Six steps to a stress-free vacation

March 29, 2012, 2:20 PM · Last week I wrote about stressed-out visitors at Walt Disney World, so today I thought it might be helpful to talk about ways that you and your family can enjoy a (relatively) stress-free vacation.

Stress-free kids at a theme park

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.

Replies (15)

March 29, 2012 at 2:30 PM · I appreciate this article more that the one that was more or less a massive complaint that made a lot of assumptions.
March 29, 2012 at 2:41 PM · I'll second that Skipper - good article Robert.
March 29, 2012 at 3:44 PM · That's all great advice! I might say one thing, however, about getting there before the park opens to hit the most popular attractions before the big crowds start rolling in. Getting there early is always a good idea, but from my personal experience, I'd advise anyone to be flexible about which rides they intend to hit. I've often found that just because thepark opens at a certain hour doesn't necessarily mean the big, hot attraction you want to ride will open at the same time. I've been near first in line, first thing in the morning before and ended up waiting two hours for the ride itself to open.
March 29, 2012 at 5:48 PM · Wise words, Robert. Wifey and I have learned to just go with the flow over the years. Nothing is so important on a vacation that it's worth ruining your vacation over and/or peace with your loved ones.
March 29, 2012 at 8:13 PM · Thanks for the tips.
March 29, 2012 at 8:18 PM · Great tips, they should have this advice outside of every theme park in big, bold letters where everyone can see.
March 30, 2012 at 6:21 AM · Do you know what , Robert, I think number 5 is quite possibly the best bit of advice on offer here.
March 30, 2012 at 6:36 AM · It always amazed me that people would spend thousands of dollars on a Disney vacation, and yet have no idea what a Fastpass is.

Research is fun (at least for me).

March 30, 2012 at 7:35 AM · Thanks Robert… I do agree to all of this… Especially being flexible..

My daughter got a stomach bug the first day on our vacation one year and plans go out the window… Therefore our planned rest day was the first day of the vacation…

March 30, 2012 at 7:57 AM · "Be happy with what you have and whom you are with" = wise thinking.
March 30, 2012 at 10:54 AM · Have you been reading my game plan for vacations?

You're spot on with the advice, especially with not seeing other people as obstacles. I've always taken time while in line to see if I can't get the person next to me to talk a bit while we're waiting. It's amazing what you can learn, not only about where you're at, but also about places you've never been.

I was really sad to see on my last trip to Disneyland the number of phone zombies there were. Here those people were in one of the greatest theme parks with such rich detail, and what are they doing? Texting and not even looking at the park they forked out good money for.

March 30, 2012 at 1:09 PM · In a nutshell, its plan by not overplanning; spend without overspending, and have fun without high expectations.

The best vacations are when I'm relaxing on the off times, when I'm not in a theme park or a tourist trap. Traveling is part of the anticipation (or maybe just getting through TSA) and arriving at the destination.

As for being with strangers, it is really about being friendly with everyone include your travel companions. If you're having fun within your group, you can certainly have fun with everyone else. I major problem is when you might have arguments with your spouse. This has happened on occasion.

March 30, 2012 at 3:03 PM · Great article.

It sounds cliche, but attitude really does make all the difference. There have been times in theme parks where I've let myself become stressed and frustrated going in, and all that does is start a cycle of stress and frustration, because you'll view everything negatively and that will just add to the problem.

A week ago I visited Disneyland right in the middle of Spring break season. I knew it would be ridiculously crowded going in, but a friend really wanted to go so we went. I resolved ahead of time to not let the stress get to me, to go in with a good attitude, not be disappointed if something didn't work out and not to be impatient with long lines. I just accepted it for what it was, and that positivity carried me through the day. We wound up having a great time.

April 1, 2012 at 6:44 AM · Very nice article Robert. When friends or family plan a vacation to Orlando they often ask us for advice on putting their trip together. Through a few years of doing this for them I have found one of the most important issues to help us plan and them to remain stress free is:

What will you have more of: Money or Time?

Once we know that planning is a relative breeze. One of your biggest suggestions (and one we really try to get across) of paying in advance is spot on! We try to get our family to plan at least a year ahead and get all the tickets out of the way very early. That can make a HUGE difference.

When you plan well and pay for things in advance, your vacation "almost" seems free! You miss the bits you set aside along the planning journey much less than a BIG after vacation bill!

We also really try to drill in the fact they could live down here for a year and not do everything, so the thought of non-stop running from the moment they step foot off the plane can be squashed right there!

We try to put a down day at least every three days if not every other. A down day could be a trip to the water park, beach, something local, or just a day to recharge the batteries. THAT is a key to a stress free vacation!

I am very glad this site exists. I used it to plan many a trip to Orlando before we moved here. It's a wonderful tool with great resources!

April 2, 2012 at 9:39 AM · Robert, you are so true, especially with #1 and #5. I had saved up and paid up-front for my Disney trips until 2009. I charged almost everything for that trip and it took 2 years to pay for it! I like to talk to others before a parade starts, instead of whining about the wait. Once I had staked out a great spot on Main Street about 90 minutes before the Christmas parade. And older couple came and stood beside me and asked where I was from. They were from Canada and the gentleman had recently retired from Jockey, North America. I just blurted out "Jockey for Her has been my favorite underwear since 1982." I think I blushed then, because he said "It's nice to know that my life's work is well thought of." I felt we were no longer strangers.

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