A lot of couples travel articles talk about the importance of good communication while travelling with your partner. But what does that mean and how do you execute it? In just a few days, Tom and I will be boarding flights to Jamaica for our quarterly long-distance relationship symposium. While we’ve equally spent a lot of time in the Caribbean, it’ll be his first time to the Land of
Bob Marley one love Cool Runnings Wood and Water, the Motherland of everything his favourite things — reggae music, scotch bonnet pepper sauce, and of course, me!
This isn’t our first rodeo: we’ve spent a few days in Dominica (on a cramped catamaran to boot!), a few days in Budapest, Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris, and a week in both Morocco and Fuerteventura. However, this will be our longest vacation together to date: two weeks of sea, sun, and visiting my family… a test of strength, mental and physical endurance, and discipline in an unfamiliar place — the relationship Olympics if you will!
We’ve spent five years honing our communication skills for this very event so the time has come to share what we’ve learned about travelling with your partner (besides that it sucks sometimes). Ready… Steady… Reggae!
1. Discuss what you want out of the trip.
The first step to good communication while travelling with your partner is making sure you’re both on the same page. What is your vision for the time you’re spending abroad? Is it a time to relax and unwind or do you want an adrenaline-packed adventure? Do you want hotels and restaurants or guesthouses and cooking meals? There shouldn’t be any surprises — you don’t want to get there and find out that your partner would rather watch paint dry than be pushed and shoved in a crowd to sneak a peek at the Mona Lisa.
Know that you’re not tied to doing everything together. In Marrakech, I was tired of navigating the medina and didn’t want to spend the money, so Tom went to the Maison de la Photographie (which he said was fantastic — my bad!) while I relaxed in the riad. As long as you discuss expectations beforehand, you can find ways to plan around it.
2. There will be budgeting.
Surely you’ve heard that the #1 thing couples fight over is money? Well, that makes it a top priority for discussion. Budget also goes hand in hand with expectations of the trip. For example, I don’t mind forgoing some comforts to spend money on experiences and eating at restaurants; Tom prefers to pay more to be at ease but doesn’t mind preparing his own meals (according to him, “Being forced to pay someone to cook for you makes you feel like a prisoner… Cooking makes you feel at home.”). Sometimes it means we’re spending a night at a hostel; other times it means I’m paying for lunch.
Make sure you know your budget and how each of is going to pay their way on the ground. Tom and I don’t really set a daily or weekly budget when we travel, just a rough idea of what we’ll spend. There are two reasons for this: 1) We know each other and where we tend to spend money really well; 2) We have a sort of roommate-y ‘every (wo)man for zeself’ attitude towards money in our relationship. We split everything on-site except the accommodation, which we decide on together so it fits into both of our budgets.
Oneika over at Oneika the Traveller and her husband have a great system: one of them covers expenses during the trip and the other transfers their share when they get home. I love it — it takes a lot of the thinking out of splitting bills, giving you more flexibility to enjoy the experience!
3. Play to each other’s strengths.
I’m the planner. My idea of going with the flow is only having one back-up plan. Tom’s motto is “We’ll find a solution.” Maybe being a control freak isn’t a strength, but it means I am great at precision planning and execution — a definite plus when it comes to travel!
Once you find your rhythm as a couple you’ll be able to make it through any situation you come up against. When I’m getting worked up about missing out on cake at the most famous marzipan shop in Germany, Tom reminds me that part of the fun of travel is going with the flow; when Tom takes eons to get ready in the morning, he can be sure that I have the route to the airport pre-planned so we won’t get lost and miss our flight (and that I’m
silently audibly fuming at his nonchalance in the face of time pressure).
4. Speak your mind!
Travel is not the time to beat around the bush. Between jet lag, culture shock, FOMO, and the fact that money is involved (see #2), travel can be pretty damn stressful. If your feet hurt, say it! Don’t wait to say you’re hungry until right before the hangry Hulk appears! If you want to go to Parc Guell instead of the Sagrada Familia, tell your person!
Explain what you need and what you want in a clear and direct way. Your opinions and your needs are as important as everyone else’s and they deserve to be heard.
