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Underground social clubs uniting fellow travelers

”Simon” hopes to go to Europe and chats with dozens of other guests at the May monthly meeting of the Boston Expat and World Travelers in Porter Square.
”Simon” hopes to go to Europe and chats with dozens of other guests at the May monthly meeting of the Boston Expat and World Travelers in Porter Square.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

It’s hours before the serious partiers will descend on Allston’s White Horse Tavern, but the people in the crowd beside the back bar are already mingling enthusiastically over microbrews and cabernets.

Some are friends who met here on previous visits; others, strangers. What has brought them together early on this weeknight is a common interest in something that wouldn’t necessarily seem to be a social lubricant: a love of travel.

Old and young, from ill-fed students to well-heeled retirees, frequent and would-be travelers are increasingly gathering in little-noticed but fast-growing groups like these to talk about where they’ve been and learn about the destinations they still want to visit — which, here in the White Horse, they’ve written on nametags passed out by the organizers.

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“I would never talk about this with my coworkers or my normal friends,” Ivan Cheng, a software engineer who lives in Somerville, said cheerfully. “They’d call us crazy. You look at these nametags, you’ve got some crazy places people want to go. But the more you talk to people here, the more you want to go there too.”

Under-the-radar groups like this one, the Boston Expat and World Travelers, not only bring people together over a shared love of travel and to give and get advice. In an unlikely kind of cross between Expedia and Match.com, they also offer opportunities for friendship.

Travel is the fourth-most popular interest listed by Boston-area members of the social network Meetup, the company reports, after “outdoors,” “live music,” and “dining out.” The Boston Expats and World Travelers group alone draws as many as 80 people to its monthly meetings, which alternate between Allston and Porter Square.

“This is a pretty popular thing we see happening,” said Kristin Hodgson, spokeswoman for Meetup. “Finding others to do activities with can enrich the activity for yourself. That’s kind of a universal truth, but for travel it’s definitely one of the factors. It makes sense that people who love to travel want to get together with other travelers between vacations to talk and plan.”

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Faith Girdler talked about her travels during a Boston Expat and World Travelers meet-up between in Cambridge.
Faith Girdler talked about her travels during a Boston Expat and World Travelers meet-up between in Cambridge.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

In and around Boston, there are Meetup groups for cyclists who travel, women who travel, black women of Caribbean descent who travel, teachers who travel, singles who travel, retirees who travel, foodies who travel, and photographers who travel, among others.

“Some travelers are stuck in a circle of friends who don’t travel,” said Dave Lubchansky, vice president of traveler relations for the Boston-based parent company of Overseas Adventure and Grand Circle Travel, which hosts breakfasts, lunches, house parties, and other meetings for past and prospective customers. “What people say they enjoy the most about these events is simply meeting other, like-minded travelers.”

Between the yoga mats and the Patagonia jackets, and over cupcakes and organic lemonade, another group of travelers meets on occasional Thursday evenings at the REI store in Hingham, some of them even bringing thumb drives with their photographs to narrate.

“It’s just connecting people,” said Carina Bandle, the store’s manager. “You take these amazing trips and then you come back and lose the opportunity to connect with those experiences.”

Experiences like the time in Costa Rica when Jesse Frost, an electrician who lives in Allston, was bitten by a poisonous snake.

“These are my friends from the emergency room,” Frost tells the other guests as he shares a photo taken in the hospital during that rudely interrupted trip.

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Rather than discouraging Frost from traveling, however, he said the nearly fatal snake bite has encouraged him and his wife, Lucia, to quit their jobs next year and journey around the world.

Without treatment, “getting bitten by that snake can kill you in two hours,” he said. “When we got back, we decided that we had to travel. Life is short.”

He came to REI not just to tell his own story, Frost said. “Here, it feels like people are listening, like they appreciate it. But what I really like is to hear other people’s stories — almost to be jealous. I want to go where they went. There are so many places to go, but we get caught up in life.”

Hosts such as REI and Grand Circle, of course, also benefit by promoting what they sell. At REI, there’s a brief product demonstration. Far from seeming to mind the soft sell, though, the customers break out into spirited debate about the best brands of convertible hiking pants and ultraviolet-protection fabrics and backpacks that turn into rollaway bags.

It doesn’t take long for the conversation to drift back to the travelers’ vacations.

“You know what’s nice about sharing this stuff? It gets people thinking about their own life, and where can I go, what should I do before I die,” said Jim Ianiri of Norwell, who spoke about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

“There’s an energy and excitement. People who do these kinds of things, they don’t say, ‘We had a great time in Hawaii’ — they give you details,” Ianiri’s wife, Rebecca Sacks, piped in.

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Vast experience appears to be on offer. Rather than depending on anonymous online reviews of dubious origin, attendees can get in-person tips from consummate travelers.

“One of the things we do is we say, ‘So, who’s been to so and so? Who’s been to Machu Picchu? Who’s been to Dubrovnik?’ These out-of-the-way places,” Lubchansky said. “And 75 percent of the people raise their hands. People who don’t travel, they don’t even know where Dubrovnik is and why anyone would want to go there.”

Lubchansky sometimes tries to stump his audiences with a photo of some wonder of the world. It seldom works, he said.

“‘It’s Victoria Falls,’” they’ll respond correctly, for example.

“Does anyone have a unique tip about going to Victoria Falls?” Lubchansky will ask. “And someone will say, ‘I went to Victoria Falls at night, under a full moon, and it’s amazing.’ They get really unique tips they’re not going to find in guidebooks.”

Tracey Mellor (center) and others talked about where they have been, where they are going, and where they wish to go someday at the meetup.
Tracey Mellor (center) and others talked about where they have been, where they are going, and where they wish to go someday at the meetup.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

When they’re home in Boston, many of these people say, their love of travel helps them make new friends in a place where that can sometimes be a challenge. Grand Circle even reserves tables exclusively for solo travelers.

“It turns out to be a great way to meet people,” said Teresa Au, a graduate student who moved here from California and helped found Boston Expat and World Travelers. “It’s really fun being around people who share the same point of view.”

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Sharon Elder of Wareham, who also showed up at the White Horse, lived in China for a year and a half. “I met people from all around the world, and when I got back here, I missed that.”

After all, said Kristof Redei, a Hungarian-born software engineer who lives in Medford, travel is a hobby. “It’s like stamp-collecting. Some people have almost a competitive perspective about it, to experience the extremes and boast about the places they’ve been.”

But the gatherings are less competitive than encouraging, said Loreen Koubek, an office manager from Braintree who recounted her experience crossing Europe in a camper van.

“One of the things that’s nice about these groups is that they’re very welcoming,” said Koubek. “There’s not that sense of propriety, that you can’t do it. They want you to go.”


Jon Marcus can be reached at jon@mysecretboston.com.