In a bid to prove I could be independent, I committed to spending a whole month travelling around Eastern Europe by myself. I decided not to tell my Mum until after I’d left as she would have ‘Asian-mum’ scolded me and forced me to re-watch the movie ‘Taken’ until I changed my mind.
Riding solo as a single female can be one of the most liberating, scariest and bravest thing you ever do. You are free to do whatever you want without having to compromise with another person’s agenda. But you also don’t have the security of companionship when you arrive at a new place, or a decent photographer to take candids of you.
Before embarking on my travels, I was super anxious about initiating conversations with strangers. “What do I even say to people? I’m so awkward,” I wailed to my friend Jessie, who had just completed her own solo journey.
“You’ll be fine,” she said, “Just smile and laugh heaps!”
And so with that one piece of advice under my belt, I left the security of my friends in Belgium and headed to Budapest to start the solo leg of my trip. Thankfully, I didn’t need Liam Neeson to save me from any sex-trafficking rings. I did, however, get myself into a ton of cringe-worthy, sometimes hilarious, and very messy moments in my attempts to get along with other travellers.
Here are some of the things I picked up about making friends in other countries.
Make the first move
Every time I arrived in a new country, my anxiety levels would shoot through the roof as I had to put myself out there and make friends from scratch. Not everyone is going to approach you first, so it’s up to you to initiate conversation.
For all the introverts, you have to fake it till you make it. I had to squash down my anxiety and give myself pep talks before approaching groups of friends and saying “Hey, how’s it going? Mind if I join you?” Sometimes I’d be welcomed into the fold. Other times I’d get blank stares. There’ll always be uncomfortable moments and forced small talk when you’re attempting to get to know new people, but if you push through the discomfort you can end up with really great travel companions.
Anytime a new person checks into your hostel room, strike up a conversation by asking open questions like what country they’ve just travelled from or what destinations they’re heading to next. If you get along well, and they’re heading to the same places you are, offer to exchange numbers and meet up. Then at least you’ll know one person at the next destination.
If my roommates weren’t so friendly, I had to try my luck in the hostel common room or talking to random people on the street. When you ask other tourists to be your photographer, take the chance to talk to them instead of just walking off to check the photo. Remember that everyone is in the same boat and are just as keen to meet people as you are. Don’t stress too much about sounding overly keen or looking like an idiot. A fellow Aussie recognised my accent on a walking tour and attempted to make conversation by saying “You must be a dancer because you have really long legs.” I appreciated his initiative- but declined his invitation to hang out afterward.
The beauty of flying solo is you are more approachable as a party of one. And if you do make a wrong move on someone or start off on the wrong foot, you’ll never have to see them again!
Say yes to most things…
Commit to being a ‘Yes’ person who isn’t afraid to try new things. If your roommates invite you along to try a local delicacy, say yes. If someone asks if you’d be keen to check out an underground jazz bar with them, say hell yes. By always being open to invitations, you’ll get to experience things you wouldn’t have if you’d let fear hold you back.
Whilst in Budapest, I got along famously with a trio of Germans who were staying at my hostel over the New Year’s Eve period. When I told them Vienna was my next stop, they offered to give me a lift there on their way back home to Germany! There was no way I was saying no to that, so I cashed in my bus ticket and off I went on a European road trip!
In saying that, I had spent the last five days getting to know them, so I knew they were legit and weren’t going to kidnap me. Ladies, trust your female intuition! If someone creeps you out, don’t hang out with them and update your family with your travel plans at all times.
…but not to everything
Don’t agree to things you know you won’t enjoy. If you’re not a fan of classical music, don’t accept invitations to the opera. If it doesn’t align with your values or your budget, kindly decline. If you’d rather eat your way through Italy instead of visiting yet another historic building- go ahead and do just that.
In Vienna, I was pressured into accompanying one of the hostel volunteers to the famous Albertina art museum. I’d already seen a ton of paintings in Florence and Amsterdam, and was more keen on resting, but he guilt-tripped me by saying “All you’ve done in Vienna is nap!” Not wanting to appear more and more like the sloth I actually am, I naively said yes to what I thought would only be a two-hour excursion. We were there for seven hours. The guy was a massive art geek so we literally stopped in front of every painting so he could show off his knowledge on the different paint strokes and colour variations. I was dead exhausted from having to feign interest while looking at what was basically the same painting of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus over and over again! It was the most tedious day of my life.
Remember, the whole point of the solo thing is that you get to do the things you enjoy. Learn from my mistake and leave your people-pleasing tendencies at home!
Accept there will be hard times
I made the best of friends in some countries and barely said two words to people in others. It’s ok if you don’t feel like you’re clicking with anyone. You can’t force a connection if there isn’t one. Sometimes I desperately needed my own space so I would deliberately wake up earlier (or sleep in later) than my roommates so I could explore by myself.
One of the best things about being alone is not having to make tedious conversations and the opportunity to self-reflect. You can also sleep whenever you want! Out of the two days I scheduled in Romania, I spent a whole day sleeping off the horrendous 18-hour bus journey I took to get there. You can’t do that if you have people counting on you to explore with them.
You won’t feel like you’re living your best life 100% of the time. Not every experience will be Insta-worthy. There will be nights where you’ll wonder why you thought this was a good idea. You’ll miss having friends who understand your inside jokes. I remember feeling so lonely wandering around Prague because I had no one to share the sights with or tell stories to. When I returned to my hostel that night, I latched onto two design students in my room and practically begged “Can I please hang out with you guys tomorrow? I’m so lonely!” Thankfully, they understood my plight and invited me along to a ‘Tribute to Frank Sinatra’ concert. It was wonderful. Seasoned travellers understand the highs and lows that come with jumping from country to country. They’ll be the ones who empathise the most with your freak outs.
If you’re about to embark on your own solo adventure, I’m so jealous and happy for you. Remember that just deciding to go off on your own is a pretty badass decision and you deserve a medal for not depending on anyone else to fulfill your bucket list.