If you’ve been planning to travel with friends but you have questions or doubts or just want to be better prepared, this post is for you! I’ve had so many wonderful experiences traveling with groups, from school trips to studying abroad to exploring in a small group with 1-5 other people. Each group has its own dynamic and strengths and pitfalls; who you’re traveling with can and will influence how you experience a place. Even with the inevitable ups and downs, traveling with friends is a wonderful way to see the world and build connections with the people in your life.
I’ll write another post on traveling alone, but know that you absolutely can go alone. If you can’t find anyone to join you, explore solo. This post, however, is all about traveling with friends, though these tips also apply to traveling with family or even strangers.
Why travel with friends
I have been participating in group travel since I was in middle school. My first group trip was a four-day canoe expedition down the Colorado River in seventh grade. That river trip was my first taste of the joy and challenges that can come from traveling with other people, no matter how well you know them. I’m not sure how many school trips I took from seventh grade through graduation, but it was more than a dozen.
After high school, I took a few trips with friends, from traveling to Guatemala with two roommates to road tripping from Massachusetts to Texas. Each trip has taught me something different about what it takes to travel with other people, have fun, and minimize friction.
The wonderful thing about traveling with one or more other people is that you get to experience a place and grow a relationship simultaneously. Even if you travel with good friends you’ve known for years, there are ways that you’ll get to know them better by traveling together. You’ll also build your bonds by adding new inside jokes, experiences worthy of reminiscing for years to come, and you’ll grow together.
Related Post: How to Make Friends as an Adult
1. Choose your group wisely
In my experience traveling with other people, unless there is a predetermined structure and leader (such as a school or college program), it’s best to keep your group to 2-4 people. There are a few key advantages to this: you’ll all fit in a car or taxi, it’s easy to find accommodations for a group this size, and it’s easier to manage the social dynamics of a smaller group.
Overall, I’ve had wonderful experiences traveling with friends. When I think back on the times that I really struggled, however, the common denominator was that these particular friends and I had values that didn’t align very closely. On trips where my friends were dedicated to learning and growing and becoming better people and cultivating a respect for the place we visited, we were mostly able to overcome our differences. On trips where my travel companions were looking to vacation, I found the dynamics harder to manage.
When you’re determining whether to travel with someone, flexibility, travel experience, a bias towards adventure, and adaptability are all great traits to look for in a travel companion. Don’t worry if they (or you!) don’t have all of these things! Even one or two will help with your group dynamics. The more your travel companion loves to explore and learn and create, the better.
If you are taking a trip where you aren’t responsible for choosing your group, remember the line from the TV show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.” Seriously, though, travel with strangers can be so rewarding! If you’re planning to study abroad or otherwise participate in group travel with people you haven’t yet met, go in with an open mind and try to connect with the people who most closely share your values. In my experience, that’s the most important part of creating a cohesive group, and the rest has a tendency to sort itself out.
2. Set realistic itineraries
Sometimes when you’re planning a trip, you can’t help but to book an ambitious day or two. Maybe there’s a 6am flight that’s $150 less than the flight later that day and a concert that evening that you really want to go to. Sure, do it! But be aware that you’re booking an ambitious day, and plan a lighter day the day before or the day after. If you try to pack every possible activity into your trip, you’re probably going to burn out.
Trust me, once you’re exhausted, it’s pretty hard to have fun. I once was so tired by the time we set off to have dinner in Spain that I started to brainstorm creative ways to try to wake myself up. At one point, I literally sprinted up and down an empty alleyway for several minutes until I got my heart rate up just so I could stay awake during dinner. It turns out, after a day of waking up early, wandering the city in the heat, seeing a massive palace, and wandering around the city until Spanish dinner time (9pm), I was pretty much spent. Funny enough, the jogging seemed to work and rallied enough to stay out through dinner.
I did, however, absolutely crash when I got back to my Airbnb.
3. Manage yourself
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been traveling with someone who has gotten hangry and tired and snappy and made a day of travel miserable. I also can’t count the number of times I have been that person–it’s an easy mistake to make! The number one thing I’d recommend here is to take responsibility for your own comfort. It’s not your travel partner’s job to feed you, it’s your job to make sure that you have enough food. It’s not your travel partner’s job to make sure you get enough sleep, that’s on you.
