“The worst place with the right person can be amazing. The best place with the wrong person can be miserable.”
For years, that’s the advice I’ve given to anyone planning on traveling with others. I usually wrap it up with an ominous, “Choose wisely.” They usually nod in deep understanding. Then they go off and travel with their best friend from home who turns out to be the Michael Myers of travel companions.
Prior to traveling, talk with your travel partners about your respective interests, hopes and desires, and even your preferred travel styles. It’ll help in getting ready for a fulfilling journey. But even when you prepare well — for your destination AND for your companions — you never really know how they — or you — will react once you arrive. People you can’t live without at home suddenly become people you can’t live with on a trip.
When that happens, what do you do?
Learning through travel
A recent trip to northern Italy and Slovenia with my wife, son, and new daughter-in-law provided a few surprising answers. My family has always traveled well together. We know each other’s likes and dislikes, and we generally enjoy a similar pace. But when our family shifted with the introduction of a new member, my son’s wife, so too did the dynamics of our travel.
My wife and I had originally planned a quick trip to Germany to see some friends with whom I’d stayed back in college. When my son and daughter-in-law found out, they asked to come along. What a great idea, we all thought. We’ll start in Germany, add a few places none of us have visited, and make this a memorable trip for our newly reconstructed family. It all seemed perfect.
Until the trip began.
It’s all about perspective
Small differences began to emerge during our first morning in Frankfurt, Germany, the first full day of our trip. Wanting to give my daughter-in-law a taste of what she’d be seeing over the following two weeks, I rushed her through Frankfurt’s newly renovated old town on the way to visit our friends, moving quickly so we wouldn’t be late. My daughter-in-law, so caught up in all the new sights on her first day ever in Europe, wanted more than a taste. Having been to Germany before, I understood that punctuality is a big deal in that culture, but I didn’t do a good job of communicating that. Instead, I inadvertently sent the message that travel means hurrying (which isn’t at all what I normally believe). And she made it clear that she wanted more time to absorb all the novelty flowing her way.
The differences between our travel styles were quickly becoming apparent, and this was only day one. We tried to address some of this, but they were only surface-level fixes. For example, thinking we just needed some time apart, we’d create breaks where each couple could do their own thing. Or when it came to meals, we were all careful to agree on a place that worked for everyone. Everyone compromised in small ways, but we weren’t addressing the deeper issues.
Eventually, however, through three important moments along our journey, we overcame our differences — not by focusing on them, but rather by realizing how little they mattered compared to all that we shared.
Lesson One: Chiusa, Italy
One of our destinations was the Dolomites, the jagged-peaked area of northern Italy that feels more like Austria than Tuscany. I expected stunning scenery with white-stoned mountains and grassy valleys. What I wasn’t prepared for was the charm of the area’s countless beautiful villages. In many of these, more people speak German than Italian since, prior to WWI, the Dolomites were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The result is a wonderful melange of Germanic and Italian influences in food and architecture.
In the small town of Chiusa (Klausen in German), I discovered that sometimes the best plans are to have none at all. We arrived on a Sunday morning, intent on finding some breakfast before heading out to hike in the nearby Alpi di Suisi (the largest high Alpine meadow in Europe). We never made it to the hike.
Instead, we lingered over a leisurely breakfast at an outdoor café on the main town square. After that, we passed through stone arches and narrow walkways before ascending through vineyards flush with grapes (we were there only a week or two before harvest) to the small castle overlooking the city. From there, we climbed even further to the Säben Abbey that sits atop the hill behind Chiusa.
We had the place mostly to ourselves (nuns still live there but stay out of sight in the private areas), so we lingered, slowly exploring the nooks and crannies, mesmerized by the brilliantly painted chapel and a surprisingly modern sculpture on an otherwise ancient wall. I could tell that no one in our party was in any hurry, and so all plans to hike flew away like the crows that inhabited the trees of the abbey.
Eventually, while my son remained to sketch one of the towers, my wife, my daughter-in-law, and I meandered back to town, stopping at the first café we reached. Over drinks and a pizza crust appetizer, we talked about the events of the day. I decided to come clean. I told my daughter-in-law that it was clear we had different approaches to travel, especially in terms of pacing. I admitted that I’d wrestled with that and concluded that if it came down to a choice of doing what I wanted versus what she wanted, I would probably push to get my way. Her upraised eyebrows reflected her surprise at my candor.
