Americans endure a lot of stress in the pursuit of relaxation.
While the word “vacation” brings to mind chaise lounges sprinkled with hibiscus petals and coconut-scented sunblock, the idea of traveling to reach that sparkling final destination evokes a very different emotion. In a new study, 92 percent of Americans said travel is nerve-racking.
Given the amount of dread and jitters most people experience around travel, it’s a wonder they ever leave home. The respondents to the study, which was commissioned by the website Passport Photo Online, said creating an itinerary was the most dreadful part of preparing for a trip. They also said boarding a plane is the most aggravating part of air travel, and returning home to a mountain of work and an overflowing inbox is the most stressful stage of the journey.
Even the innocuous questions from the survey are enough to leave you reaching for your blood pressure medication: “At which stage do you generally experience the most stress when traveling?,” “What are your biggest stressors associated with staying at a destination?,” and “Traveling with whom increases your stress levels the most?”
“It’s safe to say that most of us will feel a surge of stress when traveling, but that isn’t always a bad thing,” said wellness consultant Dr. Daryl Appleton. “Anything outside of our comfort zone will trigger stress.”
Appleton said to roll with the chaos on your journeys rather than remain rigid and unwavering. Inevitably flights will be late, or your hotel room may not be ready when you arrive. Set your expectations accordingly. There are ongoing issues with airline staffing. Bad weather can set off a domino effect of canceled flights. Airports and the TSA are also grappling with staffing issues. In short, keep your expectations subterranean.
Likewise, when you think about your vacation, don’t dive in with the presupposition that it will be “the trip of a lifetime,” said author Dr. Katherine Loflin
“Language is powerful, so be mindful of how you build the trip up in your head,” she said. “Because then you have to align your perhaps unrealistic expectation with reality, which will always result in stress.”
In case you’re curious, the study found relatives are the most stressful travel companions. Respondents also said they find international travel more stressful than domestic travel.
But there are ways to mitigate the stress, and I don’t mean to simply stop traveling with relatives. Although if you’d like to point to this study as an excuse to no longer bring your mother-in-law to the Caribbean, please feel free. There are lots of ways you can prepare ahead to make travel smoother. I’m on the road almost as much as I’m at home, so I have a few thoughts on the subject. I also consulted with some travel experts to fill in the blanks.
Avoid suitcase and carry-on calamities.
In the survey, respondents said the most stressful part of air travel was boarding the plane. That, my fellow travelers, is because of carry-on luggage. I’ve seen people nearly come to blows over mere inches of overhead bin real estate for their carry-ons. It’s the reason why I almost always check a bag and use a backpack that can slide under the seat in front of me to carry essentials. I’ve even argued that airlines should make checked bags free and eliminate overhead bins. But because checked bags make billions for airlines in ancillary revenue, my dreams of free checked bags are about as realistic as Kim Cattrall rejoining the “Sex and the City” franchise.
Aside from the price, many travelers are averse to checking a bag because they fear it will get lost. There are now companies that will ship your luggage to your final destination and home again, so you don’t need to take your suitcase to the airport or wait for it on the conveyer belt. Boston-based Lugless is one of a growing number of companies that will ship your luggage to your destination and provide all the necessary labels to make it happen smoothly. I priced a hypothetical round-trip from Boston to Los Angeles with Lugless. It would cost $92 to send my luggage (as opposed to the $60 I’d pay to the airline) for the service, but I’d know my clothes would be waiting for me at the hotel, and I’d save time at the airport.
For those reluctant to check a bag after seeing or experiencing Southwest Airlines’ holiday from hell, you can join the ranks of travelers using Apple’s AirTags to keep tabs on the location of your suitcase. These devices, which are the size of a large coin, can tell your phone where your suitcase (or anything else) is located. If you don’t have an iPhone, other companies produce tracking tiles compatible with most devices. They’ll set you back about $25 to $30 each.
I also recommend buying a luggage scale, which you can easily find for under $15, to take the guesswork out of checking bags. I’ve seen too many airport floors look like a Goodwill donation drop-off center as people frantically shuffle cargo from one suitcase to another to meet weight requirements. No one wants to see your bloomers carelessly strewn around the check-in counter.
