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Bad Company

Eight ways to avoid snorers, whiners, slobs and other travel companions from hell
Image: Mt. Rainier National Park
If you choose your companions wisely, they can make, instead of break, a tripJohn Froschauer / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Beware: Your lifelong friend might seem like the sweetest person in the world, but she could turn on you like a rabid dog.

Don't believe it? Try traveling with her.

See what she's like when she's jet-lagged. Get her hopelessly lost, then hand her the map and suggest she find the way back to your hotel, which isn't nearly as nice as it appeared in the brochures, which didn't mention the shared bathroom down the hall or the all-night bus depot next door. After that, something as small as suggesting a visit to one more cathedral could set her off.

Given that many of us aren't all that pleasant to begin with, should we humans ever pair up for the special stresses of travel? Should you ever risk a friendship by testing it on the open road?

When we asked readers to tell us about their travel companion stories, a theme emerged: Friendships Lost.

Rebecca Reis of San Francisco, for example, described her European tour with a "soon-to-be-ex-best friend." The friend constantly moaned about missing her boyfriend and her cat. Of course you wouldn't understand, she told Reis, because "you have nothing to go home to."

Then again, if you choose your companions wisely, they can make, instead of break, a trip. But plan ahead, with eyes wide open.

The criteria for choosing and surviving a travel companion are not much different than choosing a mate, albeit for a more limited time. A mini-marriage, so to speak. One that might last only a bit longer than a Britney Spears marriage, but still, a relationship not to be entered into lightly.

Rule 1: One snit per day

Experts smile knowingly when told you want to talk about travel companions: The issue keeps billable hours at the door. But some of the best advice comes from an ordinary traveler who invented what she calls the "one-snit rule."

"Often when traveling, accommodations aren't up to our expectations. Sometimes a meal isn't the best we'd hoped for, or we're just plain tired from the trip, so the snit rule is invoked," says Judy Carter of Alexandria.

She and her companions agree before leaving home that each person in the group will be allowed one bout of complaining per day. There is no snit credit: Use it or lose it.

"When someone starts to whine, one of us declares, 'There's your snit for the day.' Most of the time, the snit rule isn't used," Carter says. "Just knowing it's there is comforting."

Rule 2: Be realistic

But wait. Why should there be any snits? Don't vacations spirit us away from the stresses of our daily lives? Won't our relationships be as close to perfect as they're ever going to get?

Ah ha, big problem: Unrealistic expectations.

"Trips are anticipated as the peak experiences of our lives, so if anything goes awry, we tend to experience an exaggerated sense of disappointment," says Bethesda clinical psychologist Dorothy Kaplan. The worst is when companions are anticipating very different visions of bliss.

"Often we just assume that our desires are obvious and shared," says Kaplan. "But there are very different ideas about what is wonderful, and you should articulate your vision as part of planning the trip."

Rule 3: Choose wisely

You can get stuck with travel companions through birth or marriage. If there often are conflicts and control issues and you still need to travel with family, take an organized tour, advises Laura Maggio, director of Marriage and Family Therapy at Springfield College in Massachusetts.

"A structured tour leaves less room for decision-making," she explains, "so conflict is minimized."

Even given a choice of travel companions, we often blithely enter intimate relationships.

"A nightmare with a passport" is how one reader described a woman she actually hired to come along.

Many readers wrote of roommates who not only snored like chain saws, but in the morning would deny they did — as if you'd make that up.

Lots of people, it seems, have secret drinking problems that don't remain so secret on the road. But how about this: A travel companion who turns out to dip snuff, spitting the results every few minutes into an empty soda can.

Another reader, James Drake of Williamsburg, discovered a companion's avid aversion to cigarette smoke only after he met him at the appointed place in France and saw he was wearing a World War II gas mask. Camouflage green, double filters, the works.

One tour operator packaged a tour for "liberal scotch-drinking D.C. Episcopalians" along with "conservative, teetotaling, small-town Texas Baptists," reports one of the Episcopalians.

"I and a buddy of mine (who I thought I knew well) took a road trip from Kansas City to Mardi Gras," a Herndon man posted on the live Web chat the Washington Post Travel Section hosts on Mondays. "He was a penny pincher to the nth degree, and I, in his view, was a spendthrift. Matters came to a head when I caught him picking up some of the money I left for a tip."

If you decide to take on a stranger as a roommate, either to save the single supplement or for companionship, just be prepared to accept that pot luck can be lucky, or not.

Dottie Kilgore of Fairfax has experienced both ends of the spectrum since she was widowed 10 years ago. She once got a roommate who "personified all that is unwanted in a roommate: inconsiderate, demanding of the hotel staffs, insulting to them, not very bright and no sense of humor." By the way, "She looked like Walter Matthau and so we immediately became known as 'The Odd Couple.' "

Then again, there was the roommate in Nepal who "was considerate, didn't want to tell me her life story or describe her grandchildren in minute detail, and could adjust pleasantly to any and all situations."

Rule 4: Check the Basics

When you do have the luxury of choosing a companion, think about critical issues like budgets, attitudes about money, sleeping habits and travel styles. People who like to check every facial hair on every last painting in the Louvre, for example, won't do well with big-picture folks who do seven countries in six days.

