Six Tips for Introverted Travelers

Lists: You don't have to be an extrovert to enjoy travel. Sophia Dembling explains.

05.07.09 | 10:16 AM ET

Photo by Sophia Dembling

My essay Confessions of an Introverted Traveler drew a lot of feedback from fellow introverts tired of reading stories about others’ great experiences meeting people. Many who wrote told me they were worried that, because they were introverts, they simply weren’t cut out to travel.  For anyone trying to decide if they should hit the road or just stay home where nobody will bother them, I thought I’d offer these six tips for introverted travelers.

1. Be open to conversation when it’s offered.

I don’t often initiate conversations but I will talk to almost anyone who talks to me first. People like talking to introverts because we tend to be good listeners, and listening is the point in travel conversations, anyway. That’s when we learn. Once the conversation is started, you can ask lots of questions and learn lots of stuff. In her book Introvert Power, psychologist Laurie Helgoe points out that introverts generally prefer deep conversation to superficial chitchat. I’m never afraid to turn conversations to to the subject of worldview, personal goals, politics and other Deep Thoughts. If you find yourself in conversation, ask things you truly want to know. Make the conversation work for you.

2. Don’t be shy about ending an encounter when you’re ready.

A lot of times, random conversations lead to invitations to parties, to travel companionship, to meet others. This sort of invitation can lead to raucous good times. I hate raucous good times. I rarely accept those “let’s take it to the next level” invitations. I may have missed out on a lot that way, but maybe not. The few times I have accepted have not convinced me otherwise. Drunks in bars are pretty much the same the world over. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to say “no” if you’re not feeling it. Then again, say “yes” sometimes, too. You never know.

3. Carry a book.

There’s an interesting debate going in response to an article about travel books on World Hum—a couple of people contend that reading while you travel is a waste of experience, that you can read at home and you should be out Living and Meeting Interesting People when you’re traveling. Yes, well, fine for those people. I always carry a book when I travel for when I need to create a quiet place for myself. Travel is wonderful and exhausting and over-stimulating. Sometimes I need to escape into the tranquility of reading.

4. Develop the art of sitting and watching.

In her book, Helgoe talks about the French term “flâneur” (feminine, “flâneuse”). It translates literally to “idler or loafer,” but the poet Charles Baudelaire defined it as a passionate observer. Yes, yes! I am a flâneuse. I love just sitting and watching people doing what they do, and even more so when I travel. I do it in parks, I do it in museums, I’m finally able to do it in restaurants. That ability took a while to develop but I can now just sit alone in a restaurant and eat and watch people around me, rather than immediately burrowing into a book. Mind you, I always have a book nearby during my sitting and watching, just in case I need to escape the world for a bit or in case I suffer a bout of self-consciousness, but it often remains unopened while I watch and eavesdrop.

5. Take a walking tour or, even better, hire a guide yourself.

I have found this controlled interaction is a great way to get some conversation in with a local. A professional guide—you can find one through the local tourist board—is a wealth of both official and personal information about the place you’re visiting. Once again, make the interaction work for you—ask things you want to know even if they’re not part of the official spiel.

6. Take the downtime you need.

I’m not opposed to traveling with others—a good travel companion is a joy and an extroverted companion can make connections for you on the road. But I’m also not shy about eking out time to myself as necessary. An hour walking alone, some solo time in a museum, an hour in a hotel garden with a book can provide a very refreshing break from interaction. Anyone who doesn’t respect your need for downtime is probably not the right travel companion for you.

Tags: Travel Tips

Sophia Dembling

Dallas-based writer Sophia Dembling is co-author of the Flyover America blog and author of "The Yankee Chick's Survival Guide to Texas." She would love to hear your tales of America, so drop her an email.

39 Comments for Six Tips for Introverted Travelers 05.07.09 | 12:37 PM ET

These are great ideas.  I agree that there’s nothing wrong with carrying a book.  Hello!  If you love cafes, it’s a great way to break the ice and meet people.  Perhaps you spot a guy or girl that “catches” your eye, go up and inquire about the book he or she is reading.  You never know, you could meet your soul mate :)

Eman 05.07.09 | 12:38 PM ET

As a fellow IT (Introverted Traveler), I thoroughly enjoyed this article.

