Taking a vacation can be a great way to unwind, but often the way we approach travel makes it anything but relaxing. In fact, many of our vacation habits are quite stress-inducing.
“It’s important to remove stressors from vacation time when possible because our brains and bodies are not meant to work constantly with no break,” Jenny Maenpaa, a psychotherapist in New York, told HuffPost.
“Just like we need sleep every night to repair and recharge, we need longer stretches of destressing and decompression to step away from our daily grind,” she added. “Instead of thinking of vacation as a time to just build back up your reserves of energy so you can deplete them again when you return, think of it as a time where everything you work on, learn and absorb in your daily life has time to actually take hold, become permanent, and improve your quality of life overall both on vacation and back in your regular life.”
Below, travel and mental health experts share common vacation habits that tend to add stress to what should be a calming time. Read on for their insights and advice for avoiding these scenarios.
“Overscheduling is the No. 1 way to turn a relaxing vacation into a stressful one,” said Laura Ratliff, the senior editorial director of TripSavvy.
“Even if you love a jam-packed itinerary ― FOMO, I get it! ― try leaving one day entirely open for exploration on your next trip,” she added. “In a city, this might mean you wander and discover a great record store or coffee shop, while on a secluded beach trip, you might finally get to finish that book you’ve been putting off for months.”
Marek Bron, a travel blogger at Indie Traveller, similarly advised against jamming too many activities and sightseeing goals into a single day. Having every minute of the day scheduled might seem like a great way to feel in control of your trip, but it doesn’t foster relaxation.
“I know the urge to see and do as much as possible is strong, especially when vacation days are limited, but it’s hard to enjoy each activity if you’re constantly in a rush,” he said. “I often find it helpful to trim your most ambitious itinerary by about a third, so that there is plenty of time left to spare. That way you won’t actually need to destress from your vacation when you get back home.”
“Skipping meals is another bad habit that many people fall prey to,” said Phil Dengler, co-founder of The Vacationer. “It often goes along with planning too many activities in a day, and almost guarantees you will be stressed out.”
If you’re determined to plan every minute of your day, make sure you schedule some meals in between tourist attractions.
“At the very least, bring enough snacks with you,” Dengler said.
Being Too Stringent With Itineraries
Just as you should avoid jamming too many activities into each day, you should also try to let go of the notion that you have to stick to exactly what you planned.
“Having too rigid a schedule is the most stress-inducing vacation habit,” Dengler noted. “Some of the best activities and restaurants that I have found on vacation were after asking a local or loading up Google on the spot.”
Be open to spontaneity during your travels, rather getting upset if something doesn’t go according to plan. Enjoy the way things unfold naturally and the excitement that brings.
“Leave room for serendipity,” said Konrad Waliszewski, co-founder and CEO of Tripscout. “Remember, no great travel story ever happened by things going exactly as planned.”
Checking Your Work Email
“You think to yourself, ‘I’ll just check my email while I’m out of the office so that when I return, I will have decluttered the spam and the reply-alls so I can jump back in with focus!’” Maenpaa said. “Instead, you open your email from the pool, see a notification that something went wrong, and suddenly your brain is back in work mode.”
Indeed, unplugging is often easier said than done, but getting sucked into work on vacation can mean derailing the whole experience. Keep your eyes off your inbox and trust that whatever needs addressing can be dealt with after you return. If anything is truly emergency-level urgent, you’ll get a call anyway.
“When you check your email during vacation, your panic will be intensified because you can’t even do anything about the problem, so you’re stressing about the issue without any options at your disposal for actually addressing it,” Maenpaa said. “And then your brain is completely focused on work for the rest of your vacation with no way to do anything.”
Comparing Your Trip To Other People’s Travels
“In general, we constantly feel the need to have something to show for our time ― including in our downtime ― especially when others ask us what we did or saw while away,” said Sue Varma, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center. “The comparison game with our peers extends to vacation as a way of signaling social status and savvy.”
Most of us have spent more time than we’d like to admit scrolling through people’s fabulous vacation photos on Instagram. But it’s important to remember that other people’s travel highlights have no bearing on your experience.
Just because you can’t afford a room at the hotel with the fancy-looking pool you saw on someone’s social media doesn’t mean your vacation is inherently less amazing than theirs. Fixating on those comparisons is a recipe for disaster.
“My general advice for people trying to keep up with others: Stop flexing and start relaxing,” Varma said. “And if you are going to take a lot of pictures, build in a no-photo period where you put the phone away.”
“Sometimes, by the time we take a vacation, we are so burned out that we plan absolutely nothing,” Maenpaa said. “We say, ‘I am going to sleep and drink fruity cocktails and come back completely blissed out!’ But when we’re used to being pretty scheduled and busy, that kind of empty stretch can backfire. We can wake up and feel a sense of dread knowing that there is nothing scheduled today, tomorrow or the next day.”
Instead, she recommended making a short list with a few major sites or restaurants you’d like to visit and sprinkling them in across your vacation. Make a couple of reservations in advance if they’re required, but don’t go overboard. Just a little bit of planning goes a long way.
“Over-planning and under-planning can be equally stressful,” said Ciara Johnson, a travel blogger at Hey Ciara. “Overplanning can leave very little room to actually breathe and soak up the experience; meanwhile, underplanning can cause a traveler to miss out on great experiences. It helps to have a balance of activities and free time where spontaneity can occur.”
