The Social Souvenirs of Travel: Building Bonds Across the Globe

When I decided to be childfree it was simply because I never thought parenthood was meant for me, or something I wanted.  It was not because I craved the freedom and flexibility to travel the world, but that ended up being a beautiful and rewarding bonus of the life I created. As I went from a frequent vacationer to approaching midlife as a full-time traveler, I have had the opportunity to explore several countries and regions across the world, and along the way met some of the most incredible people: some for a moment, some for a lifetime, all incredible memories.

If you were to ask me what I bought on my trip to Tobago Island, I probably couldn’t tell you.  But, if you inquire about the people I met, I would tell you all about Jon, the owner of the boutique hotel I stayed at, I would explain how he ended up in Panama, from the UK, and share anecdotes about his wife and his son. I could tell you the places he recommended I visit, and how he handcrafts mojitos with mint plunked fresh from his garden.

If you asked me what I brought back from Dublin, I’d paint you a vivid picture of the memories and chance encounters that defined my visits; like the bachelor party I ended up joining with a donuteer (aka: gourmet donut maker), investor, and the guy that was marrying their sister.

While I may not recall the tangible things I have brought back from the many places I have explored, I could go on endlessly about the people I have met, the brief encounters, the dates, the dinners, the random crossing of paths like the Cypriot bar owner who lived just three blocks from me in Harlem for three years, and the lasting friendships and bonds that have blossomed along the way.

But, how does one go about cultivating such meaningful connections when traveling? How does one bridge the gap without the comradery and (literal) closeness of a hostel? Or, as a childfree person, without needing to befriend the parents of the kid your child is playing with at the pool? How can we overcome the innate fear of rejection that comes with putting ourselves out there?

Whether you’re a solo traveler or with a partner, friend, or group, meeting new people can really enhance your travel experience. Meeting local people makes a trip more immersive, offering local insight and recommendations that guide you off the beaten path. Meeting fellow travelers can open you up to other parts of the world you have not been to, yet.

Thankfully, there are so many ways to meet new people, even if you are thousands of miles from home and beyond your comfort zone. The opportunities for organic encounters are endless — from striking up a conversation with someone at a bar, taking a free walking tour, engaging in a group activity or class, or traveling with a tour group — there is so much opportunity to meet locals and other travelers.  

Technology has helped me open doors to meet new people worldwide.  There are endless meet-up groups, Facebook groups, apps, and platforms to bring people together all over the world. Bumble BFF is a great option for meeting locals and fellow explorers, especially for solo travelers. Many cities with a large tourist population also have meet-up groups and ongoing events like dinners, cocktail hours, and tours.

If you are looking for a more intimate or romantic connection, many dating apps are universal. Tinder, Bumble and Hinge all have “travel” options for either pre-planned meet-ups or spontaneous encounters. Dating abroad is not only a great way to meet new people and experience local dating culture but can also offer a low-pressure experience. Unlike dating locally, expectations of a lasting relationship aren’t there if only visiting for a weekend, week, or even a month.

Of course, low pressure travel encounters aren’t exclusive to dating. There is something freeing in the temporariness of travel meet ups. Knowing that you may never cross paths with someone again lends itself to being more open and candid. Being in a new place also tends to bring out the best in people; we more easily feel a sense of freedom, boldness, confidence, and open mindedness that elevates our interpersonal relationships.

Travel meet ups aren’t just for solo travelers, or young travelers looking for peers to party with. As a long-term solo traveler, I have found comradery and companionship with people I would not generally interact with. I have become close friends with a divorced Londoner who was starting over in Lisbon, a person 16 years my senior with grown children. I have had dinner and drinks with people generations younger than me on a gap year or on a backpacking adventure who have taught me incredible life lessons. I have met couples celebrating anniversaries who were delighted to have someone to engage with other than each other. I have plans to meet up with a woman from a travel group in Lima in two weeks who has been happily traveling with her partner for months but is yearning for some much needed “girl time”.

I have learned and grown from all of these interactions. They have provided a sense of normalcy in new and unknown places, they have offered a sounding board or hearty laugh when I needed it the most. Above all, they have given me the motivation and encouragement to live my life on my terms, free from judgement or scrutiny. 

That is the beauty of travel — the social souvenirs endure far longer than any trinkets or bric-à-brac.

To follow Hillary as she travels to South America, and catch up on past adventures, find her on Instagram: @Queenoftheexitrow or visit her website:

For her chronicles of a too tall traveler dating around the world one swipe at a time, head over to


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