When it comes to planning your vacation you probably consult friends and family for ideas, possibly read some online reviews, maybe flip through a travel magazine or two. But what's one source you're probably not looking to for advice? Scientists.
At first blush it might seem strange to ask scientists for ideas on making your vacation great -- aren't they busy curing cancer and shooting rockets to the moon, after all? -- but it turns out there is actually a lot that psychology can teach you about how to get the maximum bang for your holiday buck. Research offers several insights into what actually drives pleasure and relaxation on vacations, as well as common mistakes that can suck the joy out of your trip.
1. Be autonomous.
Signing up for a pre-planned tour might sound stress-free -- there's no planning to worry about and you get the benefits of a local guide -- but science suggests that what you gain in ease you probably more than lose in joy. Autonomy is key for a truly excellent getaway.
"Experts say having autonomy while on vacation also increases its benefits. Try to take control of the course of the day. For example, don't let the alarm clock tell you when to get up, wake up naturally. Take steps so you will be in control of your time, deciding which activities you want to do or not," reports ForMen.com (though assumedly the advice applies to both genders).
2. Make your first and last days awesome.
The human mind has plenty of quirks and because of one of them, we tend to weigh the first and final moments of an experience more heavily when judging and recalling it. Therefore, it will probably pay off for you spend a little extra money and care making sure you start and end your holiday on a high note.
"Making the very beginning of the trip good could be a good strategy," happiness researcher Dr. Elizabeth Dunn told New York Magazine's Science of Us blog. She adds that there is also some evidence that "the very end of an experience seems to disproportionately affect our memory of it." Therefore, "going out with a bang, going on the hot air balloon or whatever on the last day of the trip, could also be a good strategy for maximizing reminiscence." So wield those travel points wisely and plan an indulgence for the beginning or end of your trip (or both!)
3. Savor the planning.
Googling pristine beaches and ogling plush hotel rooms before you leave is part of the pleasure of vacationing. Make sure you extract as much joy from planning and anticipation as you can. "We get a lot of pleasure from dreaming up and organizing a trip, so researchers suggest drawing that experience out. In this TEDx talk about the science of vacations, Ian Cole suggests that anticipation is key. Plus, looking forward to a trip during a frazzled time can offer happiness and pressure relief," explains Vox.
"People are excited when they're looking forward to the satisfaction they'll get from purchases like vacations, and so one way they can extend these pleasurable feelings is by increasing the amount of time and hence the number of opportunities they have to think about, to talk about, and to savor their future experiential consumption," social psychologist Dr. Amit Kumar agrees on Science of Us.
4. Do something new.
Here again, our instinct to go the easy and safe route can get in the way of maximizing vacation happiness. "Once we've already seen somewhere we're not necessarily absorbing what's new about it. People who always go to the same place will often sort of start to have memories blur," one researcher told the WSJ's Sumathi Reddy. So even if you're staying home, make sure you schedule some fresh activities to liven up your plans -- and your memories.
5. Take more, shorter getaways.
Reddy also discovered that well-being tends to shoot up pretty quickly once we're away (in as little as two days) so holidaying for weeks at a time is likely to bring you less happiness than breaking up your vacation days into several shorter breaks. As we've reported here on Inc.com previously, science suggests that about eight days is the ideal vacation length to thoroughly relax but not waste any of your precious time off.