We are really, really fortunate to have great friends that we love to vacation with.  We most often travel with my former college roommate (and med school classmate), her husband, and two girls who happen to be almost the same age as our two girls.  Our first big trip together was to a medical conference in Cancun when our girls were just little (ages 3-6).  The trip was such a success that we have repeated it multiple times.  In fact, my girls really only consider it a true vacation if this family gets to go with us.  We have been to Mexico three times (Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and San Jose del Cabo) and Hawaii once (Maui).  We have been camping with them every summer for 7 or 8 years now and also do a girls’ weekend every holiday season.

When we all get together, one of our favorite topics is rehashing past trips and planning for future ones.  Half the fun of traveling is in the planning and that fun is even greater when you share it with someone else.  In the many months that often pass between seeing each other, we share multiple messages about this VRBO or that AirBnB.  We debate the various merits and downfalls of resorts and camping sites.  We share our research about zip lining and food tours.  We compile shopping lists and lists of activities that we must do.  We meal plan and share the packing list.  You know, I’ll bring the salt, you bring the Ziplocks.  I’ll buy the wine, you bring the beer.

We have tried pretty much every style of vacation with our friends.  We have camped in trailers, stayed in all inclusive resorts, stayed in separate VRBO condos in the same resort and on our last trip even shared one large penthouse suite (yes, it was a blast!).  Somehow, with these friends, it all works.  I don’t think that would be true of everyone but this family is the one family I can honestly say that we can vacation with under just about any circumstances.  This has a lot to do with the kind of people they are.  It also has something to do with the fact that we have vacationed together a lot and know how to anticipate and prevent problems by now.  But mostly, they are just great people and that makes it work.

So, what do you look for in a vacation partner family?  First, I think that having kids of similar ages is a must.  That way, the interests and abilities are likely to be similar.  When our kids were younger they loved to swim (with us in the pool), build sand castles, collect shells, do crafts and play simple games.  Now that they are older we go zip lining, take long beach walks, body surf in the ocean, ride bikes down treacherous trails and let them explore on their own with in a safe distance.  Another plus is that they can all tolerate a similar amount of waiting and walking and time between meals.  It’s tough to have a two-year-old who needs to eat every hour and take a daily nap combined with a 12-year-old who needs privacy and freedom and adventure.

The other plus with similar aged kids is that we can mix it up. Nothing kills a vacation faster than sibling squabbling.   The best antidote for sibling squabbling is friends.  I can take the two younger girls shopping and my friend can take the two older girls to the beach.  The older girls can have a little freedom and walk down the street one block for ice cream while the younger girls do a puzzle on the dining room table.  When they all reunite, bliss reigns supreme (or something like that).  Seriously, though, it helps to shake things up a bit.  Having friends with you increases the odds that everyone will get what they need, when they need it, and even have someone like to do it with them.

Another attribute that I think is key in happy friend vacations is at least a modicum of economic parity.  I know, I know, I hate to bring this up.  Money is a touchy subject but one that has to be negotiated and agreed upon in order to pull off a successful friend vacation.  I love that our vacation partners are reasonable about money.  I know they won’t agree to take a vacation with us unless they can afford it.  We have reasonably similar incomes and reasonably similar ideas about how to spend our vacation dollars.  As I mentioned above, we ended up sharing a penthouse suite on this last vacation.  It was a huge unit with plenty of privacy for everyone.  The shared cost factor made it possible for us to afford some luxuries we wouldn’t have been able to afford on our own. Most importantly, we all agreed at the outset that it was worth it.  My friend and I are both very happy to pay for an ocean front condo when we are on a beach vacation.  We are also pretty likely to eat breakfast and lunch in said condo in order to save some money.  We will splurge on nice dinners with drinks but if we want a drink at happy hour we will make it ourselves in the condo instead of ordering from the resort bar.  We talk ahead of time about adventures and excursions and agree on one or two that everyone will like and that we can afford.  When we get there, we won’t be spending wildly nor feel that we have to keep up with each other.  We know that no one will be stressing about money and that is essential to a relaxing vacation.

Finally, you want vacation partners who are flexible.  We all know that the unexpected happens when we travel.  The last thing you want is a tantrum throwing, inflexible, stressed out travel partner.  If you travel enough, some gnarly stuff is going to go down and when that happens you want someone with you who remembered to pack a good attitude.  I’m pretty sure I can’t even remember all the things we have been through with our vacation partners but there have been hotel rooms that didn’t get booked (anyone need a roommate?), reservations that got lost (how will we keep these kids happy while we wait???), menus entirely in Spanish (we took college Spanish, right?), beach walks interrupted by lightening storms, ocean sick kids on boats, dropped ice cream cones, transit on local Mexican buses, poop in hot tubs (that was your kid, right?), sand in shoes, vomit in beds, head injuries, lacerations, and one really epic screaming fit in the middle of a lake on a paddle board.  And you know what? These people that we travel with took it all in stride.  No big deal.  We shared a hotel room, we kept the kids entertained, we found food for everyone to eat, we danced on the beach, we held hair while kids vomited and cleaned up afterwards, we closed lacerations and evaluated for concussions, we scooped up the ice cream and put it back on the cone (ten second rule!), we emptied shoes of sand and we helped our oldest daughters mend their friendship after that really epic screaming fit in the middle of the lake on a paddle board.

After all of that, I can honestly say, I really wouldn’t have it any other way.  The right travel partners exponentially increase the fun, lighten the load, enrich the memories and enlighten the journey.