For an introvert, traveling can be exhausting. But I LOVE my downtime, people-watching and do-it-yourself walking tours. And I fully support reading while traveling. Especially if the subject matter deals with where you are.

In fact, just reading this article has me energized. Thanks!

Sophia Dembling 05.07.09 | 1:26 PM ET

Yes, I like to think of it this way: You’re in a coffee shop. In one corner, an attractive member of the opposite sex is slugging coffee and chattering on a cell phone. In another, an equally attractive person is sipping tea and reading quietly. Who would you rather meet?

Jerry Haines 05.07.09 | 1:42 PM ET

One place where conversation often is easier, even for us shy folks, is the local farmers market, or meracto coperto, or whatever they call it in that country.  As a question about what to do with a peculiar herb they’re selling, for example, and be prepared to get lots of ideas.  The vendors usually are proud of the merchandise—they might have even grown it themselves.  Other customers will join in—even in locations like Portugal or Helsinki where people are not unfriendly, but are more reserved than most Americans would be.

If you buy something to take back to your hotel, stop again the next day and tell them how it worked out.  Soon you’re acting like old friends.

And you might get some free samples.

Jerry Haines 05.07.09 | 1:44 PM ET

Boy, was that full of typos.  Let’s try that again:

One place where conversation often is easier, even for us shy folks, is the local farmers market, or mercato coperto, or whatever they call it in that country.  Ask a question about what to do with a peculiar herb they’re selling, for example, and be prepared to get lots of ideas.  The vendors usually are proud of the merchandise—they might have even grown it themselves.  Other customers will join in—even in locations like Portugal or Helsinki where people are not unfriendly, but are more reserved than most Americans would be.
If you buy something to take back to your hotel, stop again the next day and tell them how it worked out.  Soon you’re acting like old friends.
And you might get some free samples

Tim Patterson 05.07.09 | 9:58 PM ET

Solid advice here, thanks!

Christy 05.08.09 | 12:27 AM ET

I have really enjoyed reading these articles about introverted travelers! I always hear stories from extroverts about how they meet people on planes and have such wonderful conversations and blah blah…! I definitely try to stay open to talking with people if they have something to say but I am not a conversation starter (in most cases) in those situations and it is awesome to hear someone say that this is OK… :-) I LOVE traveling b/c of all that I observe and learn and through meaningful interactions with people…not just interacting for the sake of interacting…

Patricia Weber 05.08.09 | 10:13 AM ET

When my husband and I went to Egypt in 2000, Italy in 2002, both times we had a private guide. No groups to follow, we set our own agenda and it was a perfect way to be able to stop and recharge as needed.

Great article.

Sophia Dembling 05.08.09 | 10:21 AM ET

Yes, if you can spring for a private guide—even just for a few hours—it can pay off in a variety of ways.

Farmer’s market interaction is a good idea, and I’ve actually had some very fun conversations with storekeepers. Those places/situations where conversation is a natural outgrowth of activity are more comfortable for me than trying to come up with an opening line. Plus, it’s a lot easier to leave after the conversation has run its course.

Cate 05.08.09 | 11:08 PM ET

All great tips and a good article. I often lean towards being introverted when I travel mainly as this gives me time to look and observe, and capture special moments. Sometimes it’s easy to miss and ignore these things when you are busy trying to be the extrovert.

I love sitting and watching life and people interact. It’s these observations that can tell you a lot about a new place - the unspoken words. Most of my blog writing topics have come about from just sitting and watching.

As for books, personally I always take a book, it makes for a good distraction if you have an overly attentive person annoying you. While it’s nice to be able to chat with people, you have to be aware of those people who don’t know when it’s time to be quiet. Putting your nose into a book gives them a big hint.
Thanks for the article.

Chris (Amateur Traveler) 05.13.09 | 10:55 AM ET

As a member of the “functional shy” I appreciated your thoughts.

I had some wonderful encounters on a recent trip to Mexico when I was open to someone striking up a conversation while I was just sitting watching the world go by. One of them led to me having a personal tour guide in Oaxaca by a man who was a local (4th generation) weaver.

