what’s the etiquette for hanging out with coworkers on business trips?

A reader writes:

I travel for work about once a month, sometimes domestically and sometimes internationally. I’m lucky enough to have friends in many of the places I travel, and I often make plans to see these friends either in the evenings (if there’s no possibility of a work-related event or meeting) or by staying the night if the meeting adjourns in the afternoon/evening and my job will pay for an additional hotel night. I’ve had the awkward situation a few times where I’ve had a colleague from work who is also on the trip and who doesn’t have dinner plans when I’ve made arrangements to see my friends. It’s especially awkward when I’ve taken the trip with just one other person from my job. In that situation, had I not had a friend in that city, my colleague and I would have had dinner together.

If my colleague asks if I want to have dinner, is it okay to say something like, “I’m actually meeting up with an old friend,” and leave it at that? Or is the right thing to do to invite them along? I would much prefer to have one-on-one time with my far-flung friends, but I don’t want to damage work relationships either.

Absolutely, it’s fine to simply say that you’re meeting up with a friend, and you’re not obligated to invite your coworker along if you don’t want to. Your off time is your off time, whether you’re traveling for work or not.

That said, if you’re traveling with someone who you think is likely to assume you’ll be having dinner together (or who will want to), it’s kind to let them know ahead of time — for instance, as you’re going over arrangements for the trip, mention, “By the way, I’m going to meet up with a friend on Tuesday for dinner.” Or, if you aren’t meeting anyone but just know you’ll want to have time to yourself, you can say, “I should warn you — when I’m traveling, I usually go straight back to the hotel and crash in my room after the work day.” That way, they have advance warning and can make other plans if they want to, or at least aren’t caught off-guard by it at the last minute, their dreams of bonding over sushi and karaoke shattering into the cold hard reality that you are in your room reading Sense & Sensibility for the fifth time. (Not that I’m speaking from personal experience here or anything. Actually, I’m currently reading The Godfather, and it is fantastic.)

But even if you don’t have opportunity to mention your plans ahead of time, it’s still fine to go off and do your own thing once you’re no longer working.

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. Sasha*

    OP, if you don’t have a change to discuss plans ahead of time, I also suggest cutting off the conversation after they ask, so they don’t have a chance to look at you longingly, expecting an invite, or outright asking to come. And you don’t have to be rude about it or anything, just something like, “I’m meeting a friend, gotta run!”

    Alison – I have wondered about something similar, a coworker who seems like she really wants to hang out with our teams off-hours. She has suggested outings together a few times, and I’ve either been busy or sick. I suppose I would handle those in the same manner, if I didn’t really want to hang out with her? Nothing wrong with her, she’s very nice – it’s just one of those “I’ve just spent 8 hours with you people and I don’t want to be around you anymore” type things.

    1. Sasha*

      *Not suggesting you would be rude. That came out funny. What I meant was, it can be said in a casual, friendly manner.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, I think you can always mention that you have other plans (even if those plans are crashing on your couch), or it feels nicer to address it more big-picture, you could always say something like, “My schedule is crazy so it’s hard to get together outside of work.” You could suggest lunch or coffee during the workday, if you’re willing, to soften it.

    3. Jamie*

      so they don’t have a chance to look at you longingly

      This was too funny – although between this and some of the other posts lately I’m beginning to feel like the only person in the world who isn’t looked at longingly by my co-workers.

        1. Jamie*

          That’s not so much longing as it’s akin to trying to decide how much to irritate the monkey in the zoo.

  2. AnotherAlison*

    The problem with “I usually go straight back to the hotel and crash in my room” is when it’s an excuse for a coworker you need a break from, and they see on future trips that you actually like hanging out until 1 am when you go with a group of less irritating coworkers. Not that this has ever happened.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Good point. Maybe modify it to ““I should warn you — sometimes when I’m traveling, if I’m tired, I end up going straight back to the hotel and crash in my room after the work day.”

      1. Anon*

        For me, it also depends on the frequency of travel. When I was traveling a few times each year, yes, I’d be up for dinner and drinks. When I was traveling a full week out of every month, I was much more conscious of sticking to my regular workout and sleep schedule. These situations both popped up within the same job, just on different projects.

