I know a few free-spirited folks who favor solo travel–setting off to parts unknown completely untethered, able to go where you please and when you please, and meet new people along the way. Personally, I usually prefer companionship, but it’s crucial to know who makes a good traveling companion. I’ve been fortunate to have had more good ones than bad, but the bad ones have unnecessarily ruined some trips that could have otherwise been outstanding, and wasted a ton of my money and time. In a series of posts, I plan to review the most common categories of traveling companion and evaluate the merits and demerits of each, as an excuse to revisit some old travels and lovers and friends.
Let’s start with the most common, the significant other. The significant other can make a great traveling companion if the relationship is on solid ground AND if you both have similar travel styles. I had wonderful trips to Montréal & Québec, New Orleans and Washington, DC with J, a pretty easygoing but adventurous guy who enjoyed a healthy mix of seeing the sights and spending time lounging in bars or cafés, with appropriate amounts of napping and sex thrown in. Long car rides were no big deal with this good-natured and fun-loving companion; we’d listen to music and sing harmonies and occasionally pull off onto a country road for a quickie. Oh, to be young and in love.
I went up north and down through Wisconsin and Chicago with a different J; that trip worked also, mostly because he let me dictate everything. Not as exciting or sexy, but a pleasant way to spend a week out of town. At the time, he was very much a homebody and this was pretty much the only trip we ever took in 5+ years of dating. Ironically, he now spends most of the year on the road, touring in a rock band. How times change. We stayed in cheap up north motels and watched the leaves change color and stumbled on the “cool” part of Milwaukee by accident and went to Shedd Aquarium and had a generally lovely week.
M, however, was a different story. To start with, we had very different ideals of the perfect vacation… his involved being near-catatonic on a beach somewhere, preferably with a huge spliff in one hand and an icy pastel-hued libation in the other. I am much more on-the-go, preferring to rise fairly early to take in some sights, followed by a leisurely lunch, nap, a little more sightseeing and then dinner, drinks, etc. I feel that it’s also important to know how someone will react when outside their element. M hadn’t traveled much prior to dating me, and everything always seemed to present some kind of problem or issue. How much of this was innate vs. him just wanting to be cranky with me personally is a matter of debate; he subsequently traveled to some borderline third world areas and had a grand old time. My hunch is that his filters were set not to complain on that trip since he was with a business associate and not his romantic partner. But that just goes to show that those things are subjective and you CAN choose to overlook minor inconveniences rather than complain and spread misery. I will never understand that… I always feel so fortunate to get to go places and do things that a little discomfort is no big deal.
A possible sub-category to the significant other as travel partner is the Ambiguous Opposite Sex Friend. This option is not for the faint of heart or risk averse, as it can result in both some of the best and worst travel experiences under the sun. Take French M, for example. We had met during my year as a teaching assistant in Toulouse; he worked in the same school as a surveillant (what we referred to as narcs in my high school). That year, we were what the kids call “friends with benefits”. We kept in touch, and in 2001 I went to visit him in Tokyo where he was teaching French at a language school. I went with no expectations about whether we would even still be attracted to each other, let alone have any sort of physical relationship. What ensued was probably the most intense and unforgettable two weeks of my life.
Two years later, French M was going home for a summer visit and wanted to tour the Loire Valley castles; did I want to come meet him? Um, of course, duh! This time around, our trip was prefaced with several flirty and suggestive emails from him. Given our last visit, I had no reason to suspect things wouldn’t be physical, but again, I tried not to put any expectations on it. We’d be sharing hotel rooms though, so I may have had some assumptions. Well, after some embarrassing dysfunction on his part the first or second night, he apparently felt the way to deal with it was by acting like a complete jerk to me the whole rest of the trip. It totally sucked, and we had no further physical interaction except for one night of drunken, somewhat angry sex that may or may not have involved an open window facing onto the streets of La Rochelle. The trip culminated appropriately in a travel nightmare when I returned only to get stranded in transit in the big blackout for 24 hours; after calling several people who were unreachable or afraid to use up their gas, my ex J (he of the Québec, DC and NOLA road trips) finally came to my rescue. The postscript to this story is that, a year or so later, M admitted that he’d had a girlfriend at the time (if that was an issue, why send suggestive emails leading up to the trip? Also, bon dieu, tu es français, your people are know for affairs and infidelity as much as Brie and baguettes.)
I do think that ambiguous opposite sex friends are usually worth taking chances on as travel buddies (but then, my life philosophy generally entails saying YES to just about anything for better or worse). See this post for an example of a successful recent trip with an AOSF. And significant others with different travel styles can make it work if you choose a destination wisely, manage your expectations, and are prepared for plenty of compromise. Or, just agree to disagree and vacation instead with my next post subject, the Best Friend.