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How to Get the Most Out of Your Vacation

While taking a vacation can be fun, many benefits of getting away could be in the planning instead of the excursion itself.

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As the weather warms up, some of us are considering detouring on the way to work and heading for the beach instead. But while research suggests taking a vacation can be exciting, it can also be stressful — and many benefits may come from the planning instead of the trip itself [1].

Time Off or Tied Down — Why It Matters

Looking up convenient flights, researching the best mountain to ski, or finding the hotel with the sweetest pool: As it turns out, these pre-vacation planning activities could just be the happiest times of the vacation. One study found that while to-be vacationers might be happier before their trip compared to those staying at home, there was little difference in happiness levels between the two groups after the vacation [1].

So what’s so great about planning a getaway? Dreaming about the great activities on that cruise is often more enjoyable than the actual trip, and sometimes vacations aren’t all they’re cracked up to be [2]. Family feuds, a “five-star” hotel next to a construction site, and the inevitable pile of emails upon the return home can put a dent in travelers’ moods. Combine that with new time zones and possible vacation illnesses (Montezuma has to take his revenge out on someone), and instead of coming home recharged, weary travelers might return more exhausted than before [3]. But don’t give up on taking time off just yet.

Pack the Suitcase or Stay Home? — The Answer/Debate

While they aren’t a magic prescription for positivity, vacations do have some tangible health (and happiness) benefits. Busting out of the cubicle gives us the opportunity to get in a good workout, either by touring Rome on foot or lifting giant margaritas to our lips. Some research even suggests vacations can decrease mortality among people at risk for heart disease [4].

And lose the earplugs on the five-hour flight: Vacations where we spend time talking to friends and family may be the most restorative [5]. But don't bring the office in the beach bag, since scraping sand off the smartphone to respond to work emails can leave us feeling less-than-refreshed [5].

Ready to plan that great escape? Use these five tips to squeeze as much happiness from vacations as possible:

  • Try shorter, more frequent trips instead of one long annual vacation. It’ll bring on the excitement for vacation time more often and the happiness that comes along with it [6].
  • Stay active! A good mix of exercise and relaxation can lead to an overall happier vacation experience [7].
  • Do what you actually enjoy, and not what you’re supposed to enjoy. Leaping off the edge of a cliff might not be everyone’s favorite way to relax. Instead get lost in an activity you really love, whether that’s a painting class or a scenic hike.
  • Unplug while on vacation. Leave a detailed out-of-office message and call it quits. If it’s necessary to check in, designate a specific time each day to do it — and then put away the smart phone.
  • If possible, return home on a Friday to ease the transition back to real life. Having a weekend to get back into the groove can make the return to work or school on Monday a lot less stressful.

Returning from vacations might add stress to the experience. But by planning ahead and transitioning slowly back to reality, it’s possible to truly relax and take a break from the daily grind.

What's your favorite way to kick back and relax on a vacation? Tell us in the comments below!

Originally posted August 2011. Updated April 2012.

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Works Cited +

  1. Vacationers happier, but most not happier after a holiday. Nawijn, J., Marquand, M.A., Veenhoven, R., et al. Applied Research in Quality of Life 2010 March; 5(1): 35-74.
  2. Looking forward, looking back: anticipation is more evocative than retrospection. Van Boven, L., Asworth, L. Department of Psychology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Boulder, CO. Journal of Experimental Psychology 2007;136(2):289-300.
  3. Effect of vacation on health: moderating factors of vacation outcome. Strauss-Blasche, G., Reithofer, B., Schobersberger, W., et al. Department of Physiology, Medical University of Vienna, Austria. Journal of Travel Medicine 2005 Mar-Apr;12(2):94-101.
  4. Are vacations good for your health? The 9-year mortality experience after the multiple risk factor intervention trial. Gump, B.B., Matthews, K.A. Department of Psychology, State University of New York, Oswego, Oswego, NY. Psychosomatic Medicine 2000 Sep-Oct; 62(5): 608-12.
  5. Effects of Short Vacations, Vacation Activities and Experiences on Employee Health and Well-Being. de Bloom, J., Geurts, S.A., Kompier, M.A. Department of Work and Organizational Psychology, Behavioural Science Institute, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Stress Health 2011. Epub ahead of print.
  6. Vacationers happier, but most not happier after a holiday. Nawijn, J., Marquand, M.A., Veenhoven, R., et al. Applied Research in Quality of Life. 2010 March; 5(1): 35-74.
  7. Do we recover from vacation? Meta-analysis of vacation effects on health and well-being. de Bloom, J., Kompier, M., Geurts, S., et al. Department of Work & Organizational Psychology, Behavioural Science Institute, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Journal of Occupational Psychology 2009;51(1):13-25.