But what if they ignore you? Then it’s time to take matters into your own hands. On a trip to Paris, Tom took forever to get out of the house — despite knowing what time we needed to leave, he waited until the last minute to get out bed, then leisurely ate breakfast and drank coffee (despite the fact that we were going on a food tour 🙄). We ended up nearly an hour late for the tour and I. Was. Pissed. (I don’t like to keep people waiting and it was a business-related thing.)
Instead of waiting and feeling the slow escalation of my rage, what I should have done was leave at the required time and enjoy myself. No matter what, it’s important to know your limits and take care of yourself first.
5. Listen. Really listen.
When I asked Tom for his input on this blog post, he said “In general, one of the biggest hindrances to communication is poor listening skills.” When someone tells you what they need, hear them the first time. Listening isn’t just the simple act of acknowledging what is said — when travelling with your partner, it means taking to steps to help your SO get what they need.
On that same Paris trip, we went to Nuit Blanche — the dusk ’til dawn art festival. By 3am I thought my feet were going to fall off. A combination of lack of sleep and being a big ass baby resulted in me throwing a tantrum (sitting on the ground and everything), refusing to move until Tom agreed to go home immediately. Am I embarrassed in hindsight? Yes. Could it have been avoided? Yes. All we needed to do was sit down somewhere instead of getting caught up trying to ‘see everything’.
Importantly, listen without being judgemental. Avoid criticizing (e.g. “You need to pee again?!). Instead, ask them what they need in the moment. Your SO should feel loved and understood — they want to enjoy the experience as much as you do!
6. Get involved in the decision-making.
As much as I like to plan and boss people around, it’s still frustrating to make all the decisions in a relationship — and in travel. Nothing builds resentment more than regular conversations like this: “Do you want to go to Széchenyi Baths or Lukács Baths?”
“I don’t know, what do you think?”
“Well, one is famous but the other is a bit more interesting from an architectural sense.”
“I don’t know, you decide.”
On vacation there’s no time for these reindeer games! Have an opinion, participate in the planning and the decisions that have to made while you’re there.
Last year, I realized I was doing the lion’s share of travel planning. Tom always came with a few things he was interested in and was more discriminating about our accommodations than I was, but I booked and planned everything else. So, for my ‘last hurrah’ before starting grad school (Morocco –> Spain –> Italy –> Croatia), he wanted to join me on the Barcelona leg. I
told asked definitely told him that it was up to him to plan everything… and it was incredible! He put in a lot of effort — we ate at some of Barcelona’s best tapas restaurants and visited places that both of us were interested in. It was a breath of fresh air for me since I didn’t feel like I had to keep two people entertained the whole time and it gave me a chance to see what his idea of ‘travel’ is.
7. Know when to hold ’em…
It’s okay if disagreements happen — I’m actually of the opinion that they totally should! It means you’re expressing your needs and wants, establishing and reinforcing your boundaries, and/or getting involved in making decisions.
Tom and I are passionate people with strong opinions. We argue all the time.
We I don’t always get it right (re: Paris tantrum) but both of us stand up for ourselves when we feel it’s important. It means we don’t let problems build up over time, each of us knows where we stand with the other, and we can get to fixing problems before they’re too far gone. The key is to disagree in a productive way when you’re travelling with your SO.
That means listening carefully to what your partner has to say, avoiding name calling and sweeping generalizations (e.g. “You never want to go out for dinner!” — I suck at not doing this), and always expressing your ideas and feelings like you’re speaking to someone you care about (because you are!). Once both of you feel heard, look for a compromise. Don’t be like me, be like Tom: find a solution both of you are happy with.
8. And know when to fold ’em.
Sometimes stubborness gets you nowhere. Rather than spending two hours fighting over which restaurant to go to, just let it go. You’re going to get fed and you’re missing out on the beautiful experience of exploring your chosen destination.
I am deeply, viscerally afraid of heights. Looking over the railing of my loft in Martinique gives me vertigo. Seriously. But I have walked around the Xstrata Tower in Kew Gardens (with tears in my eyes) and climbed a volcano because Tom wanted to — and because he held my hand most of the way. That’s another thing: show empathy when your partner is doing something they would rather not do. Be positive and make it fun for them!
Flexibility and a willingness to compromise shows that your SO’s happiness is as important as your own. And I can say with confidence that for both Tom and I we’re happiest when the other is happy!