Using the Web to make contact, a reader found that pen pals soon become personal pals
When I arrived in Tokyo, I was greeted by my friend Noriko. She kindly let me stay at her house for several days, showed me around the city, and invited me to a barbecue where we ate yakitori and drank Sapporo beer. The time I spent with Noriko and her family was the highlight of my trip because she offered me an up-close look at Japanese life and culture. You may think that you can't have this type of experience if you're planning a trip to another country and you don't already know someone who lives there. Not so-I met Noriko on the Internet just a month before my trip. Granted, it was probably easier for me, a young woman, to find a pen pal who wanted me to stay with her than it would be for an older man. But with so many pen-pal sites cropping up on the Web, anyone can find a pen pal willing to give valuable travel advice, if not free room and board.
Here is a selection of free Internet databases for finding pen pals worldwide: Cyberpals (cyberpals.studentcenter.org) boasts over 75,000 listings. It allows you to search by keyword, age, gender, country, state, and city. However, Cyberpals is oriented toward students and forces you to search by categories such as college, high school, gaming, lesbian/gay/bisexual, sports, music, and teen.
InterPals (interpals.net) has 80,000 listings and allows you to search by the same criteria as Cyberpals, with the addition of languages spoken. If you choose to post an ad seeking a pen pal, InterPals protects your privacy by allowing you to hide your e-mail address. InterPals also allows you to bookmark profiles or have them e-mailed to you, and it has a chat room devoted to finding correspondents.
PenpalsNow! (penpalsnow.com), with over 60,000 ads, has the unique advantage of allowing you to search for e-mail versus snail-mail pen pals, in addition to searching by gender, age group, keywords, country, and language.
Efrendz.com (efrendz.com) has over 30,000 listings and a chat room, but at the time of writing this article, only a simple search (by gender, age, and location) was functioning.
YEStravel (yestravel.com), a free youth-oriented site, has fewer members but is specifically designed to encourage foreigners to arrange homestays.
Whether you're hoping to hang out with some locals on your next vacation or you're just interested in getting an insider's perspective on another culture, a pen pal is a valuable travel asset. The Internet has made it easier than ever to find one.