Spring break finance: How to handle money when you’re traveling with friends
It’s that time of year when college students make their annual migration to sunnier climes, snowier slopes, or pretty much anywhere that’s not the library. Even if you’re long past graduation, you might be feeling spring break fever, too. So you select an Instagrammable destination, search for a sweet Airbnb, and start texting friends and family: “Who’s in???”
But remove the gauzy social media filter, and you’ll find that vacationing together can test relationships and raise tensions—especially about money. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. These tips from seasoned travel buddies will help you and your squad live your best #vacationlife.
Talk money before you take off
Last year, Caroline, an event planner from Boston, invited a group of 10 friends to celebrate her 30th birthday with her in Croatia. “I knew the trip was going to be very costly for some people in my friend circle,” she said. “A few of us have similar salaries, but the rest don’t.”
Months in advance, Caroline shared with the group the typical cost of flights along with info about setting alerts for the lowest fares, plus an estimated budget for accommodations, food, and activities. She then asked each friend to reply back to her individually to confirm they could come and to share any concerns. “That way each person didn’t have to feel put on the spot about whether they could afford it,” she said. “Travel planning is a months-long process, and you might not remember what you agreed to.”
From these email conversations, she got a sense of what each of her friends’ financial expectations would be once they touched down: “You might find out that someone doesn’t want to spend a lot of money on flights but wants to go all out on the food and activities,” Caroline said.
She also respected that not everyone in the group was going to want, or be able to afford, every activity. Sure, there were some Game of Thrones fans on the trip eager to go on a paid tour of filming locations in Dubrovnik. But a free (and dragon-free) walking tour of the city was an option for all.
“At first, the Game of Thrones fans were trying to convince us, but not only did some of us just not want to pay for it, some of us just don’t watch Game of Thrones!” Caroline said. “We ended up saying, why don’t you guys do this thing, and we’ll do this thing, and then we’ll meet back up for lunch.”
Split costs the smart way
Vacationing with friends can feel like a long, drawn-out version of splitting the check at the end of dinner—except you’re working out who owes what for hotel rooms, boat tours, and rental car payments, in addition to all those meals.
This is another detail it pays to discuss in advance, said Sam, a dad of two from Staten Island, N.Y., who vacationed with his wife, kids, and two other families on the Jersey Shore last year. “Whatever cost-sharing system you want to use, agree on it in advance so that there isn’t a lot of real-time accounting, resentment, or a sense that some people are getting stiffed and some people are freeloading,” Sam said. His group ended up deciding that each family would alternate buying groceries and picking up restaurant tabs over the course of the week.
If you want to track costs more closely, go with a cost-sharing app like Splitwise, which allows friends to keep track of the expenses they cover, tabulates who owes what, and is integrated with Venmo and PayPal for easy payback.
And if you’re feeling more cash-flush than your fellow travelers and decide to treat the group to a meal or activity, be sure to do so “with no strings attached,” Sam said. “Don’t expect that others be as generous and that karma will even things out.”
Keep your cool
Every vacation has its mishaps, and it pays (literally) to have a flexible attitude when things go wrong. Jade and Anya are BFFs who traveled to Florence, Italy, a few years ago. One night they ordered drinks at what they thought was an enoteca (or wine bar) but turned out to be a trattoria—where the waiter told them they needed to order dinner, too. The problem? They’d already eaten and hadn’t budgeted for the extra meal.
“Anya was mortified and thought we should just sit there and get another dinner,” Jade recalled. “We felt pretty stupid. But I made us get up, put down money for our wine, and say, ‘Mi scusi.’” It wasn’t a picture-perfect moment, but it was a win for their wallets—and for their Italian language skills.
Traveling with friends isn’t always smooth sailing. But accepting that there will moments of awkwardness and conflict will leave you happier than trying to force a grin and have the time of your life 24/7. And don’t worry, it will still look like you did in your Instagram story.
(Names were changed for privacy and quotes were edited for length and clarity.)