Group trips are fun — in theory. But they can quickly spiral into Venmo-nagging chaos if not properly orchestrated.
Getting a group to decide on basics like location and dates is one thing; getting them to decide on budgets and preferences is an even thornier one. We’re sharing our secrets for navigating these difficult and friendship-threatening waters.
That’s right, we wrote this article as a group. It can be done. Here’s how to plan a trip with friends when your budgets might differ.
Group travel money tips from the Nerds
1. Pick your travel style
If you’re a savvy traveler planning a trip with friends who themselves are (probably) not, you have two options:
Option 1: Take charge and earn rewards
The group wants to get a big house? Great, you can book it yourself, charge it to a card that earns points on vacation rentals, and split the bill. Assuming everyone actually pays you back (pro tip: Get the money before the trip), you’ll earn loads of free points. You’ll also have control over where you stay and won’t get stuck in lousy accommodations because your friends are too lazy to read reviews.
The drawback of this option is that you have to actually coordinate and communicate. Depending on your friends, no amount of extra points could be worth the hassle. Which brings us to …
Option 2: Stay out of the way and maximize for autonomy
Some battles are not worth winning. If acting as the travel agent for your friends sounds like torture, don’t subject yourself. Stay out of the decision-making as much as possible and give yourself escape hatches as needed. If someone suggests that you all fly out together, it’s OK to say, “No thanks, I’ll book my own ticket.” Otherwise, you may get stuck with the basic economy awfulness they invariably choose.
This option has its risks and rewards. You save yourself the headache of cat-herding, but open yourself to some bad choices by others. Go with the flow, but maintain veto power if you spot red flags. — Sam Kemmis
2. Split transactions with apps
Venmo is an easy way for one person to cover a bill (so you’re not putting down six cards at dinner for the waiter to process) and have others pay them back. Venmo usage is growing: The mobile payment service processed approximately $60.6 billion in total payment volume in the fourth quarter of 2021, growing 29% year over year, according to PayPal’s
2021 results released in February 2022.
But maybe you’d prefer to tally up all the costs at the end of the trip instead of on a per-transaction basis. For instance, if one person paid for a rental car, another booked the vacation rental, and a third put the entire dinner tab on their card, it can be a headache to figure out all of the transactions. In that case, the Splitwise app could simplify the calculations. All you have to do is invite the group, and each person can input the shared expenses that they paid for.
The app will do the math, so by the end of the trip, you’ll know exactly how much you owe each person. You can even send payments electronically. I’ve used this app for many group trips, and it’s always a hit because everyone likes the transparency. Your travel buddies will be more confident that if they pay for something, they’ll get reimbursed. Plus, everyone can earn some points if they’re using rewards credit cards or loyalty program memberships. — Meghan Coyle
3. Take your own transportation
I like to use miles when flying and most of my friends aren’t that savvy. Generally, they’ll look for the cheapest flight, while I prefer to fly in business class on miles, even if that means flying a day or two earlier. There’s nothing wrong with arriving on your own, so don’t feel bad. Just let the others know. — Elina Geller
4. Save by cooking group meals
Depending on how big your group is, going out to eat at restaurants can mean long waits for big tables and a lot of work to tally up the bill. If you’re staying at a vacation rental, you might want to consider cooking some meals instead.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the cost to feed a family of four in December 2021 was about $200 to $300 per week, assuming all meals were eaten at home. Paying roughly $60 a person to eat in for a week is likely more affordable than what you’d pay to dine out for a week (depending on the place).
My friends and I usually assign each meal to a few people, and those people will decide what’s on the menu, add the ingredients to the group shopping list and serve as head chefs on their assigned day. Some crowd-pleasing meals include make-your-own pizzas, tacos, pasta and anything grilled. — Meghan Coyle
5. Be OK with doing different things
A frustrating aspect of group travel is trying to get everyone to agree to the same activity. If you’re in a big group and people are disagreeing about options, suggest splitting up for the afternoon so that each person can do something they enjoy. Half of the group might prefer to go on a hike, while the other half would rather lounge at the beach.
Even though it’s a group trip, everyone has their own idea of what a vacation looks like. Try to provide various options to maintain a positive vibe on the trip. — Elina Geller
6. Be upfront about your budget preferences
I’ve been on both ends of the “I-did-not-want-to-pay-for-this” scenario, but you can get out of awkward money situations on a group trip with some finesse.
Getting out of things you don’t want to pay for: I’m not much of a drinker (I prefer to eat my calories), which can be problematic at bachelorette parties and other booze-heavy events. At a restaurant where everyone else shares bottles of wine, you might be able to avoid splitting the bill by asking the server for a separate check for your entree and glass of water. It’s less likely you can get out of paying for the poolside cabana that came with bottomless mimosas if you also took part in the accompanying chilled eucalyptus towels and misters.
My advice: Be upfront about your budget. Whether it’s alcohol or any other expense that you’re not keen on covering, make the other trip decision-makers aware ahead of time so you can plan accordingly. Perhaps you split the base bill, but the person who adds the mai tais covers the tip.
And if it’s truly too awkward to split a bill that way, it’s OK to go your separate ways for the day. If everyone else goes wine tasting, perhaps you do a different activity and then exchange stories about your experiences later.
Getting others to agree to expenses you want: I’ve also been in the opposite camp of wanting to fund something that others didn’t. I was once in South America with old college buddies who were still on a college budget, and they proposed a two-hour bus ride to the beach when a cab would have taken less than 30 minutes. I didn’t fly all the way to Brazil to sit on a bus for two hours!
Whether it’s a $15 cab versus 50-cent bus fare, or a once-in-a-lifetime, memorable meal at the top of the Eiffel Tower versus a croissant from the cafe across the street, you might be able to reason with your friends that the splurge is worth it.
And if you can’t, perhaps you treat your buddies and cover the whole expense yourself. Rather than debate splitting a $15 cab, save yourself the headache and just pay for it. If it’s a pricey Eiffel Tower entree, tell your friends it’s a gift — and now you’re off the hook come holiday time. — Sally French
7. Look for group discounts
If budget is a burden for some members of your group, find ways to make activities cheaper and more inclusive so no one has to pretend they had a great time staying inside the vacation rental all day. You don’t always need a massive group to qualify for group discounts.
Even if you’re traveling with just six or 10 people, it might be worth asking if you could get a deal on some of your activities. I’ve gotten huge discounts on kayaking and taken advantage of Groupon deals on snow tubing. — Meghan Coyle
The bottom line
One friend wants a house with an infinity pool and another wants to save for retirement? One friend wants to fly together and another would rather take the bus? Coordinating group travel is like herding cats — if cats insisted on splitting the check when they were the ones who ordered all the cocktails.
But there are ways to survive this madness and maybe even save money or earn points. Setting a reasonable budget, communicating clearly and agreeing to expenses ahead of time are crucial. Plus, finding creative ways to save money while having fun is a win-win.
And remember, if something feels overwhelming, you can always chart your own course. You can still be part of the group without doing everything together.
More From NerdWallet
Elina Geller writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @themissmiles.
Meghan Coyle writes for NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @inkwaves.
Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SAFmedia.
Sam Kemmis writes for NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @samsambutdif.