July 26, 2011 -- Imagine the perfect vacation. Beachside? An urban adventure?
The health benefits of unwinding, taking time off from work and detaching from your regular obligations are well known. But sometimes a vacation turns out to be anything but a happy memory. Or that longed for "vacation feeling" is swiftly lost to life back at the desk, with nothing to show for it.
For some, vacation can be depressing or downright dangerous. Research from the Netherlands and Australia finds that many vacationers are blue at the start of a vacation, when the reality of being out of one's confort zone sets in. And that's when travelers seem to be most susceptible to common ailments, such as Montezuma's revenge, rashes, asthma, ear infections.
Could be the climate. Could be symptoms of a struggle to relax and adapt to life outside the normal routine. Luckily, most people rebound and report a holiday high for most of their trip. It may not be possible to design a one-size-fits-all formula for a happy vacation. But with these tips from experts, you will be well on your way:
Revel in the Planning: There are three parts to every vacation. "First, the anticipation and planning, second, the actual experience and third is processing the experience,'' said Jeffrey Kottler, professor of counseling at California State University at Fullerton, who researches "transformative" travel experiences. Kottler says the first and the third parts are as important as the third. "The trip itself may only be a week or two, but the planning can take months and the processing can take the rest of your life."
When possible, spend time planning with your travel companions, experts say, the time spent planning together around the dinner table will enhance your experience. Likewise, talking about the experience and finding meaning in it together afterward can bond relationships.
Be Practical: "Where you go matters less than how you do it and who you are with," said David Gould, who lectures on leisure at the University of Iowa. If an elaborate vacation is going to strain your finances, consider something closer to home and more modest. It will be hard to relax and enjoy what you are doing if you are worried about paying the credit card bills when you get home.
Build Boundaries:Set limits on work while you are away, starting with an automatic out-of-office message on your email, alerting everyone who writes that you will not be checking email and designating an alternative contact person.
"Having people help to cover your work in advance, and having work shifted to colleagues while you are gone can make a difference,'' said Gould.
That may be easier said than done. Ideally, he said, your colleagues will "share the wealth and share the burden."
Bryan Robinson, a therapist and author of "Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, their Partners and Children and the Clinicians who Treat Them," said it may not be possible for many people to go off the grid, but it's worthwhile to scale back from the usual wired-in habits.
"I tell people, on vacation, it's important to check your email just to help not to be anxious or stressed out," he said. But really put limits on it." You may decide not to email every day, or it might be a success if you don't email every five minutes.
Pad Your Trip: Experts say you don't need three weeks in Bali to find happiness. A short trip away for a couple of days may be enough to unwind and recharge. Others may need a week. Still others may need extended vacations to truly reboot. For those longer stretches, plan to give yourself a day before the trip to prepare and at least a day afterward to "help you re-enter, so you don't ahve to come back stressed," said Robinson. "When you actually relax and allow your relaxing response, you are actually more efficient and you get more done."
Align Your Expectations: Vacations don't always mean freedom, cautions Geoffrey Godbey, a Penn State University professor who studies leisure behavior. Realize that you will have a new routine and for most people having a vacation routine -- a planned out schedule is a recipe for a successful trip. "Successful vacations are based on picking and choosing,'' said Godbey, "giving up the less desirable in order to have the most desirable." Success, he said, also rests on expecting that some things won't go as planned. "
Allow Opportunities for the Unexpected: "People go to extraordinary lengths to plan every detail and nuance of the trip; where to stay, what to do, and that's all very enjoyable, but what best predicts whether a travel experience is going to have a lasting effect is you get lost,'' said Kottler. "What's most illuminating is when bad stuff happens." Kottler said that it is the unexpected moments and the uncomfortable ones that people tend to remember -- and learn from.
And, experts say, if you want to make that vacation feeling last -- or if there's no chance to head off on what you think of as a vacation this summer, take moments for "vacation" at home.
"A part of every single day should be a vacation,'' said Kottler, "create adventures in every day." Get out of your comfort zone and your regular routine: Eat in new restaurants, vary your route home, make the effort to connect with new and old friends. In other words, stretch out of your comfort zone at home.