Ditching Your Self-Care Habits
“If there are certain habits that keep you sane at home, it’s likely that dropping them as soon as you land at your destination will cause undue stress,” said Meg Gitlin, a psychotherapist and the voice behind the Instagram City Therapist. “For example, if you know that regular physical exercise keeps you clearer and more balanced mentally, it’s not the best idea to take a seven-day break from it altogether.”
She suggested finding ways to modify your routine to feel more “vacation like.” Instead of that 6 a.m. bootcamp class, perhaps you take a long walk on the beach or hike a trail with a loved one.
“Essentially, you are taking what works for you at home and making it feel like more of a vacation,” Gitlin said. “Otherwise the cumulative mental impact will likely build up over time regardless of how ‘relaxed’ you may feel.”
If you like to meditate or journal when you’re at home, try to carve out a little time to stick to these aspects of your routine during your trip. And if you aren’t a heavy drinker at home, that doesn’t mean you have to chug countless cocktails just because you’re on vacation.
Only Booking The Cheapest Options
Vacation budgets aren’t always negotiable, but you can adjust your spending priorities to ensure a less stressful experience. Instead of eating every meal in a nice restaurant, divert some of those funds toward transit and accommodation and check out the local street food options.
“Blindly booking the cheapest flight and hotel can lead to a terrible experience,” Dengler said. “While it is important, and many times necessary, to find reasonably priced flights and accommodations, do not do it at the expense of your own enjoyment.”
He advised against booking that flight with two layovers that adds an extra 10 hours to your travel time or choosing that hotel with awful reviews that is a little cheaper than a nearby one that you will like much better.
“Consider the minimum level of comfort that you need from a flight and accommodation and then book the cheapest ones,” Dengler said.
Not Understanding Your Budget
On the flip side, it’s important to get a clear sense of your overall budget and expenses before you travel.
This is a situation where advanced preparation pays off by allowing you to spend wisely and avoid panicking during your trip.
“Going over budget can be stressful but planning out where you will splurge ahead of time is the best way to go,” he noted.
Setting Unrealistic Expectations
We all want our vacations to be as smooth and close to perfect as possible. But reality isn’t always 100% free of adversity, so don’t set that expectation.
“If you know traveling with extended family tends to bring up stressors, prepare yourself emotionally and make a game plan for when things get too heated,” Gitlin said, suggesting you retreat to your room, plan a separate excursion or call in friend in these moments.
“People may hope to be more relaxed versions of themselves on vacation but can also be triggered or thrown off by the disruption of routine,” she added. “Your mother won’t suddenly become ‘easy’ because she’s in the Caribbean and not in her kitchen in New York.”
Having unrealistic expectations ― whether it’s with interpersonal dynamics or logistics ― will only set you up for disappointment and frustration.
“Getting to a travel destination remains a common stressor,” said Casey Brogan, a consumer travel expert at Tripadvisor. “It is important to remind ourselves that the journey to get there is not the vacation. Pack your patience, and recognize that airlines, hotels and restaurants on your vacation are doing their best to serve you under historic labor and supply chain challenges.”
Not Coordinating With The Group
If you’re traveling with a large group or even just another couple, take time to discuss everyone’s goals and expectations.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard clients complain about trips being hijacked by differing travel styles, eating habits or shopping habits amongst a group,” Gitlin said. “It’s expected that people will have different desires and expectations but it’s important to convey that this may require the group to split up or make compromises.”
If you have different airport timing styles, for example, just plan to meet at the gate rather than attempt to share a car.
Pressuring Yourself To Relax
Managing expectations will help you remain calm throughout your travels, which allows for more moments of zen and bliss. On that note, don’t overthink and stress about whether or not you’re having a nice experience.
“As strange as this may sound, trying too hard to relax can also stress people out,” said Rachel Thomasian, a licensed therapist and owner of Playa Vista Counseling. “I compare it to when people try too hard to meditate and then just end up being frustrated, the pressure to relax can often be counterproductive.”
Instead, just try to exist in the moment and respond to what your mind and body are telling you. If sitting on the beach trying to read that book you packed isn’t working out, get up and go for a walk or swim instead.
Forgetting To Include Buffer Time
If possible, try to include a little bit of buffer time right before and after your trip to make the transition in and out of vacation mode smoother.
“A vacation habit that adds quite a bit of stress is not tying up loose ends before turning on your away message on your email and voicemail,” Thomasian said. “It can be so stressful to try and finish all the things right before you leave, so maybe have a day dedicated as a buffer in between rushing to finish up work and going on a vacation.”
Varma similarly advised building in buffer time after you return from your trip.
“Give yourself a day or a few hours to ‘recover’ before you get back to work,” she said. “Unpack and do laundry. Sometimes it takes a weekend to cycle back.”
She also noted that some people get post-vacation blues after the big trip they planned and looked forward to has ended.
“Their mood dips,” she said. “They are coming down from the dopamine high of the novelty, stimulation and friendships depending on the kind of trip. Use photos and messaging to remember the highlights and stay in touch. Planning fun activities or even your next trip can help beat the post-vacation mood dip.”