How to Travel with Friends and Not Kill Each Other

friends travel rocks.jpg

Traveling with friends can be one of the best experiences of life. But choosing the right companions and knowing how to traverse life on the road together is key.

Life on the road together is a little bit like marriage

Just take it from these globetrotters

You may have read that last year, Bill Murray crashed a bachelor party in Charleston, SC, and delivered some epic life advice to the room of bachelor bros:

“If you think you’ve found the one, buy a plane ticket for the two of you to travel all around the world. Go to places that are hard to go to and hard to get out of. And if when you come back to JFK, when you land in JFK, and you’re still in love with that person, get married at the airport.”

Classic Murray — he’s good.

Traveling with a companion or two can be incredibly rewarding. You’ll have someone to share incredible lifelong memories with. You know that feeling when you wake up from a great dream and try to explain it, but nobody understands? That person will. You’ll have a support team in an uncomfortable place. And you’ll have someone to bounce observations and new ideas off of — someone to grow with.

On the flip side, traveling with a companion or two is hard. It risks being the thorn that destroys your travel experience and possibly even pre-existing, long-lasting, previously unbreakable relationships. People are different when they travel (that’s a perk of traveling!), and those people you cherish at home may be very different on the road. Successful travel crews, just like other relationships, take work. But as big man Bill Murray expertly suggests, travel is your truest test of compatibility, and a relationship that can survive travel can survive anything.

The three of us (collectively, the Nowhere Men) have been friends for years, but have spent the last 18 months in a car together — we’ve driven over 25,000 miles through more than 25 countries so far, with a lot more road ahead. During our three months driving to Mongolia last year, the most common question we received was “how do you guys stand each other?” We laughed it off. But now, more than a year later, cracks have begun to form. It’s only natural.

We’re like a married couple — except that there are three of us, and there’s no work to go to during the day, or commute home, or bar to go to with other friends to take a break for a bit. We’re together every waking hour and every sleeping hour (it’s a pretty small tent). To further complicate matters, we have a fourth ever-present teammate — our camera (we’re filming our trip for a TV series). It’s an intense environment, but 18 months in, it still feels like traveling with two best friends.

 
Things get weird, but we’re still going strong.

Things get weird, but we’re still going strong.

 

Tips for creating, maintaining, and repairing a healthy travel relationship

Let’s start long before your trip begins, the first time someone drops that infamous, seemingly-harmless line, “let’s go on a trip…”

Choose your travel companions wisely

You may have known your best friend since kindergarten, but if you’ve never traveled together, you have absolutely no idea what he or she is like on the road. One of the greatest perks of independent travel is liberating yourself from your usual personality and discovering who you are in an often uncomfortable, unusual world. Everyone gets a blank slate to be whomever they want to be and try on characteristics they’re not known for at home. So even if you think you know somebody, you may have no idea what your buddy is going to be like on the road. Although there’s no guarantee, here are some tips on selecting a travel partner to promote travel compatibility:

1. Look for open-minded and adaptable personalities. There’s no way to perfectly plan independent travel. Things will go wrong. Plans will be adjusted. It’s one of the core tenets of the independent travel philosophy. Make sure your travel mate is flexible, with the ability to stay cool-headed and stable when plans change.

Some things to look for now, before you leave: What happens when the waiter says the meal he ordered is sold out? What happens when you try to get her to check out a new area in Brooklyn?

Think about how this will translate into: What happens when your bus is delayed for three hours? What happens when you’re lost in the middle of nowhere and starving because you haven’t eaten since breakfast — which was 11 hours ago??

Trying to put an inflexible person through independent travel is like attempting to bring your hipster friend to a Bieber show — they’re just going to complain the whole time and make things difficult, even though Bieber is awesome these days.

2. Agree on a travel lifestyle in advance. Everyone travels differently. Some people love hostels and seeing how little they can spend on the road, and some prefer daily showers and nice hotels. Some are minimalists; some hoard all the souvenirs they can find. Some like street food; some have dietary requirements or are vegan or gluten-free or follow some new diet fad you may have never even heard of. Some get cranky without a gym; some without a coffee, some without who knows what. None of these travel lifestyles are more right or wrong than others — but make sure to set lifestyle expectations in advance. Of course, budget and timing should be the first things discussed.

Pro-tip: figure out how money will be spent in advance — will you have a shared account? Will one of you (with the better credit card) pay and keep a running tab? Muddling the money situation has the potential to tank your whole trip.

