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How to Make Fast Friends While Traveling? Try Playing Pickleball.

In 2022, Tess Jacoby, 36, took 47 flights. She packed her pickleball paddle on each one.

“I joke that I’m an addict,” said Jacoby, who works in commercial real estate in Chicago. “I will bring my paddle anywhere it’s warm.”

Pickleball websites, apps, Instagram and LinkedIn help her find competition — and new friends — away from home, opening doors in distant places. In January, she plans to honeymoon in Cape Town where she hopes to find a pickleball group.

“I won’t Google where to eat,” she said. “If I find a game down there, that’s where I would ask.”

For travelers who love it, pickleball — a racket sport played with a hollow plastic ball on a court about a fourth of the size of a standard tennis court pad — is not only portable, but an easy entree to new destinations through fast friends made on the courts.

“The beauty of pickleball is you can find drop-in times, show up and you don’t have to know anybody,” said Karen Hawkes, 58, a postsecondary education counselor and consultant, who serves as a co-ambassador at the public pickleball courts in Aspen, Colorado, which organizes drop-in sessions. “We embrace people who drop in here. It’s inclusive and we try to promote that.”

A devoted tennis player, I started playing pickleball about a year before the pandemic and discovered how travel-friendly it is. On a trip to Scottsdale, Arizona, last year, I played at public courts packed with locals who directed me to their favorite breakfast spot (Farm & Craft) and where to catch the sunset (Pinnacle Peak Park). The game, I discovered, was the social equivalent of walking a dog in the park, a conversation starter that paid off in local insights.

To test my theory, I talked to dozens of adult pickleball players across a 60-year age spectrum to glean their insights into pickleball as a travel portal, and looked into hotels, resorts and cruise ships where travelers can find a game. Here’s what I found.

‘It’s something everybody can do’

In case you haven’t heard, pickleball has exploded in the past decade, becoming the fastest growing sport in 2021 and 2022, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. The global trade association counts roughly 4.8 million participants, up 39.3% over the past two years.

For many newcomers, pickleball was a pandemic lifeline.

“It’s something everybody can do,” said Matt Manasse, 34, an instructor based in Los Angeles, who Vanity Fair called the “pickleball coach to the stars” for instructing celebrity clients like Matthew Perry and Larry David. “During the pandemic, it got people out and they could be socially distanced and competitive.”

Along the way, its reputation as a geriatric pastime began to fade as younger players discovered the thrill of fast volleys, the strategic art of drop-shotting (known as “dinking”) and the inclusive culture where seniors can play with grandkids.

“One of the reasons I love pickleball is the community is so nice,” said Martin Michelsen, 21, a senior at the University of Florida in Gainesville who plays on the college squad (pickleball is a club sport at many colleges and universities).

In high school, he learned pickleball at a park near his home in Westin, Florida, where local players lent him a paddle. Last spring his doubles team won an eight-school tournament held at North Carolina State University.

“Everyone starts somewhere,” he said of playing with less skilled enthusiasts while on a recent family vacation in the Dominican Republic. “I would love to be a part of someone’s pickleball journey.”

According to USA Pickleball, the national governing body of the sport, there are nearly 10,000 pickleball locations nationwide. Its website, Places2Play, offers a searchable database.

Travelers say they just need a paddle, as locals always have balls.

“For ease of portability, it’s a no-brainer,” Jacoby, of Chicago, said, referring to the solid yet lightweight paddle. “It’s flat and fits in a carry-on, tote or backpack.”

“You do need court shoes,” cautioned Sue Baker, 75, a retired teacher and travel agent who travels seasonally from her home in Lewes, Delaware, to destinations such as Florida and Arizona where she brings her gear. “I did fall once and broke my wrist.”

Most public courts and drop-in sessions are free or inexpensive.

“It’s more accessible than other sports,” said Laura Gainor, 40, a marketing consultant in Ponte Vedra, Florida, who discovered the sport three years ago and founded Pickleball in the Sun, a travel and leisure brand that profiles pickleball resorts and sells apparel. “You’re not paying to practice like golf.”

Tournament entry frees, she added, can range from $25 for a local contest to a little more than $100 to participate in a professional event.

Apps including Pickleball+, Places2Play and PicklePlay help traveling players find courts and other players. For some, a game can break out anywhere.

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