How to relax on vacation? It's easier said than done. As much as we love a holiday, the combination of planning, booking, traveling, and being in an unfamiliar place can be exceedingly stressful. (Though, you know, we at Traveler hope that our destination guides, intel, and recommendations—from the best places to go in 2024 to some of our favorite hotels and cruises ever—help alleviate the sense of overwhelming bounty the travel world has to offer.) Truly, there’s nothing worse than returning from a trip feeling more uptight than before you left. Ever need a vacation from your vacation? Not fun.
So, below, we round up the best ways to make sure you actually relax on vacation—from the ultimate packing tips to advice from experts on the best ways to truly unwind.
A version of this article originally appeared on Condé Nast Traveller UK.
When it comes to organizing your holiday, spontaneity can be really fun. Booking flights, activities, and restaurants all can be improved with a sprinkling of carpe diem. For packing, however, organization is key. Whatever you do, don’t leave packing until the day of travel. There will undoubtedly be a few items that spring to mind just before you head out the door, so make sure you aren’t already frazzled and sick of packing when that happens.
Making a list is always helpful in ensuring you don’t forget anything important, but if you’re not a list kind of person, then just make sure you give yourself enough time to remember anything important. Start with the essentials: passport, phone, charger, keys, wallet, visas or travel documents, prescription medication.
Throwing a bunch of mismatched clothing items is never the best policy, so think of what the weather will be like at your destination, dress codes at any fancy restaurants or events you might be attending, cozy outfits for evenings in, and suitable footwear for a variety of activities (there’s nothing worse than discovering the only shoes you’ve brought give you blisters on day one). For toiletries, packing your liquids in a transparent plastic bag will save you time during security, so you aren’t frantically scrambling through your bags while in line.
Structure and schedules can help
Organized fun may not always be the best kind of fun, but when it comes to being able to enjoy your holiday to the fullest, sometimes a little structure is the best way to achieve that. Think about what you want to get out of your vacation: Is there a particular restaurant you want to try? A museum you’ve been desperate to visit? A beach you can picture yourself snoozing on? Doing your research will help guarantee you can slot in everything you want to experience during your trip.
Booking restaurants or bars in advance will save you valuable time; buying tickets for galleries or museums means that you won’t be forced to wait in line for hours on end; and a quick Google search of a beach will tell you how long you need to leave for transport there and back, plus anything else of note (when does it get crowded, are there sun beds, are there places for food nearby, etc.).
Of course, leave yourself some time for last-minute decisions and spontaneity. The unexpected is often the most fun, but only if you’re in the best mindset to embrace it when it appears.
Spend some time outside
For most of us, the majority of our working days are spent indoors. Vacations are a great time to get some much-needed fresh air and vitamin D, plus there can be some serious health benefits to getting outdoors on your holidays. “Spending time in nature helps travelers relax by reducing their mental fatigue, boosting happiness, and restoring their concentration,” Dr. Mahrukh Khwaja, a Positive Psychologist (MAPP), founder of Mind Ninja, and author of Navigating A Squiggly Life, tells Traveler. “An unthreatening natural environment allows the mind to wander freely and relaxes the brain’s strong focus on specific tasks.”
That’s not to say you need to prioritize exercise on your holidays, but raising your heart rate slightly during a trip, be it from walking, swimming, hiking, or dancing, can do wonders for your ability to relax for the rest of your time away. “Studies show that travelers spending time in nature and taking part in hikes, walks, or cycling exhibit a reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension,” Dr. Khwaja explains. “Research also shows that tourists staying in green environments produce lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.” All that to say, simply spending more time outdoors can help you relax on your travels and therefore more fully enjoy your time away.
Soak up the local culture
Immersing yourself in a new place’s culture and history can help you unwind. It can be hard to switch off from the stresses of home, whether that is stressing about your workload when you return, resisting the urge to check your emails, or worrying about family members waiting for you at home. Meeting new people, learning new things, and educating yourself about the place you are visiting can help you get out of your head and momentarily forget those stressors waiting for you.
“Taking holidays can enhance our quality of life and happiness through the experience of new, novel moments, increasing our sense of meaning, and an increase in positive emotions, such as awe, gratitude, and curiosity when we immerse ourselves in different cultures,” Dr. Khwaja says. “Studies also report that traveling and taking a break from work reduces work stress, exhaustion, and absenteeism through the practice of switching off, slowing down, and prioritizing experiences that nourish travelers.”
