forward to a week’s adventure in an old Russian army camp.

Upon entering the third train car crammed with school children, I was almost in tears. I can’t do this anymore. I need a seat, here…now! Just then the train rounded a curve and we were thrown into a compartment with three teenage boys and two empty seats.

I plopped into the seat, wiped my sweaty brow, and settled in for our trip to Budapest. One of the boys tapped my shoulder and spoke in broken English, “ Our school director rented these three cars for our school trip. She wants you to leave, but I told her we want to practice our English, so she said you can stay. “

And that was the beginning of a fleeting friendship with three teenage boys from a private school in Prague, Czech Republic who wanted to know all about our lives in the USA. We laughed, we sang songs, we discussed politics, we compared families and schools, we shared stories and we hugged goodbye when they left for their march with their suitcases and backpacks to the old Russian army camp.

Friendships can be fleeting and age is not relevant. Multicultural experiences like traveling and becoming an expat make the difference; after experiencing them, we tend to become more trusting and open to becoming more vulnerable. That, to me, is the foundation of friendship.

We met Carrie on the train to Merced, CA. I told her that her mask was cute and it made me laugh. That opened the door to her explaining why she wore the mask. She has an autoimmune deficiency. She is susceptible to catching colds and other viruses.

Carrie studies art in the local university and she was on her way home from class. She said that usually no one talks to her on the train, so it was refreshing to talk about art and education and life in a university.

I need young, stimulating, and energetic friendships… people who can see the path to an environmentally friendly and beautiful planet and take action to make it happen. We joined our local senior center hoping to make connections with other likeminded individuals, but we were sorely disappointed. I don’t want to be separated from the mainstream. When I taught at our local university, I went to the university gym daily and it was always energizing mentally and physically.

We meet new friends at bus stops, too. In Yosemite National Park it snowed over two feet during Thanksgiving. We struck up a conversation with this little traveler and helped her make a snowman while waiting for the shuttle bus.

Whatever kind of travel you’re doing, whether it’s a relaxing, restorative trip or an adventure, having shared, meaningful experiences fast-tracks that sense of closeness, making it much easier to see someone as a friend early on. That is how we felt about Cindy and John.

We were in Bosnia peeking through a metal gate pierced with holes. “I think these are bullet holes, right?” I asked Ron. A man passing by answered, “Yes. They are bullet holes.” And we struck up an hour long conversation about the history of the war torn country Bosnia in the alley.

With some people, conversations are very superficial. But after sitting next to someone and talking about your kids, your travels, your cancer treatment, and your hopes for the future, you know, real stuff — you get to be friends. It was much more than, ‘Oh, yeah, how many times do you go on tours?’ By the way, we never go on tours. We see the advantage sometimes of taking a tour or a cruise, but neither are for us.

We met Cindy and John again in Dobruvnik, Croatia. They invited us to their Airbnb and we shared a fabulous dinner. We exchanged WhatsApp numbers and stay in touch on a regular basis. They are in Greece for the winter and we are in Mexico. Maybe our paths will meet again next year.

Whatever you have in common with others can lead to a friendship. In this case it was hunger! We were in the beekeeper capital of Slovenia and searching for a restaurant. We saw these guys all perched on a park bench eating the same sandwiches. I laughed and told them they looked so cute. Would they mind if I took their photo? They directed us to a fabulous restaurant and told us about the history of their hometown.

In Kotor, Montenegro we walked into a photo shoot with the Miss Globe contestants. Miss Nicaragua is from Leon, and went to the same university that our goddaughter attends. 

I pride myself on trying to live like a local in our travels. I avoid the tourist traps and always ask our Airbnb hosts for local recommendations for restaurants, attractions, and off the tourist track places.

When we were in Kotor, Montenegro and searching for a boat that could take us to the small villages on the Bay of Kotor, the only ones we could find were expensive tour boats. Like I mentioned before, we avoid tours. So, when we passed a sign for the local ferry that transports the locals around the bay to their work or homes, I knew this was the trip for us.

I Googled the ferry and discovered it had only been in operation for a couple of months. It is a solar powered ferry. We Googled the schedule and met the ferry at the dock. We were the only travelers on the boat and we spent the day hopping on and off the solar powered ferry. I interviewed my new friend the ferry captain and told him that I am going to write a post about this ferry. What a find! I have his address so I can ask him more questions for my article.

Who wouldn’t want to spend the day soaking in an ancient spa and talking with new friends? That is exactly what we did in Budapest, Hungary. Such a relaxing way to meet people. Our little soaking group consisted of a Russian couple from St. Petersburg who invited us to visit them, a couple from Tennessee, two women who loved to fish from Copenhagen, and a Texan with a big cowboy hat. Spas are a wonderful place to open up pores and enriching connections with new friends.