Sophia Dembling 05.14.09 | 6:36 AM ET

That’s a great story, Chris. Yes, being open is key. And Cate, having a book to open can also be key. I do the same thing, especially on airplanes.

Functionally shy…kind of cool, but then again…do you feel shy or are you just not that interested in talking to people. Do you know what I mean? I don’t feel shy, really. Public speaking doesn’t bother me at all, for example. I just don’t feel compelled to talk to people all the time.

Cynthia Reinecke 05.14.09 | 5:22 PM ET

I agree with taking your time an d watching people.

Candace 05.15.09 | 8:49 AM ET

I enjoyed and got a lot out of the advice from paragraph #1 and #2.  Thank You.

Fantomas 05.16.09 | 3:46 PM ET

I can’t imagine traveling without books.  What else is there to do but read while waiting for (or traveling on) buses, trains and airplanes?  Or while sitting on the beach or reclining in a hammock for that matter?

Leslie 05.16.09 | 8:23 PM ET

Now I actually see what I am, I’m a flâneuse!! I always wondered why the amazing sounding things that happen to my friends when they are vacationing never happen to me.
So I feel a tad better about myself.
But is there a mixed beast that could be and introvert longing to be slightly more extroverted? I always tell people I am shy, and they guffaw at me, but seriously I will not go into a party or event unless I have someone to walk in with. For fear of what I cannot say.
I also completely believe in traveling with books - to be without is unthinkable. What do you do with your hands?
And spending so much time watching other people, you get to see some really interesting things.

Thank you so much for a great article.

esme 05.17.09 | 9:41 AM ET

I am an introvert as well. However, I love talking to people, especially while on holiday and I find it really easy to find people to talk and listen to. While I find talking to people draining, and I need to recharge by being alone, I never the less also get a lot of stuff out of having conversations. Hearing new interesting ideas and perspectives makes my time alone wandering around and just pondering on what I see and hear so much better, especially on holiday.

It took me a long time to realise I am an introvert, because it’s always associated with being shy and being socially awkward, while I have never had those problems, at all.  I just prefer conversations one on one or in small groups of fellow introverts, I don’t enjoy hanging out in groups at all and i need to have lots and lots time to recharge.

Tip for people who like social history: My holidays look like this:  I just travel around and when I am in an area that looks like it will provide a few days of interesting wandering, I look for a small campsite and put up my tent. Then I go to the nearest smallish but not hamletsize town and explore, all the while trying to figure out what the history of the town is most likely to be. Next day, I find the inevitible museum run by the local history society or the historical museum run by the town. These museums tend to be almost empty except for the volunteers. And these volunteers are almost always fellow introverts who love to talk about the history of the town with a really interested listener. Sometimes the volunteer approaches me, because they see me taking my time reading the whole exibit, sometimes I approach them because I have a question. Usually a really good conversation without empty chitchat results.  Another good one is asking old age pensioners about what the town, area or whatever was like when they were young and how it has changed.

Campsites close to really big secondhand bookfaires are really good too. It can look a bit crowded but you can find plenty of people who prefer smallgroup/one on one conversations.

Of course the above is only helpful when you either speak the language, the locals speak yours, or the locals and you can communic in the same foreign to both of you language. (That is: I am Dutch, but when in Denmark I have no problem finding someone who speaks English or German)

Marie 05.17.09 | 4:37 PM ET

Another possibility for introverts: Consider going on one of the many small-group tours out there, such as Intrepid, GAP, Explore, Exodus (among others). You’ll have guides for the sites and you’ll have people to eat dinner with WHEN YOU WANT TO. It is also perfectly acceptable to leave the group at mealtimes and strike out on your own.

Sophia Dembling 05.18.09 | 10:48 AM ET

Now you must all run out and find the Robert Benchley story “Traveling in Peace.”

Barry Yeoman 05.21.09 | 4:34 PM ET

I tend toward extroversion in my travels, but I think these are solid tips for anyone. Pacing oneself; balancing the inward and the gregarious; taking time to observe: all these are important elements of travel.

