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Tips for Finding Travel Buddies for Your Gap Year

Gap year buddyPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

There are two big decisions everybody needs to make before going abroad. The first, obviously, is where to go. The second is who you’re going to go with. More than any place you’ll actually visit, people bring a certain atmosphere that affects your trip for better or for worse, depending on the kind of attitude they have and how well they mesh with your own goals and personality. Needless to say, it’s a pretty big decision, and it’s harder to make than you’d think.

More than any place you’ll actually visit, people bring a certain atmosphere that affects your trip for better or for worse

Traveling with a person inevitably reveals a side usually hidden by the veneer of social norms and the accountability of life at home. For a short jaunt overseas, these can be overlooked -– after all, you spend enough time together as it is, right? But gap years are different. Over such a long time, even the way somebody chews can become infuriating (who smacks their cheeks like that??), let alone his or her preferences on when to arrive at the train station. Friendships can be iron-forged. Or they can be shattered forever.

What this means? Finding a travel buddy for your gap year abroad is tricky business. But as always, we've got advice:

Should You Travel With a Buddy?

Gap year buddyPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

This is the first question you need to answer when planning a trip abroad with a friend. Do you really even want to go abroad with them? There are pros and cons to both doing a gap year solo and having a travel partner, so consider both sides of the equation before making your decision.

THE PROS

  • Accountability: Sometimes, it’s easy to fall into travel-weariness, in which you wind up staying in the hostel for days at a time. It’s only once you leave that you realize you didn’t take full advantage of the place. With a travel buddy, it’s much more likely that one of you will want to do or see something at any given time.
  • A cure to homesickness: It’s much easier to avoid those feelings of detachment from home when you bring a part of home with you. FOMO while abroad is real but curable.
  • Expanded resources: It sucks to lose something, or forget to set an alarm, or run out of money at an inopportune time. Having a friend who has your back can be the difference between making a train and being forced to hawk your iPod on the streets for a little cash.
  • Strengthening a friendship: The simple act of asking a friend to travel is a huge deal, but the stories forged along the way can make a friendship last a lifetime.
  • Having a wing wo/man: Sometimes it is just plain easier to make friends when you can approach a group with a partner in crime. If the two of you have a great energy when together, it's likely strangers will come join you in conversation like moths to the flame. More friends, yes please!

THE CONS

  • Accountability: Sometimes, staying inside is a good thing, if that's what you need. Being dragged somewhere you have no interest in is a surefire way to degrade a relationship.
  • Ruining a relationship: Even if you're the best of friends, travel can bring out the worst in people. Sometimes the greatest people can reveal a decidedly uglier side of themselves when they’re pushed too far by that last day of Delhi Belly. And when that happens, it can change the way you see them. Forever.
  • Staying in the Comfort Zone: While it’s nice to have a friend to fight off homesickness, keeping them around while overseas can be a major ball and chain. Traveling is all about discovering who you are and what you’re really capable of, and this is harder to do when you have a friend with pre-established routines. Who wants to put themselves truly out there and make NEW friends if you've already got a great one right by your side?

How to Choose Your Travel Buddy

Gap year buddyPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

So you’ve decided to bring a friend along for your gap year. But who do you choose? As said, traveling can make or break a friendship, so the best travel buddy is either the person who can take it, or the friend you don’t mind losing. Here are a few factors to consider:

Money and Budgeting

It’s important to take into consideration the reasons you’re traveling in the first place. Some of the most similar people out there want completely different things for their time abroad, and it usually boils down to money. Are you okay with slumming it in dirty hostels, eating street food, and taking local night buses between destinations? Or do you need at least a few nights in an upscale hotel? Must you eat food that you didn’t see rolling around in dirt a few minutes ago?

Even the hardiest, most seasoned traveler may want to sprinkle in a few treat days here and there, but if finances don’t allow it, tension can build until a separation becomes necessary. Nobody wants to lose a friend this way. It’s completely avoidable if you know each other's gap year budget and the level of comfort each requires in advance.

Gender

What about mixing the genders of the travelers, or traveling with an individual of the sex you're attracted to? If “When Harry Met Sally” says anything, it’s that men and women cannot remain friends without feelings developing. For our LGBT travel friends, this same potential rings true too.

