Why Vacation "Friend Flings" Never Work In Real Life

Photographed by Victoria Adamson.
Vacation flings have long been the stuff of legend, literature, and film. I’m not referring to (nor endorsing) infidelity, but rather the boost in self-esteem and libido that seems to occur the second we touch foreign soil or sand. There’s something about being away from the daily grind that enables travelers to let loose with their sexuality, and likewise attracts the attention of others. There is, however, a lesser-known, but equally frequent phenomenon that occurs on holiday: the friend fling. It’s a platonic meeting of the minds that’s unrelated to gender (or gender preference), and can turn an otherwise enjoyable trip into the adventure of a lifetime.

There’s a caveat to the friend fling, though: they simply do not translate back to real, post-vacation life. I began formulating this theory about nine years ago, after a two-week trek and whitewater trip in Peru. As a travel writer, I’d been on dozens of press trips, and had often experienced the insta-bonding that can occur when spending 24/7 with a small group, but I’d always chalked the phenomenon up to shared occupation and interests. The friend fling is more about clicking with someone when you’re traveling for pleasure (usually solo, but not always). It’s like a non-sexual meet-cute. And while I do have a couple of treasured, long-term friendships that have resulted from this sort of encounter, the reality is, few friend flings survive the return to reality.

By way of example, let me return to my Peruvian adventure. I was traveling alone and joining an organized trek of the Inca Trail, combined with a whitewater trip on the Apurímac River. There was one girl in particular in our group — let’s call her Amy — that I connected with, and for the next 14 days, we were joined at the hip. To this day, I’ve rarely laughed so much or so hard, with such frequency. We had any number of inside jokes, bonded over ex-boyfriends, career angst, and the usual flotsam that are the seedlings for a deep and lasting friendship. Add to that the exhilaration and shared experience of an arduous physical undertaking, seeing the sun rise over Machu Picchu, and late nights spent drinking pisco beside the campfire. By the end of the trip, I was convinced I had a friend for life, and Amy and I parted with tearful hugs and promises to visit one another soon. And sure enough, a month later, I was parked curbside at my local airport, picking Amy up for a girls' weekend.
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What followed reads like a textbook bad date. For inexplicable reasons, Amy and I had almost nothing to talk about, and when we did, the conversation was stilted and awkward. Not even the addition of alcohol could help us recapture the magic of those heady days in Peru. By the end of her three-day visit, Amy and I had run out of things to say to one another, and I couldn’t get her to the airport fast enough. It’s not that I didn’t like her — it’s just that the connection we’d had a month prior wasn’t able to sustain the humdrumness of a weekend in a less-enthralling locale.

Not even the addition of alcohol could help us recapture the magic of those heady days in Peru.

I’m sad to report that Amy and I never spoke again. Clearly, she felt the same way about me, and so we called it a day and went on with our lives. Since then, I’ve come to terms with the friend fling, and I don’t let disappointment or distrust cloud potential. Last spring, I met an incredibly cool Polish girl while en route to the remote Cambodian island of Koh Rong Samloen. We ended up sharing a rustic room and spent a lot of time together for the next three days, and emailed frequently after we both continued on our respective travels. But like clockwork, soon after I returned home, the emails petered out, and so did our bond.

I knew it was coming. But I found myself wondering if my new friend, who was younger than me, was already aware of the phenomenon. Would she be surprised and disappointed at the dissipation of our bond, or had she been on the road long enough (six months) to know the deal? A platonic fling is about being in the moment and enjoying time with a like-minded person, but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t feel guilty at times about potentially hurting someone’s feelings. In my experience, however, friend flings usually mutually dissolve (or resolve) as we again become caught up in our daily lives.

Likewise, on a recent trip to Austin, TX, I hit it off with a local guy, and in between obnoxious texts, we were out tearing it up at his favorite dive bars and food trucks. Despite how much fun we had, for me, the lovefest ended right about the time my plane hit the tarmac. I have little doubt he was a good guy; I just wasn’t looking for the commitment he seemed to crave. Back home, drowning in deadlines, I didn’t have it in me to maintain an ongoing (and intense) correspondence.

I’d say that some of these expiration date issues are due to my innate personality quirks — I’m an introvert and have a hard time connecting with most people — but in talking with (long-term, non-travel-related) friends and acquaintances about this article, all admitted they’d had friend flings of their own. It’s about biological imperative; humans are social animals. We have an innate need to bond, and there’s nothing more conducive to instant friendship than physical challenge, totally effed up circumstances, annoying travel mates, or plain, old-fashioned loneliness. Friend flings are no less golden than legit platonic relationships. You still come away with incredible memories, and sometimes, an insider’s eye view of a destination. Just don’t be disheartened if your bond can’t withstand the test of time (like, the day after you get home). Sometimes, it’s really not about you. It’s about me.

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