Group travel takes a lot of heat from travel bloggers, but it has been my specialty and I find it incredibly rewarding. Most of my foreign travel has been for at least four weeks, and with the same group of people. The groups have ranged from 8 to 30, and this fall I’m making a huge jump up to 145 students and 12 of us staff. Eeek! While I am definitely looking forward to some solo side-trips, I have also learned a thing (or ten!) about living, working, learning, and traveling with the same people day in and day out, and I’d love to share them with all those group travelers out there!
Carve out some down time for yourself.
This is paramount. Whether it means reading on some evenings in instead of going out with the group, putting on headphones or napping during a bus ride, or getting up early for yoga or a run, you need your personal space to survive group travel. You will have plenty of time to get to know each other, but only limited sanity if you don’t keep up the hobbies and habits that maintain you as a person.
It’s all about dosage.
You can be pleasant with anyone as long as you limit the duration and frequency of your actions. If you can tell someone will get on your nerves, do your best to separate yourselves (politely) when you can. That way, when you don’t have a choice it won’t get to you as quickly. Become the master of the “loose tie” as Malcolm Gladwell puts it; be friends with some but friendly with all.
This one is hard for me since I’m pretty chatty and people tend to tell me things. But it’s poison for group travel, and can turn good friends against one another. I find it’s best if you’re direct: if it’s a state secret, say so when you tell someone so they won’t slip up by accident. And if you’re not involved in a problem and don’t need to be, stay out of it!
This can dovetail into the gossip, as often the cattiness starts because someone felt wronged and rather than dealing with the person directly, they go to a third party to complain. If you can trust your third party and just need to blow off a little steam, that’s fine. But if all you need is to vent then do so and be done with it. If you feel compelled to share again, or with another person, then you need to face the facts: it’s bothering you, and the person who upset you deserves to be told in a polite, constructive, and direct manner. Often, when you spend this much time together, people don’t even realize they’re bothering you!
Determine your red lines as well as what you can give away.
In diplomacy, before going into a negotiation, both sides have a list of what they’re willing to give up, and in what order. If you don’t care where you eat dinner, then be flexible. But if you absolutely must see a certain museum or you won’t be happy, then let people know. Have enough respect for your fellow travelers to not put them in the position of determining your happiness: if your priorities don’t match theirs, split up and accomplish them on your own time.
Compliment your fellow travelers.
I know this sounds silly, but you should have at least one good thing to say about each person you travel with for every day you’re together. Tell them, with a smile, and without expecting anything in return. On all of my best trips, the group has been very complimentary of each other, even when we weren’t always getting along in other respects. It can go a long way to show that you’re paying attention to that person’s thoughts, plans, clothing, or ability to read a map. And sometimes, appreciating someone you’re not particularly fond of is like a smile: fake it till you make it.
Eat every meal with a different person.
This is a great way to get to know the people you’re with in a more profound and interesting way. And to be honest, the best way to make your group feel bigger is to get to know each and every person well. This can also help you to learn their strengths and weaknesses so you don’t run into trouble later on. Finally, we as human beings have an easier time empathizing with people we know personally. The more you have invested in the individual members of the group, the more you will be willing to set aside petty tribulations or personal conflicts for the good fo the community.
Set yourself up for success, not failure.
What do I mean by this? Don’t sit next to a chatty person on the bus if you need to catch up on sleep. Don’t go out in a group where none of you know the local language. Don’t go out with a high roller if you want to eat a budget meal. In each of these scenarios, you will only end up frustrated. Most of the time, you can avoid these unfortunate groupings if you know the other members of the group well enough and if you’re willing to admit your own agenda and red button issues as well as theirs.
Expand your group.
Whenever possible, strike up conversations with strangers. Surprisingly, most people outside of the US (and some parts of Western Europe) are incredibly willing to talk to total strangers. As a Bostonian, I find this wildly unsettling, but also extremely rewarding. Translators, tour guides, waitstaff and the guy who owns the general store are all assuredly interesting people with worthwhile information about wherever you are. If you spend some time making local friends, you can return to your group refreshed and perhaps with some insider knowledge on your locale. This write-up is trite, but I really can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get to know local people, for your group travel dynamic as well as for your experience in general.
The quickest way to upset someone else on the trip is by thinking you can handle something that you can’t, which results in you lashing out at an innocent third party. Don’t push yourself too hard, because it will only harm you and your relationship with others. You have to come to terms with who you are on this trip, and what you want out of it. If you need eight hours of sleep to be pleasant, then it doesn’t matter how many people are going out for first night drinks: you need those eight hours. You owe them to yourself and to your group-mates. If you need to save money or you want to see a specific site, then take ownership. Understand fully the costs and rigor of the trip before you go, and adjust accordingly within the parameters.
How about you guys? Any suggestions on how to make group travel easier?