Cuisine compatibility is a woefully overlooked issue. People who will fret for months about hotel choices often figure they'll pick restaurants when they get there. But as a chat participant from Bethesda wrote, "If one of you is happy with McDonald's and the other is looking for an unknown Inn at Little Washington, that's three unhappy meals a day."

Work it out before you agree to hit the road.

Of course, you'd not likely think to ask, "Do you wear a gas mask in restaurants?" So talking is not foolproof. But such simple questions as, "Have others ever accused you of snoring?" could save you sleepless nights.

If you are at all unsure, take a mini-trip together first. A drive down I-495 at rush hour won't answer the snoring question, but will tell you all you need to know about your companion's temperament.

Rule 5: Like Each Other

Florinka Pesenti, 2002 winner of TV's "Amazing Race," could have picked just about anyone to accompany her on the reality show's 33-day, 13-country trip. She initially says she chose Zach Behr, a college pal, because he could drive a stick shift.

But probe a little deeper and you'll find that Behr actually got the nod for personal qualities that are desirable in any travel companion. "He has a great sense of humor, is very optimistic, and can make fun of any situation."

Are you sure you like the person enough to share precious vacation time?

"Don't travel with people who annoy you and think that feeling will go away because you are on vacation. You'll just want to strangle them in a foreign setting instead of a familiar one," writes an Arlington reader whose experience is apparently still so raw that she asks that her name not be used.

Being in Paris will no more make a rude person polite than being in Texas will make a swaggering bully into a gentleman.

But liking or loving a person can't guarantee a stress-free experience. Although Pesenti left her TV adventure considering Behr one of her her best friends, she says, "We had many fights. But we never let the argument take over the day. We fought; we cried, then we moved on. We would defuse [conflicts] by socializing, or Zach would go off by himself. We would take a time out."

Rule 6: Schedule Time-Outs

Time-outs are as good for travel companions as they are for toddlers. Often people travel as if they're Siamese twins. Give yourselves a break, suggests Maggio, the therapist.

The ideal traveling companion, like an ideal spouse, is comfortable both in relationships and alone, says Maggio. They are flexible, so are willing to do something that isn't their first choice. They are secure, so their feelings won't be hurt if you want to do something on your own.

Laymen echo her advice. "What worked well for us was having a really dumb code phrase that we agreed to use if we wanted a break from each other or to explore alone," wrote a chat participant from Chantilly. "Whenever we used the phrase, it made us giggle and [helped us accept] that really, we needed to get away from each other for a while."

Bernie Berger and his wife, Janice, of Boyton Beach, Fla., always agree with friends before leaving that "you do what you like to do, and we'll do what we like to do, and if we all end up doing the same thing, so much the better."

That degree of separation might not be comfortable for everyone. But if shared activities are a primary goal, better nail down the details before leaving home.

Rule 7: Compromise, Then Chill

Diane Lund of Arlington had a recipe for potential disaster: a trip for six, ages 11 to 70. It worked out great, but not by happenstance.

"With six of us and seven days in London, we each chose one thing we didn't want to leave London without experiencing," she writes. "For three generations, the trip became the most egalitarian, and consequently stress-free, vacation we had ever taken."

Ubah Pathan of Manassas is an airline employee who travels frequently, usually with a buddy. Her advice: Don't get hung up on little things. "Does it really matter if your friend exclaims over every historical thing they see? Is it worth getting into an argument over?"

The less you want to compromise, the more interests and attitudes you must share. Yet when your travel companion is so like you that you're nearly clones, you'll miss out on the spice of diversity.

"I am completely non-religious, but my roommate wanted to spend Easter Sunday at Mass in the Duomo in Florence," wrote a chat participant. "To this day, the spectacle of the event is one of my best travel memories."

After some initial disasters on a long trip with a particularly difficult travel companion, Lucy Elliott of Bethesda discovered that rather than both trying to assert control over everything, they could identify each other's strengths, then divide responsiblities.

"As much as I hate to concede that point, he is much better at getting us from Point A to Point B," writes Elliott. So he took over the maps. She was better at talking to people, including negotiating for souvenirs. He became the designated driver; she took charge of money.

It worked so well that six months after the trip, they married.

Rule 8: Have No Fear

Given the possible hassles, why not just avoid the pitfalls by traveling alone? ou could ask the same question about life in general.

Companions can come in handy for practical reasons, or in a pinch. Fairfax traveler Kilgore, who can take or leave a travel companion, says she wishes she'd had a roommate the night a lion was roaring outside her tent in Kenya. "Roommates are also handy for checking to be sure that you are on the bus before it departs each time," she writes.

Damian Argul, who has been a tour guide and travel agent for 40 years, recognizes the dangers. "You can't know beforehand how a person will behave in a trip. I face hundreds of surprises in my trips," Argul writes from Montevideo, Uruguay.

But he also knows the potential joys. In his e-mail, Argul apologizes for his English, then adds an eloquent note about having a fellow traveler.

"There are some places you must be with someone else," he writes. "New York, Paris, Venice or a sunset in Naples, Florida. These are places you need a companion, to share such magnificence."