Travel Tactics: How to Travel Happy

Feel good at every stage of your vacation.

By Cassie Shortsleeve | Illustration by James Yang

Travel is a mood booster, and science backs that up: A study* by psychologists at Cornell University found that experiences such as travel bring us more joy than the objects we buy. But vacations don’t always play out as pure bliss. We may imagine sunshine, a lax schedule, a faraway place, but travel also often involves busy airports, flight delays and language barriers. Follow these strategies to keep spirits high during every phase of your coveted out-of-office time.

Plan your vacation 30 days ahead.

We’re not talking about only flights and hotels but also what you want to do once you arrive at your destination. You don’t need to create a detailed itinerary, but do map out a few highlights, says Michelle Gielan, founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research. That way, you can spend less time and brainpower on tasks like Googling restaurants in a foreign country to make reservations or looking up directions—tasks that are ostensibly small but add up. What’s more, focusing on a few key activities builds anticipation. In fact, one study** even found that the highest spike in happiness comes during this planning stage, not during the vacation itself.

Keep calm at the airport.

No one enjoys a security line or a flight delay. But focusing on what you can’t control only induces more anxiety, says Thea Gallagher, Psy.D., clinic director for the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, at the University of Pennsylvania. Instead, use the time to problem solve and think about all of the things that can go right. Review your vacation itinerary or start a conversation with your travel partner about what you’re most excited about. If there’s something you haven’t planned, it’s a great window to do a little research; if you’re on your way home, you can flip through or organize your vacation photos for a boost.

Book a local guide.

Three of the biggest travel stressors tend to be managing details, not feeling secure and not being familiar with the area you’re traveling in, says Gielan. You can reduce stress by enlisting a guide who knows the terrain and the language. Services such as Monograms pair travelers with regional hosts, while companies including Traveling Spoon connect foodies with locals all over the world for homemade meals. It’s a good idea to set up a tour for the first day or two of your trip so that you get the lay of the land up front and feel more confident exploring on your own for the rest of the vacation.

Be social in real life.

“Happiness is much more closely correlated to friends, family and social relationships than it is to money,” says Andy Cope, Ph.D., a researcher and author of Happiness: Your Route-Map to Inner Joy. The takeaway: Where you go or how much it costs doesn’t matter as much as spending time with others. “Human beings are gregarious and are neurologically wired to connect emotionally,” says Cope. Try sitting at the bar to strike up a conversation with the staff or the person next to you or setting a family rule of no more than one hour of Wi-Fi a day to ensure time together.

Become a beginner again.

Water-ski, sign up for a yoga class or go zip-lining—anything you haven’t tried before. “When people do things they’re not good at, they find it to be stress relieving and fun,” says Gallagher. As a beginner, you have no expectations, so you can fail without consequence. What’s more, she adds, new experiences challenge your brain.

Embrace the unexpected.

Things going awry (such as a rainy day during a camping trip) often lend themselves to great memories, says Cope. One day you may find yourself laughing about playing cards instead of going hiking. Look for opportunities as well. If your flight gets seriously delayed or canceled, there’s not much you can do other than rebook—so why not get out and explore the city you’re stranded in instead of staying glued to the gate?

Build a buffer day into your itinerary.

The coming-home segment of your vacation matters. You may be tempted to squeeze in a few more hours of fun by booking a red-eye flight or pulling an overnight drive, but that just makes returning to your routine more difficult. If you have work on Monday morning, consider arriving home on Saturday. As Cope puts it: “You’re better off trimming a day from your holiday and returning to work brimming with energy.”

Throw a party.

To boost the lasting impact of a vacation, host a dinner party when you get home that nods to the joys of the place you visited, suggests Gielan. If you just got back from France, you could serve wine from Provence, or if you were in Italy, pasta from Tuscany. You can also bring back small souvenirs to share with your friends, such as candy or foreign coins. “This will allow your friends to experience what you experienced and help you relive the positive memories from the vacation, providing a second wave of happiness,” says Gielan.

Practice vacation habits at home.

“It can be relaxing to think, ‘I’m not as important as I think I am, and the demands put on me can wait,’” says Gallagher. Recalibrate your work-life balance to reflect this, she suggests. Pepper a little bit of what you enjoy doing on vacation, such as reading a book from cover to cover, into your day to day.