Danielle 05.22.09 | 8:24 AM ET

Thank you for your tips fellow introvert. I’ve wanted to travel with a group because I thought it would be cheaper but I like the idea of a private tour because then I can have some recharging time. What do you all think of hostels? That’s something I’m interested in if I get lonely and too poor to be in hotels.
Thanks for the article.

Sophia Dembling 05.22.09 | 8:28 AM ET

Some tours build in private time. There’s an interesting company called Untours that provides and apartment with local hosts (private apt but hosts nearby or on premises), guidebooks, rail passes and periodic group excursions. It’s a nice balance.

Personally, I’m not into hostels. Small pensions in Europe can be affordable and they’re similar to B&Bs;, but usually not as much forced chit-chat. At least in my experience.

Patrik 05.26.09 | 12:19 PM ET

I love to travel. I have done so many times in the past along with friends, family, colleagues and even with organized groups and strangers. But in the end, I actually prefer to travel alone.

I try not to have a fixed plan, just a good guide book and a sense of adventure. I also prefer hostels as they are the easiest way to meet new people with the least amount of effort. In many cases, presenting yourself as approachable is more than enough. It’s even a lot easier if you are traveling on your own. Just leave it to the extroverts to do the actually work of making contact. And once they do, go with the flow and you’ll quickly be introduced to others. Just don’t expect too much of it as it’s just a means to an end. But by networking this way – especially if you’ve just arrived in a new hostel where you don’t know anyone yet – sooner or later, you will bump into someone you can actually connect with and is worth your time. I’ve met some truly wonderful people this way.

At the same time, I’m also not obliged to waste my time and energy on people that simply don’t interest me. If someone, anyone, starts to tire me, I’m always free to get up and go my own way. This simple act, not always afforded to me when traveling together with others, has resulted in a lot less frustration and exhaustion on my part.

And the advantage of not having a fixed plan is that once I do reach a point when I must have time for myself, I can always seek out the privacy of a hotel room to recharge my batteries.

Eliot 05.26.09 | 2:59 PM ET

In addition to #5—there are many MP3 walking tours available out on the Internets. I greatly enjoy popping a tour of Amsterdam, Rome, etc. on my iPod and blending into the background while learning a little about the area. I can’t recommend them enough!! (P.S. Don’t go for the free ones, they’re not worth it.)

Julia 05.29.09 | 12:43 PM ET

I just found this site! I’m female, 50-something, have enough ff miles for a ticket to Europe (I’m in NYC) and would like to try solo travel. I’d be interested in hearing others’ sense of what countries might be the friendliest. I’m definitely shy, a people watcher and a reader, but I love to have people seek me out and then I can happily talk for hours. I was an exchange student in Holland as a teen, have friends in UK, traveled years ago in most of Western Europe (but never alone) and am very open to cross-cultural experiences.

Sophia Dembling 05.29.09 | 7:16 PM ET

Julia, I don’t know if it matter so much where as much as how. Again, I suggest hiring a guide, joining walking tours, maybe stay at pensions instead of hotels, which are more like B&Bs;. You could do hostels, but then you’ll meet more other travelers than locals. And spend time just being still, as “our kind” likes to do. Sit in cafes, in parks, on city benches, and watch. That way, people looking for conversation can find you.

If you read through comments here and in my first essay about introverted travelers, you’ll find lots of great tips for finding conversation.

Mo Simpson 05.30.09 | 3:35 PM ET

The trouble with bringing books when you’re travelling if you’re introverted, is that they can easily become something to hide behind when you just can’t pluck up the courage to talk to someone.  If you don’t have a book, then you don’t have that safe prop from which you can hide out, while pretending to be breaking new personal ground.

Get from the behind the book I say!

Anna 06.01.09 | 4:55 PM ET

Great tips. I’m also an introverted traveler. I hate when people question my travelling alone, but I like it that way. Sometimes it’s fun to travel with someone else, but actually I find that I most miss out on the companionship when I come home, and I don’t have anyone to really share my experiences with. Otherwise I love sitting (with book in hand or listening to music) and just people watch. I can hop on a train or a bus and just go around for hours just taking in the locals and watching from behind my window. I also don’t mind “getting lost”/not looking at the map to much - as long as I know how to get back “home” I’m fine.

