Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


6 Ways to Have a More Fulfilling Vacation

Here's how not to squander your long-awaited opportunity for a break.

Summer is here. And for many Americans, that means a vacation—or at least some semblance of one. I've written before about how few of us are actually taking our full allowed vacation time off from work—a major problem. But most of us do attempt at least a bit of time "off," even if it is to stay in place locally.

Often, a vacation is long-planned and long-awaited, with the pressures of high expectations: it's meant to be the highlight of our summer, if not our entire year. How often does it meet these expectations, though? I hear from many readers who struggle with 'vacations' that are anything but: they end up even more stressed than in their normal, regular life due to travel logistics, sleep disruptions, and tensions with family. If you're lucky enough (and assertive enough) to take time off, you want to make it count. Here are some ways to help make that happen.

1. Be mindful of expectations.

One of the easiest and quickest ways for a vacation to be a letdown is to have rigid and heightened expectations. By now, we all should know that the hotel room will likely be smaller than it looked on the website, and the scenery a little less grandiose when there are 40 other people in swimsuits intruding upon your perfect vista. That's okay. Set your expectations in such a way that perfection and superficial trappings aren't their foundation. What would you like to have happen? Relaxation? Connection? Adventure? A change of pace? None of those are jeopardized by the thing being imperfect; in fact, they can be enhanced by it if you open yourself up mindfully to the experience of just being, taking things as they come (delayed flight or not.)

2. Express gratitude.

The research is clear that gratitude—and the expressing of it—truly helps us feel good. And on a vacation, there is so much to be grateful for. This doesn't mean that you have to spend every waking moment marveling at the too-soggy lunch that you got from the hotel restaurant (and wasn't it supposed to include a soup?), but it does mean that taking moments here and there to be grateful that you are where you are can help you keep a more fulfilling perspective. Attitudes can spread among your traveling companions as well, so the more that you model a positive and grateful outlook, the more it will pay off with their being more positive as well.

3. Embrace flexibility when possible.

Things will go wrong. I'm no clairvoyant, but I know this just the same. Traveling is full of potential pitfalls, and whether it's getting sick, forgetting to pack (or losing or breaking!) something important or having a snafu with logistics or technology, there'll be something that you weren't expecting, and something that you wish didn't happen. Many times, it will be all of the above. (Ask me how I know.) If you stay rigid in an all-or-none mindset, then if one of these things happens, then you may view your vacation as ruined. And guess what? It will be. But if you can be flexible, adjust, and realize that vacation time still follows the unpredictability of life in general—then you'll realize that there's nothing to be "ruined," but rather an experience to be had (and perhaps an entertaining story to be gotten from it, if nothing else.) The same flexibility will help with planning. Don't have everything so rigidly decided in advance that you leave no room for the joys that come from discovering something unexpected.

4. Be willing to put down the screens.

I'm not naive enough to think that some people aren't seeking out certain vistas for no other reason than to post them to social media. The fact that an any given attraction, there are people who barely look at the view with their naked eye but instead, solely through their phone's screen (to take a photo) tells us that without question. So, for many, documenting their vacation through photos and social media posts has become an indelible part of how they travel. And it's not going away any time soon. But what if you built in little pockets of time where you were screen-less? And you let yourself just be? What if you spent time truly observing your surroundings, or engaged in conversation, or even observing yourself and how your body feels as you sink into relaxation in a new place? What if you allowed yourself not to be tethered to work email? If you can bring yourself to do it, many people report that it makes a tremendous difference in their ability to enjoy the moment… which adds up to enjoying their entire trip far more.

5. Build in downtime.

Have you ever heard someone say that they needed a vacation from their vacation? Or that when they came back afterward, they felt even more exhausted than before? Often, we have unrealistic expectations about just how packed our days should be during vacation. We want to "make the most of it" by seeing the coolest sites (must get those pictures!), and jam-packing our days fuller than is realistic for logistics (or for us to maintain well-being.) Don't fall into this trap. If you spend your vacation miserable and stressed about adhering to the strict schedule that always keeps you in a rush, then you've spent your vacation miserable and stressed—no matter what kind of "cool" places you were able to squeeze in.

6. Tie it to a deeper meaning.

I’ve written here before how in general, we are much happier when we can connect our daily behaviors to what we believe to be our life’s purpose. But this doesn’t apply just to the workday grind; the same is most definitely the case when we are choosing how to spend our most special, non-ordinary days as well. Think beforehand, and throughout, about why you chose this vacation, and what it means to you. Remind yourself of what will continue to resonate when you recall it years later. Is it exploring new cultures? Pushing your limits with a sense of adventure? Spending quality time with those you love most? Being out in nature? Indulging your senses to remind yourself to stop and be mindful every once in a while? All of us have values that guide our behavior—even if we aren't totally aware of them. And the more that you can align your trip with those values, the more fulfilled you will be—and the happier you will be that you took it.

More from Andrea Bonior Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today