- Start small, ask questions, chat
I know, just being a shy traveler is already a daunting and scary experience, let alone going to a restaurant by yourself! Believe me, I’ve been there. The first time is always hard, but you can’t avoid going to restaurants alone when you’re traveling solo. Sure, yes, you can eat supermarket sandwiches when you’re on a budget, but you have to try a local dish in a restaurant at some point. You’d be surprised how eager the waiters/waitresses are to chat with you!
What I often do is ask in my hotel or hostel for the address of a local, non-touristy restaurant. I go there just after their peak hours (when the waiters are less busy) and ask to sit by the window (to watch the people). I take every opportunity to chat, for example, when they come to take your order: “What’s YOUR favorite dish?”. When they ask if everything is okay: “This dish is really good, what is it called?” (whatever language you use). When they bring you the bill: “This is my first time here, what do you recommend I visit?”, “Can you write it down for me?”, “Do you know what’s in town tonight?” To my surprise, they often gave me tips from locals and even offered me their contact information in case I had any problems!
Of course, you can chat anywhere, like in coffee shops (ask where their coffee beans come from, for example), bars (ask the bartenders the name of the song they’re playing), stores (ask the shopkeepers what a special gift would be)… etc, you can start small! The key is to be curious and creative (and to avoid places that are too touristy, where the employees are too busy to pay attention to you). Locals are more than happy to chat with you when you show that you are interested in them and appreciate their services.
- Stay at a local’s home/hostel
If you can, the best thing to do is to stay with a local, otherwise you can stay in a youth hostel. The good news is that not everyone is shy! You will certainly have people coming up to you and starting a conversation with you. Seize the opportunity and ask questions after answering theirs! Sooner or later, you will feel more comfortable with strangers.
- A notebook and a pen are always a good way to break the ice
I have never traveled without a notepad and pen in my bag. I don’t doubt that cell phones are more efficient and essential for travelers, but there’s something about a notebook and pen that I can’t resist – the “personal touch”! So how do you break the ice with a notebook and pen in your bag? Well, there are different ways! In my case, whenever I ask people for information, I ask them to write it down or draw it. Then I would tell them that this notebook is magic and that it brings me luck. People always become very curious and ask me why, then I tell them that I collect notes from people I’ve met all over the world, it’s like the notebook comes to life with these beautiful writings in different languages. They often wanted to write a phrase they liked in the notebook as a small “contribution”. This often leads to the beginning of their personal travel stories…
- Imagine that you are lost (unless you are really lost)
Of course, I didn’t mean to imply that you should randomly stop the person passing you and ask for directions. Watch people and stop someone who doesn’t seem to be in a hurry (perhaps you could judge by their walking speed or body language/facial expressions) and who seems to live nearby. You can always start with the classic “Do you know how I can get there from here?”, and if the person says yes, you can go on and ask, “Actually, this is my first time visiting this town, do you live here? Maybe you could suggest some nice places near here to spend my afternoon/evening?” Maybe, you never know, you’ll be invited to share a cup of coffee where he/she was going!
- Praise others or accept praise
It takes a lot of practice for shy people, but it is very rewarding! You may begin to pay more attention to the people around you: maybe there’s a grandmother in a cute hat sitting next to you in the park, or a young student with a bag with a quirky pattern sitting next to you in a coffee shop. “Wow! Sorry but I can’t help but notice your ____ (whatever it is that caught your eye)! Where did you buy it?”. You can extend the conversation by asking “I’d like to buy something similar, where do you suggest I go?”.
- Walk more
Public transportation is excellent, but you have a better chance of talking to locals when you walk. You can explore especially the local markets or parks. You can sample all sorts of local herbs, treats, ask for advice, or even ask to join someone’s table (if there is one) or bench for a casual lunch or snack.
- Local events/activity groups
This may be a no-brainer, but many shy girls (like me many years ago) sometimes felt the anxiety of going to events alone. That’s why I recommend looking for local events on social media or travel forums where you can see “Who’s Coming” (some may require you to become a member before you can search for events, so you should just sign up!). You can usually post on the event page. If you see events you want to attend but don’t want to go alone, you can just ask someone to go with you.
- Book a day trip with an agency
If you have some money and time on your hands, you should book a day trip with a travel agency offering tours with a small group of people! No, not those “Hop On, Hop Off” style tour buses, I mean more like an in-depth cultural tour with a theme (wine tasting, food, canoeing, hiking, etc.).
The benefits of this type of small group tour are that you usually have a private shuttle/car transporting all the participants, which means you will be sitting with the same group of people for the duration of your tour!
Traveling in a small group is less intimidating than in a large group because you spend more time talking to your fellow travelers and you’ll quickly feel comfortable because you’ll be in a fairly “friendly” environment. You’ll spend time doing the same activities you all enjoy, which is a great common ground to start an interesting conversation!
You’ll be inspired to share your thoughts on the tour at the end of the day, and you may even find some people kind enough to invite you for drinks afterwards!
I hope you find these tips useful the next time you travel solo!