It’s often said that you don’t really know someone until you travel with them, and for the most part—it’s true. Exploring a new environment, language and culture is an exciting experience that can push a couple out of their comfort zone and into each other’s arms.
Take it from me—all of my partners have been long distance for the past seven years, so travel has been baked into my relationships. Although I’ve experienced plenty of travel highs, I’ve also mastered navigating the travel lows. (Nothing worse than fighting with your boyfriend and storming off, then realizing you don’t speak French and have to come back). From Haiti to Cuba to Austria to Mexico, I’ve spent weeks and sometimes months in other countries, navigating languages, social customs, foods, health care, transport, time off and budgets so that I can fill my heart, as well as my passport.
However, it’s also no secret that travel can be full of frustrations that test the staying power of a relationship. If you’re wondering how you can keep a relationship positive in the midst of traveling, here are some hard-earned tips from me and REI Adventures Program Manager Kelsey Wenger, who traveled through South America for seven months with her partner (and survived to tell the tale, relationship intact).
“It’s really comforting to have someone you know and love with you when you’re going to an exotic place,” Wenger says of her time traveling with her partner. “When you’re traveling for that amount of time—when you’re gone for seven months—it seems really intimidating to go by yourself.”
Here are 10 everyday tips to keep your relationship going strong, even if you’ve missed the train, it’s 108 degrees outside and you’ve been detained on the Swiss-Italian border (true story).
1. Be A Good Sport About Documentation
I once had a partner say “no” when I asked him to take my travel picture. Needless to say, we’re no longer together.
If your partner shames you for wanting to document your experience, the relationship is probably not the best fit. When traveling, it’s important to have a supportive partner who’ll understand (and match) your need to stunt for the ’Gram, send a photo to mom or whatever other reason you might be asking for a photo.
If your partner isn’t a good sport about wanting to document you living your best life, are they really worth sharing that best life with?
2. Be Present
On the other hand, it’s important to be present with your partner. It’s annoying to be with someone who can’t put their phone down or is too busy taking pictures to really enjoy the moment.
The outdoors look better in full definition, not through a screen. And there’s nothing worse than eating dinner with a partner as they talk to other people on their phone while you sit there in front of them in silence. Food is just more enjoyable without electronics.
“Rather than being in the moment with your significant other,” Wenger says, “often it’s one person trying to capture that Instagrammable moment. … So, making sure you’re aware of what your significant other values when going to pretty places is very important.”
3. Respect That They May Not Be a Morning Person
“The day shall not be wasted! We got time off for this! We waited a long time for this!” I said once, to not-a-morning person. And then that not-a-morning person was miserable for the rest of the day because they didn’t get enough sleep.
This experience taught me that travel is not the time to switch someone into a morning person, no matter how chipper, pumped with coffee and ready I am to seize the day.
Instead, I now get up, wander to the local coffee shop by myself, listen to the sounds of a city as it wakes up and read a book. It’s become my favorite way to start the day.
On the same note, show respect if your partner is not a night owl. Some people just really enjoy pajamas and socks at a reasonable hour. So cozy up early—unless there’s a meteor shower or an aurora borealis waiting outside in the night sky.
4. When Conflicts Arise, Have Healthy Communication
Conflict will happen. Every time, on every trip. No matter who you’re traveling with.
Remember that when two people travel together, compromise is essential. Before you leave home, discuss what activities you’re both interested in, what pace you’d like to take and the amount of money you collectively want to spend.
“Sometimes they didn’t want to do what I wanted to do,” Wenger says. “You can mitigate that by taking time to yourself—and I think that’s really important—but other times you have to let things go in order to make the relationship work.”
There’s nothing worse than surprising your partner with the news that you planned two tours, seven dinners, a scuba dive and a marathon all in one day. Be considerate—asking for your partner’s input is important so that you don’t have unrealistic expectations.
5. Give (and Receive) Gratitude
Usually one person plans the majority of the trip (unless you go on an REI Adventures trip, which is planned ahead of time). Those of us who are Type A planners do a lot of research to make sure a trip is as seamless as possible and that we get the best deals in the best locations.
However, it can be incredibly discouraging when a partner critiques your hard work. Like the time I planned a trip to Mexico and my boyfriend complained about the accommodations and I felt defeated and unappreciated after putting so much thought into his comfort.
And, when you don’t lift a finger to contribute to the planning process, it’s important to validate your partner by showing gratitude. It may be a simple, “Thank you for planning this, you did a great job,” that makes all the difference.
6. Go On Dates
Vacations are the perfect time to be romantic. But it can be hard to remember to appreciate each other after you’ve been roughing it, walking, sweating and taking showers sparingly. But all that said, it’s still important to be a couple.
Building dates into your trips and spending one-on-one time after being surrounded by crowds, tour groups and strangers all day is a great strategy to keep the flame ablaze. Plus, it’s a good excuse to get cute, dress up and smell good for once.
7. Be Real About Bodily Functions
One time, while traveling with a partner, I got E. coli poisoning, and it wasn’t pretty. But to my surprise, after the ordeal was over my partner hugged me and said, “I feel so much closer to you now. We’ve officially been through the most embarrassing moment and came out alive.”
It’s not uncommon to get sick or have a bathroom mishap while traveling. So it helps to understand that bathroom boundaries may definitely be crossed. And who knows, maybe they’ll appreciate the vulnerability and fall more in love with you than ever before.
“It always comes down to your partner being very sick," Wenger says. "That’s happened on many trips we’ve been on together, and it’s definitely the least flattering you’re ever going to see them, but it generally brings you closer together.”
8. Talk Budget Early
Budget is also important to discuss. On some vacations, you plan to spend a lot, while on others, you don’t. So, while your partner is dropping $200/day on a convertible rental, you thought you were going to take a 30-cent tuk-tuk around the city. Attention! Not a good way to start off a trip.
“Most of the fights we had [in South America] revolved around money—which is true for most traveling couples. … remember that what you’re doing is fun and you’re on a trip, and so, sure, you can keep track of costs, but in the end it’s not going to be that big of a deal, so just try and let it go a little bit,” Wenger says.
9. Acknowledge Being Hangry Is A Legit Condition And Must Be Treated ASAP
Hangry (adjective): A state of irritability induced by the rapid onset of hunger.
As someone who gets extremely excited while traveling and forgets to eat, I’ve learned to treat hanger as a serious condition.
We all have our own eating schedules, but when traveling with your partner, try to sync up, otherwise when one person starts dropping into low blood-sugar territory, it can be to the serious detriment of the relationship. With low blood sugar, your partner can’t think straight, their emotions are uncontrollable and next thing you know, you could be getting yelled at for breathing too loudly. The same goes for being dehydrated.
Do not underestimate the power of getting your partner watered and fed when they let you know they’re starting to get hangry. Drop everything and eat! Carry snacks and water always.
10. Most Importantly, Have Fun
The whole point of a trip is to enjoy new experiences. That said, treat every mishap, showerless day, car breakdown and hanger-induced meltdown as an adventure. And then, also revel in the great moments: the mountains you climbed together, the waterfalls you jumped off of and the challenges overcome.
Traveling comes with difficulties. Traveling with a partner—well, that’s a whole different challenge. But while traveling alone can be empowering, nothing beats sharing a fantastic experience with the one you love. So don’t let a trip break your relationship. Let the trip make your relationship.