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How to travel with friends drama-free

Backpackers make their way across a bridge in Thailand on Jan. 19, 2010. Courtesy of Siim Teller via Flickr

Travelling with friends can go one of two ways—it’ll either be the best time ever, or the worst. Money is one of the top reasons some group vacations go awry. We’ve all been on or heard of trips where the burden of cost fell too heavily on one person, whether it was hefty room service charges or tickets to see a show. I’ve been on my fair share of group trips, large and small, and have come to three important conclusions I’d like to share with you, dear traveller.

You must share similar hopes and dreams for the trip: If you have wildly different expectations for your holiday, one or more of you is bound to return home feeling disappointed.

You must agree on a budget: No one should feel bullied into spending more than they can afford on transportation, accommodations, food and entertainment at any point on the trip. Likewise, penny pinching after a budget is established can put a damper on plans.

You must give each other space: Schedule in personal time for exercise, Internet cafes or exploring even for a few minutes each day.

Once you and your travel buddies have all agreed to the above, you can establish a cash flow plan that details and how and when you plan to pay for shared expenses. Before packing your bags, ask yourselves: Will we pay for the rental car via credit card or simply reserve it on a credit card and pay cash upon pickup? Do we plan to tip the hotel staff? And so on…

My friends and I prefer to divide the cost of every shared expense evenly at the point of purchase, using mostly cash. We tend to charge big ticket items like rental cars and hotels using credit since in most cases you can divide the cost evenly on multiple cards.

We also like to pool our funds. Here’s how it works: We all agree on a discretionary budget for shared experiences and each put the same amount of money in the “pot.” When it comes time to pay for things, like cab rides, we use money from this group fund. (Any personal items however, like souvenirs and clothing, are paid for by the individual using personal funds.) At the end of the trip, any money left over from the shared pot gets split evenly among all parties.

If you share similar food and alcohol consumption habits, this approach even works well at restaurants. Did you share appetizers, a bottle of wine and order an entree each? Great, pay from the pot. No reaching for calculators, no quibbles over whose turn it is to leave a tip and most importantly, no one feels cheated out of money.

Another strategy we’ve adopted relates to itineraries. Each of us typically plans one day to enjoy as a group and we all agree to follow the designated “tour guide” for that day. It does require a fair bit of faith in the other’s person’s planning abilities but it also lets everyone experience their “ideal” day. On our last trip to Los Angeles, my day consisted of a trip to the Getty Center museum high atop the city, whereas my friends planned visits to the Santa Monica Pier and DreamWorks Studios complete with food truck stops and shopping along the way. It’s still hard to pick a favourite.

MoneySense travel writer John Lee recommends a similar approach for those less, err, organized. He suggests each person produce a shortlist of one to three things they really want to see or do. “The trip can unfold around those things,” he says.

Even couples can adopt these strategies for tension-free travel. My fiancé and I did on our last trip to Panama. It may seem counter-intuitive but minimal planning actually creates room for spontaneity. You see, we never had to stop and do mental math to decide whose turn it was to treat the other person and both of us got to experience the country the way we wanted.

Everything will be more relaxed if you know what you are getting into. “The bottom line is that shared vacations are about the group, not just about you,” Lee says.

10 tips for group travel

This article first appeared on MoneySense.ca.