In each installment of the Uproxx Travel Guide, we ask some of our favorite professional travelers to answer one travel question — then share their best advice with you. From informational, to inspirational, to entertaining, our aim is to incite your wanderlust and provide bite-size takeaways you can put to use in your own travels.
This Week’s Question: What are the best ways to connect with new people and meet locals while traveling?
A: I’ve always found that asking folks to take your photo or asking for directions is a great way to drum up a conversation. In this tech driven world of selfie sticks and smartphones, those interactions could be easily limited because, hey, you can do it yourself! But to me, it’s a nice way to at least start a conversation.
Of course, food opens a TON of doors. I find that when I’m in a market or restaurant, being adventurous and curious gets chefs and purveyors really excited to chat with you, and often leads to things being sent out that you didn’t even know you wanted.
Don Wildman hosts Travel Channel’s long-running Mysteries at the Museum. For decades, he’s traveled the world on television, but he feels like he’s still barely scratched the surface of all the places he longs to see.
A: Go to church. Or Temple: Buddhist, Jewish, Shinto or otherwise. Hang out in a mosque. Religious sites are the most immediate and intriguing route into any community and whether or not you’re a religious soul, it will be a soulful experiment–and 100% free, until the basket is passed.
I also jump at attending local sports events. Soccer and cricket matches will immerse you in a world that isn’t looking for your tourist dollar. Best experience of this sort? The Hiroshima Carp vs. the Yokohama Giants. Japanese baseball is ridiculously entertaining.
Kiersten Rich is the author of award-winning solo female travel & lifestyle blog, The Blonde Abroad, which features travel tips, fashion, festivals and photography from around the world. You can follow her on Instagram at @theblondeabroad and on Facebook.
A: Food! I tell so many people that finding the local hangouts for the best food is one of the quickest and surest ways to meet locals and other travelers. People are SO passionate about food. Ask someone off the street, or even the person at the front desk of your hotel, “where’s the best food hangout locals go to?” You’ll find that, in most places, locals love to share their favorite foods with you and you can typically connect with locals at the restaurant when you arrive by asking for the best thing to order.
Oh, and sharing a smile helps, too.
A: Not being in a rush. Slowing down. Not always taking — Tell me stories! Share your culture! — and being part of a more naturally flowing idea exchange instead. A Jawoyn elder in Australia’s Northern Territory once told me that he’d only share stories if I had stories to offer in return. These days, I carry Roman myths (I’m half Italian), Scottish fairy tales (one part Scottish), and Pacific Northwestern Indian folklore (I’m from the Pacific Northwest) with me when I travel.
Another key is to step out of the tourist network — get your hair cut, ask strangers for directions, stand in line somewhere. These experiences are a lot more “real” than just meeting guides and hotel staff who are specifically paid to be nice to you.
Ultimately, connecting on the road is the same as connecting at home: it can’t be all about you. It has to be a give and take.
Kate McCulley quit her job to travel the world in 2011. Five years and 63 countries later, she’s still going strong. She’s survived a shipwreck, feasted on zebra, and danced all night with Vikings. Her site, AdventurousKate.com, is a resource showing women how to travel the world on their own terms.
A: Couchsurfing is one of my favorite resources for meeting locals on the road. I actually don’t use it for accommodation — I just go to the meetups! Most major cities have weekly meetups for drinks, and they’re a great way to meet locals, as well as people passing through. To find out about gatherings, join the couchsurfing group for the city you’re visiting and check out their calendar and message board.
Trevor Morrow is a travel writer whose worked has appeared on Outside Online, Details, Men’s Journal, Inside Hook and more (he’s also the author of this article). You can follow him on his lifestyle travel blog, Trevor Morrow Travel, on Instagram at @trevormorrow and on Snapchat, username: thetrevormorrow.
A: It’s not easy to step out of your comfort zone and strike up a conversation while traveling — it takes practice. But believe me, the sooner you break the ice, the more amazing, memorable and authentic your travel experiences will be.
Think about it this way — you don’t need to say something witty or hilarious or smooth. To start, you just need to open your mouth and string together a few words into a cohesive sentence. “That’s an awesome backpack, where’d you get it?” “Excuse me, do you know a good place to grab a coffee around here?” You’ll be surprised that such simple interactions can lead to great conversations and great travel tips.
And lastly, remember this: Other travelers probably want to talk to you too (they’re just too scared), and locals want you to love their city and will be happy to share their wisdom. Bottom line, you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
A veteran travel and food writer, Matt Gross is the former editor of BonAppetit.com, was the New York Times’ “Frugal Traveler” from 2006 to 2010, and is the author of the book “The Turk Who Loved Apples: And Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World.” You can follow Matt on Instagram @worldmatt or Twitter @worldmattworld.
A: Friends of friends (of friends)! Send emails, use Facebook and Couchsurfing—whatever you can do to scare up contacts. Sure, you can meet people in bars, cafes, and on the street, but it’s way easier if you have a connection, however tenuous.