Before left our jobs to travel and learn more about the world, we were pretty anxious about how couple travel would change our relationship. It proved to be just as difficult as we imagined. We’ve been through our share of crises in our year (so far) of travel together, doing things like learning Egyptian Arabic in Egypt or Swahili in East Africa. All minor crises, thankfully. Like the time we lost the car keys during a difficult hike, or the time we missed nearly all the flights after being interrogated by Israeli border security for eight hours.
Travel is an amazing privilege, but it can be stressful on relationships. A lot can go wrong. Every traveller has a story of a lost wallet (or passport), stolen bags, getting food poisoning, being lost in a strange place, or all of the above! And each crisis can cause unnecessary stress between couples travelling together.
But each time something goes wrong, we have an opportunity to learn a lesson, to avoid making the same mistake again. And we take the opportunity to write things down, so we can remember how a mistake (or a good decision!) was made. And at its core, this is what travelling as a couple is about: getting past obstacles, and learning more about ourselves and the world.
This principle of learning from both good and bad decisions is just one of many from the book Principles, by Ray Dalio. That was our inspiration for writing our own set of principles!
In this guide…
- Our principles for travelling (and surviving) as a couple
- Guidelines on making your own couple travel principles
- About the inspiration for this article – the book Principles by Ray Dalio
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Our principles for couple travel
Let’s get right to the point. Below are the principles we use for surviving as a couple in a difficult life of travel.
We’ve broken them into sections:
- Making better decisions
- Planning together
- Executing together
- Communicating as a couple
More detail on all these below.
Making better decisions as a couple
Use principles to guide decision making
This is circular, but necessary. To even have principles, you have to both be the kind of person who accepts that you’ll live by certain principles (which you can change!) and not just fly by the seat of your pants.
For example, we have a principle of using checklists (we’ll get to that below). Every time we’re packing, we know that we have to use the checklist, or waste time and probably forget at least one thing. It’s tempting to think “I can’t possibly have forgotten anything! There isn’t anything else in the room I might have forgotten!” but our experience tells us otherwise (and the checklist does, too).
Don’t make the same mistake twice
When doing something, think about the last time you did the same thing and any lessons learned, and make sure to implement them.
For example, while on a trip, every time we realise we should have packed something, we write it down immediately on our packing list for next time. It only took two to three iterations to develop a foolproof packing list that makes packing ridiculously easy for every trip.
Keep an issues log
Track how you make decisions, to make sure you’re making them effectively. This should be both for mistakes as well as things that went well.
The way we do this is mostly by updating this document you’re reading! Every time something goes right or wrong, we think back to this and think: how should we update our principles?
The most rigorous, documented way in which we’ve maintained an issues log is through checklists. But often, it’s just a mental list.
For example, we have learned we need to do boring tasks (like booking accommodation) early. It’s in this doc, below here. So each time we do it, we feel happy, knowing we’ve avoided a situation of no places available, or really high costs. And each time we forget, it reinforces why we have the principle.
Use checklists, particularly when preparing, and update them on the fly.
Checklists are awesome. You can’t argue with a checklist; you just have to obey it.
The first time you make a checklist it seems like a waste of time. Why write everything down as you pack it? It seems redundant.
But it becomes powerful each time you update it. We like to update them live — as soon as we realise something should have been on them. By the third or fourth trip that’s very similar, your checklist becomes bulletproof, and your preparation time is cut down massively.
The result: battle-tested checklists that are refined from experience. Plus every item in there tells a little story.
Planning as a couple
Prepare for worst-case scenarios
Have a plan to mitigate extreme stress when you know it’ll happen. Stick to the plan, and take it one step at a time.
We’re often caught by surprise by scenarios that should not have been that surprising. When we don’t see them coming, we have to use the principles above (particularly communication). But it helps to try to foresee a worst case scenario, have an action plan and execute according to it.
For example, one time, we knew we’d have a very difficult hike ahead of us. There was likely going to be mosquitoes, possibly bears and definitely hot sun. So we made a plan for how fast to go, how often to take breaks, and to stay close enough to each other to communicate. We made sure our water bottles were full, our headlamps ready and we kept constant tabs on the navigation, making sure when we knew we were 10%, 50% and 90% of the way.
What happened? It was difficult. It took us hours. Turned out there were no mosquitoes and bears, and we didn’t need our headlamps. But we got to the end still smiling and with nobody upset because we were prepared for that and even worse.
Avoid future pain
Think about what might go bad in the future, and avoid it if you can.
When doing something to avoid future pain, we think “future us will be grateful!”. Thinking this way makes us think about things that regularly cause us to have pain and how to avoid those situations from happening.
- Running out of phone charge: make sure our external batteries are full at all times
- Rain or mosquitoes: have the right protection.
- Losing our stuff: having a discipline of doing a “final check” when leaving anywhere.
Sometimes we over-prepare, but that’s rarely a bad thing. About a dozen times Jo has said “Oh no, my phone’s at 6%” and then has been pleasantly surprised that my external battery is full, in my bag and paired with the right cable, earning me millions of points.
