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Travel & Holiday

Travel smart

Follow this guide to get the most out of your precious vacation
July 26, 2011
By: The New York Times
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Travel smart PHOTO: ALEX SOH

New York - Going on vacation for most travellers is simple: Relax. But for many people that isn't such an easy goal to attain.

The problem is how to get the most out of those precious days off. Is it best to fill them with a lot of activities? Or is there a benefit to just doing nothing? And what about the e-mail accruing every second you are out of the office? Is it less stressful to answer those messages while on vacation? Or should you deal with them when you return?

The answers depend on an individual's personality. Yet a review of behavioural studies and interviews with experts revealed that several factors should not be ignored. Below is an as-scientific- as-possible guide to planning the perfect vacation:


Relish the anticipation

Planning early brings many people more joy than the actual vacation.

A 2010 study by Jeroen Nawijn, a tourism research lecturer at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, examined the behaviour of 1,530 Dutch adults and found that the 974 individuals who took a vacation achieved the greatest amount of happiness leading up to the trip.

His findings were in line with studies led by psychologists Leigh Thompson of Northwestern University and Terence Mitchell of the University of Washington that examined travellers' anticipation of, actual experiences on, and memories of vacations.

The results, published in 1997 in the Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, found that regardless of the type of trip, vacationers were happier in the period leading up to their time off than during the vacation itself.

So booking your trip well ahead not only gives you an edge when it comes to logistics (getting the best room and often the best deal), it also helps build anticipation, which can boost happiness. Not to mention that planning early can decrease the stress of a last-minute scramble.

Longer is not necessarily better

Taking several three- or four-day trips - providing multiple opportunities to experience the pleasure of anticipation - may even be more beneficial than one long vacation. In other words, if you take only one big vacation a year, then it is over and there is nothing to look forward to until next year.

Make your time count

While the length of your vacation may vary, some experts believe true relaxation cannot be rushed.

'It takes one week to get into it and really start to unwind,' said Al Gini, a business ethics professor at Loyola University of Chicago and the author of The Importance Of Being Lazy.

His advice: Give yourself permission to slow down leading up to your trip by taking a few days for packing and for wrapping things up at work. Building in time to wind down at the end of your trip by lounging by the pool instead of running around sightseeing also helps avoid coming home exhausted.

Ditch the smartphone

There are no definitive studies on how to best manage the inevitable e-mail pile up back at the office. The answer, experts say, depends on you.

'There are some people who just by not connecting will actually become more stressed out thinking about all the things they are missing and could be going wrong and so forth,' said Dalton Conley, New York University's dean of social sciences who uses the term 'weisure' to describe the increasingly blurring boundaries between work and leisure time in his 2009 book, Elsewhere, U.S.A.

'Other people will need to be constantly connected to feel secure,' he added. For those who simply cannot disconnect, check e-mail only at a certain time and stick to it.

Lose yourself in an activity

'Doing activities that completely absorb us can be good while on vacation,' said Elizabeth W. Dunn, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia who studies consumption and happiness.

That does not mean you have to take an intensive yoga or rock-climbing course. Indeed, staying busy does not have to be physical: Simply exploring the local culture can be beneficial.

Consider taking a cooking class while in Italy instead of simply eating out or sign up for an in-depth tour of an archaeological site while in Mexico instead of lying by the pool.

End on a high note

Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton psychologist and Nobel laureate, has demonstrated in studies that people tend to judge experiences largely on peak moments, either good or bad, that stood out - regardless of how long the experience lasted (a phenomenon called the 'peak-end rule').

While it is not always possible to end a trip with a positive experience (especially if flights are involved), planning at least one special activity (an epic meal, a scenic hike) can make a difference. After all, it is the highlights we tend to brag about to our friends when we return.

 

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