Dear Kat: I've decided to go on a big trip to Europe next summer, but I don't want to go alone. I've never been out of the country before so I think I should take a friend. How should I decide who to ask along?
—New to Traveling
Dear NTT: It's too bad you don't want to go alone. Traveling solo is one of my favorite things ever. You learn so much about yourself, especially when you're in a foreign country.
But I do understand the desire to take a buddy, especially if you've never gone abroad before. One wrong choice, and your trip could turn into a Natalee Holloway-style cautionary tale (although she wasn't traveling alone, it should be noted).
Picking an expedition partner can feel like choosing a spouse. Part of the fun of any journey is impromptu happenings—learning a new word in the language by making a mistake, getting invited to a cultural event tourists don't usually get to see, stumbling upon an out-of-the-way café. I sometimes think you're better off traveling with someone you don't know very well to encourage more spontaneity.
Of course, that's potentially scarier than going alone, so here are a few fast rules for picking an adventure companion:
• Find someone who shares your interests. Do you want to see museums and cultural sites, or are you just planning to get drunk on the beach? Having a traveling partner who’s going to sleep the entire time you're abroad will keep you from seeing the Louvre.
• Choose someone who feels the same way as you about alcohol and drugs. If you plan on making this trip an experiment in marijuana or wine, you need to travel with someone who's willing to do the same. Conversely, if you don't drink alcohol and don’t approve of doing drugs but your pal does, you're going to feel uncomfortable and may even find yourself babysitting, which is never fun.
• Travel with someone who handles stress differently than you but in a way that soothes you rather than making you feel worse. This is a hard thing to gauge until you're actually in a trying situation together, but the point is that you want to have a calming effect on each other. If you both get wound up in the same way, you may just set each other off.
• Make sure you have the same ideas about money. I'm not talking politically. If you're a "I'll buy you a meal, you buy me the next one" person, and your buddy is more of a "split everything exactly" type, you're going to rub each other the wrong way. Traveling amplifies money issues, trust me.
• If you don't speak the local language, find a traveling partner who does. Many people in Europe have a basic understanding of English, but some will resent you for using it exclusively.
• Don't count on your best friend or your roommate being a good journey mate. I cannot emphasize this enough: International travel is stressful. Going with those you’re closest to could create rifts between you. The traits that make a good globe-trotting companion are not necessarily the same that make a good roommate or a BFF. Expand your search.
• Keep a cool head no matter what happens. Even if you pick a poor partner, you can still have a good time. Use the experience to learn something new about yourself, even if it's "I can't travel with a teetotaler."
None of these rules are totally foolproof, but they're a good place to start. An international excursion is exciting and fun. Enjoy your trip, whoever goes with you.