Focus on one thing every day
Decide one thing you’re going to accomplish, and do just that. Everything else is a bonus.
We sometimes get near the end of a day and feel like we’ve done nothing. “Damn it, all I had to do was book flights, and I didn’t do that!” This can be averted by deciding at the beginning of the day that all we have to do is book flights.
We decide what this is in the morning. It usually just needs to be one or two things. It’s fine if it’s one thing! We have a tendency to make long lists and then never complete most of them—and we know we’re not alone in this. But by having one goal, and focusing on completing it, we get a much greater success rate, and motivation to keep going.
Avoid unnecessary risks
Think about risks you’re taking that you don’t need to (or want to), and eliminate them.
We both have high risk tolerance and know we get a little rush from pulling things off. This can be making it to a flight or ferry with minutes to spare, or something as simple as managing to carry a whole stack of plates and glasses to another room without dropping any.
Then one day (fairly often) we miss a flight or drop a glass and think… what the hell was I doing? Was that really necessary?
Rarely is a risk necessary with enough forward planning, so we just have to realise that tendency within ourselves to embrace risk and not indulge it unnecessarily. There’s enough risk in life.
Principles for execution
Do the hard things first
Decide what the hardest thing for the day is, and do it first.
There’s so much we want to do as soon as we wake up. We have a tendency to think: “I’m tired. I just woke up. I’ll do this nice easy thing until I wake up and THEN I’ll get started with the day.”
An easy way to develop a discipline of doing the hard things first is routine. For example, coffee, then meditation, then exercise. These put us in the right mindset for the rest of the day and help us do things like focus on “just one thing” or boring administration tasks.
Designate a head chef and sous chef
When working on something together that’s routine, appoint one person in charge.
This started in the kitchen when we found we butted heads on how to do things. “Wait, are you frying the beef? Shouldn’t we grill it?” “I think frying is easier” “WELL I DISAGREE LOUDLY!”
Things go a lot easier if there are two distinct roles: a head chef and a sous chef. The sous chef can provide input, but the head chef decides what is done and by whom.
When travelling, we let one person drive, one person navigate. And those people can change! And agree on how to communicate, like “I’ll check the map every five minutes” or “I’ll tell you if I’m not sure where I am”.
Double perform; don’t just double check
When something is mission-critical, we must both carefully do it, not just double-check each other’s work.
This includes booking anything involving dates, or spending large amounts of money. And it helps us avoid situations like realising we have nowhere to stay for a day because we got a date wrong by just one day.
Double performing means we both do a task. We both have to apply 100% of our brains to it. We check our own calendars, and do our own maths.
Of course, you don’t have to double perform everything, like making dinner or going shopping, as it’s a waste of resources. It’s just for things that are mission critical. (It’s useful to decide what those things are in advance. Maybe dinner is mission-critical for you!)
Do the quick easy tasks before they become urgent (and expensive)
Think about tasks that are non-urgent now but which will become urgent, time-consuming, expensive, and stressful later, and do them now!
A classic example of this is not acknowledging that a process might take a while. Things like ordering a product online or applying for a visa. Leave either of those until the last minute and they become much harder tasks: going somewhere in person, paying more money and spending more time.
We have to think proactively what these will be. They’ll include:
- Buy something online, especially when delivery will take a while
- Buying tickets or booking accommodation
Do the boring administration tasks regularly
Do the boring but important regular admin, and don’t let it pile up.
We are racking up expenses as we go through our year. We know that we’ll be racking up random bits of income throughout the year as well. How will we plan for this?
- Option 1: Panic and throw a whole bunch of emails and receipts at an accountant who insists this isn’t how you do things and they can’t help us.
- Option 2: Carefully file away receipts, log expenses and income into a spreadsheet, and prepare for the crunch (which will happen anyway).
There’s a LOT of boring admin that goes along with this path. Things like
- Financial admin: Budgeting, cash-flow monitoring, banking
- Technical admin: Monitoring data related to our web businesses
- Personal admin: Replying to emails, organising meetings
These are tough to think about. But the important thing is we have to do them regularly, not leaving them to the last minute, and blaming nobody but ourselves.
Principles for effective couple communication
Understand and communicate the emotional context
Understand when you’re exhausted or slightly annoyed, communicate it, and explain that’s why you’re reacting a certain way to something else.
We sometimes react to things in strong ways and the other person may not even know why.
For example, one time Jo suggested we get up at 3:30 am to get to a site in time for sunrise. I wasn’t so happy, and said “well, I guess we should not have dinner and go straight to bed”, then was silent and distant most of the evening.
What I eventually was able to say was: I was hungry and had been hungry for hours. I wanted to do some night time photography and didn’t want to head straight to bed. You are dubious whether the sunrise was very good, anyway. And it was only after communicating all that that Jo could help find a solution.
It takes extra effort to dig deep, understand the feelings and then put them into words. So we’ve learned to identify those times and proactively resolve them.
Communicate extra clearly when stressed
Know when you’re stressed and make extra effort to communicate clearly and listen attentively. Don’t let stress compound through poor communication.
When we’re stressed, we have a tendency to start communicating less than effectively.