 
We’re basically willing to put our tent up anywhere.

We’re basically willing to put our tent up anywhere.

 

3. Do your pre-trip shopping together. If time permits, take a weekend pre-trip together. These will help acquaint you and your partner with your travel expectations and lifestyle.

If you’ve chosen the right travel partners, you’ll know within a week. But that doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing from there… it takes a lot of purposeful work on the road to maintain a healthy travel relationship.

Create a supportive environment on the road

You’re doing something great, and a little bit scary. You’ve made a tough decision to take a leap, and you and your travel companion have left the comfort and stability of home to go somewhere unknown. You’re proving your independence — but everyone needs some support to keep travel a positive, transformative experience. Here’s how we maintain a supportive travel environment and keep our travel juices flowing after months and months on the road:

1.Hear each other out on every idea. Travel fosters creativity, confidence, and growth. Everyone’s out on a limb. Listen to each other’s ideas. To shut this down is to crush the very essence of independent travel. Make each other feel supported and comfortable enough to speak your minds, so the novel ideas and the courage to extend outside your comfort zone keep flowing. You never know what a crazy idea can lead to — after all, it got you here.

2. Play improv games when you’re lacking conversation. This is an amazing way to generate comfort and trust and boost energy and creativity. They’re easy to learn and require nothing to play. We took improv classes as a team before this trip — not just to get funnier, but to build ourselves as a team. People who see us together comment on our ability to take each other’s jokes or mannerisms and run. We’ve learned to encourage each other’s creativity, laugh easier, and make light of ever-changing situations.

A principle philosophy of improv is that you never say “no.” You’re prohibited from shutting down your partner’s ideas. You’re in an unknown environment with few rules, and when your partner says something, no matter how crazy it sounds, your job is to answer with the sentiment of “yes, and…” First, you’re affirming their great idea, and second you’re advancing it. Sounds a bit like travel, no? Here are some quick games you may consider:

  • a. Ad game: You and your travel crew are a marketing team having a brainstorm. Shout out a completely gibberish name for a product. Together, take turns describing how this product helps you in your travels, where you can buy it, which celebrity endorses it, what the commercial looks like, how the product functions, and so on. The most important piece, however, is that after each idea is suggested, the whole crew emphatically shouts “YEAHHHH!!!!” at the top of their lungs. Seriously loud. You’ll love the feeling of having all of your most ludicrous ideas instantly validated.
  • b. 1:1 scenarios: Take 5 minutes and jump into a scenario with your travel partner different than the one you’re in. It can be a breakup, a job interview, the awkward paying of a dinner bill, the waiting room for an audition, a doctor’s office, whatever. Don’t establish roles before you begin — just start, and see where it takes you. This is great for switching up your traditional roles.
  • c. Oscar winning scenes: Shout out a fictitious movie title. Act out the climactic, melodramatic final scene that’s going to win its actors the Oscars they deserve. Don’t plan, just go. You’ll love getting in touch with your extreme melodramatic emotions and having your partner there to support you.

3. Celebrate great ideas. Your teammate’s great idea is your great idea — and vice versa. Don’t let personal pride get in the way.

 
When your travel mate proposes loading up your car with as many watermelons as can fit and handing them out to everyone you pass on the streets of Kyrgyzstan, just run with it.

When your travel mate proposes loading up your car with as many watermelons as can fit and handing them out to everyone you pass on the streets of Kyrgyzstan, just run with it.

 

4. Take turns, with everything you can. It’s great to have roles, but it’s also great to make sure each person on the team feels they can add value and contribute — everyone will feel better because of this.

5. Take photos of each other! Although some people might be too shy to admit it, everyone loves having their photo taken on the road. Give them that jolt of egotistical pride. Offer to take pictures of your buds — they’ll love having the souvenir, and maybe even make it an iconic profile picture.

6. Use cognitive behavior. Science has shown that simple behavioral tricks, like smiling to yourself in the morning, can completely alter your mood and outward affect. Did you know you can smile with your eyes? Try it right now! By doing small things like smiling, you can change the entire course of the day. If you are in a good mood and radiating positivity, your teammates will be more inclined to feel the same.

7. Wake up slow. Even if you’ve got early morning plans, wake up just a little bit earlier. It’s important not to feel stressed in the morning. If one of you feels stressed, everyone will.

Try to maintain some routine. Make or drink your coffee. Meditate, if you do (or try it if you don’t!). Stretch. Take some time to sit and think out the day. This extra beat of time is worth it to realign with your companions, set priorities, and process the day.

