How To Pick A Travel Partner and Avoid Killing Them

Nate and I in Orkney
Orkney Isles with my brother in 09′ (that’s an ASU Trident)

You’re itching to take a trip.  You’ve got the money saved up, or at least you are ready to start saving for it, have a general idea where you really want to go, when you can go, and are almost all set. Yet, you’re stuck.  You’re missing one of the key pieces of the equation – someone to travel with.

While I’m a huge advocate of solo-travel and I encourage you all to explore it, this post isn’t about that. It’s designed for those whose trip revolves around finding a travel partner. My goal is to help you inadvertently avoid  ruining your adventure and quite possibly valuable friendships in the process.

Consider this…How many College roommate situations work out well? The answer…some…probably fewer than 60%. The good news is that when they do work out, they have the potential to cement friendships and craft them into lifelong relationships.  From the get-go I encourage you to think of traveling with a travel partner the same way. You’re going to live together for the duration of the trip, hang out together, eat together and be in a plethora of emotionally-charged situations.

The following are the 6 key things you need to be aware of when planning a joint trip.

1. Travel Experience

As a casual weekend hiker would you enter an Ironman contest with a Veteran Ironman contestant? Probably not.  Why?  Because your goals, experience, conditioning and approach are fundamentally different.  This is an important lesson when picking a travel partner. While not an exact science, travelers can be broken down into three easy categories:  Novice, Intermediate and Expert travelers.

When trying to find a travel partner it initially appears to make sense that novice travelers should seek out expert travelers as companions. It’s like having a guide, but better – right? Frankly, the answer is no, it’s a bad idea. It is not related to some sort of elitism, but rather because expert travelers tend to be at a very different place with their desired experiences and goals. Travel for a Novice traveler is flush with brand new experiences, even on the most basic levels.  These are the things that make travel terrifying but also add fantastic depth to it.  The Novice traveler is far more inclined to want (and need!) to see every museum, every major historical landmark, and to stop at major tourist destinations. For most, they’re at a stage that mirrors a child’s love and lust for discovery.

Now, consider pairing that individual with someone who has already gone through that phase.  They’ve not only seen many of the major cathedrals and architectural wonders but have probably done tens if not hundreds of museums… often including the main museums in England, France and Greece which house the lion’s share of the world’s wonders. For many of these experienced travelers the experience has shifted from observation to immersion.  They’re still setting a fast pace at times but their approach is usually more haphazard and they may not go out of their way for pure-novelty experiences.   They also typically travel slower, are on tighter budgets, and relate very differently to their environment.

The intermediate traveler?  A combination of the two – somewhere in the middle as they transition from wide-eyed novice to storied veteran.

2. Travel Style

While similar to #1, travel style is an essential factor when planning a trip. It’s important to keep in mind that travel style varies depending on country/destination and tends to evolve over time.  Take a few minutes to sit down and really think about what your travel style is (or might be). Do you enjoy well-organized trips or spontaneous wandering?  Do you prefer to be active in the mornings or the afternoons?  Camping, Couchsurfing, Hostels or Hotels?  What is more important: An afternoon spent exploring a niche museum or one spent sitting at a small cafe reading a book?

3. Budget

Money.  It ruins friendships, marriages, and can make or break a trip.  For most of us travel is a leisure expense. Something we have to save up for, which is optional, and tends to be a budgetary increase over our day-to-day budget.  Beyond that though, most of us have widely varied spending habits.  When preparing for a trip figuring out your budget and what classifies as an acceptable quality of life while on the road is an essential part of trip preparation.  Far less talked about, however, is the importance of making sure your budget and financial means line up with those of the person you’re looking at traveling with.  They seldom do.  Which is why setting a budget, which you both intend to stick to, is essential.

What happens if you miss a train or get stuck paying 2x what you budgeted for a hotel room? While it may be within what you can afford, can your travel partner?  Or, how do you plan to divide up your expenses?  You and your travel partner have both budgeted $100/day.  Great!  But, you’re not done – how much of that will go to accommodation, food, beer and/or entertainment costs? Do your budgets and values coincide?

4. Fresh Air

Agree before the trip starts to spend some time apart. When traveling it’s not uncommon to spend nearly every waking (and dreaming) moment together.  As time passes that becomes more and more of a challenge even for the best of friends and lets face it, your travel partner may not be your best friend.

Before you leave have a conversation about working in free days where you both split up and spend the day doing your own thing. I’d suggest working in one every week and a half or so but it will depend widely on how well you travel together.  What’s important is that you recognize when you need space and are able to take it without any hurt feelings.

5. Timing and Commitment

Two rules tend to shape the lead up to a trip.  People are flaky and life happens. You’ve planned a trip, started saving, found a travel partner, and then a month before the trip, you learn they either haven’t saved up the money they planned to, have made other plans, or chickened out. Now you’re without a travel partner, the prices of airfare have gone up, and you’re left high and dry.

Remember, actions speak louder than words. Don’t let your desperation to find a travel partner or eagerness to travel with someone cripple or kill your trip.  Set firm deadlines for ticket purchases and get your potential travel partner financially invested as quickly as possible.  The easiest way to make a trip “real” is to purchase your airline tickets. While this isn’t 100%, it will improve the follow-through rate and weed out people who are saying yes but would otherwise flake out later down the road.

If they can’t or won’t commit within a reasonable time period, it’s time to move on and find someone else.  At the end of the day this is your trip and you’re responsible for making it happen.  Set yourself up to succeed, not fail.

6. Numbers Games

Remember the old saying, The More the Merrier? When it comes to travel, it’s bullshit.  The larger the group, the more difficult and frustrating the trip will be.  That’s a simple fact. As a general rule of thumb more than 3 people should never travel together for more than a week (unless part of an organized tour).  Remember that even adding one person triples all 5 of the factors outlined in this post.

Have I seen groups do it with more?  You bet. Did they survive the trip in one piece and as one group?  Sometimes.  Did any make it through without significant frustration at some point or another?  No.

Make It Happen!

Now get out there and get your feet on the road! Hopefully this post has helped prepare you for your next adventure.  If you’d like a little extra help keep in mind my two resource sites: The Ultimate Packing List and The Travel Resource List.  Have a tip, question or suggestion of your own?  Maybe even a story to share?  Post it in a comment!