Meet In The Middle: Plan Group Travel With TripCommon

TripCommon group travel planning toolHave a friend in Austria while you are in Austin and want to take a trip together this summer? How do you figure out where to meet? Do you choose a destination in the middle, or one with regular cheap flights from both of your destinations? A new website just launched in beta, designed to make planning group travel an easier process. TripCommon is a flight search engine that computes the cheapest common destinations, giving you the option to filter by region (maybe you’ve both always wanted to explore South America), activity (make it a beach trip), and where you have local friends (if you link up to Facebook).

What makes TripCommon genius is that it doesn’t just find random points on the map that are midway between you and your friends (you can enter up to six cities for big group travel planning), it finds destinations that have the lowest average price. Maybe you are in grad school and have a fixed budget; you can find places with the lowest cost from your city. If you have frequent flier miles to burn and your friends are the ones looking for the cheapest seats, you can sort by lowest price from one of their home cities. You may discover destinations you never thought about (Canary Islands sound nice for summer!), and make the trip planning process a lot more equitable.

Start planning your group trip at

[Photo credit: Trip Common]

Bad Trip: How To Annoy Your Tour Guide

donkeyWe’ve all been there. Maybe we’ve been one. The person on a guided tour or trip who’s a complete, utter, pain in the ass.

Perhaps it’s unintentional. Maybe it’s due to deep-seated issues that would cause empathy in another situation. Or just possibly, it’s because the person in question gets off on being a jerk. Does it matter? Whether they provide unwitting entertainment or seething aggravation, that person manages to disrupt others’ enjoyment of the experience. The person who really suffers, however, is the guide.

I’ve had good guides, bad guides, guides who should be nominated for sainthood, but regardless of their skill, they have a difficult job. It’s not easy to wrangle any combination of clueless, headstrong, enthusiastic and grumpy tourists, and get them to points A, B and C on schedule – ideally with an unfailingly polite attitude and unwavering smile on your face. It’s a gift, being a guide possessed of technical, personal and mental skills.

Even those who love to travel solo occasionally require the services of a guide. Thirteen years as a travel journalist has given me a lot of material (in part because my favorite thing to ask guides for are bad client stories).

As a holiday gift, I’m providing a list on how to annoy your guide. Follow it, and I promise you’ll always be remembered – just not fondly.

Wear inappropriate clothing/shoes
I had an absolutely priceless two days in the Atacama Desert last year with two middle-aged Chilean couples. Read: they were such drunken louts, it was painful for the rest of us to keep our mouths shut. My favorite experience with them was on a late-afternoon hike of the stunning Kari Gorge.

The key word here is “hike.” To which one of them, a spoiled Santiaguino physician’s wife, wore staggeringly high boots with a narrow wedge heel. She was also completely shit-faced, so when she wasn’t face-planting on the rocky floor of the gorge, she was screaming at her worthless husband to help her climb up the craggier parts of the trail. The rest of our small group finally broke down and pitied her as we summited a steep, mile-long sand dune. She was openly weeping at that point, clutching her chest in panic (a chain-smoker, she thought she was having a heart attack; ironically, her cardiologist husband was the least concerned of all of us).

Because we had to spend so much time waiting for her, we nearly missed the highlight of the excursion, which was watching the sunset from atop a cliff. By not bothering to check what kind of outing she was taking, she kept the rest of us at her mercy, tested our guide’s patience, and subjected us to her marital issues. Um, awkward.whiningOverstate your abilities
Along the same lines, this woman wasn’t fit enough to master a climb up a flight of stairs. It’s not just inconsiderate to fail to accurately access your physical abilities; it can be deadly. At best, it will ensure you and your guide (who will have no choice but to coddle and devote extra time to you) have a miserable time; at worst, you may well end up having that coronary in a sand dune. Don’t be that person.

Bring your bad attitude with you
True story from a sea-kayaking/orca-watching trip I took last summer. We were on the northern tip of San Juan Island, just miles off of Vancouver Island (i.e. Canada). Our guide pointed out this interesting fact to us, which elicited the following response from the one unfriendly person in our group. She was a taciturn woman in her 30s, a self-professed “bird-lady” who owned 12 parrots.