Cognisomatic hypnotherapist Jessica Boston explains why broadening your horizons might help your mental health long after your holiday ends. “Being in a different environment to our usual one challenges the algorithms of our perceptual reality. Our subconscious mind makes sense of the world through our standardized algorithms of safety and possibility,” she explains. “When we are on holiday, our subconscious mind takes information in and decides if something is the same, similar, or different to something it already knows, and then takes action on how to respond appropriately—for example, recognizing any potential threats or danger).”
Traveling gives us a perfect time to exercise these mental skills. Boston goes on to say, “It’s easy through times of stress for these processes of coming to terms with our perceptual reality to get more narrow. We become lazy and more ‘blanket’ in how we perceive new experiences, which can damage our mental health. Travel challenges our perceptual reality and sets off a chain reaction where we can make sense of the wider world more easily. This can help us become more hopeful of what we can achieve beyond our basic understanding and, therefore, help us to feel better. We begin to think: ‘If this is possible, what else is possible?’”
Take your time
We rush around every day, running to catch trains and hurrying through our commutes, finishing off tasks as quickly as possible and willing the clock to move faster so we can finish work and rush back home. It can be tempting to treat holidays the same way—rushing to make sure you can squeeze in everything you want to do in a short period of time. But holidays are a time to pause and slow things down. It’s not often that we return to a destination more than once, so it’s important to appreciate the little things as much as possible. Pacing yourself through activities and things you’d like to do means you give yourself the time to actually enjoy each individual moment. Give yourself longer time periods that you think you might need to explore, so that if you end up really enjoying something in particular, you don’t need to rush onto the next thing.
Before you skip this section, hear me out. I don’t mean you need to meditate on your next holiday (although if you’d like to do so, go ahead). Being mindful allows you to appreciate things you may otherwise have overlooked. Take your time to think about all the different sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of your new surroundings. Looking up, for example, is a travel tip I’ve often received; as weird as it sounds, by glancing upwards now and then you might catch sight of intriguing architecture, tiled buildings, murals on walls, or—if you’re lucky—a buzzing rooftop bar you won’t have noticed otherwise.
“In our hectic daily lives, the urgent pace driven by our anxieties and a demanding culture often keeps us from being in the present moment,” Boston explains. “There is a bid for attention from so many outlets, and anything related to survival keeps us constantly watching for imminent danger. This habitual state makes it challenging to be truly present as our minds continuously w1orks overtime.”
“Stepping away from the familiar environment that reinforces these patterns offers a natural break from survival cycles,” she expands. “Slowing down to pay attention to new cultures, sights, and sounds helps us to be fully in the present, which recalibrates our relationship with time and effortlessly realigns our priorities. Suddenly, the pressure of a work email diminishes when juxtaposed with centuries of history or diverse ways of life. By slowing down, you will find that you discover new aspects of yourself and find simple joys that remind you that now is the time is now to fully enjoy yourself. Your ability to practice being present will reshape your perspective and reposition your priorities leading to a greater sense of inner peace.”
Dr. Khwaja agrees: “A key way in which our brain can benefit from traveling is through the practice of being mindful abroad. Researchers report practicing mindfulness as a tourist, such as increasing awareness of our external environment, grounding ourselves to the present moment, and non-judgmental perception about a destination has positive impacts on our wellbeing, actions, and thinking responses. Mindfulness allows us to move from stress to awareness and broadens our attention to reframe life circumstances in a positive way.”
Treat yourself while on your trip
Obviously, a vacation in itself is a treat—and it can be an expensive one at that. But if you are already going on holiday, then it’s important to make sure that you aren’t spending the entire trip worrying about how much everything costs and scrimping on experiences while you’re there. This harks back to the earlier point about organization: If you plan accordingly, you’ll be able to balance out more affordable experiences with some finer ones too. A vacation is supposed to be a spoiling experience, so make sure you give yourself the opportunity to enjoy the trip as much as you can afford to.
Don’t put too much pressure on the vacation
Having said that, it’s equally as important to realize that a holiday is not always guaranteed to go entirely smoothly. It’s helpful to remind yourself that you are in a new-to-you place and you cannot plan for every potential. There are endless amounts of variables that can occur, and attempting to plan for all of them is never going to work. Do what you can to prepare yourself physically and mentally, but once you arrive at your destination, try your best to relinquish attempts to control anything and everything. This is a chance for you to fully relax, kick back, and enjoy the little time we get each year to let things unfold naturally.