Few things live up to the excitement of waking up on Christmas morning when you are a kid. Buying a plane ticket for a vacation, the grown up version of Santa’s big gift under the tree, might come close. People care not for the airlines but there is an undeniable tremor of delight every time you book a trip (business and bereavement travel excluded.) Once your flight is booked or some other measurable (ideally non-refundable) step is taken towards planning a trip, anticipation sets in and carries you toward your departure date. Even the airlines stoke our excitement by believing we may have as many as 6 email addresses to share our itinerary with.
As Thomas Swick says in his excellent travel book The Joys of Travel and Stories that Illuminate Them: “Anticipation is to a journey what infatuation is to a romance: an uncritical but crucial prelude to reality.”
Anticipation may be the least documented portion of your journey but it’s no doubt the frame in which your experiences will fit into. Planners will engross themselves into guidebooks and maps and travel underwear. Dreamers will immerse themselves through books, music, or movies set in their destination. Connectors will reach out to their friends and friends of friends and the grocery store clerk for tips. Fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pantsers will assume their travel companion is taking care of things. Most everyone will look at pretty pictures, choose one as their screen saver, and drool until touch down. Social media junkies will then “check in” at the airport and continue to do so daily until they’ve returned to work.
Whatever the method, there is a positive buzz about this stage of our trip because we anticipate all the good parts and take a mental hall pass on all the hassles, crowds, misfires and grumpy people who were not waiting with a fresh Hawaiian leis to welcome us. As Thomas Swick says, “Anticipation of travel is always more idyllic than travel itself.” Not being able to find a restroom when you need it never comes up for consideration when you are dreaming about your beach vacation. Nor do you think about (or later admit to) days like this as described by a brave travel comrade: “Kraków Day 2 giant FAIL. 2 hour wait at Wieliczka Salt Mines + 2 hour wait at Schindler Factory Museum plus torrential downpour + sleepy kids = afternoon spent in a mall eating at a super crap restaurant. You win some. You lose some.”
It almost doesn’t matter how long the countdown is as the jolt of anticipation will gladly fill the space given. “Where’s your next trip?” is also a serviceable conversation starter in virtually any social setting and infinitely more interesting than the weather. Strangely, people are often more interested in where you are going than where you’ve been. A cynical view of this might be that’s because we have short attention spans but maybe it’s because anticipation is largely all reasonably positive and retell is too many details edited either for only the AMAZING! or every horrible thing done to you in a place like the Maldives. Also there are no photo albums to endure during pre-trip conversations.
Reality should not temper the golden hues of anticipation. We need the fantasy to go through the hassle of leaving our house and handing over our credit cards. Home base is full with enough reality that you shouldn’t care if the award winning photo of your destination has cropped out a power plant in the distance or that the darling monkeys you’ve read about will cease to be cute after 15 minutes. If aware, the anticipation buildup can be a kind of goodwill that might actually come in handy when the reality on the ground isn’t mapping to the pretty picture.
Because anticipation does however raise the expectation bar, it does behoove you to KNOW THYSELF when planning a trip. If you like to be led and cared for, pre-book with a tour group. If you hyperventilate in crowds, skip Florence in July. If history bores you to tears, you won’t be cured by sacrificing a day in the Churchhill War Rooms because someone included it in a list of “Top 5 Things Not to Miss.” If you have children, remember you have children. Resilience training does not happen on the fly.
There was a widely-referenced study conducted in the Netherlands about the link between vacations and happiness and the conclusion was that the largest boost in happiness comes from the simple act of planning. Apparently the old adage “the best is yet to come” does not necessarily apply to vacations. Even though happiness peaks before you’ve reached 10,000 feet, the happiness halo returns to baseline roughly 8 weeks after a trip. While this may sound discouraging a better takeaway is perhaps to take shorter, more frequent trips so that you have something on the horizon.
Anticipating a trip is obviously easier with both financial resources and in places with more liberal vacation practices than the US. The Netherlands study showed however that the happiness boast isn’t linked with how far, long, or luxurious the travel but rather simply planning a break away from your normal routine. While the study didn’t suggest this, my own experience proves that the payoffs for planning a trip to the overlooked and less traveled places are almost always higher. So while I can’t guarantee that planning a weekend getaway to Waco, Texas will yield an 8 week happiness halo it’s worth a shot.
Where’s your next trip?