It takes a lot of practice to get better at self care while you’re traveling, and even with practice we can sometimes succumb to hanger or grumpiness or exhaustion. Try to get ahead and stay ahead by taking breaks when you need to, asking for some alone time if you need it, and taking accountability for your own well being on your trip. It’s your job to manage yourself, and you know better than anyone what you need and when you need it.
That said, try your best to look out for others, too, and give them some grace if or when they come up short. We all can fall victim to overextending ourselves, pushing too hard, or even just suffering from a bad night of sleep. What’s good for each person’s wellness is usually also good for the group. That said, try not to derail plans or keep others from the activities they want to do whenever possible–normalize excusing yourself and letting others continue on without you, if needed. As long as you’re not spending the day in transit, it’s usually not a problem to hang back at the hostel for a few hours.
4. Know that there will be friction
I have never been on a frictionless trip with friends. Inevitably, you’ll say or do something that annoys your travel companions, or they’ll rub you the wrong way somehow. It happens. It’s normal. The key, in my opinion, is to do the best you can to manage yourself effectively and take responsibility for your own wellness and good time.
Advocate for the things you want to do, be willing to do them alone if needed, and try to accommodate others’ activities and interests. If there’s a museum you really want to see on your trip, but your travel companions want to spend the day lounging in the Airbnb, feel free to go! Similarly, sometimes I’ve been with a group and I start to feel overstimulated by all of the activities and movement–this is a cue to me that I might need to skip an activity and spend a little time alone.
If you start to experience some friction, try not to let it linger. If you can truly let things go, let them go! If you can’t, address them as quickly as possible. Address tensions directly using “I” statements (“I felt hurt when you said X”), kindness, and compassion. Be forthcoming about what you need, how you feel, and what could make the trip better for you. The longer tensions build up, the bigger the (almost) inevitable blow up will be, so just cut it off at the pass and make adjustments as you go. A small uncomfortable conversation with a defined resolution is always preferable to a full scale trip implosion.
Here are a few dynamics that are more likely to cause friction, in my experience:
One or more of your group members is tired or hungry and they’re starting to get crabby.
Why it’s troublesome: bad vibes can spread like wildfire through a group. The unhappy traveler(s) start to complain, and everything gets tainted with their bad mood.
How to prevent this: everyone on a trip needs to be responsible for their own self-care. If their self-care involves eating regularly, they should be sure that they keep a Cliff bar in their bag or some other easily accessible snack. Folks who need a decent night of sleep should probably leave the nightclub early to make sure they get enough rest or let the group know they’ll skip the morning activity and meet up later. I covered this in greater detail in the “Manage Yourself” section, but the best medicine for crabby travelers is a healthy dose of prevention.
What to do if you start to experience this: if you find yourself feeling crabby or hangry or burnt out, do your best to take what you need as quickly as possible. If you’re really grumpy, let your travel companions know what’s going on, what you need, and how you’re going to fix it (“I’m feeling a little crabby because I’m hungry. I need a snack before dinner, so I’m going to run to the grocery store to grab a bag of almonds, does anyone need anything?”). Sometimes, the whole group is experiencing the same thing, so it might be more appropriate to suggest a midday snack or early dinner.
Remember: Hanger is real. Lots of feelings have been hurt by hangry travelers who lash out at their friends instead of getting a snack. If you can’t eat for whatever reason, let everyone know what’s going on and try to keep to yourself until you can get to a restaurant or grocery store.
One person initiates, plans, and leads the trip, but isn’t particularly happy about it.
Why it’s troublesome: this person feels like they’re doing all of the work, and they’re likely taking on most of the stress of planning. This can lead to feelings of fatigue, resentment, and disappointment for your group leader.
How to prevent this: If it seems like someone is starting to take the lead on planning and others are dragging their feet, try holding planning sessions or planning calls where the major details can get ironed out (flights, accommodations, major activities, etc.). If the planning is extremely one-sided and it’s making you uncomfortable, it might be a sign that this isn’t the best group to travel with. More often than not, bringing people into the fold in a structured way will alleviate this problem.
