During the summer of 2020, while many avid travellers struggled with the ongoing travel restrictions, I went through a different kind of struggle. I was navigating the messy process of coming out as bisexual and queer. Aside from it being an overwhelmingly awkward ordeal (my cheeks are burning just thinking about it!), my friends and family welcomed this new version of me with open arms.
I expected to find a new lease on life afterwards, and I did. Many people in the LGBTQ+ community agree the coming out process in adulthood is like reliving your teenage years. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened when I began travelling again after the pandemic. I found it incredibly easy to make friends. Not ‘hostel friends’ who you never speak to again after checking out. Not ‘pub crawl’ friends you swap social media info with then spend the next few years scrolling past their posts without talking to them again.
Considering I had almost no pre-pandemic and pre-coming-out travel friends, gaining a handful in the past two years is a massive improvement. I’ve thought a lot about what changed in my perspective and travel style since coming out so that you can also make long-term friends while travelling too. It doesn’t matter if you are LGBTQ+ or not. Here are my 10 top tips!
1. Join a niche tour with like-minded travellers
My first trip abroad after the pandemic was to Madrid, a city known for being queer-friendly. After scrolling through Airbnb Experiences, I saw a posting for an LGBTQ+ tapas tour of Chueca which is Madrid’s gay neighbourhood. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there would be other queer people on that tour. I spent the night with a lovely lesbian couple from Indiana in the US and we went out drinking afterwards. They even let me crash their Valentine’s Day plans a couple of days later.
Joining a niche tour means that you’re more likely to connect with the other travellers on that tour because you know that you have things in common. If you’re a movie fan, book a filming locations tour instead of a walking tour. If you’re under 25 and love clubbing, find group tours for your age range.
2. Travel slower and stay in places longer
Turning a travel ‘acquaintance’ into a travel ‘friend’ is more likely to happen when you spend more time with that person. Because the travel restrictions were so complicated, I chose to stay in the UK in 2020 and volunteered at a hostel in Edinburgh for three months. While I was there, I became good friends with a lovely young woman from Denmark. If I was only staying in that hostel for a few days, there is no way we’d still be in touch today. Luckily, our time at the hostel overlapped by two months so we were able to build the foundations of a lasting friendship. Since we met, I’ve travelled to Denmark to see her and she’s travelled back to the UK to see me!
3. Take part in social activities as soon as you arrive
Many of you won’t want to spend three months in one place before you travel somewhere new. I’m with you! Life’s too short and the world is too big. But if you want to make deep connections with people while travelling, it’s better to meet them as early into your trip as possible. Just arrived in Bangkok after a 14-hour flight? If there’s a bar crawl that night, you better be there with a bottle of Chang in your hand. Desperately need to do laundry because the machine at your last hostel was out of order? Your clothes will still be dirty after the walking tour of Bratislava Old Town.
First impressions matter! If you seem like the quiet, antisocial one in your dorm room or tour group on the first night then it’s hard to fight that label. Believe me, I was always the quiet one and it wasn’t worth missing out on the memories or friends I could have made.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask deep questions
Have you heard of the list of 36 questions that a psychologist designed to speed up intimacy between two strangers? If not, Google it because it’s fascinating. There are lots of questions that could spark a discussion. Window or aisle seat? Traveller or tourist? But if you want to form a deep connection with someone, ask questions that tap into their fears, desires and vulnerability.
Here are some examples:
- If you could speak another language, which would you choose? Why?
- If you could travel with a movie character, who would you pick? Why?
- If you could travel anywhere and anything in the part, what would you choose? Why?
- Aside from your home country, where do you feel most at home? Why?
- Is there a trip you want to go on but are too scared to take?
I know this works because 30 minutes into my return flight from Madrid, the person sitting next to me asked, “what is a dream you have for the future?” It caught me off guard but I answered him and we discovered that we were both queer and obsessed with RuPaul’s Drag Race. Almost a year later, we still talk every day. Even after a walking tour in Budapest, a Bangladeshi-American woman around my age started talking to me about her experiences with racism and her Catholic faith. Her frankness encouraged me to tell her about my sexuality. Long story short, I have a flight booked to visit her later this year all because we weren’t afraid to ask deep questions.
