I sat alone in the nearly empty hotel restaurant. A few couples were also having dinner on this St-Valentine’s night. When the waiter brought my expensive fish dish, I couldn’t resist. “Today is my birthday” I blurted out in Spanish. “Congratulations,” he answered back with a smile. And that was that.
Have you ever found yourself abroad and alone on your birthday?
Many people worry about travelling solo, but even the hardiest solo travellers may avoid planning a trip over their birthday for fear of being utterly alone on what should be a celebratory day. That’s pretty much what was happening to me on February 14, 2011. But it was mostly my fault.
While travelling in Cafayate, Argentina, I decided to treat myself, and booked a night in the most expensive hotel I could find. It was only US$125, but the property was located three kilometres out of town, at the edge of a vineyard (see feature image on homepage). This pretty much guaranteed solitude. And guests in luxury hotels are not the most gregarious bunch.
How to avoid being abroad alone on your birthday
Yet, there are ways to increase the chances that you’ll have friends to celebrate your birthday with, even if you’re away from home.
Go visit existing friends
The most obvious way is to visit friends abroad as part of your trip. Plan to be in their hometown on your birthday. This should at least guarantee good company. Don’t expect them to drop everything and throw you a party to end all parties, but you will probably get to enjoy a celebratory drink and a meal.
I did this in 2012 when I stopped in Manilla during a Southeast Asia trip and stayed with a friend who was there temporarily for work. He took me to a nice Manilla restaurant for dinner (which was still very affordable because, well, it’s Southeast Asia!)
Make new friends by staying longer
Unless you’re someone who makes friends within minutes of checking into a hostel, meeting new people abroad usually requires staying in one place for a week or more. Slow travel has many advantages, and making connections is one of them. Plan to spend a couple of weeks in a single city over your birthday. Some places are more relaxed and conducive to meeting people naturally.
In 2013, I spent the winter in Ecuador, including six weeks in Cuenca during which I took a Spanish class. I made a couple of friends there who helped me celebrate a milestone birthday in an expat restaurant that featured a jazz band. The food was forgettable, but having people who cared enough to take me there was priceless. I’m still friends with one of them.
Two years later, in Oaxaca, Mexico, I met two different women within my first week, who treated me respectively to brunch and an early evening drink for my birthday. Mexico is an easy place to meet people, especially given the large number of expats who congregate in places like San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and Oaxaca.
To increase your social opportunities, sign up for a class or activity during your stay. Also check out this post for tips on what not to do to meet more people on your travels.
I started house-sitting in 2013 and have written many posts on the topic. Besides being a great way to save money on accommodation and live somewhere like a local, it often gives you access to friends or relatives of the home owners.
In 2014, I house and cat-sat for three weeks in Bunbury, Western Australia. As a result of a last-minute hiccup, I found myself sharing the house with the owner’s daughter and two grand-daughters. Upon learning that it was my birthday, they invited me to share their meal of homemade pizza, and they even bought a chocolate cake especially for the occasion. We ate on the patio, because February is high summer in Australia! (I was obviously born in the wrong hemisphere.)
In February 2016, I found myself house-sitting in Australia once again. The owner came back for a week on February 13, between my two assignments, and she invited me to stay over. I was not even going to mention my birthday, but she learned about it from her sister with whom I had been hiking during her absence. She then proceeded to cook a lamb roast with all the trimmings for dinner, insisting that my birthday gave her a good excuse to do so. How about that? 🙂
In summary, if you don’t already know someone at your destination, make sure you stay for a while, and engage in some activities where you can meet new people. You don’t have to wait for your birthday to do this of course. The more friends you make abroad, the more people you’ll have to celebrate with when your birthday comes around!
Why not just stay home?
Still, you may think that spending your birthday at home is the best way to be surrounded by friends and family, with food, drinks, gifts, a cake, or whatever celebrating a birthday involves in your country. For the last seven years, my friends in Toronto had been commenting: “But you’re never here for your birthday!” as if this is all that kept them from throwing me a big party.
This year, I did happen to be home on February 14. And guess what? I still spent the entire day alone. I got together with some friends on the 12th and the 17th, but not on the day itself. One couple was planning something romantic for Valentine’s Day, another friend was sick, and yet another was travelling to escape the cold.
Besides, restaurants are jam-packed with couples on that day, and you have to plan weeks in advance to get reservations. Having your birthday on Valentine’s day when you’re single really sucks! For me at least, there is little to lose and everything to gain by being away from home on my big day.
Have you had a good experience spending your birthday abroad? Please share in the comments.