My Road Scholar journey to Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills of South Dakota was my first trip as a solo traveler, and I was fearful that no one would sit next to me or talk to me. I was like a little kid going to summer camp for the first time. I wasn’t sure how to make the first move, even though I’ve had more than six decades to practice it.
Barbara posing with a friend at High Plains Western Heritage Center, Spearfish, S.D
On the first day, as we went around the room doing introductions, a woman approached me and said, “Are you a Babs?”
I said, “I am tickled because only a few people in my life call me Babs, and they are my closest friends.”
She said, “Well, you can be MY Babs, too.”
And that was it … the spark that made Charle my friend. Our camaraderie only grew after that. We laughed at the same things and felt immediately comfortable chatting.
Friendship can make a trip more fun, relaxing, memorable and altogether enriching. I talked to my friend Charle and some other Road Scholars who met friends on programs to put together a recipe for making friends when going solo. Read on, enjoy and make new friends!
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Mary Banks and Pat Lust didn’t know each other, but they were both interested in a "Journey to see the Northern Lights" in Churchill, Canada. It was 2016, the year of the presidential elections, and they shared a similar political sensibility. When they met on their Road Scholar program, they immediately hit it off and asked if they could be roommates.
Two years later, Mary was scheduled to travel to Croatia, when suddenly her husband backed out. She decided to go alone. “The day I signed up,” she said, “I got a call from Pat. I told her about the trip and Pat said, ‘Sure, when are we going?’” They were roommates once again and both treasure their memories of the adventure together.
Pat has become more and more interested in gardening and is planning to take the Gardens and Vineyards of New Zealand Road Scholar program, where she’ll see the flora and also meet people who share her passion. She says, “You have to keep on making new friends. You make friends through what you’re thinking and what you’re doing.”
Although discovering someone with whom you have common interests is terrific, you may find that the people who you like the most are those who are completely different from you. When Charle and I met, we recognized our lives were very different. She was on her 20th Road Scholar trip, and I was on my first one. We came from opposite coasts — she is from Portland, Oregon, and I am from Jersey City, New Jersey. And we had different upbringings. She was raised on a farm, and I was a city girl. All we seemed to have in common was that we both left our husbands home. We were the ones who jumped at the chance to explore the world, even if it meant that we were solo group travelers. I also found it fascinating that she knows a lot about fish (catching them, anyways). I surely did not. As she said, “We have a lot to learn from each other.”
Most good friends find that they laugh at the same things. Sometimes that sense of humor can come in handy when the unexpected happens during your travels. It snowed for the first four of five days in South Dakota in May. We couldn’t see the Badlands out the window of the bus for the snow and were lashed by winds when we ventured out to see bison. “Laughing got us through a lot,” said Charle.
Sitting near someone for days on a bus, in a restaurant or in a shared room makes for conversation — and communication is at the root of all friendship. You are both blank slates, and you can discover what you share (or don’t), what you know (or don’t) and what you think (or don’t). Immediate bonds can form when you jump into unfamiliar situations. You often get to know people more quickly than if you were back home because you’re both on the same journey of discovery together.
Friendship, like love, can be mysterious. I met a woman on a ferry in Hong Kong in the 1970s, with whom I traveled in Thailand. We live on opposite coasts and have followed each other’s travels and lives for 50 years. When we met, we had no idea that we would remain friends over the years and over the miles. This is one of the wonders of travel. Finding a friend often takes equal amounts of friendliness and serendipity.
As Mary says, “Be curious, be friendly, be open. That’s the way to do it. People respond.” She notes that on the Road Scholar programs she’s been on, “you switch tables and you’re eating with different people every time. You know all of them by the time the week is over.”
Of course, many travelers are not natural extroverts. Pat notes that she “tends to be a little on the shy side by nature.” But even when friendliness may not be innate, try to push yourself out of your comfort zone, walk up to somebody and just start talking! Road Scholars are some of the most welcoming people you’ll ever meet.
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You may initially think that someone you meet in your travels is not someone with whom you’d be friends. Try to keep talking and listening. Once you know more about a person and share daily stories, you may discover common interests.
People who listen are at a premium. Listening with a whole heart is a wonderful quality in an acquaintance or a friend. After all, with all the people chatting away, someone has to listen!
You are all in the same boat. No one knows anything about you and your life. If you are shy, take a leap and take the initiative.
You can be a solo traveler on a group tour and also meet new friends. As Pat says, “Road Scholar is the kind of organization where it is easy to be a solo traveler.” You have as much alone time as you want and need, plus a group of people with whom to talk! It’s the both of best worlds.