Annoying Client: I made a promise to myself to never leave this country for any reason, whatsoever.

Hapless Guide: That’s an interesting promise. Why?

AC: Because I believe in America. I don’t ever want to support another country’s economy. Why should I? I even go out of my way to buy products made here.

HG: Aah….hmmmm. Okaaay.

I’m not sure what I love most about this incident: that this woman knowingly took a trip to the Canadian border, or that she supports exotic bird smuggling from foreign countries.

Be late/unprepared
A great way to piss off your guide, and everyone else in your group. Also helpful in ensuring you won’t get your money’s worth from your trip or tour, since the schedule will be compromised. This one’s a winner!

Because nothing is better for group morale than someone who complains about everything.

Engage in excessive PDA with your significant other
It may start off as amusing for your guide and fellow travelers. Trust me, by trip’s end, they’ll be ready to kill you. Get a room.
Don’t pitch in
Hey, Princess. I know you paid a chunk of change for this (fill in the blank: raft trip/backpacking trip/guest ranch stay). So did everyone else. But your guide and support staff are working their fingers to the bone for very little pay because they love what they do. You know what else they love? Guests or clients who make even the smallest effort to help them out. Ask where you should stash your gear, collect firewood, help chop vegetables or cook dinner (right). Not only will you gain their respect and gratitude, you may even enjoy yourself.

Be high-maintenance
It’s not all about you. You have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into when you sign up.

Forget to mention your “dietary restrictions”/preferences
Travel companies are savvy enough these days to always include a section for this on their registration forms; I’m not talking about legitimate food allergies or intolerances. But please be honest, not ridiculous, and if you don’t like what’s being served, be polite about it – especially if you’re in a foreign country.

Refuse to interact with your group
I can be a bit of an introvert, so I get how hard it can be to socialize with a group when you’re just not feeling it. But guides tend to stress about the lone client, and feel pressure to ensure they’re having a good time. If you really don’t feel like socializing, assure your guide that you’re just shy, but having a great time. Otherwise, I really recommend faking it till you make it. Once I come out of my shell, I’m usually grateful, because I end up meeting fantastic people who make my experience that much more interesting.

[Photo credits: donkey, Flickr user jaxxon; sign, Flickr user frotzed2; cooking, Laurel Miller]

10 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Choosing A Travel Partner

money One of the most important decisions you’ll make when planning a trip is who you will travel with. While choosing a travel partner from hell will leave you miserable and wanting to go home, picking the right companion can enhance your trip as you share new experiences together. To ensure you make a good choice, here are 10 questions to ask yourself before choosing a potential travel partner.

Do you have similar budgets?

In my opinion, this is one of the most important questions to ask. If your partner is looking to eat at five-star restaurants and stay at luxury hotels, while your plan is to eat street food and CouchSurf, there are going to be problems. You never want to be made to feel like you’re compromising your travel experience to please someone else. Moreover, you also don’t want to go broke trying not to appear cheap in the eyes of your companion. Have a candid talk with your potential travel buddy about what their budget is, and how much they are willing to compromise. Would they mind staying in a hostel instead of a hotel? Would you mind going out to eat three nights a week if they’re okay with eating fast food during the rest of the trip? Ask these questions before you book, not after.Is this person independent or co-dependent?

When I tell people the story of traveling through Europe with an extremely co-dependent backpacker, they usually think I’m exaggerating. Sadly, I am not. If I so much as went outside to read a book without her, she would scream at me. If I made new friends, she became jealous. If I showed an interest in doing something that wasn’t in her already-made plans, I would get the silent treatment. There are some people out there who really don’t want any alone time when traveling. And, if that travel style matches yours, that’s fine. However, if your the type of person who likes to walk around on your own at times, or even just wants the option to be able to if you want, make sure your potential travel partner will be okay with this. In my opinion, the best travelers are a mix of both. You want someone who is excited to share new experiences together, but who also won’t freak out if you need a break sometimes.

canyoning What interests do you share?

