Tips for planning group trips

Salo Aburto was excited for his first trip to Europe last month. The plan was a two-week field trip with his best friend from university to Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin. His friend was married and living in Brussels and seemed eager to play tour guide. (Her husband of his accompanied them for a couple of days.) Bored, 27, a digital content specialist for a nonprofit environmental group in Washington, took two weeks off for the adventure. The couple would travel together for the first time.

Within days, the trip became his “worst nightmare.”

The cracks appeared quickly: he is organized and likes to have “an itinerary, plus plan A and plan B”, while she is more spontaneous. He was frustrated that he didn’t have time to explore on his own and felt that his priorities were being ignored. They even fought over his snoring. Minor disagreements and sniping culminated in a fight in Berlin. The next time he saw her was at the airport, where she changed seats on the plane they had booked together back to Brussels. Aburto spent the last three days there trying to save the trip alone.

They haven’t spoken since he left Europe a month ago, though they did meet for coffee just before he flew home, and he’s hopeful they’ll mend their relationship eventually. But she will think twice before traveling with friends again. “It makes me sad, because I feel like this trip has completely bombed an amazing relationship,” she said.

The opportunity to see new places and make memories with friends is enticing, but a lot can go wrong. Personalities can clash, goals can differ, well-meaning planners can make stupid mistakes. Whether it’s weekend fun or a multi-week international excursion, here’s how to take a trip from idea to reality—and how to survive with friendships intact.

Set (and agree on) expectations. Clarifying the purpose of the trip can make the planning process easier. A trip to Paris with the purpose of seeing as many museums as possible will have a faster pace and more scheduled outings than a quiet weekend at a lake house. Talk about what the majority of the group wants to do, and people can decide if they want to participate. On a recent birthday weekend in New York with friends, for example, I made it clear that I wouldn’t be staying up as late at the clubs as the rest of the group.

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Set dates early. One of the hardest parts of traveling in a group is getting everyone to commit. People have busy schedules and different amounts of free time; Create a Google or Doodle form and ask everyone to look at their calendars and provide date ranges when they are free. Pick the dates with the most overlap.

“If you’re the person organizing these trips, you have to be prepared that not everyone is going,” said David Bell, 27, a Ph.D. student in physics. at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has traveled with his group of high school friends every other year since 2013. “It’s not going to be a perfect date.”

Choose a group organizer. The trip will not happen if nobody takes charge. Vanessa Bowling Ajavon, founder of the Girls Vacation Club, a DC-based travel company that organizes group tours for women, recommends appointing one person as the lead planner. This person will make decisions and keep the group on track. Ajavon has seen many potential trips dissolve because no one wanted to take the lead. “If you have too many people investigating, it will get very sloppy,” she said.

Others can be assigned to book specific things like hotels, restaurants, and activities, while the designated planner keeps everyone up to date.

Solve money problems immediately. Don’t go on a trip without clear expectations about how much it costs, what everyone can afford, and how people will be reimbursed. No one wants to be surprised with a large bill, and no one wants to chase down payments.

Travelers with different budgets can still vacation together. Olivia Rempel, 29, a video expert for an environmental communications center in Norway, regularly travels with friends who have different income levels. In May, she and her husband joined six others on a diving trip in Jordan and then visited the Wadi Rum desert reserve; the rest of the group stayed in a luxury camp with transparent-roof tents to gaze at the stars, while Rempel and her husband chose a cheaper Bedouin camp nearby.

“If they’re being wasteful, we totally respect that, but we know what our budget is and we stick to it,” he said.

If someone is advancing money, find out how and when everyone will pay their share. Holly Trantham, creative director of the Financial Diet, used a credit card to buy plane tickets to see Lady Gaga in Las Vegas; she told her friends when payments were due so people would have time to save. “I was traveling with very good friends who I knew would pay me back,” she said.

Keep track of each person’s expenses and settle bills immediately after the trip. Trantham and Rempel recommend using Splitwise, an app that tracks individual expenses. If someone needs more time to pay, set a timetable and stick to it.

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Prepare to commit. People with different habits can travel well together as long as expectations are set in advance. In a large group, make sure each person does at least one thing that they value.

It’s okay to decide not to travel with a friend if their travel style or expectations are too different from yours. “You can be a really good friend to someone and decide that it’s not someone you want to travel with,” Trantham said.

Keep the itinerary flexible. Most travelers want a mix of scheduled activities and downtime. Secure tickets or reservations for any group activities in advance, so they don’t sell out. Schedule some group meals, but leave others unplanned, so people can try different places. Rempel saves restaurants on Google Maps, so you have pre-vetted recommendations, even when you wander.

Ajavon builds its itineraries with flexibility in mind. “You can stay with the group as long as you want, but you can also leave and do whatever you want,” he said. On a trip to Paris, for example, he slept in and met his friends for lunch after visiting the Louvre, where he had already been.

Build in alone time. Even the best of friends need time apart. Factor in alone time, whether you’re staying in separate rooms or setting aside time for solo outings. Aburto said that he will always book his own room in the future. “Even if I have to pay more money, I’ll be happier to go back to my own room,” he said. For an upcoming trip to New York, he booked a hotel room instead of making plans to stay with local friends.

Cut slack on each other. Even the best laid plans can be derailed. Bell, the physics major, was in charge of booking some Airbnbs on a trip to Europe in 2019 and “got a bit of heat” for “booking some real bummers.” But his friends forgave him. He remembers why you are on the trip together and tries to focus on having fun.

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