Whether you rent a beach house on the coast or cruise down Route 66 on a road trip, spreading travel costs among a group can not only save money, but make a getaway more fun. However, when people have different ideas about how to split the bills or even how much to spend, a relaxing weekend away can quickly turn into a tense standoff.
Just ask Philadelphia resident Katharine Paljug, who takes a beach trip to South Carolina each spring with a group of friends. The group devised a system that involves totaling receipts from food, alcohol and activities and calculating how many people were there each day, since they tend to come and go. Then each person contributes based on the number of days they were there and the amount they spent on expenses.
That system worked well until this spring, when one person decided she should be exempt. "When my husband emailed everyone asking for receipt totals, she sent back an itemized list of the food she had eaten over the course of the two days she was there as an explanation of why she shouldn't owe anything," Paljug says. "I had to explain that assigning value to individual meals and drinks was a crazy way of managing things, would be nearly impossible to figure out and would make everyone hate each other."
The traveler still refused to contribute to shared expenses, and Paljug doesn't expect to see her at the beach next year.
Communication is key to avoiding conflicts like this, according to Amanda Pressner, an avid traveler and co-author of "The Lost Girls: Three Friends. Four Continents. One Unconventional Detour Around the World." "Make sure everyone is on the same page before putting a credit card down," she says.
Sparks can fly when people feel like they're being pressured to spend money on things they didn't budget for, so Pressner recommends leaving flexible time in the itinerary for people to go off on their own. That way, an individual who wants to splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime experience like a safari or deep-sea dive can enjoy those activities while budget-conscious companions explore in less expensive ways.
While traveling around the world with two friends, Pressner and her fellow travelers started a shared kitty at the beginning of a trip. "We each put in $100 in cash, and the most financially responsible member uses that for things like taxi cabs," she explains. For other expenses, Pressner suggests keeping track in a Google document, since that can be accessed on a smartphone, or using pen and paper. Apps such as Splitwise and Kittysplit also allow groups to track and share expenses.
If you trust your travel companions to pull their weight financially, another option is to trade off paying the bills. Pressner says this works especially well with couples. "With certain couples that I travel with, sometimes I'll pick up a bill or just handle the rental car because I know that next time they'll be getting the dinner," Pressner says. "As individuals, I think it's important to keep track of what you're spending. One person does tend to be more generous, and you don't want that person to feel taken advantage of."
While dividing costs evenly for airfare or hotel rooms can help keep things simple, splitting the dinner tab can be more contentious. "The tricky part comes when one person is deliberately trying to save money, and the other person isn't sensitive to it," says Vicky Oliver, author of "301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions." "For example, if one person only orders appetizers and the other person orders a full meal, it's not fair to split the cost down the middle. Or if one person typically orders two glasses of wine and the other doesn't drink at all, it's not fair to just split the cost."
Pressner encourages people to bring cash for dinners or other scenarios when payment is required at the end. And many restaurants are growing accustomed to patrons asking for separate checks, so that's another option if you're concerned about subsidizing your travel companions' steak or sauvignon blanc.
But what if a friend conveniently "forgets" to reimburse you for travel costs after the fact?
Oliver suggests sending a tactful email and not letting someone off the hook even if they he or she had to bail at the last minute. "Sometimes, starting it with a 'Hi, hope all is well!' helps too," she suggests, continuing, "'Just wanted to let you know that you still owe me $150 for the round-trip train fare. I was sorry you had to cut out early, and I hope to spend time with you again soon. Please mail the check to:' and provide your address."
Having each person cover different aspects of the trip reduces the likelihood that one person will get stuck with a huge credit card bill. "Agree with the group that any outstanding payments will be resolved within a short amount of time, like one week," Pressner says. "In the past, I found it was easier to use PayPal to transfer cash between friends because most people have accounts, and it was worth it to lose the transaction fee to ensure that I would get paid back."