What to do if you start to experience this: 1) appreciate them for the hard work they’ve done, 2) ask how you can support, 3) avoid saying things like, “What’s the plan?” or “I’m hungry” and instead go over the itinerary and suggest places to eat or things to do. The more that you can get and stay involved in the planning and logistics, the less your de facto leader will feel like they’re carrying the weight of the trip.
Two or more people have very different expectations for the trip.
Why it’s troublesome: we all have things that we want to do when we travel. Although there’s some room for variance, if you’re focused on exploring a new place and your travel companion wants to party, you might both find yourself unhappy with how your trip turns out.
How to prevent this: align on values and major objectives for the trip as early as possible. This can be as simple as, “What do you want to see and do when we’re in X place?” The answer to that question can tell you quite a bit about how your friend(s) are thinking about the trip.
What to do if you start to experience this: once you’re on your trip, it can admittedly be challenging to redirect the trip’s focus. The best solution, in my experience, is to be comfortable spending parts of the trip apart. Split up for the day and meet back at night. Don’t miss the activities that you want to try, but make an effort to help your friend enjoy their trip, too. Try your best not to build resentment towards them and talk about the issue in a clear and compassionate way as soon as you start to sense that there might be some tension.
5. Combat Travelers’ Fatigue
Hunger is usually an easier need to address when you’re traveling than fatigue. There’s a specific type of intense travel fatigue that can occur if you push too hard for too long and don’t give yourself a chance to bounce back. For me, it starts to feel like my bones are tired–it’s almost as though my very core is spent, and then the exhaustion travels outwards. If this happens to you while you’re on a trip, just know that it’s temporary. You’ll recover, you just need to rest and recuperate a little.
However, you’re bound to feeling fatigued at some point while traveling with friends, and you can’t always stop. Maybe your flight just landed in your destination airport but it’s only 8am and you can’t check in to your hostel until 3pm. Maybe you’re on a day trip to Lille from Paris and the only train home is in 6 hours (a real story of mine), or maybe there’s just some other reason that your only option is to keep moving through your fatigue. Whatever the situation, here are some things that have helped me rally while traveling with friends:
- Do some sun salutations.
- Take a 20-30 minute nap.
- Take a shower.
- Go for a short jog or run.
- Drink some water.
- Get the group’s energy up–sometimes you’re just tired because everyone’s energy is a little low. If everyone’s OK with it, try to lift the energy by talking about an animating topic, watching some funny videos, or having a small dance party.
- Have a dance party by yourself.
- Have some tea or coffee, but be careful with this one–don’t have a ton of coffee too late in the day because it will deprive you of the sleep you need to recover.
- If you’re out and need to rest, go see a movie. Either the movie will wake you up by holding your attention, or you can sleep through it for the price of your ticket.
- Eat some fruit and/or veggies. It can be hard to eat healthfully when traveling, which can leave you feeling fatigued, irritable, and bloated. Try to choose a veggie-packed meal that is light on the oils, dairy, and carbs to help you rally.
- Sit by yourself for 20-30 minutes. Sometimes a few minutes of alone time can help you recharge, especially if you’re an introvert.
- If you’ve been inside most of the day, sit or lay in the sun for a few minutes. Soaking up some sun can help you to recharge pretty quickly.
- If you’re very hot or overheating, run cold water or ice over the insides of your wrists. This can help you cool down quickly and discreetly.
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Traveling with friends is like many of the greatest parts of being alive. It can be incredibly rewarding, eye-opening, connection-building, perspective-shifting, and expansive! Some of the fondest memories I have from being alive are times when I took trips with friends to places I had never dreamed I’d go.
Alongside all of the parts that were spectacular, there are some moments where I felt irritated or hurt or sidelined or overly responsible for others. Life is all about learning and practicing self-care, setting and holding boundaries, and pushing ourselves towards the most expansive, highest versions of ourselves, even through the hard parts. All of the good stuff starts at the edge of your comfort zone.
If you want to learn more about becoming a World Traveler, check out this post.
Do you have any tips for navigating group travel? Let me know in the comments!