Traveling with a significant other can be a whirlwind of emotions, whether it’s your first trip together or your 100th. The pressures that come with that first exciting journey together can intensify every minor detail, while common travel stresses like jet lag or getting lost can have even seasoned couples snapping at each other.
With so much to tackle (Which destination? What flights are best? Who’s doing the planning? What’s the budget?) you might find yourself forgetting how to communicate with your partner. But according to one relationship expert, there are some guiding principles that can help you make the best of it.
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Meredith Goldstein is a love advice columnist at the Boston Globe, where she’s answered more than 1,000 Love Letters—emails from readers asking for relationship advice—since 2009. Goldstein enjoys traveling with friends and family (couples included) which she notes in her new book Can’t Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions from a Modern Advice Columnist. And she has useful advice about those common tiffs that often come up when you’re traveling with a significant other.
Here’s what Goldstein told me about some of the most common travel issues for couples.
First, can you say what you think traveling together can, and maybe can’t, do for a relationship? Some people think of it as an end-all, be-all test of your compatibility. Do you think that’s smart, or a lot of pressure?
“Couples—especially new couples—can put too much pressure on themselves when it comes to vacations. Please know that these getaways, especially the first ones, do not have to be perfect! It’s not about documenting an adorable journey on Instagram! It’s just about getting a change of scenery and getting to know a partner in a new setting.”
There’s a moment in Can’t Help Myself where you describe finding out that your ex had traveled with someone new he’d been seeing, and being particularly upset about that detail. Did their having traveled together legitimize the relationship in your mind?
“One of the things I love about being casual with someone is that there is no plan. No expectations or requirements. But … when I heard about my ex planning a trip with someone else, I realized that it might be nice to share something to look forward to with a partner. Planning—even if it’s just a weekend trip—isn’t such a bad thing. Especially if warm weather is involved.”
Should how a first trip together goes be a test of a new relationship, or can a bad trip be a misnomer?
“Sometimes ‘terrible’ trips are wonderful memories for couples. Give yourself some time before you label an entire vacation as a success or failure.”
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How can you cope when you and your partner have totally different travel styles? For example, if one person wants to summit a mountain and the other is more into all-inclusive resorts. Is compromise always a good idea, or is it OK to try to challenge each other too?
“Take space. Do not be offended by someone else’s need for alone time. That can start on the plane, by the way. If you know you want to read or watch TV on a flight, it might be best for you to sit next to strangers. You’ll make up for it during the rest of the trip. … It’s also not weird to take a day by yourself to hike, bike, sleep, or whatever feels best.”
One thing I hear a lot from couples is arguments about one person doing all the effort of planning. If one of you is a planner and the other isn’t, how can you avoid one person doing it all?
“First, to the planners out there (I can be one of them), be honest with yourself. It’s possible that you’d rather plan and get what you want than give up the planning to someone else. That’s OK. To the bad planners: Please know that there are other ways to care for your travel mate. Maybe you can be great at carrying luggage or making a partner more physically comfortable. Perhaps, after the hotel has already been booked, you can surprise your partner with a room upgrade or spa visit. You can build on a trip. There’s always room for surprises.”
A lot of people say communication is key in a relationship trip, while others feel boundaries are good: How do you bring up boundaries if you think you have some? Do you say in the moment, “Hey, I’d like to explore this museum in peace and quiet by myself” … or should things like that be a conversation ahead of time to avoid any hurt feelings?
“I think the best bet is always honesty. It doesn’t have to happen before a trip—because you can’t anticipate every conflict. Just say the thing whenever it feels right. Like, ‘Hey, FYI—I get scared on planes and will grab your hand.’ Or, once you’re there, ‘Hey, I’m exhausted. I might nap while you tour that botanical garden.’”
Some people have different money expectations for travel—how can spending limits be tempered without it being a totally awkward, trip-ruining conversation?
“This is something that should be discussed before a trip. Talk about budget and comfort. Talk about expectations. It might be awkward, but couples who travel together should be able to talk about money together. Ask: ‘Does this choice work for you?’ Honestly, if you spend an entire vacation stressed about how much it costs, you won’t have a good time. Get that talk out of the way early.”
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You mentioned you’ve traveled with couples before. How can adding different additional travel companions (other couples, friends, family, kids, etc). change the dynamic of a trip, for better or worse?
“I love traveling with couples. First, I think it’s great for them—because it’s a new way to make a memory. It gives them space away from each other when they need it, and I’m never offended when they need time alone, without me. I’m a solid and excellent third wheel (I hope). But not everyone is or wants to be. Couples should be honest with each other about who makes good company and what they’re seeking in their traveling companions. They might realize they’d rather travel with a few single people than another couple. Couples should never assume that other couples are the best company.”
I think people sometimes forget that they don’t need to travel with a significant other if it’s difficult—they can do it with other people too, like family or friends, or even in a small tour group with a bunch of total strangers. What’s the next place you’re hoping to travel to, and with whom?
“In March, I’ll join my married sister (without her husband, I think) and our couple friends on a trip to Florida. The friends are married with two kids. I love being with this group because I adore the couple and the children and we’re all really flexible. My sister and I will be able to hang with those kids to give the adults some alone time. We’ll all be able to have fun as a group or in random pairs. Some of us like the sun. I’ll be the one taking walks on the beach under the moon. I can’t wait.”
Goldstein’s Love Letters podcast is currently available online with season two coming in 2019. You can read Goldstein’s column, Love Letters, every weekday on Boston.com.
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SmarterTravel’s Editor of News and Features, Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram at @shanmcmahon for more.