Saving the Best for Last

Why the strategic timing of pleasurable events can enhance travel.

Posted Nov 01, 2014

In addition to being backed by empirical evidence, today’s piece of travel advice carries an additional benefit: potentially saving you money!

Imagine you’re planning a week-long vacation. You’d like to treat yourself to the occasional splurge, but your budget doesn’t allow for seven days of devil-may-care spending. How do you strategize? Is there a way to space out your indulgences for maximum enjoyment?

Indeed, there is. Several areas of research tell us why you’d be best off indulging at the end of your trip.

In their recent book, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, social psychologists Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton tout the benefits of “making it a treat”—essentially, limiting access to your favorite things, be they chocolates, massages, or fancy hotels. That way, when you do get to experience them, they bring you an extra jolt of pleasure. Because of the pernicious process of hedonic adaptation, emotional events—good and bad—naturally lose their impact over time. You may find, then, that an expensive week in a fancy hotel starts to seem rather ordinary by day four or five, perhaps making it a regrettable investment. But when it’s one special night that follows a string of mediocre hotel experiences (not that these can’t be nice too), it’s likely to bring you a boost of appreciation and enjoyment that is well worth the money. Remember this general travel rule: In terms of enjoyment, more is not always better; “better” is not always better—even when our budgets allow for it.

Putting your splurges off until a later date also gives you the benefit of anticipation. Knowing that your final evening of vacation will be spent in a fancy hotel gives you something to look forward to, even as your trip nears its end and your return to everyday life draws depressingly closer. A Dutch study of vacationers found that the period of time leading up to a vacation is often as pleasant as the vacation itself! Continue to capitalize on the power of anticipation even while traveling by putting something special off until the end.

Also, keep in mind simple contrast effects. That fancy hotel on the first night of the trip will naturally make the midrange places you’ve booked for the rest of the week seem pretty lackluster.

Finally, imagine coming home, resuming normal life, and thinking back on your vacation. When determining how much fun you had, you’re not actually going to be giving each moment of the trip equal weight and averaging these moments together to make your judgment. Instead, our memories are biased towards certain kinds of moments. The peak-end rule dictates that, when we think back to an experience that had a distinct beginning and end, like a trip, we mentally prioritize the emotional high point of the experience and also how the experience ended. So, if your trip ends with a cancelled flight or a sick child, you might recall the entire trip as unpleasant, even if the bulk of it was actually quite enjoyable. On the other hand, if your last night involves a romantic evening on your luxurious private balcony overlooking the ocean, you may just have a more positive memory of your trip as a whole than you otherwise would. And since one of the delights of travel is the rich memories it provides, why not make choices that help ensure them?

In short, then, end on a high note. Go out with a bang. It’s a simple, economical way to enhance your trip, both in the moment and in hindsight.

References

Dunn, E. W., & Norton, M. (2013). Happy Money: The science of smarter spending. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Do, A. M., Rupert, A. V., & Wolford, G. (2008). Evaluations of pleasurable experiences: The peak-end rule. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15, 96-98.

Nawijn, J., Marchand, M., Veenhoven, R., & Vingerhoets, A. (2010). Vacationers happier, but most not happier after a holiday. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 5, 35-47.