When the Australian university I was studying abroad at announced a two-week fall break, three expat friends and I rushed to plan a road trip up the east coast of Oz. Before we departed, we fantasized about Sydney nightlife and tested how many bathing suits we could fit in our backpacks. While the trip did include great nights out and beautiful scuba diving, the day-to-day enjoyment was disrupted by disagreements about who paid for what, who had to drive on the “other side” of the road, and trips to hospitals with one of our companions, the extent of whose alcoholism was unknown to the rest of us. Had we had more discussions about splitting responsibilities and what we each wanted to get out of the trip, more of us might still be in touch now.
Clearly, there are more than a few headaches that can arise from going to new places with good friends, but they can usually be nipped in the bud or downplayed with a few honest discussions and planning.
Discuss what’s most important to you on the trip.
It’s imperative that you talk about what you’re each looking to get out of travelling. Do you want a relaxing vacation or do you want to travel adventurously? Do you want a volunteer component to your trip? Do you want to shop and explore museums in cities or would you prefer to hike in rural areas?
Plan a budget.
There’s a huge difference between the traveler who updates a written budget every time she opens her wallet and the one with a trust fund, but that alone doesn’t disqualify them from traveling together. Having an honest dialogue about the duration and total daily amount each person is able to spend before booking anything is imperative.
When it comes to accommodations, talk about the type and cost of places you’re interested in staying at before you land at your destination. Like crashing on a friend of a friend’s couch, hostels are less expensive than staying in hotels, but not everyone prefers to skimp on overnight stays if it means sharing showers and space.
Take a trial trip.
A short-term practice round such as a weekend road trip might help you recognize whether you’ll be compatible travel partners. Spending time together without your everyday concerns and comforts will give you a chance to see how patient and compatible you are with each other. You may discover whether or not your prospective partner is able to get through trip delays and brief misunderstandings without getting distressed. Though temporarily stressful, those are the situations that can usually make the best stories.
Talk about how social and party-focused you want to be.
Do you and your traveling partner(s) tend to have a glass of wine and call it a night or do you want to stay out dancing until the sun rises? For both of you, getting safely back to the place you’re sleeping could require solo strategizing.
Get on the same page about showers and prep time.
If your traveling partner isn’t a roommate, you’ve probably only seen her when she’s already dressed and out of the house, so if you haven’t spent a night and morning in the same place, the amount of time she takes to get ready and her preferred hour for showering may be mind-boggling to you.
Similarly, if you don’t talk about the things your friend needs to make herself comfortable, you may find them surprising (and, after a long day on the road, annoying). A friend who traveled in China with a vegan gal pal didn’t anticipate how much she’d stress about carrying a constant stock of snacks and it led to a few time-consuming and challenging language situations.
Decide when you’ll want to go your own ways.
San Diego native Laura Frank prefers the solo travel she embarked on for six weeks in India last year to travelling with constant companions. “The biggest problem I’ve had is group activities … meaning, doing things together simply because you are traveling together,” Frank said.
Still, when she does partner up, Frank says that mutual respect for space and personal exploration is crucial. “If my travel companion and I have different interests that each take a day to explore, and we only have one day to do it, going our separate ways for the day should not be considered a personal attack.”
If you talk about the possible timing and locations in advance, you can avoid having anyone take the decision to split off for a few days personally. This space can be needed, and it gives travelers bored with each other good stories to share when they reconvene.
Know how much you want to plan in advance.
Depending on the destination, advance research about local cultural and gender expectations can be crucial, particularly if your friend has a tendency to wear short shorts no matter where she goes. There may be specific expectations for women in the places you’re going, such as mandated dress codes in houses of worship. The online travel resource Journeywoman and the Thorn Tree Travel Forum from Lonely Planet can be good additions to travel guidebooks and wikis when it comes to planning.
Once a trip starts, some people prefer wandering and think that getting lost is part of getting their bearings. But one person’s preference for trusting her instincts about getting around can frustrate a companion who likes more structure in her travel days. Being aware of how connected and how much time each of you wants to spend in Internet cafes is a more minor consideration, but one that could be worth discussing.
Long-term and cross-cultural travel will get messy. Frank says that part of “the joy of having a companion—especially in non-English speaking countries—is being able to re-hash the day with someone who shares a similar perspective and can relate.”
While visiting the Taj Mahal with a friend recently, a solo traveler we met reminded me of the value of having someone close by to laugh things off with when they go wrong (and they will). After six months of primarily exploring on her own, she said she longed for a familiar person to be able to express frustration and laugh with.
Also, you may be surprised by how much fun you have traveling with temporary partners you meet on the road. Not only are you spared pre-trip planning, but there are fewer expectations that things will go smoothly or that you’ll be together until the end of the trip.
While there’s no formula for figuring out whether you’ll be compatible partners beyond experience, figuring out key information in advance can be instrumental in determining how to travel together … or whether you should travel together at all.
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