When I travelled around Australia and Thailand a couple of years ago, I really tried not to tell people that I’m from Sweden, because of the instant assumption that blonde, young Swedish girls automatically equals party animals. It’s not really me, especially not when I’m travelling alone.

Sure, I sometimes wish that I could be a person who can strike up a conversation with a stranger on the airplane and 3 years later become his wife (co-worker #1), or meet someone while bungy jumping off a bridge in New Zeeland (co-worker #2) or going on a diving trip in the Bahamas and end up living in Florida for 4 years with cute instructor(co-worker #3)-but well, we can’t all be like that, right? And there’s nothing wrong with being either way.

jorge 06.02.09 | 8:04 AM ET

A great way to break the Ice would be taking a photo, ask someone (reliable) to take you a picture or discuss it with the locals.

We have found photography opens the ears of most locals and travelers and it is interesting for almost everyone.

do you have a camera?

Peter Considine 06.18.09 | 11:50 AM ET

Funny – I was just talking to a friend of mine about writing a series of travel books called “The Introvert’s Guide.” It must have been a good idea, because you’re already doing it. ;)

I’m really glad you brought up the introvert’s distaste for small talk (“1. Be open to conversation when it’s offered”). I’ve often felt that my preference for “deep thinking” is a liability that needs to be toned down in most social situations. However, as you also mentioned, I usually find that I don’t have to say much of anything to keep a conversation going. Most people will gladly take advantage of what they perceive to be a willing pair of ears (a tendency I’ve taken to calling “Bartender’s Syndrome”).

As silly as it seems, it’s good to get some validation on things like this. Thanks.

The Travelers Zone 07.14.09 | 6:53 AM ET

great ideas for introverted travelers..i really enjoyed this article..thanks for sharing these nice tips.fantastic post.


Sarah 07.16.09 | 8:21 PM ET

Thanks for the great tips in the article.

I’m in my 40s and only recently discovered the joy of traveling alone. I’ve been on numerous roadtrips with a friend over the course of 20 years, and just last year traveled to the U.S. Mainland (I’m from Hawaii) on two trips, both starting out in a group, then renting a car and going on a mini roadtrip by myself.

Dining alone was the most intimidating factor about it all, but I think I did well enjoying dinner at an Italian restaurant without any book. Breakfast the next day was no problem as well. What made me most comfortable was to go either before or after the normal dining crowds, and it worked out great. I also liked buying groceries or food to go and kicking back in the hotel room in front of the TV a few times. That was the best!

I have to say I definitely started to miss the opportunities for a shared adventure after a few days, but on the other hand, I undeniably relished the freedom of doing what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. It really was a growth experience for me. Because I began to miss talking with someone, I started talking more with front desk personnel, restaurant waitresses/waiters, shop keepers and others, something I didn’t necessarily reach out to do on my roadtrips with my friend. Not sure if this makes sense, but I was able to enjoy a first-hand interaction vs. enjoying interaction as a third party with my friend at the helm.

I’ve noticed that on my own, I could really take my time and go at my own pace. In my roadtrip days, whenever my friend and I would walk a trail, she’d end up way ahead because that’s just how she was, she was a fast walker. Because I liked to stop and photograph or just enjoy things along the trail, I would always end up hurrying to where she stopped so I wouldn’t hold her back. That was silly.

For my birthday next year, I anticipate taking a solo roadtrip to experience the little things at my own pace. I cannot wait!

Paige 07.17.09 | 10:23 AM ET

Oh, what a great article, thanks so much. I work in tourism, so I have to be “on” all the time, engaging travelers, operators, business owners. Going on tours. Visiting bars and museums. Smiling. Chatting. Learning. And trying not to get snappy when I’ve had four hours of sleep and no days off in weeks, and some extrovert newbie traveler (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) latches on to tell me his incredible epiphany: “And then I realized that the warnings about pickpockets and muggers in my guidebook were totally stupid, it’s actually really safe!” Yeah, kid, I guess since you’ve been in town for two whole days and haven’t been robbed… *facepalm*

And so, when I get my vacation time, I am usually introverted. Bars? No thanks. Group tours? Have fun. Other tourists, or the usual assortment of local loverboys? Oh, I’m from Hungary, do you speak Hungarian? (Actually, this backfired when I used this on a Hungarian tourist in Mexico, but he thought it was funny, and even taught me a couple of phrased in Magyar.)

