It must be said: one of the more paradoxical effects of travelling the world alone is that the best experiences are very often shared ones, whether that’s with a tour group or simply like-minded adventurers you meet along the way. And although making new friends has always been at the heart of solo travel, it doesn’t come naturally to everyone – not least for men.
Late last year, I interviewed five males in their twenties and thirties for a piece asking why more men didn’t travel alone. During the chats one theme arose more than any other. It was regarding making friends and how it’s such a worrying prospect that it may be deterring men from travelling alone full stop. But if the feedback from the interviewees was a marker of just how intimidating it could be, then came the Facebook comments:
– “I have travelled primarily solo for over 6 years now and find it incredibly hard at times to find mates or be invited to a group. It seems like the girls get it easier when it comes to that parameter when travelling. That is just my perspective though, but also makes me break open my bubble more.”
– “It can be hard being a lone male. A lone female is always going to be approached, either by groups (male, female or mixed) or individuals. That doesn’t happen anywhere near as often with a lone male. It’s harder to meet people but not impossible.”
– “The climate has changed. It’s difficult to approach men and women if you are a single guy traveller. Different cultures, different customs, but a lot of people have their guard up these days.”
Andrew, 32, who I interviewed for this piece, shares similar sentiments to the last comment: “I think that people do shield themselves more nowadays. You can’t really say how you feel anymore, the world is too scared to offend. But that may come with being older – when you are younger you have less regard for your actions and have a different approach in certain settings.”
Andrew, who cannot remember the last time he broke the ice with a stranger abroad, says the idea is something that has so far put him off solo travel (“I would not have the confidence to try – and suspect it may be deterring other men from doing so”). However, he believes his partner may be less phased in the same situation: “She is a confident person and more comfortable in certain situations,” he adds.
Could it be, as those Facebook comments allude to, that females really are more readily accepted by other travellers and groups when they’re alone than men would be in the same situation?
“I see the logic in that,” says David, 37, “but then I’ve always found that women put themselves out there a bit more – my female friends have tended to want to explore and embrace their independence than my male friends. I myself have often struck up conversations with other guys on holiday, although I would say from my experience this has been more common and simpler when part of a larger group. While on my own, I would still be willing to strike up conversation, but I’d be more reserved.”
Ultimately though, David believes the pluses outweigh the negatives and that men shouldn’t be put off making friends, even into their thirties and beyond: “I think much depends on if you’re an introvert or extrovert to begin with,” he adds. “If you’re confident, comfortable and naturally talkative it’ll come naturally, but you should try.”
Nick, 32, is another man who has tended to thrive in groups, but also sees the difficulties with making pals as a man: “Perhaps because I’ve worked at places with a big social element I’ve found making friends quite easy, but I do find it harder to chat to other people when I’m travelling alone,” he confesses. “Maybe it’s a macho element of not wanting to put yourself out there and seem a bit foolish if somebody doesn’t reciprocate.
“Phones don’t help, either, adds Nick. “You’re sat next to someone at a bar and it’s hard to strike up a natural conversation when they’re glued to their phones. And I’m guilty of that, too, I suppose.”
He’s not wrong. Walk into any bar or hostel and you can bet if there is a solo traveller, they’ll be burying their heads in a device, constantly connected, never switched off. So tight is the stranglehold phones have on travel experiences now, and so increasingly reliant have we become on their features (e-tickets, AirBnB, Google Maps, Uber, camera, etc.), they also act as a private barrier, both for us and strangers, a way for us to zone out, or simply deal with any crippling unease when surrounded by groups of people. Simply put: as well as all the other angst of making friends in unfamiliar environments, has the power of technology eroded our confidence in social situations?
Well, you know what, screw it – take a chance, strike up a conversation, reach out to that person before they pick back up with their WhatsApp group. Don’t be afraid to meet fellow seekers of wanderlust or discerning nomads wherever your travels may be. In fact, the Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging has reported that people with close friendships could increase their life expectancy by around 22 per cent, so you never know – you might even meet someone for the long haul.