Pat also notes that “my friendship with Mary is rare.” She is right: Finding a true friend may not happen on every trip. It takes a leap of faith. But it may just happen when you least expect it, as it did with my pal Charle, who said, “I love the experience of learning — not just about the places I’m going but also the people I’m going with.”
Are you ready to whip up a new friendship on a group tour with Road Scholar? Explore our learning adventures around the world →
About the Author Barbara Winard has earned degrees in English literature, journalism, and, later in life, gerontology. Although for the past 25 years she was a senior editor and writer of online encyclopedia articles for children. She began her solo travels in college, and after returning from a long trip to Asia, wandered off the street and was hired by the Asia Society in New York City to produce films and print materials for adults and children about Asian culture. She was also a producer and writer for New York City’s public television station, WNET/13. She lives in Jersey City.
I would be a solo traveler but first I have to have the courage to sign up for my first trip. I love many trips you offer and hope to sign up very soon.
Travelling alone is not difficult. I have done it for years. Some with Elderhostel (38 trips) and did find people very friendly. I have also done trips by myself (mostly in Latin America) and always run into interesting people. Smiling does make a difference. Fear not!!!
At first I was not sure about traveling solo. A friend of mine recommended RS to me after I was widowed. Although they are a couple they explain to me the inclusiveness of the others on the tour. During my first RS trip domestically I found couples & singles went out of their way to be welcoming & inclusive. I went on to travel to abroad & made it a point to include other solo travelers that were a bit shy. I have made many new friends on my trips & have met up with some of them on future trips.
I have found it easier to travel alone. Last year I took my first trip to Europe plus I did it by myself. I found that changing plans was easy when the only one you had to clear it with was myself. I landed in Frankfurt Germany and spent a few days there before jumping on a train to Berlin. On my way there I decided to take a detour to the city of Leipzig where I surprised a contractor that was doing some work for my company back in the States. I had only spoken to them on the phone so meeting them face to face was a treat. I arrived in Berlin later that day and spent the next 5 days bouncing around the city. At night I would come back to my private room I rented from a local couple via Airbnb to YouTube the history of the sites I visited that day or learn about the ones I planned on visiting the next. I jumped on a train and heading to Prague for 3 more days of sightseeing and then a bus and train back to Frankfurt where I flew out the next morning.
I was nervous about not speaking the language or their public transportation systems but with some good planning beforehand and having a little patience once I arrived I was able to find my way around without any problems. The only language barrier I ran into was at a Burger King when the guy waiting on me ask if I wanted some tomato paste with my fries and thinking he was speaking German. After asking him to repeat himself a few more times I said "oh Ketchup! Yes please" LOL
I have traveled to several other places before and after that trip with the same great experience. One benefit of traveling alone is that it is easy to find lodging especially if you are willing to share a home. It's also a great way to meet the locals.
I also enjoy meeting new people with Road Scholar and try to change tables. However, many people seem reticent to change and i can't always break into their group. It is especially delicate when there are lots of couples, as there often are. It would be helpful if the group leaders would encourage "musical" tables from the first meeting. I'm looking forward to a week in Richmond and Charleston in April.
I completely agree with the previous blogger about instituting musical tables as a way to get to know folks, especially if you are single (but are or have been married). The one thing that I dislike is the fact that little cliques form and they tend not to let others (or at least me) in. I don't know if other single travelers feel the same way. I really think musical tables, at least for common meals, is a brilliant idea.
I don't want to be forced to join a group or break up a group that wants to sit together. Not all people are joiners and I respect that this is their vacation to enjoy as they wish. In 8 trips, as a solo traveler, I have never had an issue with sitting with different people. I like when a group organically interacts. I find listening challenging and have worked on that skill over the years. I simply ask what are you passionate about, sit back and listen. I have learned more from listening than talking. LOL.
I took my first Road Scholar trip last September. I was apprehensive because I almost always travelled alone and, as a basic introvert, I did not know how I would react to a group experience. I decided to go outside my comfort zone and sit at a different table each meal until I had at least met everyone in the group. It worked really well for me and I have booked additional programs with the intention of playing musical chairs at all of them.
My first RS as a solo traveler was the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim. It was the best vacation I ever had. When I arrived at the welcome dinner, I thought everyone already knew each other by the conversations, but not so - they were all new - a good mix of couples, a few groups of friends, and several solo. We changed tables, bus seats, etc. and we were all friends (I'm rather shy, so it was a transformation for me.) Our guide was also fantastic, and was a master at creating a cohesive group. I've taken several RS trips since and it has always been the same - I'm included and an effort is made by my fellow-travelers and the guide to make sure no one is left out. RS lets me go many places as a solo that I would never go by myself. It's a safety concern and I love meeting new people with shared interests. Don't hesitate - sign-up!
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