But then I added that nothing on any trip mattered so much that I would allow it to jeopardize our relationship. Both she and my wife were moved by this admission and the proof of it in me letting go of my plans for this day. So, the first lesson on overcoming differences: be flexible and honest, but also, realize that relationships matter most.
Lesson Two: Robanov Kot, Slovenia
In the north of Slovenia lies a series of three valleys. The largest, Logar, gets the most attention. But we chose its neighbor, Robanov Kot, as our destination, in part because it’s less visited, and in part because of the great things we’d read about the place we were to stay at, the Govc-Vršnik tourist farm.
While we never were able to pronounce the name correctly, we loved this charming farm guesthouse hybrid. We’d selected it with the expressed intent of spending two days filled with, well, nothing. That was the whole point. Even if you’re like me and prefer to pack your schedule with adventures, sometimes you have to be more like my daughter-in-law and fill those days with rest. And what a place to rest! Numerous trails emanate from each valley, and a panorama road above all three provides breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. So “rest” doesn’t necessarily mean inactivity — just limited driving.
We spent two days there eating, hiking, and eating some more (the homemade meals at the guesthouse were exceptional). One evening, intentionally seeking to create a defining moment for us as a family, we arranged for a workshop on making felt by hand in the nearby village of Solcava. Felt — created by taking clumps of raw wool, adding a mixture of soap and water and then rubbing it furiously together until it (almost magically) stiffens and can be shaped into ornaments, slippers, hats, vests, or even dresses — is a local craft specialty that was lost under Communism but has made a comeback in the last decade. It may not sound overly exciting, but it was an experience that drew us closer because we made things together and took the time to do something as a family that was special both to that place and also to each of us (since we’re all into arts and crafts). This activity amid two days of downtime accomplished a great deal, reconnecting us relationally, tapping into our common creative interests, and realigning our perspectives on the trip. Lesson learned: intentionally factor in slow travel moments that also contain meaningful experiences to vary both the pace and the purpose of the trip.
Lesson Three: Ljubljana, Slovenia
From Robanov Kot we eventually made our way to Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana (pronounced lewb-liana). On our second day there, my son became ill and had to rest in our apartment the entire day, so my daughter-in-law stayed with him while my wife and I explored the main sights of Ljubljana. When we found out midday (thank you T-Mobile for free data overseas!) that my son still wasn’t well, we hurried back with food and medicine and to relieve my daughter-in-law. By the time we arrived, he was, thankfully, doing better. My wife agreed to stay with him while I took my daughter-in-law back to the old town of Ljubljana to retrace our morning tour.
In particular, I knew she’d love the quaintness of Stari Trg, a street that lies directly beneath Ljubljana’s hilltop castle. It’s a pedestrian-only lane lined with Medieval and Baroque buildings now occupied by shops and cafés. So off we went, and for the next few hours, I did absolutely nothing but accompany her in and out of boutiques, galleries, and other stores specializing in locally made products. Some, I’d already seen with my wife. Others, I would likely never have visited on my own. But it didn’t matter if these were of any interest to me; they were to my daughter-in-law. And thus, we both had a wonderful time. She may be a daughter to me only by marriage, but on that day, she was like my little girl that I was able to delight just by being there, being present to her joy. Stopping twice for gelato along the way didn’t hurt either.
Lesson learned: find what others enjoy and experience the delight of making them happy. You’ll forget about your travel differences and it usually ends up fulfilling you far more than if you pursued your own agenda.
Putting it all together
- Practice compromise. You may learn something both new and fun from the other’s perspective.
- Be open and honest. Talk through your issues regularly and agree to disagree if necessary, but do all of this with respect.
- Intentionally schedule breaks, particularly ones where you do something different and meaningful. A simple change in rhythm and focus can recalibrate you and your whole trip.
- Remember what matters most. Your trip is just a trip. Relationships are far more important. Do activities along the way that help you remember that and cause you to value, appreciate, and enjoy each other.
When you put all of these into practice, something unexpected happens. You start to realize that your travel differences can actually help you have a better trip — not necessarily the one you expected, but something more. And, best of all, by trying these techniques, you may find yourself losing focus on your differences altogether. In their place, you become poignantly aware of all that you share.