Books? Oh yes. Books and books. Because I’m going to Bilwi, Nicaragua, or Eastern El Salvador, or some quiet corner of Colombia where the tourist ranks thin to a handful, all also trying to escape the masses, or else we’d be at Macchu Pichu, wouldn’t we? Some place without must-see museums or canopy zip-line tours, where the Cancún crowd would be bored to tears. Not me. I’m happily introverting, letting the world flow through me gently, without going on the backpacker attack.

Are introverts missing out? Well, sure, I guess, but so are the extroverts. No one gets to have every experience in life. And what’s the point of traveling, anyway? After 20 years on the road, 10 years in the industry, I still have no idea. But I guarantee you that it’s not to make yourself miserable trying to live up to some adventurous stereotype, some impossibly exaggerated intrepid ideal, that you saw on the Travel Channel or read about in a magazine. Be yourself. Embrace each detail of the day with pleasures that make you happy. Your adventure is unique.

Sophia Dembling 07.17.09 | 10:29 AM ET

What a great comment, Paige. Thank you. I am astonished by the way people in the tourism industry manage to keep up the friendly front—most of the time. It’s a little different if you land in a resort town at the end of the season. By then, they’ve given up all pretense and blatantly snarl at tourists. I kinda like that. I feel for them.

I once did a story about working at Club Med. My gosh, just talking about that job made me want to crawl under the bed and stay there. I took a Club Med cruise once and every time I tried to sit quietly, a GO bounced up to engage me in fun conversation.

KFC 07.21.09 | 7:22 AM ET

A friendly flaneuse just pointed me at this site :-)

What a great article. I think I have just [re]dicsovered that being an introvert can be be a Good Thing!

I always take lots of books on holiday with me. Partly because it seems to be the only time I get to read. I also feel less awkward going to a restaurant or bar alone with a book in my hand. I think it makes it more obvious you have chosen to be alone.

Although I still don’t really like the idea of guided tours (perhaps because I grew up in a couple of tourist destinations) the few times I have taken one, they have been fantastic. I would never have seen as much of Carmel (CA) without the guide. (Also I learnt two new words: “docent” and “duff”.)

Gill. 07.27.09 | 3:08 PM ET

Wow, there are people out there like me!! I am so glad I found this site, it’s been great reading all your comments.
I travelled alone for the first time this year to New Zealand. It was such a great adventure, backpacking and staying in hostels. To have the freedom to do just what and when and chat or not was just the best. I actually found after a while that I enjoyed chatting to fellow travelers, as it was so easy to ask “where have you been/going to or where are you from”. I usually wait for people to speak to me first. Just to add that I am a 61 year old Grandma who’s hardly been anywhere before, so it’s never too late to start an adventuress lifestyle…..look out world here I come!!

willea 10.04.09 | 10:27 AM ET

Great idea for an article. I’ve always been a bit introverted while my spouse is not. And, it’s certainly been a barrier…I can see she enjoys it more than I do. Carrying a book is a good tip, as it helps in two ways. First, it can be an escape hatch, just bury yourself in reading the book.  Secondly, if you are feeling adventurous, it can be a conversation starter. - more travel tips

Smith 10.06.09 | 1:44 PM ET

Whether a person is introverted or extroverted, it becomes easier to converse with someone who shares an interest. although it may be uncomfortable at first, try to engage one new person a day in a simple conversation. There is a satisfaction to be gained when you can step outside your comfort zone and make a new acquaintance, possibly even become more of an extrovert as a result. Good luck and try to have fun.
And thank you very much for these travel tips.

karlee 10.28.09 | 3:42 PM ET

Really these are great ideas.  I am happy to get this post. Thanks a lot for sharing this valuable tips.

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