While at work or Friday happy hour it doesn’t bother you that your friend is a party animal who sleeps the weekends away, it may when you’re spending 24/7 together. While you don’t need to plan an itinerary, discussing some possible activity scenarios is a good idea. Would your partner be interested in a homestay, to get closer to the local culture? How adventurous are they? Is their idea of a vacation lying on the beach the whole time, or exploring the city? Make sure you’re on the same page when it comes to what interests you have, because if your friend wants to browse museums while you’d rather go hiking and horseback riding, it probably won’t work.

What type of accommodation do you want to stay in?

This is another area where I have gotten into trouble with travel partners. While my only qualification for an accommodation is that it doesn’t have bugs, my travel partner in South America wouldn’t stay in dorms with more than four people and wanted to scope out every hostel before we booked. Moreover, while I was interested in CouchSurfing and meeting locals, she wasn’t. Luckily, we were both very independent and were fine with staying in separate accommodations and doing things together during the day. However, don’t assume your partner will be okay with this situation. Talk about it before committing to travel together.

How flexible are they when it comes to planning?

How much does this person need things planned out compared to how much you do? If you’re the type of traveler who enjoys just showing up to a place and living in the moment, you probably won’t enjoy your trip if your partner needs every moment of every day written in an agenda book. Discuss your travel styles and what your ideal amount of planning is, and see if you can reach a compromise.

pulling hair How do they react to stress?

When traveling, I don’t get stressed out unless the people around me do. Incidents like lost luggage, broken electronics, missed trains and less-than-perfect hotel rooms don’t ruin my vacation. Because of this, I refuse to travel with anyone who freaks out over a lost shoe or a broken air conditioner. Yes, mishaps are annoying; however, if something isn’t jeopardizing your safety, you shouldn’t let it ruin your trip. Even more importantly, you shouldn’t let someone else let it ruin your trip.

What is their routine like?

Looking at a person’s everyday routine can give you insight into how they’ll travel. Do they take three hours to get ready? Are they big into partying? Do they sleep late or wake up early? Are they the type to sit inside all day doing nothing? Of course, people do act differently while on vacation depending on what they want to get out of the trip; however, if your friend is the type who can’t get up before noon if they’ve had too many beers, you may want to re-think traveling together.

How are your conversations?

Can the two of you hold a good conversation? Better yet, is silence awkward or comfortable? Do you have a similar sense of humor? You’ll be practically living with this person if you travel together, so you want to make sure you can have enjoyable talks without any discomfort.

couple fighting How will it affect your relationship if the trip goes sour?

If you’re traveling with a close friend who you’ve never traveled with before, how will it affect your relationship if you don’t end up being compatible as trip buddies? Will it ruin the friendship? If so, maybe you should think about traveling with someone you don’t know very well, such as someone from CouchSurfing or Globetrooper. If you do go with your close friend, make sure to candidly discuss your travel styles, goals and that if you end up not being good as travel partners it doesn’t mean you still can’t be close friends.

Would I be better off traveling solo?

If you’re unsure of who would make a compatible travel partner, why not travel solo? Think about it. You won’t have to compromise your trip to please anybody else. Instead, you choose exactly what you want to do, and when you want to do it. No discussions necessary. Additionally, you’ll open yourself up to meeting interesting people on the road, having new adventures and getting to really know your capabilities.

[Image via Images_of_Money, Vagabondish, anna gutermuth, Big Stock]

12 Ways To Ruin Your Vacation, And How To Avoid Them

flying When traveling, things won’t always go according to plan. However, sometimes you are actually the reason your trip goes south. To ensure you’re not the cause of your own demise, here are 12 ways to ruin your vacation, and how to avoid them.

#1: You Don’t Try Anything New

Traveling is the perfect time to try new things, as you’re already in a more open-minded state. Not trying anything new on your vacation can lead to regrets later on, especially if the people you traveled with were more adventurous. Remember, travel is the perfect time to face your fears, so do something you’ve never done before. Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean you need to go jumping out of planes and swimming with sharks as your first act of courage. Start small by trying a new food, or participating in a cultural tradition.#2: You Don’t Check A Country’s Entry Requirements

This is imperative when planning a trip. It’s not just your passport you’ll need to bring – which, by the way, you should check to ensure is not expired and has the necessary amount of empty visa pages – but possibly visas, medical records or vaccinations. For example, travelers are not permitted to enter the country of Ghana in Africa without getting a yellow fever vaccine. To prove you got the shot, you will need to carry a signed yellow card given to you by your travel doctor. Likewise, entry requirements vary for citizens of different countries. For instance, in countries like Brazil and Bolivia, it is not necessary for Europeans to get a visa, while it is for U.S. citizens.

