Hostel life can be easy and comfortable if you remember to pack beyond the basics. Although I try to keep my backpack as light and compact as possible, there are a few “extras” I always bring with me.
Here’s my list of seven things that you shouldn’t leave home without, whether you’re backpacking for a week or a year.
Locks: This is essential for staying in dorm rooms. Most provide lockers, but you are normally expected to bring your own lock. I prefer using a combination lock so I don’t have to carry around a key, but sometimes the lockers won’t fit a regular combination lock, so my small padlock that I use to lock my suitcase comes in handy. If you have room for the extra weight, a cable lock is a good tool for the solo traveler in case you need to momentarily leave your baggage unattended. (Which I don’t recommend, but sometimes you may leave your bag in a bus agency office or something while waiting for a bus. If you do this, always make sure all of the zippers are locked.
In one of my recent posts, “Solo Female Travel — Safe or Just Plain Crazy?,” I addressed some of the common questions I get asked about female solo travel. I wanted to set the record straight: as long as you have some street smarts, you will have a wonderful time on your own, and will meet a lot of people eager to be your friend.
As a followup to that piece, I want to provide some basic tips on making friends for anyone who is planning to venture off on his or her own. This post is not gender-specific, although I may later write something to discuss female safety while interacting with people abroad.
On Meeting Other Travelers
1. Don’t Isolate Yourself: I’m a naturally shy person, and I’ve never been good at group situations. I’m the one who sits in silence and takes everything in. When I arrive at a new hostel, the group atmosphere often overwhelms me, and sometimes I want to just retreat to my room. However, to make friends while traveling alone, it’s vital to muss up some courage and be a bit more extroverted. I know that I can normally carry on a one-on-one conversation just fine, so I like to find the other solo travelers (usually identifiable by backs hunched over Iphones or laptops), and strike up a conversation. If you’re a bit more daring, find a group of people and ask to sit down and join them. You won’t regret it, and will likely even end up making some plans for the next day.
2. Downtime: Even though I just said that it’s important to be social, equally important is to give yourself time on your own. In our daily lives at home, we’re accustomed to having some time each day to unwind and recharge. This can be hard when you are staying in a crowded dorm room, and are constantly surrounded by people, but make sure you make a point each day of spending some time on your own, even if it’s just for half an hour. Go for a walk, read a book, journal, or take a nap.
On Meeting Locals
3. Couchsurf: Perhaps the easiest way to meet locals while traveling. Join couchsurfing.org, a social network that offers travelers free accommodation (normally a couch or spare bed) with locals worldwide. However, don’t look at it as just a break for your budget — the fabulous thing about Couchsurfing is that it gives you an opportunity to meet people and immerse yourself in their cultures, foods, and lifestyles. If you’re not comfortable spending the night with a stranger, you are also welcome to meet hosts for a coffee or a day out. You can also search for people with similar interests as you, or look for events going on in your area. I’ve had great experiences so far with this site!
4. WWOOF: WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and it is a website that connects organic farmers with travelers who are looking to offer their two hands and spare time in exchange for food and a place to stay. This is one option that I haven’t tested out personally, but I have close friends who have, and who say that it was one of the best parts of their trips. Whether you end up shearing sheep in Australia, picking apples in Spain, or stomping on grapes in Chile, WOOFing is sure to leave you with some great friends and memorable stories.
5. Find People With Similar Interests: One of the quickest ways to make a new friend is to bond over something you are both passionate about. For me, that’s salsa dancing. Every time I arrive in a new city, I use Facebook, Twitter, and Google to scope out the local salsa scene. These link me to current salsa events, bars, and dance schools. When I attend salsa events, I meet tons of new people, many of whom are eager to introduce me not only to their salsa life, but also their city and culture. Be it photography, karate, yoga, or live music that tickles your fancy, you’re sure to create a network of new friends when you pursue your hobbies abroad.
6. Bring an Unlocked Phone: If you’re meeting locals while traveling, they are sure to ask for your contact information. While you can try making plans over Facebook, it’s far easier if you have a local cellphone. I travel with an unlocked cellphone (a basic one), which allows me to buy a new SIM card in every country where I plan to stay for a while. You can normally unlock your phone in cellphone shops for around $20 USD. SIM cards and pay-as-you-go credit vary in price from country to country, and I’ve paid anywhere from $4 USD, to $25 USD (Colombia and the Netherlands, respectively) for the card. It’s a worthwhile investment if you plan on befriending locals, although a cellphone doesn’t have a lot of value if you are just socializing with other tourists.
And… Most Importantly
7. Know Yourself: This is by far the most valuable advice I can give. When you are traveling alone, you may find yourself eager for company, and you may end up hanging out with people with different interests that you may not normally be friends with. While it is always good to push your boundaries and meet new and different people, don’t let this turn your vacation into one that you aren’t 100% happy with. Know what kind of traveler you are, and honour that. Are you a partier? A sightseer? A museum-goer? An early-riser? A night owl? Make sure that you are meeting your travel needs before those of others. As for me, I know that I am into history and dancing, so I make it a priority to include those types of activities into my day. I may spend a few hours hanging out in a bar or sightseeing with new friends, but I will still go out salsa dancing at night as opposed to getting wasted at a club, even if it means that I go on my own. By keeping your own interests in mind, you will be able to find a balance between being social, and traveling “your way.”