  3. AdAgencyChick*

    I usually handle this in the way AAM suggests — the minute I know I’m going to be traveling to a city where I have someone to visit, I talk it up a little bit (“Yay, we’re going to Austin! My BFF lives in Austin! I can’t wait to see her!”), and by the time we actually arrive in that city, my coworkers are well aware that I have plans. This works well because, in the past, I’ve worked with a lot of hard-partying types who will try very hard to persuade you to join in whatever craziness they have planned for the evening, and if you tell them THAT NIGHT that you’re going out with a friend, you get, “Oh, bring her along! It’ll be a blast!” Whereas if they know that I’ve been looking forward for weeks to some nice catch-up time with that person, they know I won’t be interested in whatever other shenanigans they have in mind.

  4. Meg Murry*

    I think its fine as long as you aren’t stranding your coworker. For instance, if you are on an international trip and you speak the language but they don’t or you only rented one rental car for the 2 of you, you should make sure there is an option for them like dining in the hotel restaurant before you just ditch them. I think it is also different if the whole point of you going along on the trip is because the person is new to the company and hasn’t been to that site before – at my company, we tend to send an experienced person along with new people on their first trip, and it is expected that the experienced person will take the new person out to dinner and generally show them around (at the company’s expense, of course).

    1. AgilePhalanges*

      I’ve had a few different scenarios. At a big meeting with like 20 people from out of town, dinners were organized–one night with the WHOLE group at one restaurant, one night with smaller groups broken out at different restaurants, etc. With that group, we were all staying at the same hotel, too, and a lot of people got together in the public areas of the hotel after dinner, too. Some were actually working while participating in the banter, others were drinking and unwinding for the day, and some of us chose to just go back to our rooms at that point, to either work or unwind alone. I didn’t hear any negative comments about any of those methods.

      When traveling as a group of just two or three co-workers, we usually share a car, and are often in areas without public transportation, so that makes going out to dinner together a necessity, though if anyone begged off to just get room service and some alone time, I’m sure no one would think poorly of the person. (But as introverted as I am, I usually go–I’ll get my alone time after dinner, and dinner is a good way to see people in a more informal setting, and discuss non-work-related topics, or get details on work-related topics that weren’t discussed in larger settings.)

      Once, I was traveling on my own, and a co-worker happened to be in the same town for a completely different purpose, and she and I got together for dinner just because. But then, she and I like each other to some extent–I wouldn’t have felt obligated to do that if we were just co-workers without anything in common on a personal level.

      I do agree that the longer the trip and the smaller the group, the less obligated you are to spend EVERY evening together. Two people who are already spending 40 hours PLUS travel time together should get a few hours apart from each other to unwind.

  5. Victoria Nonprofit*

    I’d be curious to hear from folks about what soft social expectations around hanging out with coworkers during travel they have experienced.

    I mostly travel alone, and I absolutely crash every evening – both because work days on travel are longer and harder, and because it’s a nice break from hectic normal after-work life. But on the occasional trip where I have a colleague along for the ride, it feels pretty expected that we’ll at least have dinner. What is everyone else’s experience?

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      At my agency, I do think it’s expected on a multi-night trip that you won’t spend EVERY night away from your coworkers — but that for a 3-4 night trip, putting in an appearance at dinner once is fine. For one-night trips, people seem to be okay with not hanging out together, since it’s only the one night and someone might otherwise not have a chance to catch up with an old friend or family member.

      I never travel alone, because of my job function (writers pretty much never go anywhere unless account executives are also invited). I think if my situation were more like yours, in that alone travel is the norm and you’re only occasionally going with others, that there would be more of an expectation that you hang out with the others.

    2. The IT Manager*

      For shorter trips, I expect to eat out with the co-workers I traveled with especially if we’re sharing a rental car. I don’t party hard or anything though. I’d just expect to grab dinner with them for company. If they asked for a break, I’d have no issue unless I was left high and dry. I’d also definitely not look longingly at them hoping for an invite because I certainly don’t want to be the third wheel with two old friends.

      On a recent work trip after checking in, the guy who I traveled with and who had the rental car invited me to go along with him as he bought frozen dinners to eat in the room. I went along with it. It wasn’t what I expected, but it was cheaper and healthier than eating out.

