Although in recent years I’ve largely travelled alone, my first steps into the big wide world of foreign adventures (with my parent’s safely on the other side of the world) were within a group environment. Traveling as a group can be fun, there is always someone to talk to, and there can be a lot of variety, meaning that usually there is never a dull moment. Travelling as a group can also be a little stressful, with added logistics, politics and the formation of cliques, especially among larger groups. Here are some ideas to help keep the chaos to a minimum:
Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth
It is a fact that having a lot of people in one place, with limited space and facilities can be very stressful. It’s nice to be inclusive when planning a trip, but there is a point when it is wise to limit numbers – accommodation and transportation are usually the deciding factors. Think about what you are trying to accomplish – 2 weeks doing practical volunteer work lends itself to different numbers than inter-railing around Europe (e.g. 4 people building a school in Kenya? 20 people cramming onto a Deutsche Bahn ICE and expecting to sit in the same carriage, let alone near each other? Think again!). Have a reasonable idea of how many people on the trip is practical, and comfortable, and stick with that number.
Hong Kong & China 2008 - My team had a really good sense of humour and kept positive even when our accommodation in Guangzhou fell through and we had no idea where we would be staying.
Two’s Company. Three’s a Crowd
Trust me. In certain situations this works (e.g. you are all family, have hung out as the Three Musketeers for years, you’ve somehow managed to make a ménage-a-trois work, etc.) but generally it’s something to avoid. Typically there are either two situations: someone gets left out, or the “third wheel” begins to piss one or both other people off. While prime numbers are good for making majority decisions, it probably sucks to be the one ending up on their own (refer to Walter, Gary & Mary’s trip to LA in “The Muppets” for a case study).
Sharing is Caring
I recently stayed in a hostel in Rio de Janeiro and was driven crazy by Dutch travellers (particularly f the female variety) each taking 30 minutes in the bathroom – twice a day! If it’s important respecting fellow traveller’s need for facilities and space when you don’t know them, it is even more important to respect those you are actually travelling with. Limited number of electrical outlets? Even more limited number of socket converters? That means the person spending hours on their laptop (You fly half way around the world to use a laptop? ) can kick that habit and let other people charge their phones and cameras, and use electricity for more important things than checking non-essential emails and playing solitaire for hours on end.
If there are introverts in your group, allow them time and space to unwind alone. If someone has a case of Dehli Belly, maybe consider that you taking hours in the bathroom might actually be making their plight worse. If someone is jetlagged, give them time to sleep it off. Offer to help out with chores like cleaning when you leave and washing up rather than letting the same person do it all the time. And never, ever, EVER walk across someone’s futon with your dirty feet (Because I DESPISE sleeping in a gritty bed!).
Before going to China we spent time getting to know
each other through various activities such as playing
sports on a surprisingly sunny Scottish beach
Before you go try to get to know everyone a bit better, especially the people you don’t know so well, whether be going for a drink together, having a pizza and movie night, fundraise as a team (if you are doing some kind of voluntary work) etc. It breaks the ice for sure, and might give you an idea of other people’s personalities, needs and quirks before you go.
By this I don’t mean culture shock from being in a different country, but culture shock from being among people from different backgrounds can arise too. In Swaziland I was the second youngest person on the team (the youngest was there with their parents, and the oldest was a 79 year old woman there with her daughter!) while in China I was the second oldest person there not leading the team (and most others were still in high school). Different generations (particularly older generations) can have very different outlooks, which can be frustrating, especially if they don’t give you an easy time for being young (or credit for having more experience than them).
Then there can be problems caused by different social, educational and religious backgrounds – the list goes on. Basically anything in the country that can give you culture shock, you can probably also find in your travel group (if it is a very mixed group, or you are the odd one out). The best thing is to realise you have as much to learn from your fellow travellers as you can learn from the foreign culture. Be open, be flexible, talk and share what you are thinking and feeling.
Imagine the amount of time it takes for one person to take a good group photograph. Now multiply that by a factor of the number of cameras in the group. Add a few extra minutes in for good measure. Now multiply that by the amount of things you’ll want to photograph while away. The answer? A lot of wasted time.
For that reason, limit the number of people taking photos at any time. To keep happysnapping to a minimum, assign a few people to be responsible for photos each day. Take 20% of the total number of cameras with you. If someone has a good camera and is really into photography, let them take most of the photos (but also give them the opportunity to be in some of them as well). Also as a guide, the person photographing EVERYTHING (usually repeatedly) is probably not the best photographer – a good photographer has an eye for a good shot, and so will only take photographs when they have a good shot. This means you get a smaller number of consistently very good photos that you can use, rather than endless bad photographs not even worthy of Facebook.
Remember the Outsiders
Be aware of people not interacting much with the rest of the group or seem a little withdrawn. Check they are ok, and give them plenty of (varied) opportunities to join in. Do things that can involve the whole group. Include them in conversations and invite them to give their opinion. Even ask them what they would like to do. They might just want some alone time, but they might also want to be involved but are struggling to interact with the rest of the group, perhaps due to strong personalities, unfamiliarity with people, in-jokes or activities, or simply being shy.
Don’t invite a known clique to be part of your group – it should be all or nothing, simple as that. Likewise inviting a loved-up, young couple to be part of a group of singles can also be a bad idea (as if claiming the double bed, spending all their time together and not interacting with everyone else was bad enough, don’t even think about the consequences of a lover’s quarrel, let alone a break-up!). Let couples go on couples’ holidays and strong cliques go on holidays by themselves. If a clique forms while away, don’t panic too much (unless you are all out there for months) – people do have their preferences of whom they get on well with. As long as you get them mixing with other people and it doesn’t become a problem, you should be fine, at least until the end of the trip.
Be gracious, overlook imperfections, laugh things off, don’t make a big deal about insignificant things… etc. Take a deep breath, count to ten and relax. As we say in the UK “Keep Calm & Carry On”.
Sometimes taking a moment doesn’t work and tempers can still flare up. Deal with conflict as soon as possible, long before it flares up. Talk. Try to see it from the other person’s side. Take some time out if need be. And ALWAYS be the first to say sorry. Forgive and forget – it’s not worth your trip being ruined.
Malta 2010 - A bike trip with some guys I knew
Ultimately choose wisely who you take with you. The person with the fiery temper or the serial drunkard causing all sorts of problems? Probably not a good idea. The really disorganised one or the girl who always brings too many clothes? Think again too. Or at least be aware of their behaviour before you go, and don’t be surprised if they let it all hang out when free from the confines of home. And remember, even if you don’t pick wisely, it isn’t forever and do your best to enjoy it while it lasts.
Fortunately for me, I've not had a particularly difficult time traveling in a group. Perhaps I've been lucky, but getting to know each other and having a good sense of humour have definitely helped gel the group together. Certainly I've had a much easier time than my siblings when traveling (my brother in particular has some horror stories).
There's no point worrying about having a bad time. Most likely you will have a good time with a group of people, and never a dull moment for sure. But do bear in mind some of the pitfalls that can occur. By thinking ahead and identifying potential problems before they occur, you can avoid any mishaps and make sure your trip is an enjoyable one.