Friendships can be possible even if you don’t speak the language. In fact, when we first moved to Nicaragua, we didn’t understand much Spanish and we had to rely on our intuition about people. Amazingly, my intuition was right on concerning my relationships with people. If I got a bad feeling about them from the beginning, I told them in English that I do not speak Spanish.

In Budapest I met a lovely beaded egg vendor. Her face was wrinkled with laugh lines and I wished I could sit and talk with her about life, for I knew that she had many stories to share. But, we couldn’t speak each other’s language. The only thing I could do was admire her handmade beaded eggs and stare at her weathered face. She was beautiful. I bought one of her eggs and asked by miming, if I could take her photo.

I have learned many things from traveling, but one of the best things is how to make new connections throughout the world. It is easier than I originally thought. I will never be lonely.

One thing that’s crucial about friendships is that they’re voluntary: I am choosing to stay connected on an ongoing basis. When we leave our trip, the friendship is no longer one of convenience. So I really need to make an effort to stay involved and engaged in each others’ lives. I have many friends that I met traveling. They live in Canada, Panama, Ecuador, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, and Mexico. They are bloggers, foreign exchange students, retirees, world travelers, musicians, journalists, housesitters, and artists. They are young and old, adults and seniors. They are all my friends, even if fleeting.
And that is why I travel and blog….to make connections.

How do you make connections with others when traveling? 

26 thoughts on “How to Make Friendly Connections When Traveling

  1. The hardest thing about making connection while traveling is that eventually you have to say goodbye. But I guess we can make the experience eternal by writing about our new friends.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences! I really enjoyed reading your point of view 🙂 i love how random we meet a stranger and after few hours (sometimes minutes) you feel like this person will stick around your life a bit longer than a simple conversation. Seems like (public) transportation can bring you some good surprises! I get to meet new people through workshops or meet up events 🙂

    • So true. Sometimes, I think serendipity plays a big role in meeting new people. Although it may seem random, it is always such a joy and I find out I have so much in common with new acquaintances.

  3. I love this post. Shared humanity is all about respect and interest in someone else, and you certainly have the art of making people (of all ages) feel at ease. Happy New Year to you and Ron.

  4. Gosh! I can so relate to that. “I don’t want to be separated from the mainstream.” There is no reason why you should be, and my life (to me) is all about making surprising and new connections. I am not moving around as you do (in fact I am not traveling much these days) but both my husband and I still manage to do this, on our little island. It’s important too to try to maintain connections if possible. PS The beaded eggs are beautiful! Happy New Year!

    • Yes, Anita…the key word is “yet”. But, it will be next year. I feel it. Lol Here’s to friends…wonderful friends on the road. Hugs to you mi amiga. Happy New Year. ❤️

  5. Lovely post. I have had some very surprising conversations with people at bus stops and train stations. It’s incredible how people will open up and share their problems with complete strangers.
    I stay in hostels between house sits and love meeting people of all ages and from different cultures.
    I also now have contacts/friends in many areas so sometimes drop in and stay a night when I am passing through.

    • Hi Jill. Thank you for leaving a comment. Isn’t it amazing how open and vulnerable strangers can be? Maybe it is because they think they will never see you again. We have had lots of housesitters when we lived on Ometepe Island that have become good friends, too. You probably have contacts all over the world. Isn’t that great? Have a wonderful New Year. Who knows, we may meet at a bus stop somewhere in the world. 😁

    • Hi Chris and Heather! You guys certainly get around. Our son and his fiancé would love to hear about your cycle trip. They are really excited about their new touring bikes they gave each other for Christmas.
      We will be in Mexico City next week for a few weeks. Then, we go to La Paz and Todos Santos for a month to watch whales and volunteer to develop educational programs for the Olive Ridley turtles. Our son is a naturalist in Yosemite National Park and when we visited over Thanksgiving, he helped us develop a program for the turtles.
      Then we fly to Merida, in the Yucatán for the month of March. Since we had to spend last winter in the states, we vowed that we would never spend another winter here. So far, so good. Hugs to you both!
      Keep cycling! ❤️

  6. This is why we stay in hostels. We’re like the parents (or in some cases grandparents!) to the kids. We end up sharing our dinners and lots of great conversations. Those times are always a highlight for us and it’s fun to stay in touch and see them grow in life!

    • Shari, I love that! Someday, I will have to write a post about managing a youth hostel on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua. I know what you mean about being the parents. We had to rescue a young drunken tourist named Yoyo from climbing our active volcano in his flip flops! We tried to warn him, but he wouldn’t listen to us old folks. 😜 Thanks for your comments.

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