To ensure you have the proper entry requirements for the country you’re going to, first make an appointment with a travel doctor to get the necessary medical attention. You should also visit the U.S. Department of State’s International Travel website to get up-to-date information on entry requirements.

sleeping #3: You Ignore Signs Of Travel Fatigue

When on vacation, travel fatigue is no laughing matter. If you begin to feel tired, cranky or just couldn’t care less about the trip anymore, that’s when it’s time to take action. Book a hotel, get a massage, call a friend or family member from home, write in your journal, exercise and do whatever it takes to get yourself in the right mindset again. If you don’t, you’ll miss out on really making the most of your trip. Click here for a detailed list of ways to deal with travel fatigue.

#4: You Focus Too Much On Things Going Perfectly

Before embarking on a trip, you should tell yourself right from the start that not everything is going to go smoothly. Things will most likely go wrong, and that’s okay; it’s all part of the travel experience. You’re going to miss trains, electronics will break, you’ll get ripped off, tours won’t run smoothly – it happens. Instead, when things go wrong, try to look at the bright side, or at least realize in the grand scheme of things it isn’t a big deal. When I was in the Galapagos Islands, I let the dive instructor borrow my camera, forgetting to tell him it couldn’t go lower than 10 feet of water. Needless to say, it didn’t work so well, or at all, when I got back on the boat. He apologized profusely, but I just laughed and told him I hoped he at least got some great shots. Not that I wasn’t upset about the loss of my $300 camera, but it didn’t change the fact that I was still exploring one of the most beautiful locations in the world.

jungle #5: You Let Bad Weather Keep You From Exploring

Just because it’s raining doesn’t mean your trip needs to be put on pause. If it’s something you really want to do and would still be worthwhile, do it anyway. Furthermore, you could also revise your trip itinerary to include some indoor activities, and some outdoor activities that don’t require viewpoints or slippery terrain.

During a trip to Banos, Ecuador, it rained almost everyday I was there. While I had planned to bike down a volcano and hike to the town’s viewpoint, those plans didn’t quite make sense with the weather. However, that didn’t mean I was staying indoors. I simply changed my itinerary to include adventure activities that went well with rain – canyoning, rafting and relaxing in the natural hot springs. Likewise, the one excursion I had really wanted to do, a two-day tour to the Amazon Jungle, I did anyway. Despite some rain, it ended up being really fun.

#6: You Try To Smuggle Drugs Or Other Illegal Substances

Think bringing back opium from Asia or cocaine from Colombia sounds like a good idea? Think again. Not only will you ruin your vacation, you’ll most likely ruin your life. Moreover, bringing back less serious but also illegal items, like coral from the Great Barrier Reef or baby tortoises from the Galapagos Islands, can leave you with heavy fines and possibly jail time.

The solution to this ordeal is simple – just don’t do it.

culture #7: You Disrespect Local Culture

One of the best parts of traveling is learning about different cultures. Even if something is different from what you’re used to, or if you don’t agree with a certain belief, at least respect it. Not only will you save yourself potential conflict – and possible punishment, depending on the level of disrespect – you may find yourself having an eye-opening experience.

#8: You Choose A Bad Travel Partner

Ending up with a travel partner from hell is never fun, and can be detrimental to your trip. Don’t just assume the person you go to happy hour with on Friday or sit across from at work will be fun to travel with. There are certain questions you should ask before embarking on a trip together. How thoroughly do they need the itinerary planned out? What is their budget? Do they like to relax, or are they more of an adventure traveler? Do they prefer staying in hostels, or do they enjoy luxury travel? How deeply do they wish to immerse themselves in the culture you’re visiting?

