Traveling with other people is like a crucible; without careful monitoring of pressure and temperature, things can very quickly get hot enough to melt someone at some point. Learning how to be a good travel companion can keep your trip (and your friendship) from going up in flames.
I have always found that it is the little stuff that really grates on folks on the road -- the proverbial death by a thousand cuts. Thus, someone who spills a bottle of wine all over your bed, or who loses both your passports on the first day of the trip, isn't necessarily that much worse than someone who uses up all your toothpaste, "borrows" your last few notes of the local currency or forgets his wallet all the time. In fact, the more dramatic screw-ups at least provide some stories to tell; the others are just annoying, but often insufferably so.
The following 10 tips should help keep your own travel crucible cool enough to touch, and make you a great travel companion under even the hottest conditions.
1. Disappear now and then.
Even your mother needed a break from you once in a while, so it's fair to assume that your traveling companion could use a little "no you" time on a semi-regular basis. "There is no need to experience everything together," says Kathleen Boyce, an American teacher living and working in China. "Make sure you separate every so often."
You can disappear in small doses -- maybe on quick runs to the store or pharmacy -- or for longer periods of time, such as a trip to a museum your companion has no interest in seeing or an overnight to a nearby attraction.
Vary the times and situations in which you head off on your own; maybe one day you rise early and get out before your companion is awake, leaving her the luxury of waking up slowly in a quiet room where she can read, watch TV or do whatever she wants to do without bothering anyone else with it.
2. Have a good time when you're apart, and share when you return.
Part of the point of peeling off on your own is to go "get a life," so make the best of it -- and when you get back together, have something worthwhile to relate to your traveling partner. If you go off to see the Pyramids, and come back and say "Ah, yeah, there was too much sand and a lot of tourists," you sound like you are complaining about traveling itself, or even about having to go off on your own.
Another idea when you head out alone: Do something for your traveling partners. Bring back newspapers, coffee filters, some local food, postcard stamps, anything. Before you leave, either ask if anyone needs anything or simply scan your hotel room to come up with your own idea of a good surprise.
3. Adjust to your companion's traveling style.
Some travelers are always on, racing around racking up attractions and experiences; others like to find places to sit and watch. When you are traveling with another person, your rhythms are not going to match up all the time.
How to deal with this will vary immensely based not only on the individuals involved, but also on the type of travel you are doing (a theme park demands a very different rhythm than a day at the beach) and on what needs to get done (taking your time on vacation is a great thing, but a leisurely pace when running late for a flight is almost an actionable offense). If you are sensitive to your travel companion at all -- and it is fair to assume you wouldn't be traveling with him if not -- you will be able to figure this out.
4. When it is time to move, move.
This tip is arguably a corollary to the preceding one, but is important enough to merit specific mention. On the day you leave, or on a day when you have a lot planned, or on a day when you are doing something your companion really wants to do, get on the stick, as your mom used to say. There is nothing worse than someone dragging everyone down by not having it together.
On a related note, keep your cool when the pressure goes up. Many of the worst hassles of travel are easy to anticipate -- airport ring roads, parking lots, check-in and bag check, airport security, collecting baggage, picking up rental cars, checking into hotels, making sure your room is clean and everything works. During these phases, be way cool.
5. Have an opinion.
Another from Kathleen Boyce: "Don't use the phrase 'whatever you want to do' when making planning decisions. If I wanted complete indifference/compliance, I would have traveled with myself."
If you want something out of travel, and from your traveling companion, you have to put something in. Never having an opinion (or much worse, having strong opinions but refusing to share them) puts all of the responsibility for coming up with and executing good ideas on someone else. If an outing goes sour, that person almost inevitably will feel bad.
6. Do what you are best at.
Great at reading maps? That is your job. Have a lot of skill as a photographer? Same deal. Have the best cell phone signal or internet connection? Do most of the online research. Early bird? You're in charge of getting everyone coffee and the daily bread. Know a lot of knock-knock jokes? Well ... use your best judgment.
7. Don't nick the other person's stuff without asking.
This is a good policy for everyday life, and goes double (or triple, or infinity) when traveling. Remember, it's the little stuff that matters most on the road: missing toothpaste, used razors, that kind of thing. Get yer own.
And just because something is lying around doesn't mean it doesn't belong to someone. In my case, when I was training and competing for the U.S. lightweight rowing squad, I used to buy a few go-to snacks ahead of time to keep me from bonking too badly. Michael O'Gorman, our coxswain, pilfered the snack, and now 20 years on still remembers my reaction. I'll let him tell it:
"We were all in a van going to weigh-in. There was a box of Wheat Thins, so I started snacking, and ended up eating them all (can't eat just one, you know). We got out of the weigh-in, and you were like, 'Hey, what happened to the Wheat Thins? That was supposed to be my post-weigh-in snack.'
"You were not thrilled."
Mike also used to need things like a ride now and then, as he didn't have a license or car at the time. I was happy to oblige, as we were all in it together -- but don't nick my stuff!
8. Pay your fair share, but don't overreact.
Arguments about money on the road can create a fracture in your relationship; it is up to you to make sure you are paying your dues, and getting them in return, without treating it like a criminal case.
A frequent travel companion of mine, Greg Hughes has this to say: "My best partners haven't been sticklers for splitting every single bill to the exact cent. Trips cost money. The goal of the trip for me is to enjoy where I'm going, not to count my money or to talk about money and what I've paid vs. my partner. A good partner picks some things up, and I pick some things up, and in the end our bills come out around even."
9. Roll with it.
Overplanning, and then being too rigid about sticking to the plan, can defeat the whole purpose of traveling, which is to go outside your own limited experience and explore the world some. Hughes offers: "Good travelers have always been willing to be flexible with the travel arrangements. So often, there are things that need deciding -- where to eat, a willingness to try a new town or stay someplace another night. Good partners are cool with surprises and prepared to expect the unexpected. So much of a fun trip comes down to enjoying the little differences that a new place throws your way."
10. Don't judge.
Okay, so your travel companion's taste in art is iffy, or her hangover remedy of a Quarter Pounder means you get dragged to fast food joints on vacation. That's life, and it's not your life your companion is living. You don't have to put up with dangerous or unsavory situations, but if there is no real trouble to be had, let folks live (and learn) by their own standards. Or, as another reader related after returning from a trip from Southeast Asia, "If one's companion ends up dancing with a nice-enough person at Apocalypse Now in Ho Chi Minh City, one should just let the companion hang out with him, even if it means going to the backpacker section of town for noodles at two in the morning." Within reason.
Most frequent travelers have their own rules, which don't have to be too high-minded or theoretical to work well. Witness these rules from a reader who goes by the nickname Sully: "My only rules: Driver picks the radio station, open the window before you fart (warning signal) and bike trips overall are more fun solo."
What's the worst behavior you've ever put up with in a traveling companion? Let us know in the comments!
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