The more I travel, and the older I get, I spend lots and lots of time thinking about how to improve my travel experiences. Like the matter of travel companions. Finding a companion that is a combination of complimentary (or tolerable) characteristics is much closer to alchemy than art or science. Travel alchemy is the magic that turns something of modest value – having company – into something of great value – having the time of your life.
My annual vacation leave is a finite resource, so travel time is incredibly precious. I want to spend that time navigating in my destination instead of navigating, shall we say, the complexity of interpersonal relationships.
If you’ve ever been trapped in a car with someone determined to plow ahead despite not knowing where you are, or wanting to sleep in while your partner is itching to get out the door, you know the critical importance of picking a good travel partner. I’m not a couple/group/team travel expert, but I observe a lot of it, and have learned plenty from travel companion successes and misadventures over the years. I’ve traveled with family, boyfriends, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and strangers. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it definitely did not.
Travel is a heightened situation. Your sleep is messed up, you’re in an unfamiliar setting, there could be language barriers, and sometimes things just go wrong. This pressure can take a normal functioning relationship or friendship and smash it with a hammer.
Before heading into the world with a travel partner, have a conversation – or a negotiation – to establish the parameters of your travel companion relationship, and do a little advance problem-solving and issue management.
Fact: you will never know what qualities a great travel companion possesses until you know yourself. Before approaching a potential travel companion, consider the following questions:
- Morning person? Don’t lie.
- Neat or messy? For extended stays, this will quickly become a bone of contention if you’re not compatible.
- Planner or spontaneous? Don’t pretend you can handle winging it if you can’t.
- Bathroom time? Be realistic.
- Budget? Money talk is awkward enough with your banker or your partner/spouse. It’s terribly awkward with a friend or acquaintance.
Be honest about compromise
You need to know when you’re willing to go with the flow, meet in the middle, or have your own way. To make a travel companion relationship work, you need to be honest with your buddy about your lines in the sand. If you’re planning activities, state which activities are essential, which are nice to haves, and which are absolutely not happening.
Here’s a great pre-travel test for future travel companions: have a sleep over. Go out, stay up late, and then set your alarm to deal with the consequences in the morning. The alarm will throw a weekend morning off-kilter and act like a stress test for your trip.
Fast or slow
Pick out highlights or cram everything in? I like to do research up front, figure out what I want to see, do, and eat, plus off-the-beaten-track things, and then work through the must-dos and nice-to-haves. Over time, I’ve slowed down from cramming everything in to taking time to meander through neighbourhoods and find interesting details of daily life.
I lay my cards on the table: “I need coffee in the morning and I need to eat when I need to eat.” I also don’t like eating or drinking in motion: either on foot or in a car. It’s super weird, which is why I’m upfront about it.
“Whatever you want to do is fine.”
This is not a thing. Pardon the generalization, but anything “fine” is bad news and best avoided.
Together-together or together-apart
I’m a frequent solo traveler. This is out of necessity as often as it is about choice. I’m also an only child and all-around independent woman. This combination of factors means I max out on spending every waking minute with my travel companion from time to time and have to do things on my own.
Bottom line, it’s okay to tell your travel companion you need alone time if that’s important to you. If you’re with a compatible travel partner, they’ll understand and you’ll make plans to meet up later in the day for dinner and drinks to swap stories of your adventures.
Known entities versus strangers
I think about this all of the time. There’s comfort in traveling with friends and spouses, but familiarity can breed contempt in a heightened situation. In some ways, it’s easier to travel with strangers because most decent people will strive to be diplomatic and accommodating – on their best behaviour – instead of fighting other battles.
Strength in numbers
Traveling in greater numbers dilutes some of the pressure on a travel relationship. You can go out in a gang, or split up and regroup in different combinations. For non-solo travel, this is the situation I like the best because you can share the burden of decision-making.
What do you think? Am I uttering nonsense? What makes an ideal travel companion?