If you’re answers don’t align, you should find a new travel buddy, or think about traveling solo.

friends #9: You Don’t Interact With New People

If you’re traveling with other people, you’ve hopefully chosen travel partners you get along with. That being said, you should still open yourself up meeting new people, especially locals. You may not necessarily “ruin” your vacation by not doing this, but you will limit it. Befriending locals will not only give you cultural insight, it can also help take you off-the-beaten path to find new sites that aren’t in your guidebook. This also works with meeting other travelers, who may be able to give you tips on the destination. Likewise, there have been many times becoming friends with locals has helped me to get good deals on tours and transportation.

To help meet other people, you can use a websites like Couchsurfing or Tripping, where you can reach out to locals and other travelers to meet up. Furthermore, going to local hangouts or befriending tour guides are other ways to make new connections.

#10: You Go Way Over Your Budget

Going way over your budget can be detrimental, and can cause a lot of anxiety during the trip. Just because you’re traveling, doesn’t mean when you get home the bills will have disappeared. If you notice you’re consistently going over your budget, re-evaluate what you’re doing. Start keeping a journal of your purchases, so you become more accountable for what you spend. In addition, begin taking advantage of free activities, do more walking and take fewer taxis, dine in cheaper local restaurants and look for hostels and inexpensive hotels and guesthouses – doing these things can help get you back on track. By the same token, if you know you’re not good at sticking to an allowance, you may want to consider traveling to a budget-friendly country.

eating #11: You Don’t Keep Yourself Healthy

While you’re going to want to explore the nightlife, and your sleep schedule may suffer, it’s important to keep yourself healthy to be at your best for exploring your destination. When I was in Mancora, Peru, I neglected to reapply sunscreen when lying by the pool. It only took about four hours before I had huge blisters on my legs. By that night, I had a fever and was vomiting. I lay in bed for three entire days, trying to re-hydrate and sleep off the pain. Don’t be stupid, and don’t stretch yourself too far. Get a decent amount of sleep, drink a lot of water, eat right, stay active, wear sunscreen and take precautions when doing adventurous activities.

#12: You Obsess About Staying Under Your Budget

While sticking to your budget is important, it’s also important not to let the financial stress ruin your trip. You need to be able to have fun, while not fretting over every penny you spend. Give yourself a budget that’s lower than what you can actually spend, so that if you go a bit over you won’t be losing sleep over it. Also, arm yourself with as many budget-travel tips as possible, so you’re already in the right mindset. You may also want to think about putting a certain amount of money somewhere where you won’t have access to it while away, so it will be there when you get home.

Travel Partners From Hell

angryFor those debating whether to travel in a group or go solo, you’ll want to read this. Just because you get along with someone at happy hour or Sunday morning spin class, doesn’t mean it’ll be smooth sailing on the road. After backpacking around the world for five years, both solo and with others, I’ve had my fair share of unpleasant travel partners. Think about these situations, and decide if your potential travel partner seems laid-back or fits into one of these categories.

The Cheapskate

For the most part, backpackers are budget-travelers by nature. They stay in dorms with 13 other people, forgo tours for the cheaper do-it-yourself version and will walk 15 blocks to save the equivalent of $1.50 on a meal. However, there’s a big difference between trying to stretch your dollar, and being downright cheap. When backpacking Europe, I traveled with a girl who talked of nothing but how much her condo cost, and how she couldn’t afford to eat or take the subway. She was so cheap; she used to eat the egg yolks from my daily chef’s salad as her lunch. We also went to an amusement park in Vienna, but didn’t go on any rides because she felt it was too expensive. In my mind, I was wondering why we had even walked the two hours to get there – because she refused to spend money on public transportation – if we weren’t going to enjoy it. Before traveling, make sure you’re both on the same page about the budget.The Spend Thrift

On the other hand, there are those who have no budget at all, which can make you feel like you need to spend more than you have. In Argentina, I traveled with a girl who clearly had a lot more money than me. She constantly wanted to eat in nice restaurants, take guided tours, opt for fancy tourist buses and take taxis rather than the bus or subway. Not only did I not have the money for this, but it went against my mentality of trying to get away from the tourists and go local. Before signing up to travel with someone, make sure your travel philosophies are aligned.

squat toilet The Clean Freak

While I’m not suggesting being clean is a bad thing, there is a point where it can be borderline high maintenance. Especially when in other countries, you’re going to have to deal with certain places not being up to par with western sanitation standards. When I was in Thailand, I was with a girl who would constantly whine about the bathrooms – how squat toilets were gross and how there was never any toilet paper. She also almost had an aneurism when one of the guesthouses had a spider on the wall. Trust me, I enjoy a spider-free room and toilet-paper stocked bathroom as much as the next person, but sometimes these differences in place and culture are what make the trip interesting.

