The Points & Miles Backpacker: How to Choose a Travel Buddy

Sep 17, 2018

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Where you go, what you do and how you do it are most emphasized when backpacking, but at least as much scrutiny should be put into who you travel with. You backpacking companion(s) can make or break a travel experience, and unlike other travel plans, changing your companion mid-trip can range from complicated to nearly impossible. Here is a list of potential travel buddies, and I’ll help you prepare for what to expect with each of them.

1) No One

If you’d like to discover the most about yourself, travel solo. The challenges you will face and overcome will leave you with greater confidence and self-respect than when you started. It is also the best way to form new connections and friendships. In hostels, solo travelers gravitate together. Without the cushion of a familiar accomplice, you’ll form deeper bonds quicker with people who were strangers a few days ago.

Solo travel also means complete freedom. You can do what you want and change your plans on a whim. Don’t feel like exploring more temples today and just want take your book to a park? You don’t have to justify that to anyone.

Traveling on my own takes me to extremes. The highs are the highest I feel, but the lows, which happen far less often, can take me pretty low. However, I’ve formed the vast majority of lasting friendships when traveling solo.

My weeks on Koh Phi Phi, Thailand in 2005 with a tsunami volunteer group of complete strangers remains my best travel experience. I’m still friends with some of these people today.

I’ve already discussed the safety of solo travel, especially for women, so this shouldn’t be a deterrent. And don’t make the mistake of associating solo travel with loneliness. There are always friends to make in a hostel or locals eager to share their way of life. Yet the option to spend time by yourself is always there. Travel solo, and do so especially if the thought of it scares you.

2) Significant Other

Your most obvious choice for a travel partner is your significant other, if you have one. Whether you’re dating casually or in a long-term fully committed relationship, traveling together is a test that you won’t find elsewhere.

Nash and Mia Ream met in the corporate world, and after falling in love and getting married, they abandoned their cushy jobs to start a life of full-time travel. They document their travels on their popular Instagram page, and I asked them about their travel life together.

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Nash and Mia were partners before, but travel made them soulmates. Image courtesy of @reamdream.

How is your relationship different now than before you traveled?

Traveling the world together has given us the opportunity to bond in a way that’s often not possible in everyday life. We have been battle-tested by the long hours spent together (sometimes going weeks without ever separating). We learned a lot about each other as we navigated new places and challenging situations, and we figure out how to work as a team and how to play on our collective strengths. Best of all, we’ve been able to grow together, rather than separately, strengthening our partnership as a result. Today, it feels like we are soulmates or kindred spirits who have spent lifetimes together.

What tips do you have for traveling with your partner?

Learn to prioritize fun, learning and adventure over just seeing every popular sight. Of course you should see Machu Picchu when you are in Peru, but some of your best memories will be getting lost in little alleyways or drinking tea in no-name cafes while sharing your dreams with one another. We always have a long list of sights we want to visit and there isn’t always time to see it all. Instead, we prioritize experiencing each place together through it’s culture, people and food, and we are rarely disappointed!

Travel does have the power to make (or break) a relationship. However, an inability to travel together doesn’t necessary spell doom. I know plenty of couples whose interests in travel differ greatly, so they choose to do it separately. One thing is certain though — after traveling together, your relationship will never be the same.

3) Friends

A friendship is another relationship that can be taken to the next level when traveling together. Out of the most common options, though, it may need the most amount of scrutiny. Whether your friend is from childhood, a teammate, an old college roommate or even someone you actually like at the office, none of these are indicators you’ll travel well together.

Hopefully, you know your friends well enough to tell if you’ll get along with them, but you’ll also want travel interests and styles to align before committing to anything. The best way to know this is to compare previous travels. Talk about the aspects of travel that you enjoy the most. Discuss preferences when it comes to lodging, socializing and advanced planning. Also, find places you have both been, and talk about what you liked most in those places. If they can’t stop gushing over the Louvre and all you want to do is find a waterfall to scramble up and jump off of, maybe just stick to beers together after Tuesday night’s softball league.

I’ve found that you are more likely to find a good travel partner in the friends you’ve met in your adult life — friends you’ve chosen out of similar interests over friends you’ve always had because you went to elementary school together.

Aaron, Chris and I met in the corporate world, but we grew to be good friends while traveling and have traveled extensively together since.

Finally, give yourself an out if things don’t go so smoothly. If you’re backpacking for a bit, talk about the possibility of going separate ways if one or both of you decides that would be best. It could save the friendship you have back home.

4) Siblings

There is no one that has known you longer and knows you better than your siblings. Conversations aren’t superficial, and you’re not worried about hiding your actual preferences for the sake of politeness. Sharing a hostel room or bunk bed may even be nostalgic.

You probably already know if traveling with your sibling is a good idea, or which of them you could travel with if you have several. But chances are you haven’t lived together since you were children. This will give you a chance to rediscover your relationship as an adult. Worst case, you crash and burn and chalk it up as a sibling tiff. For better or worse, they are still your sibling forever. Best case, you could end up better friends and travel buddies than you ever thought to be possible.

My little sister Karen and I can pinpoint the day from 7 years ago in Krka National Park, Croatia, when we became best friends.

The next two potential group can work out, but also have a larger chance of ending badly. Proceed with caution.

1) Warning – Open Invite for Anyone

If you’ve done a fair bit of travel, you may have become an advocate for others to do it too. And perhaps through your Instagram pics you have inspired an acquaintance to go backpacking too. Great! However, just because you inspired someone to travel, you are not obligated to travel with them. They may want to and they may ask to, but you have to evaluate if this is really the best thing for you. Examine your relationship with this person and if this is someone you would choose to travel with. If you think you’ll end up being a babysitter, you won’t enjoy yourself, and you’re not doing this friend any favors by letting them lean on you. Sure, there is much appeal for them traveling with an experienced backpacker, but don’t be afraid to ask yourself, what’s in it for you?

2) Warning – Groups of Friends

The idea of taking your friend group from home on a backpacking trip may seem appealing, but make sure you know what you are getting yourself into. The more people that get added to a group, the more differing preferences and opinions you’ll have. Backpacking trips don’t normally have rigid itineraries, so finding a consensus on what to do or where to eat can be a tough task you’ll face over and over again. Voice your preferences, but be ok with deferring to the majority.

Also, the focus tends to be more about your group experience together rather than meeting new people or immersing yourself in a culture. It works best to keep the time in large groups relatively brief — keeping everyone together and happy for more than a week will be a huge challenge.

This Puerto Rico trip among seven friends for six days brought us all closer together, but six of us never spoke a word of Spanish, and this was about how blurry the trip was much of the time.

Do you have any tips for picking a travel partner? Share them in the comments!

The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.

Are you looking to back that pack up and get some guidance? Send your questions to !

Featured photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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