Travel Guru ‘Nomadic Matt’ On How To Make Friends At Hostels

Matthew Kepnes
Travel legend Matthew Kepnes wrote the following editorial for Uproxx inspired by his latest book, Ten Years a Nomad.

People are always shocked when they find out that I still stay in hostels.

“Aren’t you too old for that?”

“Why not a hotel?”

“Don’t you actually make money? Or are you still too broke for an Airbnb?”

So why do I do this to myself? Why do I still stay in hostels?

Well, first, I’ll be honest: I’m cheap. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I started out — and stayed — a budget traveler because I just don’t like to spend money. No matter how old I get, that doesn’t seem likely to change.

But the real reason is that I like the social vibe. Hostels are fun. They have waves of people coming and going, host a number of events, and are a superb way to meet people. Everyone in a hostel is just like you in that they are all travelers. And most are looking to make friends.

For the open traveler, hostels offer an instant friend group that shares the same goals you have: to see the world, learn, meet people, and have fun. I don’t have to worry about getting lucky and meeting strangers on a tour or locals at a bar or at a restaurant. Everyone is on equal footing (and many are solo travelers just like you.)

The Key For Turning Strangers In Friends:

Matthew Kepnes

I used to be a big introvert. It wasn’t natural for me to just walk up to strangers and talk to them. I worried too much about what they thought or if they might judge me. I was, in a word, timid. But it’s “sink or swim” on the road, and my fear was holding me back from living the travel dreams I had in my head. I realized if I wanted those dreams to materialize, I was going to have to make them happen.

After a few stays in hostels and a few beer-fueled nights, I came out of my shell and started talking to people. And I realized something: Making friends was a lot easier than I thought. There are a lot of people traveling solo. People just like you and me. People looking for an adventure. People who also want to make new friends.

At hostels, we all start off in the same boat: in a foreign country knowing few people and often even less about the culture, looking for people to spend time with. Someone to walk around with and share a meal with. Everything else is tabula rassa — a clean slate. There’s no past or future. All your baggage from growing up is gone. All that matters is the excitement of the now.

Once I realized the simple truths above, I also realized that I had built up talking to people into a bigger deal than it was. It’s easy to make friends (and a lot less scary) when you realize the similarities shared by people on the road.

Some Practical Advice:

Matthew Kepnes

First, start small. Talk to a person in your dorm room. Say hello. Ask them some questions about their travels, where they are from, or what made decide to travel. That gets the conversation going. People love talking about themselves so, if you aren’t ready to share your story, just keep asking questions.

Things will progress from there in no time. Or you’ll have to pick up the signals that the person you’re chatting with isn’t interested in your friendship.

Second, look for that group leaving for the bar and ask, “Can I join you?” Walk over to that pool table in the hostel and ask, “Who’s next?” Guess what? You are! Play. Try stuff. Put your ego aside.

Third, attend any hostel events. This is the biggie. Hostel staffers know you’re alone. They know what it’s like and how you feel. You aren’t the first one to visit solo or be shy. So they’re really good at breaking the ice and getting people to talk to each other. They will sit you next to people and get the conversation going.

If you can’t think of anything to say to someone new, just ask how they like the event or where they’re from. It will get the conversation rolling. As the night progresses, the group will naturally move to the next place — with you in tow.

The “Learned Extrovert”:

Matt Kepnes

Talking to strangers is a trait most of us aren’t that great at. Not all of us are “the life of the party.” But the people I know who have moved into the “learned extrovert” camp are people who have traveled. They learned through trial by fire. Through days or weeks alone until something finally snapped and they realized they had to talk to someone if they didn’t want to be alone – and lonely.

The more you do this, the easier it will be. Travel creates opportunities to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise give a second thought to. It strips away the artifice and lets you walk away with some of the best friends you’ll ever know — friends who will be there your whole life, ready to pick up right where you left off whenever you happen to meet up again.

As a bonus, those who have spent their days in hostels, forced to turn strangers into friends and confront their prejudices, tend to be more open-minded, relaxed, and friendly. That may seem like a generalization, but I’ve got the miles under my belt to say it. And these lessons will come home with you, too — the next time you’re at a party or in a group of strangers you’ll have gained a sense of confidence that will allow you to talk to anyone there.

When you learn to take the same approach talking to people at home as you did in hostels, you’ll change your life. And you’ll be happier for it.

Matthew Kepnes runs the award-winning budget travel site, Nomadic Matt. He’s also the author of the New York Times bestseller How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. His writings and advice have been featured in The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian, Lifehacker, Budget Travel, BBC, Time, and Newsweek. His new travel memoir, Ten Years a Nomad, is a story of wanderlust, friendships, and crazy misadventures from the road. It’s available now!