    3. Katie the Fed*

      I think it depends if you’re traveling domestically or internationally. Domestically you might do dinner once the first night and then your own thing the rest of the time. Internationally usually we hang out more, but that’s kind of to take care of each other since people have different comfort levels traveling internationally. You could drop me in any city on earth and I’ll find food and a way to shop, but other people just aren’t comfortable. So you try to help others out.

    4. Blinx*

      For work, I’ve only traveled domestically, and usually to cities I’ve never been to before. I try to tack on a few extra nights, since at least the airfare’s paid for. I get plenty of alone time (love exploring new places on my own), and then meet up with my coworkers when they arrive. We’ll usually eat several meals together, but not all. Sometimes a few of us will pick out a show or other event to go to. These are my peers that I genuinely like hanging out with. But no one is pressured to join in, and one or two might just order room service and call it a night. No biggie.

    5. Sasha*

      On my most recent conference trip (3 days long), I had dinner one night with coworkers, but the rest of the time, we were on our own. I think we did lunch once, but that was during the conference at the lunch they provided. Luckily the coworkers I went with are similar to me in that we all appreciate the need for downtime, so I didn’t ever feel pressured to hang out with anyone. I was asked if I wanted to go to dinner with them that one night, and I was happy to do so, and then we did our own thing the other 2 nights.

      At a different conference I attended with 2 other coworkers, I was good friends with one, so we pretty much hung out the whole time. The other guy was perfectly content to leave us girls to our own devices. It was only about 40 minutes away from where we live so it felt like regular work days.

  6. Steve*

    Both are good, I have read both, but sorry Alison – I would take rereading Sense and Sensibility for the sixth time over The Godfather for the second time.

  7. Prague*

    I work at a large agency where many of us from different offices within the agency will travel to the same conference. In those cases, there may be a “no-host social” that anyone can attend. Also, those of us from the same agency will often eat dinner and carpool together. Usually if someone is an “outlier” and goes off with a different group/person, they arrange transport with that group/person, or the “stranded” coworker can join one of the other groups.

    I think the expectations absolutely change when there’s only one rental car for two or more travelers. In those cases, I usually try to have the friend in question pick me up or take public transport.

    Also, just being up front about a personal night with the rental car usually works well – “Hey, will you be okay if I take off on Wednesday with the rental car to meet up with a friend?” I’ve never had a coworker say no or complain about eating in the hotel restaurant for a single night yet; a number have “traded” for a different night (and the car) with their own local friends. I also try to choose hotels that have options within walking distance in case the hotel restaurant is a disaster.

    Basically, planning ahead usually works out well. Socially, I try to eat at least once with my coworker(s) per trip, but after a memorable and disastrous experience where one tried to kiss me and ended up putting me in a headlock, I also bring granola bars in case I need to hide in my hotel room and claim a migraine.

      1. Prague*

        We were sitting side by side at a bar-like seating area eating dinner (*not* a bar; the place didn’t serve alcohol) and he started talking about his pre-wedding jittters. Then he confessed a “thing” for me, reached over, grabbed my shoulder, and pulled me toward him. I ducked my head to avoid the kiss attempt, and his arm slipped around my shoulder. Instead of letting go, he hung on and I ended up in a headlock. Fortunately, I do martial arts and got out of it easily…and for the sake of keeping it professional (yeah, I know, but that’s what ran through my head at the time), I didn’t follow up with the usual groin strike. Did I mention that this was in a crowded airport restaurant? Strangely enough, I avoid being alone with this individual now.

  8. Not So NewReader*

    I have a question. What do you guys do if your coworker is out there running amok? I mean doing things that would probably get him/her in trouble here in the US- drinking way to much, chasing women, plus whatever.
    How much responsibility do you guys feel you have for that? Do you feel you need to speak to the coworker? Do you feel you need to let TPTB know?
    I heard of a situation a while ago, where the coworker was missing. The question came up, “How long do I wait before I let TPTB know there might be a problem here?” (The coworker partied hard. Really. Hard.)

    1. Katie the Fed*

      so generally, if my coworkers and I are in a foreign country it’s for some kind of official event and we travel on our government passports. We usually have fun, and sometimes there’s a little drunken fun, but nothing really bad. When it gets bad, usually the more senior person on the trip would pull aside the misbehaving one and talk to them. We don’t want to create an international incident, ya know? Most people have enough common sense to not be completely stupid.

