4 Tips for a Less Stressful Vacation

Experts explain ways to leave stress behind when you take off for that much needed holiday.

From the WebMD Archives

Want to have the best vacation ever?

Travel and health experts say a winning getaway -- one that is enjoyed before, during, and after a trip -- takes a bit of planning. Otherwise, you may be doomed to repeat scenarios that have made countless other escapes stressful.

Consider these situations:

  • Have you ever felt frantic and lost sleep trying to get all of your errands and packing done before a trip?
  • Ever got stuck in slow-moving traffic or in long airport security lines?
  • Tired of trying to find enough activities for the kids to do?
  • Feel the need to check in with work during vacation?

If you've found yourself nodding at any of these circumstances, then you'll definitely want to don your planning cap, and figure out how to tackle the vacation busters. These spoilsports insidiously eat away at leisure time; many people shrug them off as just part of life. Yet you don't have to put up with them. There are ways to tame the vacation busters, allowing you to relish your time off.

WebMD has information on four vacation busters and tips on how to deal with them.

Vacation Buster No. 1: Transport Troubles

According to the Travel Industry Association (TIA), 88% of leisure travel happens by car, truck, or RV. Nine percent of Americans take to the air; the rest journey by bus or train.

Almost everyone hits the road -- even folks who go to the airport, train station, or bus station. This can mean highly congested roads, particularly during summer weekends and holidays.

"There are a few things worse than getting excited to go to some place you really love for your vacation, and you load your car and family, get to the interstate, and then wham you're in a big line of traffic, and you're going nowhere fast," says TIA spokesman Allen Kay.

The same nightmare can happen on the way home. In fact, just the thought of driving back in overcrowded roads can put a damper on good feelings during a vacation.

To make road travel more bearable, Robert Sinclair Jr., manager of media relations at AAA, recommends the following:

  • Figure out how to get there. Prepare directions to your destination in advance. Have maps and alternate travel routes handy in case you hit traffic. Satellite navigational devices can also be helpful, but make sure any gadget you use is easy to operate and read.
  • Know what to expect. Check weather and traffic reports often as travel conditions can suddenly change. Look out for construction projects along your path. Often, the Department of Transportation in each area will list road closures or detours on their web site.
  • Decide when to drive. Be aware of peak travel hours. You can generally expect roads to be packed after 5 p.m. on the Friday before a holiday, and between 6 p.m. and midnight on the Monday or Tuesday after a holiday. To avoid jam-packed highways, consider taking personal days to travel. Although that may not be ideal, you may be saving yourself the headache of an accident. Since many people get up very early in the morning or travel late into the night to beat traffic, there is the real danger of drowsy driving. According to Sinclair, many who drive during times they're normally asleep can drift off into microsleep -- three- to 10-second intervals of snoozing -- while at the wheel. "Drivers [in a simulator study] thought they were just drowsy, but they had actually fallen asleep," says Sinclair. "Falling asleep for three seconds may not sound like a big deal, but at 60 miles an hour, you're traveling 88 feet per second. So, at three seconds, you've traveled the distance of nearly a football field. A lot of bad things can happen in that distance."

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Smart Air Travel

Get through security lines faster by heeding these Transportation Security Administration (TSA) tips:

  • Leave the lighters at home. TSA confiscates more than 30,000 lighters a day. Other items prohibited in carry-on baggage include knives, sharp objects, firearms, explosives, and flammable liquids. Also forbidden as carry-on: athletic equipment that could be used as weapons such as bats, golf clubs, hockey sticks, and ski poles.
  • Keep valuables with you. Pack jewelry, cash, fragile items, electronics, medications, and undeveloped film in your carry-on luggage.
  • Dress for speediness. To avoid setting off the metal detector, steer clear of clothing, jewelry, or other accessories containing excessive metal. Examples include decorative zippers, buttons, large belt buckles, or underwire bras. Wear easy-to-remove shoes. Suggested footwear includes flip-flops and thin-soled sandals without metal.
  • Know what to take in and out. Laptops and video cameras with cassettes should be taken out of their cases, placed in a bin, and sent through the X-ray machine on their own. Coats, blazers, and jackets should also be placed in a bin and screened. Before entering the screening checkpoint, place cell phones, PDAs, keys, loose change, jewelry, and large metal items in your carry-on luggage.