The Anti-American

Being from the United States, I know the hardships of being stereotyped as an “ugly American.” While traveling, I’m constantly forced to listen to people talk smack about U.S. travelers and how ignorant, annoying and rude they are. In reality, I think it’s pretty ignorant, rude and annoying to have people talk badly about Americans when there’s one sitting at the table. It’s bad enough having to hear this from strangers, but when it’s your own travel partner, it’s downright infuriating. I’ve actually experienced this while traveling with other Americans. On a local tour in Peru, as the guide talked about the culture, every reply from my companions seemed to be how Americans contrasted negatively with Peruvians. When the guide talked about how in Peru corn and potatoes were staples, the retort was that Americans were fat and ate nothing but processed foods. When the guide talked about how hard the Incas worked to build temples by hauling large boulders up mountains, the reply was that Americans were lazy. I couldn’t help but be offended, and also feel they were missing the point completely. Make sure your travel companion is both open to learning about a new culture, but also proud of their own.

crying The Complainer

Similar to the Clean Freak, the complainer will make you wonder why they bothered leaving their home country. The food isn’t good, the accommodation is subpar, the public transportation is unreliable and the culture is “weird.” In Prague, I traveled with someone who was a vegetarian. Not only did she whine about how the city didn’t have good food the entire time, she actually screamed at a waitress for bringing the wrong salad in a restaurant. “She should learn to speak English!” she huffed to me, annoyed. Needless to say, I was mortified.

The Cling-On

There are some people who never want to be alone, others who thoroughly enjoy their own company and those who fall somewhere in between. In my opinion, this is the most important thing to discuss with your potential travel mate before booking your plane ticket. While backpacking in Australia, I traveled with a girl who wanted to do absolutely everything together. If I ever tried to do something on my own, or opted not to signup for a tour she was doing, she accused me of ditching her. I once went outside to read a book, and she barked at me for not telling her. It felt like a stifling relationship, and really put a strain on the trip.

sleepingThe Lazy Backpacker

Of course, it’s important to relax to prevent travel fatigue, but there are some travelers who will make you wonder why they bothered to buy a plane ticket. When backpacking in Italy, I traveled with someone who would sleep until noon, nap at 3:00 p.m., and spend a majority of the day on Facebook and watching TV in the common room. When I’d ask her if she wanted to cook dinner, she’d reply, “Sure, if you get the groceries.” I guess typing was exhausting, because she barely saw any sites in one of the world’s most beautiful countries. Before traveling with someone, try to gauge their excitement level to make sure they’ll actually get out of bed and get dressed.

The Space Obsessor

When backpacking, belongings in the hostel dorms tend to get jumbled together. Be prepared to not always have your things perfectly organized, and for other peoples’ things to sometimes be touching yours. In Chile, I traveled with someone who was definitely not okay with this. Not only was I verbally scolded for hanging my towel on the hook next to hers – the edges touched – my pants were thrown in a ball on the floor when I hung them on the same chair as her shirt. After awhile, her behavior made me feel like I was walking on egg shells, and led me to book separate rooms to avoid the unnecessary conflict.

The Ultra Planner

While it’s good to have some sort of plan in mind when embarking on a trip, there comes a point when too much planning takes the spontaneity and adventure out of travel. When traveling in Spain, I was with a girl who needed to have everything planned out days in advance, from what sites we would see, what time we would wake up and go to bed and where we would eat dinner. Not only that, but veering from any discussed plan would set her into a frenzy. While I wanted to meet other backpackers and locals and explore together, she had an itinerary that was apparently set in stone. Make sure you’re potential travel partner is okay with going with the flow sometimes during the trip.

Have you ever had an unpleasant travel partner?

[flickr photos via chexed, Ingsoc, rabble, Tobyotter, RogueSun Media]