Six steps to a stress-free vacation
Published: March 29, 2012 at 2:20 PM
Here are my six steps to a stress-free theme park vacation. You're invited to add your best tips in the comments.
1. Don't plan more vacation than you can afford
Paying for something you can't afford ranks high among stressful experiences. I know that people want to enjoy a dream vacation, but booking a vacation you can't afford will just turn out to be a nightmare. We've got some good advice on our Tickets page showing how you can budget for a family vacation, then shop around for the best deal to fit your budget.
In short, save up the money you're going to spend on vacation, instead of putting in on a credit card. Charging your vacation (without paying it off immediately) means an automatic 10% - and probably much more - markup on the cost of your vacation when you figure in the interest you'll be paying on that debt. Go ahead and use a card on your trip for safety and convenience, especially if it is a miles or reward card, but have the money in your bank account to pay off those charges immediately.
If that means you have to plan a less expensive trip than a week in Orlando at the Grand Floridian, so be it. Better to enjoy a vacation you can afford that stress out over a vacation that will be hurting you financially for months or years to come.
2. It costs nothing to plan in advance, so do it
The more reading you do in advance about a destination, the more you can get to know about it, so that you can make the most from your visit when you are there. Find the closest hotel you can afford, and learn what frequent visitors have to say about getting the best airfares. If driving is possible, do the math and decide if that's cheaper than flying.
Ask about the true cost of a vacation - those hidden "resort fees" and taxes that show up at check-out, and the cost of food and other incidentals while you stay. Find what freebies you can get, too, such as transportation to and from the airport, front of the line passes, and meal deals. The more you know about a potential destination, the more informed decision you can make about whether it's the best destination for your family - and your family budget.
Surprises can be stressful - learn all you can about your destination so that you can avoid them.
3. Create a flexible plan, then let it flex
Once you've learned about a destination, you'll probably develop a list of things you want to while you're there. That's great. You'll get more for your money on your vacation than people who haven't thought ahead and discovered what's available. But don't let your to-do list become your vacation's hostage demand list.
Consider your to-do wish list as suggestions, rather than as a schedule. In theme parks, arrive before the park opens and try to get the most popular rides out of the way, so that you can avoid the crowds that build up later in the day. But don't try to schedule your visit like an invasion. Go with the flow of the day and if something throws you off your plan, just pick something else convenient from your to-do list and enjoy that. Or just let yourself explore what's in the area. If you did the work to chose a good destination, you'll enjoy yourself regardless if you're on a planned activity or not.
If you're having a good time, you're using the right strategy for your day. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
4. Once you've spent the money, let it go
Hey, if someone's trying to bump you from a flight, a room or a meal that you've reserved, politely show your reservation and ask for help in getting what you've booked. But don't try to squeeze every last ride, show and calorie from your trip at the expense of enjoying your vacation.
Measure value in how much you and your family are enjoying your vacation. Don't fall into the trap of measuring value by the number of rides you went on in the parks or the number of calories your consumed on your meal plan. I was a statistics geek in college, and there's what we called a Pareto relationship between stress and value on vacation: Most people create 95% of their stress trying to squeeze the last 5% of value from their trip. This isn't a competition. Who cares about bragging rights? Get 100% of your enjoyment by not worrying about maximizing anything else but your enjoyment. Remember the work you did on steps 1, 2 and 3 - you can afford this. :^)
5. Engage. Make friends, not enemies
You can go through life (and your vacation) in one of two ways: You can see everyone as a potential obstacle, standing in the way of your enjoyment, or you can see everyone as a potential friend and ally, someone who can help you get even more enjoyment out of life.
Unfortunately, too many people choose the first option. Their reflex reaction is to assume that anyone they don't know personally is trouble. What a shame. Going through seeing everyone else as an "other" just leaves you ever-more stressed and angry.
So be friendly when you're out in public. Smile. Talk with people who smile back. Say please and thank you and ask employees to help you instead of berating them. Don't push past everyone so quickly that you miss the social engagements that can make vacations magical.
6. Remember: Happiness isn't a destination. It's a path
Allow me to be both idealistic and brutally frank at the same time here. First, the frank park: Your vacation is not going to make you happy. That's because nothing in life will make you happy.
Now, the idealistic: Ultimately, only you can control whether you feel happy. Be happy with what you have and whom you are with, and you might feel comfortable enough to allow new opportunities, enjoyment and friendships into your life. Be angry and stressed and you might find yourself closing off opportunities that come your way.
At some point in your vacation, something's going to go "wrong." How will you react? Will you allow that moment to send you into a dark place, or will you cheerfully weave your way around it? That attitude, more than anything else, will determine whether you have a stress-free vacation.
And a stress-free life.
Good luck, and happy travels.