x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Practical Traveller: Finding friends, and fun, on the road

Chris Guillebeau finds that planning and group trips are the best antidotes to loneliness while travelling.

When I met Benny Lewis in a Bangkok bar, he wasn't alone. The outgoing Irishman travels the world, learning languages everywhere he goes - and in Bangkok, he had already attracted a group of other expats eager to talk with him.

I asked him about his language learning prowess: "How do you do it?" A big part of it, he told me, is simply being willing to meet people, and unafraid to seem foolish by speaking another language.

Even if you don't want to learn languages at the same speed Benny does (he's currently on his eighth), when you first begin travelling you may wonder how you can connect with other interesting people. Thankfully, there are many ways to meet up with fun people on the road, whether through planned or spontaneous encounters.

The first and most obvious way to find like-minded people is simply to leave home on a group tour that is escorted by a guide from start to finish. On a guided tour, you're guaranteed companionship and will never be alone. Let's assume, however, that you're more interested in independent travel. What do you do if you want to roam the world by yourself, but you don't want to be alone all the time?

A good starting point is the local hostel, bar or coffee shop network. Almost everywhere you go in the world, you'll find at least one place where other travellers gather. Travelling in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, I spent a day walking the city. Most of my walk led me past more traditional stops like the Genghis Khan national brewery, but while stepping down an alley, I chanced upon a cafe run by a British couple. I hadn't seen another foreigner all morning, but sitting around various tables, I noticed Western and Japanese travellers recharging with espresso and making notes in their guidebooks.

How do you find spots such as this? You may stumble upon them, like I did, but you can also check out travel guides such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guide: as a friend of mine likes to say, "If you read Lonely Planet, you'll never be lonely."

If you're the planning type, you can arrange to meet people in advance through a network like Couchsurfing.org. On this site, members from 150 countries offer their homes to modern-day nomads - for free. It's completely legitimate, and you can read reviews of hosts before committing to stay with them. All they ask is that you share a meal and an evening together, usually spent on some kind of city tour.

Speaking of tours, going on day trips with a tour company is a great way to see the sights, experience local culture and meet people - all in one experience. Day trips are also good for those who don't want a packaged holiday but still want to take advantage of their surroundings. When I'm on the road, I often use Google to search for "(city name) walking tour". I've done walking tours in at least a dozen cities, and it's always been worth it.

Some day trips can be more adventurous. In Uganda I went on a river-rafting tour, and in Jamaica I went zip-lining. Both of these cases provided an even better opportunity to meet travellers. (The adrenaline factor helped, along with the implied sense of camaraderie when we all had to get in the raft together. If your life depends on someone else whom you've just met, you're more inclined to get to know that person.)

Online social networks also provide a means of connecting people in the "real" world. Services like Foursquare and Facebook offer location "check-ins" where you can quickly see who else is around. In some places, you'll also be offered deals by nearby merchants - an interesting tie-in, though I'm not sure how well it will work in Mongolia.

Some of my greatest adventures have been completely solitary. I enjoy seeing the world alone, and I don't mind being by myself. Despite my independent nature, however, I also like meeting people with similar values and interests. In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I booked a tour out of the city to a rice factory and war memorial. Along the way I talked with gap-year students from the UK, a middle-aged couple from New Zealand and an adventurous young Korean - they were all exploring more of the world. They were each on their own before we met, but spending the day together was fun and interesting.

When you have the option to stay solo or stay surrounded by friends, you'll find your own balance of these two approaches. You can be an anonymous traveller if that feels more comfortable, but you're only a stranger once.

Chris Guillebeau, 33, is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world. He is currently on number 178. Next week: driving through the UAE.