5. Connect with new friends on multiple platforms
This is a purely logistical tip for keeping lifelong travel friends, but it’s an essential one! With so many people taking social media breaks and their accounts getting hacked, you need more than one way of contacting your new pals. I used to be terrible at this. While volunteering at a yoga retreat in Andalucia a few years ago, I met a woman who lived in Iceland and added her on Instagram. Cut to last year when I was planning a trip to Iceland. I searched my Instagram contacts and couldn’t find her listed. She also had an unusual Nordic last name that I couldn’t remember (classic ignorant Brit behaviour!) so searching for her on other platforms wasn’t an option.
Now, I always add travel friends on at least one social media platform plus get their email addresses or phone numbers for WhatsApp. You can do this without seeming weird by offering to take selfies and group photos on your phone. I don’t have an iPhone so AirDrop isn’t an option and messaging apps often compress photos, so it’s a great excuse to ask for these details.
6. Pay super close attention to clothing, books, and more
Queer people are experts at sussing out who is queer and who isn’t based on their clothes or the book they’re reading. I’m not talking about outdated stereotypes. I’m talking about t-shirt slogans, rainbow badges on backpacks and stickers on laptops. I study everyone I meet like Sherlock for signs that they might be in the LGBTQ+ community. Even if you’re not queer, you can do the same to make lifelong travel friends that share your passions.
Your dorm mate could be wearing a t-shirt of your favourite band, reading your favourite book, or eating your favourite flavour of crisps. If you’re too busy watching Netflix on your laptop, you will never get the opportunity to say, ‘Hey! Cool t-shirt!’ and become best buds.
7. Be open and honest about your life and past experiences
One of the best things about meeting people while travelling is that you’re starting with a clean slate. No one knows you called the teacher ‘Mum’ when you were eight years old. No one knows you’re afraid of the dentist or failed your driving test four times (definitely didn’t happen to me…). You can be a brand new version of yourself! It can be tempting to gloss over the rough parts or exaggerate your achievements. But if you want to make long-lasting friendships, it’s really important that you don’t lie.
Don’t tell your new travel buddies that you’ve eaten guinea pigs in Peru or bungee-jumped in New Zealand if you haven’t. Answer every question honestly. If there is something you aren’t comfortable talking about, say, “Maybe I’ll share that with you another time.” True friends are only true friends if they know, and like, the real you.
8. Meet up with your new travel friends within the next year
This might be quite difficult in some cases, but I really do think you’re far more likely to make and keep lifelong travel friends if you arrange to meet up not long after you last parted ways. Everyone tells their new travel pals that they will hit them up if they ever pass through ‘insert hometown no tourists visit here’ but so few do. By making an effort, you’re proving that you actually care about continuing your friendship.
I’ve either visited or made concrete plans (flights are booked!) to visit every single one of the travel friends I’ve made in the last two years. Well, except one. But they’re coming to see me instead!
9. Don’t waste time with people you don’t click with
I recently met a Welsh man around my age at a hostel in Inverness. When I mentioned my plans to walk Hadrian Wall Path later in the summer, he wanted to join me. He seemed okay, but I didn’t want to go on a week-long hike with someone I thought was just ‘okay’. I started dropping in facts about myself like my sexuality, background, vegetarianism, my tendency to over plan my trips and things I found funny to see how he’d react. Luckily, we clicked. We walked the 84-mile hike together and now I see him all the time.
In my experience, there are three types of people you meet while travelling:
- Type 1: Lovely, friendly people who ‘click’ with
- Type 2: Lovely, friendly people who you don’t ‘click’ with
- Type 3: Annoying, arrogant people who you will never ‘click’ with
It’s easy to shirk Type 3s but more difficult to shrug off the Type 2s. These are the travellers that are perfectly nice but they don’t laugh at the same TikTok videos as you or share your passions. Don’t fall into the trap of spending all your time with Type 2s so you don’t meet any Type 1s.
10. Travel more to increase your chances
Did you really need another excuse to travel more?! Well, you have one anyway! Don’t set yourself up for failure by pinning all your hopes on finding new lifelong travel buddies on one trip. For every friend that I met while travelling, there are dozens that I had a nice experience with and never spoke to again. It’s only by travelling frequently, being social and being open that I’m able to keep making awesome friends from around the world. Friends who share my passions and values and who I will hopefully keep in touch with for years to come.