Survive + Thrive

Globetrotters ditch guidebooks on long trips to meet new people

By Kaitlyn Voyce


Imagine setting off on a trip for six months, a year or even two years by yourself. You may think you will be alone for the time you are traveling, but many long-term travelers find they are rarely alone during their time abroad.

Travel is actually a social experience. People meet in hostel common rooms, through travel blogs, CouchSurfing or even on a hike in Argentina.


Kate McCulley, a Boston resident, left for her seven-month-long trip to Southeast Asia in October. She had plans for the time between Christmas and New Year's even before departing because friends told her about parties in Bangkok. She said a lot of bloggers, many of whom she follows, will be there.

McCulley previously used technology to find people to meet up with on shorter trips. When she did her first solo trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, McCulley connected with CouchSurfers and met up with locals and other travelers every night.

"Technology definitely made meeting people while traveling easier. I really don't know how I would have done without CouchSurfing. It would have been such a different trip without it," said Kate McCulley.

Lillie Marshall, a teacher from Boston, spent nine months traveling by herself through Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe. Marshall said she knew she wanted to volunteer and go to Africa during her round-the-world trip, so she found a volunteering opportunity in Ghana by posting on a message board.

Monica Wulff, from Sydney, Australia, has been traveling solo in the United States since August and plans to stay until March 2011.

Wulff used CouchSurfing and rideshares she found on Craigslist to keep costs down. She said CouchSurfing has also been a great way to meet people. She met members during her rideshare from Portland to Boulder, Colo. and again from Boulder to Chicago. She said she even connected with CouchSurfers by chance.

She was at a bus stop one day and saw a girl who was around her age. "We got to talking and she was like, are you with CouchSurfing? And I was like, oh yeah. It was an automatic thing, which is awesome," Wulff said.

Wulff said she didn't worry about traveling alone and getting lonely because she knew she would meet so many people.

"I've never been alone. I'm just constantly surrounded by people," said Wulff. "I think because you're by yourself, you're more open to meeting other people."

Marshall also found that she rarely had to spend time by herself.

"I was basically only alone 10 percent of the time. I was just constantly meeting people, and then constantly parting ways. But traveling with people for weeks on end even, and then separating, then even meeting up again months later," Marshall said.

Marshall said that it could get difficult to not have stability while traveling, but she knew she would always be able to meet new people through CouchSurfing or hostels.

McCulley said her adjustment to long-term travel has not been difficult since she was able to meet with friends for the first couple weeks of her trip.

"The first time I went through genuine loneliness first night in Kuala Lumpur, where I knew nobody. Thankfully, I was staying in a hostel, so I sat down in the common room and made a new friend almost instantly!" McCulley said.

Tim McGregor and Jessica McHugh traveled as a couple for 18 months, but they worried they might still feel isolated during their trip. They quickly realized that there were opportunities to meet new people everywhere, from the hostel common room to a local restaurant or public transportation

Even though it may be intimidating to walk into a room when it seems the travelers already know each other, McGregor and McHugh said it is important to walk up and start a conversation because those people probably only met each other a few hours or a day ago.

"Because of the nature of travel, because you don't really have time to mess around, you tend to dive quickly into very strong friendships," McGregor said.

McGregor and McHugh said some of their best friends are people they met on their round-the-world trip and the relationships can be easier because many travelers tend to be easy-going.

Wulff said she connected with many of her CouchSurfing hosts and plans to visit them again if she goes back to their cities. She said her hosts from Sonoma Valley, California, an older couple, call her their Australian daughter.

Adam Seper and his wife Megan met two couples while on their year-long trip.They consider both couples to be close friends. They met a couple from New York while hiking in Patagonia, had dinner together that night and "hit it off," Seper said. They also met a couple from England in Vietnam and traveled with them for five or six weeks.

"I can't imagine us not being friends for life, honestly. We may only end up seeing each other once every couple of years, but with Facebook and Twitter and things like that, it's so easy to stay in touch with people these days," said Seper.

McHugh and McGregor found that another benefit to meeting people on the road is talking about their travel experiences and learning about destinations they might not find in a guidebook.

McHugh and McGregor did not have international travel experience before they left on their 18-month round-the-world trip. They bought one-way tickets to Buenos Aires and left their itinerary open.

They did not make a long list of destinations to visit and only had four must-see places. They said they preferred to meet people while on the road and listen to where they had been and what their experiences had been rather than depending on a guidebook.

"I think that's one of the reasons that we like to not really set an itinerary for ourselves ahead of time so that we can be open to those interactions we have with other travelers or with people who live there about where we might want to go next, which might be someplace that we've never heard of before," McGregor said.

McCulley said she decided to travel in Southeast Asia with a more open itinerary than she had in Buenos Aires, which has allowed her to experience travel in a different way.

"I was so desperate for my Buenos Aires trip to be a success that I planned every aspect meticulously, allowing for few surprises. This time, I love having the freedom to change my mind on a whim! Booking last-minute trips to Chiang Mai, to Pai, to Kuala Lumpur and to Krabi has been a rush every single time," McCulley said.

Seper and his wife discovered their favorite destination from their year-long trip on the recommendation of two women from Spain that they met at breakfast on their first morning in Lima, Peru.

The women were "raving" about Colombia. Seper said he and his wife were not sure if they wanted to go because of the past turmoil in Colombia, but they decided to take a chance after hearing good things about it. They spent their last month of the South America leg of their journey in Colombia.

He said it was a beautiful country and not overrun with tourists, but "most of all it's the people. The Colombian people were just the nicest, friendliest, happiest people. It was infectious," Seper said.

Wulff said she also likes to get recommendations from travelers. She went to Philadelphia on a tip from a fellow traveler and wants to go to New Orleans because she has heard so much about it.

"That's what I love, finding people's recommendations. People are like, 'oh my God, you should really go there.' I'm like, 'allright, I will,'" Wulff said.

McHugh and McGregor travel with the philosophy that every traveler is their own expert because they know what makes them comfortable. But McHugh said many travelers can benefit from being open to meeting new people and being a part of whatever place they are in.

"Get your nose out of the guidebook. Go for a walk one day somewhere. Just wander around a city. Walk as much as possible. Take public transport. You get to know a culture much better if you take public transport rather than renting a car or flying everywhere," McHugh said.

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