How Traveling/Backpacking Can Boost Your Social Skills
Many people who used to be socially clueless and then got over it can trace a lot of their improvement back to a few key choices they made. For some of them it was deciding to go traveling. They got so much out of it socially that they weren't the same when they got back. Personally, it was a big factor in my own social development. I visited Australia for a year after finishing my undergrad degree.
This article is mainly about backpacking, which is a specific type of traveling that usually involves going on a longer, lower-budget trip, staying in hostels, and meeting tons of other travelers from around the world. It's also associated with a younger party crowd, though it doesn't necessarily have to be.
Obviously traveling and/or backpacking is very fun. Everyone knows it broadens your horizons and makes you a better person. If you're young and not tied down with responsibilities you should go for just those reasons. But besides from that, here are some social benefits it provides:
Backpacking is an extremely social experience. It's pretty hard for it not to boost your social skills
Backpacking is concentrated social practice. Upon arriving in a new city you can go around and see most of the touristy sights after a few days. In a small town you can see everything in an afternoon. Seeing a bunch of buildings, exhibits, or scenery gets old surprisingly quickly and rings hollow if you do it alone. You soon realize that most of the fun will come from the people you meet and the experiences you share with them.
Backpackers stay in cheap hostels which are full of other travelers. You'll meet a ton of people. You'll meet the people you're sharing a room with. You'll meet them in your hostel's TV room, pool, or kitchen. You'll strike up conversations at the beach or in tourist bars. I'll generalize and say that the people who go backpacking tend to be more fun, interesting, and outgoing than your average person... or maybe the circumstances just bring those traits out in everyone. You run into the odd bad apple, but mostly everyone you meet is pretty likable and worth knowing.
Also, the people you meet feel less intimidating than the ones at home because you tend to see them as non-threatening, positive stereotypes. When you see a backpacker from another country you tend to think something like, "Oh! A Swede! Cool! Swedes are fun and laid back. I want to talk to him!" At home you're more likely to size someone up first and come up with reasons why you wouldn't get along with them or they wouldn't want to talk to you. The people you meet while traveling don't carry the baggage that the ones from home do.
Backpackers are almost all eager to meet new people, so it's really easy to make friends. If you don't try to meet anyone while traveling you get bored and lonely very quickly. Once you've made some friends you get to hang around with them until you or they move on to the next destination. Sometimes this is for a few days, sometimes it's a few weeks. At other times you'll travel with them for a while. Your social relationships tend to be shorter, but more intense, compared to back home. Once you arrive at the next location the process starts over again.
So, in summary, where does this all lead for someone whose people skills could use some improvement? Well...
- You're put into a situation where you're pretty much forced to be outgoing and meet new people, but the odds are on your side.
- You get practice in talking to lots of people.
- You get to meet people from many different countries.
- You get to practice the process of making friends, and quickly.
- You get practice in hanging around people one-on-one and in groups.
- The people you meet are all pretty friendly and sociable and you're bound to pick up some good traits from them.
I already covered where you'll meet people. Unless you make a concerted effort to avoid being social, you'll run into tons of fellow travelers naturally. The magic conversation starting sentence is, "Where are you from?"
- To get a group of people together to go out with the magic sentence is, "We're going to ____, want to come?"
- If you have nothing to do the phrase to say is, "You guys are going to _____? Mind if I come along?"
Some other things to say are:
- "How long have you been in ____?"
- "Where were you before you came here?"
- "Have you been to ____ yet?"
None of these are super creative, but they'll get a conversation started really easily. Also, you're going to hear the same questions and comments about your country over and over so it helps to have some interesting/witty things to say when the topic comes up.
Traveling makes you a more interesting, more socially experienced person
Traveling indirectly improves your social success in all the ways outlined in this article. Your personality will change for the better. You'll come home with lots of good stories. Some people will simply be impressed that you went on the trip at all. You can overdo it, of course. You don't want to be that person who starts every sentence with, "When I was in ______" or who still constantly goes on about a trip they took five years ago.
Depending on where you go there are certain things you may even want to do just for the points they'll get you back home. If you go to Australia I know you must do something surfing or diving-related. I'm not sure what the equivalent experiences are for other places.
Backpacking is a great preparation for college life
Going off to university and living in residence has a lot of things in common with traveling around and staying in hostels. If you want to give yourself a head start on getting comfortable with the whole college experience, go traveling first.
Here are some things the two share:
- You're away from home fending for yourself... but you sometimes can't help but feel like you're just staying at some glorified camp.
- You have to do little things for yourself like buy groceries, pay bills, and arrange your transportation.
- You're in an environment with tons of other young people who don't know anyone and who want to make new friends.
- You have to share your room with one or more strangers (and their various annoying habits).
- You have to use a communal bathroom.
- You have to get a feel for the new town or city you're in.
- You have to do your laundry in shared coin or card-operated machines.
- If you're making your own food you have to cook in a communal kitchen.
- You don't have a lot of money and have to be careful with your spending... but at the same time you can often count on your parents for at least some help.
- If you meet someone who wants to hook up with you, you don't have anywhere private to go.
- You get to stay up late having profound conversations about life with your new buddies.
- You get to go out to corny bars in giant packs with all your new friends.
I'll say it again, the best reason to go traveling is because it's really fun. three days in another city getting in adventures with fellow travelers can be more entertaining than a month's worth of weekends in the real world. There are all kinds of other reasons to go that I haven't even touched on. The boost you could get in your social skills is just a happy side effect.