  9. Katie the Fed*

    Oh man, I love traveling with coworkers to foreign countries, especially when several people end up drinking a bit too much. They’re like holiday parties run amuck, and people still do the “remember that trip to London in 2008?! Oh man!”

    I try to stay at least a bit sober. I’d rather be laughing the next day than the subject of the stories.

    //this had nothing to do with anything. Just remembering some really fun trips.

  10. Malissa*

    When I travel I often bring my husband and my own car. So the expectation to socialize with coworkers is kept to a minimum. Usually everybody eats together, but not always. The only expectation on a business trip is that if you plan on drinking anything alcoholic, you better leave the car at the hotel.
    But since I live in the middle of nowhere and business trips take me places where I can update my wardrobe and stock up my pantry, my evenings are usually spent shopping. Only one of my coworkers is able to keep up with me on one of my shop-athons. So that limits after hours socialization.

  11. Noah*

    Part of this probably depends on the workplace and the people involved. At my workplace it is pretty common for everyone to hang out together on trips, especially international ones. We typically spend most of day together and then go to dinner and then usually out to the bars or clubs. If I have plans or want to meet a friend I know I need to speak up early. However, I would never take the only rental car, I would either find a taxi, take public transportation, or ask my friend to pick me up.

    1. The IT Manager*

      Yeah, I actually think if you’re meeting up with friends or family that the friends or family would usually pick you up instead of taking the rental car. Even if you are alone as the person unfamiliar with the city, the local should do the driving and navigating in normal circumstances.

  12. Cruciatus*

    Where are these jobs that send you on international trips where you can then ignore or hang out with your coworkers!? I want one!

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Uncle sam! But I should add I maybe take one such trip a year, my pay has been frozen since 2009 by the President, we’re political pawns (super fun when you get right up to the brink of a shutdown or this fiscal cliff) and we’re generally so broke that when I go on such a trip I’m doing the job of 3 people.

      So it’s not ALL jetsetting good times :)

    2. Jamie*

      Where are these jobs that send you on international trips where you can then ignore or hang out with your coworkers!? I want one!

      I was wondering the same thing! Not about wanting one, though, I am very happy I’m in an industry where the most traveling I have to do with co-workers is the couple mile jaunt to McCormick Place for the odd trade show.

      I know a lot of people travel for business, but I am surprised at how common it is. That has to be great for those of you who enjoy travel.

      1. The IT Manager*

        Large, spreadout federal government organizations often have training at various locations throughout the country so even if the job doesn’t require travel, many people travel for training. (I imagine that this applies to nation-wide and global companies too.) Although there’s been a crackdown recently on limitting travel even more than before, sometimes the jobs still require travel to meet with leadership or customers.

        As someone who’s traveled for work, it’s not all its cracked up to be. I don’t party and generally quietly decompress on work nights so unless its a multi-week trip I don’t get to see much of the sites at the city I’m visiting. Most tourist sites and activities are open during the day when the business traveller is working. Winters are especially bad when the sun goes down right around quiting time.

      2. Chinook*

        The only time I have travelled for work was when I was a school teacher and went to conferences. Thing is, when you live in the definition of the middle of nowhere, even a say long conference could take a day to travel in each direction. As a result, you make it worth your while when you do have to go on one.

    3. Waerloga*

      Medical field…

      Going to the main testing site (Abbott Labs was in Irving Texas) and being the first or second “Super user”. Fancy words meaning that when you got home you got to train your co-workers, as well as do some field engineer work on the machine if it broke down.

  13. Caryn*

    I generally talk to a colleague before we travel together, mostly to be upfront about some of my… idiosyncrasies. :) But that conversation usually includes a “hey, I might not be up to hanging out every night, especially if I get sick (typical) or am exhausted (also typical).” It’s usually the same for them and in the end there is a nice balance in our down time of hanging out/having dinner/seeing a sight or two and time for us to do our own stuff–sleep, workouts, veg in front of TV, meet up with old friends, chat to people back home, whatever. We’re all adults and respect each others’ preferences. If your plans include seeing an old friend, just say so. No need to invite them, in my opinion. A reasonable person would respect that.

    But the opportunity to spend time with colleagues outside of the usual environment also can afford a chance to appreciate that person and what they bring to the table from a different perspective. (I suppose the reverse is also true and you could find you appreciate them less, but that’s never happened to me!) So I make time for it, even if it means a little less me-time than I am usually comfortable with.