Stay positively charged.
Some airports and airplanes have more charging ports and electrical outlets than passengers, and that is a beautiful thing to behold. Sadly, I never seem to be in those places, so if the battery in my phone or laptop begins to run low, I start getting twitchy and stressed. The night before a trip, my to-do list includes charging anything that requires power. On top of that, I suggest you purchase a portable charger or power bank. If I didn’t own a portable charger to keep my phone juiced, I guarantee that I would still be walking around Lisbon in circles with no way to access Google Maps on my phone. Prices for portable chargers begin around $20 to $30.
On the subject of technology, make sure you pack all necessary charging cords to help reduce travel day stress. Keep them handy, so you can access them at the airport and on the plane, and pack another set in your luggage. If you’re renting a car, ensure you have everything you need to keep your phone juiced while enjoying the scenery. Do I need to remind you to check on international travel adapters if you’re headed out of the United States? Wait, I think I just did.
The early bird gets the flight.
I’m not a morning person, and the idea of getting up before 9 a.m. gives me a rash. But on travel days, getting to the airport early is imperative. Travel adviser Kathy Sudeikis, who happens to be Ted Lasso’s mom, told me that early morning flights are less likely to be canceled. Because we both share a dislike of sunrise, Sudeikis added that booking a flight before noon is also acceptable. If you need to be on a cruise or have to catch a connecting flight, you should absolutely avoid booking in the late afternoon or evening unless you enjoy the crippling joylessness of stress.
Speaking of early, Sudeikis suggested getting to the airport three hours before your flight to help reduce travel stress. Because I’m a risk-taker, I tend to get to the airport two hours before departure. Do I regularly violate my own rule and nearly miss flights? Yes, but do as I write, not as I do.
Travel is always a game of hurry up and wait, particularly when flying. This means you, your ankle-biters, sullen teens, cranky parents, enthusiastic spouses, and any other humans you’re traveling with will be bored after about five minutes of looking at overpriced cans of Pringles and bottles of designer perfume at duty-free. You’ll need to prepare for hours of downtime at the airport and in the air.
If you plan to watch in-flight entertainment, don’t forget your headphones, preferably noise-canceling. Otherwise, you’ll end up paying for a very flimsy pair you’ll likely never use again.
Travelers with young children should make it clear to their offspring that if they want to watch anything on a tablet or phone, it needs to be done with headphones. Find headphones that are comfortable for your tyke, and make sure they give them a trial run before the travel day. If they object to the headphones, buy some coloring books. It’s not fair to subject your fellow travelers to Peppa Pig.
Before traveling, I always download books, movies, and television shows to my phone and laptop. Budget airlines don’t provide seat-back screens (or legroom), and sometimes entertainment systems aren’t functioning on planes that offer them. Services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime allow you to download movies and TV shows to your phone and iPad so you can access them without the Internet. For long flights, downloading entertainment should be on your packing list, along with sunscreen and underwear.
Let someone else plan it.
The Passport Photo Online survey found that the foremost stress-inducing task for travelers was creating an itinerary before their trip. Strangely, there’s an entire industry devoted to creating itineraries for travelers. Weary vacationers, allow me to introduce the travel adviser. Before people began planning their own travel through the series of tubes known as the Internet, travel agents did it. They now prefer to be called travel advisers, but their job is still the same. They are knowledgeable folks who put together itineraries based on their client’s interests and exist at nearly every price point. This is not a paid endorsement, and I don’t think I’ve ever employed the services of a travel adviser, but if the idea of planning a trip is giving you palpitations, they’re here for you. If you’re looking for an adviser, ask family, friends, or co-workers for recommendations before you search online.
Let me leave you with one sliver of advice as you plan or daydream about your next trip: Stress is OK. Kooky and occasionally unpleasant things will happen when you travel. The fun of travel is the unexpected. We step out into the world because we’re looking for new experiences to escape from the milquetoast workaday routine. The best adventures always have twists and turns, both fun and frightful. Book tickets to your dream destination, create a perfect packing list, and find savvy travel companions. But remember that things will go awry, and that’s part of the experience as well. Without challenges, we don’t grow.