Vacation Buster No. 2: Sleep Starvation

In the rush to get trip-related errands, packing, and traveling done, many people stay up late and/or get up very early before a vacation, figuring they'll make up the sleep later on. However, it can take one to three days to recover from a sleep deficit and to unwind from stress.

Jet lag can also add to the problem. So can the "first night effect" -- a common phenomenon in which travelers find it difficult to snooze the first few nights in a different place.

To make matters worse, some people hit the sack at odd hours, and forgo good quality sleep to make the most of their vacation. All the activities replacing good shut-eye may well be very valuable, but inadequate slumber can curtail enjoyment of them.

"The reality is that when you don't get enough sleep, it's going to impair all aspects of what you do," says Mark Rosekind, PhD, president and chief scientist of Alertness Solutions, a scientific consulting firm. "You will be irritable, short-tempered, and will be falling asleep in the middle of get-togethers with family and friends."

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Then there is the safety concern. Rosekind says a sleep deficit of just two hours can affect performance in the same way a blood alcohol level of 0.05 can.

With such impaired functioning, people obviously put themselves at great risk when they drive, or when they participate in activities such as kayaking, jet skiing, hiking, or biking.

Rosekind has tips for people who'd like to minimize sleep deprivation and its undesired effects:

  • Take the time to prepare for your trip. If you take a personal day off and think of it as part of your vacation, you have a better chance of going into your getaway more relaxed and coming out of it more rejuvenated. If you cannot take the time off, try preparing for your trip at least a week earlier than usual.
  • Manage jet lag. Remember that your internal clock prefers to have a longer day rather than a shorter one. This is why it's generally harder to adjust to time change when you are traveling east as opposed to west. Anticipate the jet lag and schedule your vacation activities accordingly. Also make a special effort to get as much sleep as possible to reduce the effect of jet lag. If time zone changes remain a big problem for you, visit the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) web site for more information on how to beat it.
  • Take naps. Short bouts of sleep during the day can help boost performance.
  • Use caffeine wisely. Caffeinated beverages can help enhance your performance and mood if used in a strategic way. Keep in mind that you will need 100 milligrams to 200 milligrams of caffeine (the equivalent of a big cup of coffee or several soft drinks) to get the desired results. It takes the stimulant 15 to 30 minutes to take effect, and lasts three to four hours. Just make sure you don't drink it close to bedtime as it can ruin sleep.

To ward against the "first night effect," it may help to find lodging in areas with familiar noise levels. The NSF recommends using earplugs and eye masks to help drown out noise and unwanted light. If possible, also bring familiar bedtime items such as a personal pillow or alarm clock.

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Vacation Buster No. 3: Work Woes

According to a 2006 CareerBuilder.com survey, one in four workers plan to work while on vacation. At the same time, a 2006 Expedia.com poll shows 23% of people have checked work email or voicemail while on vacation.

John Weaver, PsyD, a psychologist and owner of Psychology for Business, says many workers feel pressured to get more done without having enough time to do it all. As a result, a lot of people give up vacation time and ultimately surrender the days to employers.

If people do use vacation time, they end up taking laptops, PDAs, cell phones, and other work items with them on the trip. The CareerBuilder.com survey found 16% of workers feel guilty about missing work while on vacation, and 7% fear the days off could lead to unemployment.

The constant expectation to work has had a negative effect on the workforce, contributing to high rates of depression and anxiety.