 
Wake up slowwwwwwww. It can be the difference between a good day and a bad day.

Wake up slowwwwwwww. It can be the difference between a good day and a bad day.

 

8. Be appreciative. Remember, you’re doing something amazing. It was a difficult choice to do this. Say what you’re grateful for, every single day. Make it a ritual at dinner. This doesn’t have to be religious. You might be grateful for each other, or something that happened during your day. You might just be grateful to be out there. This is an amazing way to refresh your perspective and appreciate your experience, and it’s an easy step to boost morale. Being on the road isn’t always easy, and sometimes things don’t go your way, but remember how lucky you are to be out there seeing the world.

Inevitably, you will have issues on the road. Travel is stressful. Each day is different. And the amount of time you’re spending with your travel partner amplifies any emotions — both good and bad — to the fullest. When it does get heated, don’t panic. Here are some ways to calm things down:

When things get heated…

1. Talk it out. This is basic relationship advice, but harder to do than to read in an article. If anything is bothering you, let it sit for a day. Try and see it from the opposite perspective. Maybe you are just tired. Maybe it will blow over. If it’s still irking you, let it out soon. The sooner the better. Be direct, and say what you need to say, but do it in a way that is respectful to your companion. Don’t place blame. Tell them how you feel. Chances are, your partner may be feeling the same way. Trust your intuitions. If you feel like something is bothering your partner, you are probably right. It’s just you and the world out there. Remember, you are a team, and each other’s greatest allies. Be open and communicative with each other — problems won’t correct themselves on their own, as much as you’d like to ignore them. As 3 non-confrontational guys who have now made a living out of “going with the flow,” we’ve often failed to do this for too long, and the second someone speaks everything seems to turn around. Just do it.

2. Immerse yourself in your surroundings and other people. Insert others into the mix. Hostels are a great source of community, and if you’ve been stuck in a car or remote place with your travel partner for too long, it can be great to spend a couple nights in a hostel where there are other fellow travelers to talk to. This helps take some of the pressure off your relationship and gives everyone a little time to breathe and be independent.

3. Trade roles. If you’ve been traveling a while, you’re probably pretty set in whatever your roles are, but try to forcibly shake it up for a little bit. Let the non-driver drive. Let the non-chef cook. Switch who’s holding the map. There were probably reasons you have those roles and you might go right back — but at least this will help refresh things for a bit and allow yourselves to see the trip from each other’s perspectives.

 
Sometimes it’s best to switch drivers.

Sometimes it’s best to switch drivers.

 

4. Reconnect with the world for a bit. This means stop moving for a couple days, settle yourselves in somewhere with good coffee and good wifi, and get yourselves back in touch with your lives at home. This is healthy. If you had a relationship with your travel companion before this trip, bring in elements from home — FaceTime with someone you both know, catch up on a common interest that you haven’t caught up with in a while, re-watch a movie you both always quote. Remember that you had an amazing relationship before you left, and reconnect to it.

5. Dance it out. It’s quite unplanned, but we’ve discovered an all-too familiar pattern in our travel behavior — hit a stressful bump in the road, talk it out and make things better, then lose ourselves in a cathartic, impromptu dance session. The first time this happened was after a tense moment on a dirt road bordering Afghanistan. In a moment of fear, we blasted Michael Jackson and just freakin’ lost it with no regard for who could see us.

 
Group therapy with no regard to that “Afghanistan” place in the background.

Group therapy with no regard to that “Afghanistan” place in the background.

 

6. Surprise chocolate or surprise ice cream (or both). This almost always works.

7. As Rolf Potts says in Vagabonding (the bible for independent travel), always be prepared to go it alone. Have an open conversation with your travel partner. You may, ultimately, conclude that traveling with your companion is more damaging than rewarding to your experience and relationship. It may be that the best way to salvage both is to take some time to travel separately. If it’s not working out, don’t be afraid to travel alone.

Pulling it all together

Just like every experience in life, each person’s travel experience is unique to them. What’s going through your head is different than the guy sitting next to you. Travel is an intense, immersive experience. Plans change, attitudes change, entire mindsets and life philosophies have a tendency to change — but there’s a way to move in the same general direction, and not the opposite, of your travel companions.

Let the whirlwind of travel carry you together. The joys of successful travel with friends are incredible and lasting.

And hey, if you follow Bill Murray’s advice, you might even get a spouse out of it.