Traveling Companions


Fiesole, Italy, is a gloriously romantic spot. High on the hazy hills overlooking Florence, it’s the sort of over-the-top setting you associate with Merchant-Ivory movies about British girls falling in love under the Tuscan sun. Everything and everyone seems beautiful, bathed in golden light.

“This is so romantic,” I sighed with a shiver of pleasure. Next to me, my mother nodded.

It was one of many occasions when I’ve found myself in a fabulously romantic location, with everything in place for a lovers’ getaway … together with my mom. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because we are both partial to Spain and Italy, two countries with more than their share of sexy sites.

But here’s the thing: I’m quite certain my mom has a better time with me in Italy than she would with my father, even though they still hold hands and gaze into each other’s eyes after 40 years together. They’re a very romantic couple. But my father does not like Italy. In fact, he does not like Europe, or really, any place that involves sleeping in a bed not his own. And the expression of long-suffering, patient martyrdom he adopts when forced out of his comfort zone is — believe me — not romantic in the least.

I, on the other hand, like everything my mother likes about Italy, so it’s great fun to savor it together: the gelato, the tiramisu, 20 pasta meals in a row, entire days spent shopping when we could have been in museums. … Did I mention the gelato?

All of which proves that on vacation, your companion matters. Mutual interests, availability and a desire to share time together are obvious things to consider, but here — based on my experience — are other significant factors:

Preferred level of exertion. Do you plan on doing a lot of walking? How about climbing hundreds of stairs up towers or scrambling along hillsides? Are you planning to rent a bike? Not everyone is up for these exertions.

My friend Melissa and her mom and sister were contemplating a trip to Paris, where she envisioned strolling the boulevards by day and hopping through wine bars by night. Given her mother’s bad knees and her sister’s likely pregnancy, however, this seemed like an imperfect setup.

Closely related to how much energy a person can exert is how much he or she is willing to exert while ostensibly at leisure. For some people, the once-in-a-lifetime trip to Thailand means getting up early each day to explore as many villages, temples or beaches as possible. For others, it means the freedom to sleep until noon, drink coffee in bed and sprawl on the beach all afternoon. I’m famously a culture-vulture, but there are years when all I want is a seaside terrace and absolutely no schedule.

Eating habits. I’m not just talking about kashrut here, though it goes without saying that dietary restrictions ought to be negotiated up front. Some countries are easy places to go vegetarian or order the fish baked separately in foil; others are decidedly not. Then you have the picky eaters, who gratefully fall back on pizza wherever they go, versus the ones who will order the waiter’s recommendation without knowing exactly what it is.

Also, some people eat their way through a country — and don’t mind spending their souvenir dollars on memorable Michelin stars — while others keep it simple, and cheap, with cheese sandwiches and bottled water. Those two people also shouldn’t do Paris together.

The spontaneity factor. I know people who make reservations for every meal and every hotel months before they leave. I am not one of them, and such people would likely find my pull-into-town-and-improvise style too much for their nerves. The former may not experience as many serendipitous joys as the latter, but they almost definitely get a better deal on their airfare.

When you’re thinking about which friends or relatives to travel with, consider whether they — and you — schedule your weekends six months in advance, or whether they call you up on Sunday morning to see what you’re doing for brunch.

Sometimes, the companions are the entire point of the trip — and that’s where a little flexibility, and a generous spirit, are called for. A Passover cruise may not be your thing, but if it’s your grandmother’s thing and she’s paying for everyone to be together, be thankful for the family time, and stock up on Dramamine.

And sometimes, the ideal companion is yourself and no one else. One of my favorite escapes was a week alone in London many years ago; I spent six hours inside the Tate Modern without anyone complaining about sore feet or boredom, made new friends at the hotel (and more later in the pub). Best of all, I took no pictures.

What remain to this day are the memories — which are, in the end, the best companions of all.