  14. NUM*

    I used to travel a lot (3-4 nights a week, every week). Most of those trips were with teams of co-workers. 10-12 hour days on site with a client were the rule. The unspoken expectations were that a) someone with a car is always taking a group to dinner, b) it was ok to skip dinner for any reason (too tired, not hungry, seeing a friend) once or twice during the week, but c) skipping out every night was not acceptable. Work with the client was frequently discussed at dinner unless a client was present. And, totally avoiding the dinner with the team *would* get back to the team manager and *would* be seen as lacking commitment to the group effort.

    Just saying that norms differ. Going out with fellow travelers is sometimes expected. If there is a senior person from your organization present, it wouldn’t hurt to follow their lead — besides, she’ll often pick up the tab for the whole group.

    1. Chinook*

      This is a good point. I would think that if you are going to visit a vendor or customer, you would want time to talk with your team about what happened (I would say “debrief” but that would be a VERY different meeting) and strategize for the next day. This can be done over dinner which your company is paying for anyway.

  15. Chaucer*

    You’re reading The Godfather? Solid novel, though it’s one of the few instances where I slightly prefer the film to the book, but I think that’s due to how well the movie was made.

  16. Xay*

    It depends. I traveled frequently for my last job (3 day trips, 2-3 times a month) and I usually had dinner with my co-worker on the second night to discuss business and the wrap up for the final day of the trip. If I was in a city where I planned to meet up with a friend, i just let my co-worker know. In those cases, I let them keep the rental car (if we had one) and made my own travel arrangements so they wouldn’t be stranded. And sometimes, I just wanted to go crash in my room because I’d been in 3 different timezones in 10 days and I was exhausted.

  17. american_banshee*

    I work at a large, member-driven non-profit. Once a year, there is a big industry event that about half of the building attends. And everyone (if they want) goes out to dinner together if they don’t have other plans. I usually don’t do this, but one night a few years ago, I didn’t have any plans so I went. What a mistake! The CEO (who is a very nice guy) was at the head of the table and ordered pitchers of beer for the table; he even encouraged us to have a couple of drinks if we wanted. My COO (who is not very well respected internally) sat across from me (I also drove him and two other employees to the restaurant).

    All was well; I ordered a gin & tonic and maybe finished half of it – that was all I had to drink. I also ate most of everything on my plate. When it was time to go, the COO, the two other employees and I got back in my rental car and I drove back to the hotel. No problems.

    A few days after we got back, the COO called both me and my supervisor into his office and said he had heard reports from others at the dinner that I was drinking “beyond control” and seemed intoxicated. I looked back at him and said “You sat right across from me. Did I seem drunk to you? You rode in my car on the way back to the hotel. If I was so drunk, why did you get in the car with me? Why didn’t someone try and take my keys away?”

    Of course, he had no answer to that BECAUSE I WASN’T DRUNK! It seems a couple of people had some kind of agenda against me and tried to get me in trouble. And that is why to this day I NEVER socialize with co-workers after hours when traveling.

  18. Elizabeth West*

    I’ve only had to travel for work one time. We were hosting a huge event and spent 12-hour days working it, so all I wanted to do when we were done was fall in bed. I was so tired that sleeping on a sofa bed in a suite I shared with my coworker / best friend at the time wasn’t even an issue. I think the most social thing we did was share a Reuben from room service and watch TV.

  19. AgilePhalanges*

    I read a thread on a different forum once where someone had this situation, with the added complication that she spoke the language and her business-related traveling companion did not. She was kind of the de facto tour guide on business trips between the two of them, but wanted to ditch him for an entire weekend, if I remember right. She ended up going above and beyond, setting him up with some travel guides that included suggestions of things to do and some basic phrases in the language, and she gave him some helpful hints on navigating the public transit system to and from the hotel they were staying in.

    As I said, that’s kind of above and beyond, but if you like this co-worker and want to help him or her out, you could always say “I’m planning to spend Tuesday evening with a friend, but I hear that X and Y are excellent things to do/see, and Z is a great restaurant right in the neighborhood.” Of course, assuming you know that information. It would make it clear that you’re not planning to be there that evening with a friendly tone rather than just kind of trailing off into “…so you’re on your own.”

Comments are closed.