I might start panicking and screaming, like the time I was surrounded by a swarm of mosquitoes. When that happened, running around and yelling was a totally impractical thing to do. It just made a situation worse. It was only when I stopped and we discussed our plan of action that we could actually resolve it.
Wake each other up for urgent things
When the stakes are high, timing is tight, and it’ll avoid making an important mistake, put compassion to one side and wake each other up.
One time we were applying for a visa kind of at the last minute. We received notifications that we had to update some documentation. Jo received it late at night while I was asleep. I woke up early and took care of it while she was asleep.
I ended up updating the documentation the wrong way; she was annoyed she didn’t do it the night before.
Praise generously; criticise compassionately.
Say more nice things than you need to, so when you have some criticism, it is better received.
A lot of what we’re doing and learning is actually totally new to us. And often quite hard.
I’ve learned languages before, and so has Jo. But we’ve never learned languages this hard, or this intensively.
A little praise goes a long way. Especially if it’s real, genuine, and sometimes quantified praise. We do occasionally get praise from the outside, but it’s easy for us to give it to each other.
On the flip side, when something needs to be criticised, having given ample praise puts you in a good position to criticise compassionately.
Teach as soon as you learn
As soon as you learn something thoroughly, teach others.
Yes, experienced professors or authors in a field may know a lot, but their audience might be enormous, and the information they have in their heads might not naturally be sorted into what is most relevant for someone trying to do something.
For example, learning how to live in Egypt, or the intricacies of Swahili grammar, are things both explained simply so newcomers don’t get bogged down with too much information.
Along the way, as we learn how to do this, we’re also taking notes and trying to write articles and how-tos as we go, going into as much detail as possible. We’ll add them as fast as we can!
Ask for help, because the pay-off is huge
Don’t hesitate to ask for directions, how to do something, or the WiFi password.
We both have a tendency to be stubborn and try to do things alone. We’d often just rather figure things out than ask anyone for help. We’ll try to navigate ourselves, guess a WiFi password, or walk rather than hitch a ride.
Asking is hard, especially in situations where people might say no (e.g. asking for a ride). So we both have to make an effort to get over our stubbornness, fears and insecurities and remember that the pay-off for asking is huge.
About the book “Principles”
A while ago, we both read Principles by Ray Dalio. We highly recommend this book!
Ray Dalio was the founder of Bridgewater, one of the world’s most successful investment companies. “Oh great,” you might think. “Another Wall Street titan.” Yes. But they’re not all the same.
When you read about the honest and self-aware way in which he works, you want to believe that it’s because of how he works that he’s successful, and he would have been successful in anything — investment or otherwise.
The first principle he has is the (somewhat circular) belief that we should use principles to guide our decision making. He believes that we should learn from good decisions, and avoid making bad decisions twice. So he says we should keep a log of all decisions, good or bad. For each one, we should analyse how the decision was made and what the outcome was. Over time, the log becomes a valuable source of guidance.
A few of the principles he mentioned that really hit home for us were:
- Be radically open-minded and radically transparent. Share everything we think about and be open to being wrong all the time. Communicate, let people help us, try things, and try to be wrong.
- To progress, we must experience pain, measure results and then reflect. In order to improve, we must experience hardship. This is the core of what we do at Discover Discomfort!
- Spend time understanding what motivates people. Learn the many ways people think, how to communicate with them and how to work with them.
- Listen to people’s opinions, and weight their believability on a subject to help make a decision. We might listen to three opinions on any topic, but more heavily weight the opinion of someone with a lot of experience or knowledge.
The principles are here in highly summarised form. Be warned though—they’re all very brief (or sometimes one word, like “Meditate”), and topics about which you could write a whole chapter. The summary is not a good replacement, but it makes for a good reference index or sneak-peak.
How to create your own couple travel principles
We started creating principles after one frustrating experience.
When we realised we had forgotten our portable water filter only shortly into a three day hike, we also knew it wasn’t the first time we had forgotten something critical. So apart from being annoyed at forgetting something, we were more annoyed it had happened. We knew how it had happened, but that didn’t help us feel better.
We found it (luckily), but the almost-crisis gave birth to our first principle: that for critical planning elements, we should “double perform”, not just “double check”. We lifted this straight out of Ray Dalio’s book. More principles came naturally over time.
Every couple needs their own principles, and the best ones come by way of personal experience.
The first thing to do is agree to create principles. This is pretty circular. But you both have to have an attitude of accepting that you’ll make mistakes, and that you want to learn from them.
The second thing is to start recording both good and bad decisions. Just keep a log in a Google Doc. “We are doing this because xyz.” We all make lots of decisions when travelling. Like “I will put all my valuable stuff in my carry-on, because I’m worried my checked luggage will be lost”. Sometimes we focus too much on just what goes wrong. But we should also learn from what goes right, which is most things!
After your log gets long enough you can distil it down into decisions. And please, share it with us!
Is there a set of rules or principles you have agreed to that make travel, planning or just life in general go more smoothly?
Would love to hear about it—maybe there’s something we can add to our own list.