Obviously, every situation is different, but this is an important opinion to keep in mind while choosing a travel buddy. Traveling, more than anything else, forces lessons about who people are and what they’re capable of. If two friends go on this transformative journey together, attraction can build. Life-changing moments engenders attraction –- ask any action movie with a hot love interest. Ever. The problem is, who is going to develop this attraction, and in which direction will it grow? Unrequited love is the source of damn near every broken heart out there. Now imagine being stuck with that person, feeling the rift growing while the physical distance never changes.

On a more practical level, traveling as a mixed gender pair can be a hinderance / advantage, depending on the situation. For the ladies, having a guy friend travel with you may help deter some unwanted attraction (whether you have any attraction to each other or not -- that sleazy man in the bar doesn't have to know the truth!) But at the same time, you may have to be separated in an overbooked hostel, or unable to split a room in countries with strict gender laws. Check out information on your travel destinations about this before you go.

Can They Go?

And perhaps the most important factor is timing. Is your ideal travel BFF ready to up and traipse the world right around the same time that you are? Do your career timelines, disposable incomes, and travel itineraries match? Prepping for this type of adventure could take 1-2 years easily to plan if you're adding another person to the mix. Chat early and often if you're both serious about foregoing a solo RTW trip in favor of one with each other.

Meeting People on the Go

Perhaps you've already ventured off on your worldwide travel escapades, but are starting to feel the sting of loneliness on the road. The good news is there are plenty of folks out there traveling now (which comes at no surprise if you've stayed at a hostel along the way!). Hostels are hot beds for making friends in a new city and making connections with people who might share similar travel goals as you. Just because you started out traveling alone doesn't mean it needs to end that way.

Be leery of people that you've only known a few days, but trust your gut instincts. Signing up to travel the next leg of your journey with a new friend doesn't mean you've resigned to spending the rest of your travels alongside him/her. Dabble! You may end up finding your travel soul mate, or even your actual soul mate. But we'll have to save tips for that type of situation for another time...

Use a Gap Year Program Instead

Gap year buddyPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

You may decide that the stress of finding the perfect travel buddy just isn't worth it. As long as you've got a decent sense of direction and are willing to be a bit outgoing, there's not reason not to strike out on your own. Traveling alone offers the independence to do exactly what you want, each and every day. It also assures that you'll make the effort to meet new people in every new destination, instead of just sticking close to the friends you already have.

A great way to assure you'll make new friends quickly is to travel with a gap year program, like First Abroad or Carpe Diem Education. With so many options available, there’s bound to be an appealing option for everyone. Programs offer organized experiences, usually requiring applications and interviews for interested parties.

Because of this, anybody in attendance already has a specific kind of travel in mind –- thus becoming much more likely to mesh with the other people on the trip. It’s difficult to disagree on accommodations and destinations when they’re all preplanned by an organization much more intimately familiar with them than yourself.

There are only two outcomes for relationships forged on programs. Either the chemistry just isn’t quite there, in which case the two go their separate ways afterwards with no net loss, or it is, in which case a new lifelong friendship can be created. There really is no downside.

The other benefit to programs is the degree of anonymity. While large groups on programs obviously have their travel partners preselected for them, they usually don’t know each other going into the experience. This allows for a more organic transformative experience.

Reinvention and self-discovery is much easier when that friend from home isn’t constantly serving as a reminder of the usual routine back home. These bigger groups also create more opportunity to connect with different people –- rather than having a previous friend as a crutch, a program turns into a scene like speed dating as everybody finds their niche.

There are only two outcomes for relationships forged on programs. Either the chemistry just isn’t quite there, in which case the two go their separate ways afterwards with no net loss, or it is, in which case a new lifelong friendship can be created. There really is no downside.

Will You Go Alone?

Traveling is stressful. It’s transformative. It’s every cliché that’s ever had a parody video on YouTube. But along the way, the realization inevitably hits: it’s not the places you go that you’ll remember, but the experiences shared along the way. Ha Long Bay is gorgeous, but it’s the banter in the kayak that sticks.

Choosing the person to share those memories with is an important part of the planning process. The strength of a friendship is binary -– either it will survive an extended bout of travel or it won’t. But there’s an old truism: you’ve gotta bet big to win big. And with travel, the odds are usually in your favor.

Colin Heinrich

Colin enjoys traveling slow through whichever country will have him. He's considering changing his middle name to “Adventure,” and enjoys music festivals, backwoods camping, local cuisine, and saying yes to things he doesn’t quite understand. Follow him at Elsewhere Man and on G+.