"The most expensive cost for business today is depression," says Weaver, referring to the 1999 U.S. Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health, which places the indirect costs of untreated mental health disorders at $79 billion per year. The high cost of depression, he says, is 70% more than the cost of the next highest health care cost, which is diabetes.

With all the alarming statistics, it's easy to lose hope. To ease the situation, Weaver makes these suggestions:

  • Have an ongoing dialogue with your employer. Discuss how important it is for you to have dedicated time for work, and dedicated time off to rejuvenate. Such conversations can happen informally, in employee review sessions, or in town hall meetings.
  • Set boundaries while on vacation. If you have to take work with you, limit the amount of time you are online, on call, or laboring to one to two hours per day. Do not let work creep into every aspect of your leisure time.
  • Review your job. If you've tried to improve your work-vacation situation and things still don't change, it may be time to consider how much you want to stick with your current employer, job, or industry. Ask yourself whether your situation is worth the risk of burnout.

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Vacation Buster No. 4: Traveling With Children

A family vacation with kids can be a wonderful thing, creating memories that can be cherished for a lifetime. Yet the extra effort involved -- including planning activities for them, packing their stuff, getting them dressed, fed, and out -- can tire even the best of parents.

To alleviate the stress and strain of traveling with children, experts have some recommendations:

  • Involve the whole family in the vacation-planning process. If the discussion is conducted with respect for the needs of all family members, everyone can learn negotiation skills, and produce a getaway that may not necessarily be ideal for all, but can work for each member. For a family vacation, try to balance days when the whole gang participates in a shared activity with days when the individual members pursue their own desired activities. This may mean that Mom and Dad may have a night out -- just the two of them -- and the children are with a babysitter or at a supervised event. Or, it may mean the kids have a day when they just stay inside the hotel room, eat pizza, and watch TV. Everyone -- the parents and kids - would do better emotionally if they are given time to fulfill their own needs, says William Coleman, MD, professor of pediatrics at the Center for Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
  • Be flexible. Even the best-laid plans go awry, so just learn to roll with the punches. "Things come up that you can't account for," says Cheryl Hausman, MD, medical director of the primary care center at University City, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "It's a wonderful learning experience for kids to see how their parents manage vacation and unexpected happenings."
  • Value unscheduled time. It's OK if you and your kids do not see all of the important sights in the city, or get on all of the rides at the amusement park. "The purpose of a vacation is to let the day unwind in front of you and enjoy the people that you're with, rather than checking things off a list," says Debbie Then, PhD, a social psychologist working in California. "At the end of the day, the kids will not remember all the museums that they went to, but they're going to remember interacting with Mom and Dad."
  • Don't go with the kids. Let's face it. Traveling with the kids does take extra effort. Sometimes the parents need time alone in order to truly unwind. "A lot of people think that they're being neglectful as parents if they don't take the children along with them," says Then, also author of Women Who Stay With Men Who Stray. "But, it's very important as a couple to get away alone, even if it's just for one or two days." This is the time for couples to focus on what they like about each other. The parents' love and time for each other can help build a strong foundation for the family.
WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 25, 2008

Sources

SOURCES: Allen Kay, spokesman, Travel Industry Association. Robert Sinclair Jr., manager of media relations, AAA .Mark Rosekind, PhD, president and chief scientist, Alertness Solutions. John Weaver, PsyD, psychologist; owner, Psychology for Business. William Coleman, MD, professor of pediatrics, Center for Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Cheryl Hausman, MD, medical director of the primary care center at University City, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Debbie Then, PhD, social psychologist; author, Women Who Stay With Men Who Stray. Transportation Security Administration web site. National Sleep Foundation web site: "Sleep Problems and Summer Vacation - A Bad Mix." PR Newswire: "One-in-Four Workers Plan to Work While on Vacation, CareerBuilder.com's Annual Survey Finds." Expedia.com: "2006 Vacation Deprivation Survey." Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award: "Workplace and Mental Health Statistics."

© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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