Backpacking may not be appropriate for everyone
I'd urge you to be cautious about going backpacking if you struggle with moderate to severe social anxiety. In that case being on the other side of the world may be more than you can handle. Traveling can be stressful at times, especially if you're going somewhere totally unlike your home country, and all the unfamiliar situations you find yourself may be enough to cause a flare up in your symptoms, while you're away from your support system.
Bonus section: A quick guide on how to arrange a backpacking trip
It's beyond the scope of this article to go in-depth about how to organize a trip, but I'll try to cover the basics. Arranging a trip is one of those things that can seem overwhelming and complicated at first, but it's actually not that bad once you start tackling the individual tasks you have to accomplish:
Figure out where you want to go
The most common places to go backpacking are Australia, Europe, and South-East Asia (i.e., Thailand and the surrounding countries). South and Central America are also getting pretty popular. Each of these are interesting in their own ways and offer different experiences. They're all relatively tourist friendly, non-hardcore traveler destinations. I'd use my gut to choose. Is there somewhere you've always wanted to visit?
Have some money to pay for it all
The expenses will vary depending on where you go, but you'll roughly need a couple of thousand dollars for your whole trip. There are up-front expenses like buying your plane ticket, and then daily on-the-ground costs like food, lodging, getting around, and entertainment. I'd almost say you need similar amounts of cash whether the trip is a long or short one. For longer vacations you tend to stretch your money out more, and there are ways to cut costs or make more of it. On shorter trips you tend to blow through your funds in a more intense, focused way.
Arrange all the pre-trip details
Organizing a trip means going through a little To Do list. These all cost money.
- Get a passport if you don't have one. If you have one already, get it renewed if it's going to expire during the time you're away.
- Obtain travel visas to the countries you want to visit. A visa is a document/stamp in your passport that gives you permission to be in a country for a certain length of time (I remember getting confused about the term 'visa' at first, because it sounds like the type of credit card). You usually have to apply through the country's embassy or consulate to get one. You'll often have to show you have a return plane ticket and a certain amount of money in your bank account to be accepted. If you're visiting somewhere for a week or two, you get a tourist visa more or less automatically. But if you want to stay longer you have to arrange it ahead of time. Different countries will have varying types of visas available. For example, one may let you stay in the country for up to a year, and work at any one job for up to six months.
- Get travel insurance. That way you'll be covered if you get sick or hurt yourself and have to rely on another country's health care system.
- Get any necessary vaccinations. If you're going to a less-developed or tropical area you may need these.
- Book your plane ticket. Pretty simple, though you may have to hunt around for a good deal. You'll need a two-way ticket. There are all kinds of special tickets you can buy, like the ability to make a certain number of Around the World stops for one fixed price. The options can be a little daunting.
- If you plan on driving while you're away, get an International Driving Permit.
Arrange the details regarding what you're going to do when you're actually there
This is another set of To Do's. There are a mix of straightforward tasks to complete, and some more general researching and planning. These days you can probably arrange most of your bookings online.
- If you haven't done so already, grab a travel guide (e.g., Lonely Planet) for your country of choice and read through it. What are the major cities and attractions? Where in the cities do backpackers congregate? What types of issues does it recommend you take into account? Expect some information overload here.
- Do you want to rigorously plan your itinerary in advance, or wing it once you hit the ground? Where do you want to go, and what do you want to see?
- Are you going to travel on your own, go with a friend, take an organized tour, or a mix of the three? If you're doing a tour, then look into the various options and book one.
- At the very least, reserve a room to stay in for the first day you arrive. After that, do you want to find accommodation as you go, or book some or all of your hotel/hostel rooms ahead of time? If so, do that. Or if you're doing a tour, they may handle it for you.
- Look into buying train/bus passes ahead of time. Like with plane tickets, there's a lots of options which can swamp your brain. And it will all depend on whether you want a strict schedule or flexibility. The same could be said of internal flights.
- If you're going to work while you're there, are you going to try and pick up jobs as you go, or plan to be at a certain place at a certain time to get a certain job?
Get your supplies
- Buy an actual backpack. To be honest, your backpack will often function as a glorified suitcase. But they're more practical to lug around than actual heavy, bulky luggage.
- Get traveling knick knacks like a travel towel, travel mug, small flashlight, etc. Every traveler has their own little list of essentials they say you should bring. To be frank, once you arrive you'll probably find you don't need half the stuff you brought, or you can pick it up there. Try not to fill your pack with too much junk.
- Don't only pack grungy, casual clothes. Bring some nice dress shirts or outfits so you'll be able to look decent if you go out to a fancier club or restaurant.
- Quick tip for fellow Canadians: If you sew a little Canadian flag on your backpack you'll get teased about it.
Once you've arrived it'll all come together
You can plan and research your trip all you want, but before you leave you'll probably still feel a little unsure of yourself and if you can do it. That's totally normal and understandable. Once you actually land in that foreign country you'll figure everything out within a week or two. You'll learn to quickly get your bearings in a new city. You'll figure out how to communicate with people in countries that don't speak your language. And you'll have no problems getting to the next place you want to visit, and finding somewhere to stay once you get there. You may have freaked yourself out reading travel cautions, but once you're there you'll realize pickpockets and scam artists aren't thick on the ground. Odds are you'll never even see any poisonous animals if you go to Australia.
Overall, it's not that hard. It'll all seem a lot more manageable than it was when you were reading some abstract guide and trying to picture what your trip would be like from a bunch of hostel listings and street maps. If your travel plans aren't locked down ahead of time, expect half of them to change as new opportunities come up.