The Three Keys to Successful Couples Travel

Posted by Ted on Dec 31, 2012 in Philosophy, Travel, Vagabonding

We wondered if we’d all kill each other. Instead we had a ball.

Those words of wisdom were from Brenna Redpath, one of a growing number of Vagabonding Case Studies that I’ve been curating. She and her family of four spent fourteen months traveling across much of Europe and parts of Morocco and Peru. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that being in such close quarters for a long time could be a recipe for drama.

However, both the fear and the happy realization are common among traveling couples and families. Are you thinking of taking an extended trip with a partner, but are afraid of driving each other crazy?

The Advantages of Couples Travel was part one of a series that came out of this year’s Meet, Plan, Go : National Event. In this second installment, I give you these three tips that will help you navigate those unknown waters.

1. Communicate

The name of the game is communication and collaboration, pre- through post-trip.

One might think that’s a no-brainer, but most problems that couples face, whether at home or on the road, is a failure to communicate. Making assumptions, failing to express unhappiness, and projecting one’s own feelings are all traps that lead to tension and resentment.

  • Set clear expectations
    Communication starts before buying those long-haul plane tickets or figuring out what to pack. It’s important to talk openly and honestly about what each of you hope to get out of the experience, what kind of travelers you imagine yourselves to  be, and the kinds of things that get on your nerves. It’s also important to talk about your individual interests and ideas of a budget. Setting these expectations ahead of time will lead to fewer surprises down the road.
  • Negotiate and compromise
    When traveling alone, you have the ultimate freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want. As soon as you are traveling with someone, whether that’s a friend, a partner, or as a family, individual desires and preferences need to be taken into account.
  • Air grievances promptly and calmly
    Whether you’re upset at your partner, or just having a bad day, the worst thing you can do is hold it inside where feelings of anger and frustration can turn into resentment. Being open with each other, sharing the bad as well as the good, allows issues to be aired openly and dealt with before they become bigger problems.
  • Forgive quickly
    Even more important on the road than at home is to forgive quickly. It’s fine to be angry or upset, but the close quarters that come with traveling mean that holding grudges can ruin a trip. Take a few deep breaths, maybe even a long walk, but be willing to let it go and move on.
  • Learn something
    If you’re going to have a disagreement, make it productive. Let it be an opportunity to learn more about each other and how to travel better together.

2. Embrace togetherness, and the individual

Traveling as a couple doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re joined at the hip 24/7. Everyone benefits from a little “alone time” to get away, recharge, and pursue their own interests.

  • Take joy in sharing
    Sharing the world with someone is one of the most wonderful things. Cherish it.
  • Take a break from each other
    This might seem at odds with the last point, but it’s important to remember that everyone is different. While interests overlap, one person might really enjoy museums, while another might like mountain biking. Spending time on individual pursuits is healthy and supports growth and fulfillment.

    Taking breaks allows for an opportunity to share different experiences with each other afterwards, and provides much needed alone time. On trips of a few weeks or months, one might spend a few hours or even an overnight or two away from their partner. On longer trips, one might even spend a week or two apart, taking a workshop, volunteering, or even just a side-trip, and then coming together again can be an exciting heart-grows-fonder reunion of sharing what each person did during the time away.

3. Plan as little as possible

This advice is as true for the solo traveler as it is for couples. Over-planning causes undue stress and puts limits on spontaneity. During the tail end of our Southeast Asia trip, we had intended to visit Vietnam and take the train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, purchasing plane and train tickets in advance, but ultimately letting both go in favor of staying in Chiang Mai.

  • What to plan
    Obviously, booking the long-haul flights (or at least the outbound!) is a necessity. It’s also helpful to book at least your first night or three after big travel days, so you aren’t stuck with trying to find lodging while overtired and jetlagged.

    Instead of planning a trip down to every detail, choose a few special places, centered around particular sights you want to see, or festivals you want to attend. On our trip, we knew we wanted to stay on Gili Air, a small island in Indonesia, and we wanted to see the lantern festival in Chiang Mai – everything else was decided spur-of-the-moment.

  • Negotiate locally
    Often, the best deals aren’t found online by searching Kayak or Even in some of the most remote areas, travelers can show up at the train station, bus stop, or boat launch and find touts who will happily suggest a place to stay. When we arrived on Gili Air, a tout took us to a bungalow, 20 feet from the ocean, with a sunset view of Bali, for $7/night.
  • Travel slow
    Especially on shorter trips, it might be tempting to try to hit as many places as you can, but beware – it can make the trip much more stressful. It’s always better to travel slower, see fewer places, but experience them in a deeper fashion.
  • Travel light
    You need less than you think you do. We survived for 3 months with what could fit into two 35-litre backpacks, and there were still items we never used. Traveling light keeps you more mobile and less tired from carrying heavy packs. Besides, sooner or later, someone will have to carry both backpacks.
  • Stay flexible
    The best part about planning as little as possible is that it allows the freedom for magic to happen, in a million unexpected ways. Random encounters can lead to the most memorable experiences.

Communication, planning as little as possible, and sharing the experience while allowing for individual pursuits are the keys to successful couples travel. With these firmly in mind, you’ll be prepared to take a trip of two weeks, two months, or two years.

What are you waiting for? Grab your partner and GO!

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An adventurer at heart, Ted Beatie is at his happiest when he’s off the beaten path. His deepest passion is sharing the world through photography and writing, found at The Pocket Explorer. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


Jennifer K
Dec 31, 2012 at 8:42 am

Excellent advice, all. The amount of planning (minimal) is possibly the least understood part: When you’ve both got your agendas, trying to ‘fit everything in’ is nearly impossible and someone feels they haven’t gotten the trip they wanted.

Similarly, when one person wants to plan every minute in advance and the other thinks planning is horribly restrictive (myself and my husband, when we first started traveling together), that mismatch can make for a lot of hurt feelings. Finding your way to a compromise – plan one big thing a day or a few big things for the trip, then allowing for serendipity – makes for better journeys for you both in the long run.

Great article, Ted. Keep ’em coming…

Travis and Calli
Jan 2, 2013 at 10:55 pm

Really good advice…we just spent 4 months traveling and found that we were getting along even better by the end. Compromising and staying flexible are so important when traveling with anyone. Love the blog!