Travel Zen: How To Avoid Making Your Vacation Seem Like Work

It's easy to watch a vacation slip from "fun" to "frustrating" in a mere matter of seconds. If you find your travels teetering on the edge of disaster, or you're ready to plan ahead to avoid one, follow these tips to make your vacation as relaxing and fun as it should be.

There's a lot of work involved in planning a trip beyond your borders – that's why being a travel agent is such a lucrative career. However, that doesn't mean that the trip itself has to be work. In fact, plonking down a few grand for the privilege of traveling to a foreign land and being stressed and grumpy the whole time is a more dubious financial maneuver than investing with Bernie Madoff or Tom Petters. Having a blast is your main concern when venturing abroad, and if anything rains on your parade, then it's a sunk cost.

Keep these tips in mind to make sure your vacation isn't a waste of coin:

Be prepared.

Maybe you've watched too many movies, but for some reason you have it in your head that everything will unfold smoothly once you arrive. All you need to do is parachute in with a rucksack and an assured outlook on life and you'll instantly be ushered into an affordable, comfortable hostel and bump into a shy, but quirky and cute local girl who will act as your interpreter and personal guide. That may happen if you set out on your journey without a game plan, but a more likely scenario involves you, alone, in the train station, ten minutes to closing without a euro or a clue.This can be a wee bit stressful.

Instead of dropping yourself immediately into emergency mode, where you'll be desperate enough to pay exorbitant prices for any available taxi or bed, have some of the basics mapped out and booked before you arrive. Yes, you could ask around town until you stumble upon the best deals, but, amazingly enough, most of the legwork can be done from home, seeing as you obviously have Internet access. (Or did you get someone to print this article for you? Tree-waster.) Researching hotels at sites like or or can easily be done during your lunch break at the office, weeks or months in advance – you know, when you're not in a foreign land, jet-lagged and lugging 80 pounds of luggage.

Do as much planning as possible ahead of time. Consider yourself a military operative with a clear objective: relax, have fun. Your mission is only to execute the orders delineated at HQ, not to cook up directives on the fly. Have a plan of attack before you touch down so you can go about the business of chilling on autopilot. Find a couple good restaurants, figure out where to change your money, find a place to stay (at least for the first few nights), read a recent guide book cover-to-cover, print off a map and a bus or train schedule before you hop a plane. Take care of the basics – once you are oriented and have a place to stash your stuff and sleeping body, then you can start winging it.

Remember: You are visiting a foreign nation, not an amusement park. You aren't guaranteed fun if you haven't planned for it, and no one is going to go out of their way to keep you smiling except you.

Photo By Mike El Marileño

Stop being a sitcom male and ask a damn stranger for help.

Even a former Boy Scout won't be prepared for everything. When you roll into town, straight off the boat, there is likely going to be something that throws you for a loop. Maybe something has changed since your guidebook was published or perhaps you have no freaking clue how to get into the pay toilet. Don't sit there like a tourist consulting your guidebook in a crowded train station when you can easily reach out to any number of strangers bustling about you. Someone who lives there will have far more information than the intern that was sent by Lonely Planet to scope out Gare du Nord.

I know, I know, you're a man and you ain't never asked for nothing from nobody. A snow leopard could rip the arm from your socket and you wouldn't so much ask for a band aid. But here's the thing: being lost in a foreign country is an entirely different universe than being lost on the interstate in Ohio. You need to ask for help.

Memorize key phrases such as, “Excuse me, where is the tourist information center?” and “Where is this train headed?” and “Where is [my hotel]?” Also note that most employees in Western European countries do speak English, but they'd really prefer that you at least try to speak their language, even if all you can say in their native tongue is, “Excuse me, I am a silly monolingual American, please, do you speak English?”

And for God's sake, don't resort to the slow, loud-talking, wildly gesticulating attempts at communication that some hapless tourists adopt. For one, the person you are trying to speak to is merely Spanish or Italian or German, not deaf, and also, even if they can't understand your words, they can read your tone loud and clear and if you sound annoyed and condescending, they'll feel less obliged to help you. Locals in the know are your saviors when you are in a jam, and getting on their good side requires a dose of humility and patience.

Budget like a bean counter and then spend like a jackass.

One big problem with vacations is that they are expensive. It's expensive to get there, and, at least recently, with the dollar in the doldrums, it's expensive to do everything else once you arrive. Knowing this can throw a wet soggy blanket on your fun factor. If you're the fiscally responsible spendthrift that I think you are, you are likely to feel every euro or pound that passes through your fingers and wince at the thought of spending so much per day.

Budgeting on the fly leads to one of two major hang ups: either you overspend to the point that you run out of money before you get home (“C'mon, I'm on vacation” is the argument here) or you underspend for fear of breaking the bank and miss out on a one-of-a-kind experience.

In order to circumvent this vacation-ruining feast or famine, revert back to the self-imposed HQ vs. operative dichotomy. When you are back at home, comfortable, well-rested and in your right mind, go through each stop during your trip and budget out how much you can spend in a day. Leave a bit of leeway for unexpected costs and emergencies and allot yourself as much money as you can afford to let go of without being torn apart by debt and regret.

Once you get in country, go hog wild. Have faith in the astute budgeting done back at HQ and make an effort to spend the full amount per day that you allowed yourself. In this way, you can be sure that you won't be returning home to runaway debt but you also won't be depriving yourself of experience needlessly.

The key is to not spend so much on vacation that you've condemned yourself to eternal overtime in order to pay off your debt, but also not to force yourself into opting for McDonald's instead of the authentic French bistro for the sake of frugality. After all, if you travel to Europe or Asia or Africa or anywhere else without tasting the tastes, seeing the sights and living the life, you're wasting your money anyway.


Photo By BJ Carter

Be a tourist.

“Don't be a tourist” is an oft-cited piece of advice, but mostly for the sake of safety. But there are more important perks than divesting yourself from the fanny-packed, slack-jawed, tour bus yuppie image for the sake of removing the “Mug me!” sign from your “God Bless the U.S.” shirt.

The problem is that you can't not be a tourist. You are a dude from another country, on vacation, there to experience the culture. I'm pretty sure that's the definition of a tourist. You'll only seem like more of a jerk if you dawn a beret or sombrero and adopt a fake accent in an attempt to “blend in.” That's borderline racist and full-on silly. Just because you watched that episode where Samantha Brown ate a guinea pig in Latin America doesn't mean you are a local, so stop making a fool of yourself.

Instead, embrace the fact that you are from another land and be eager to take in the new (to you) culture. Ask questions, try new things, learn, be humble and open. Approach the culture as a child. Be honest in your ignorance and gracious in the explanations you receive. Welcome the unfamiliar and savor the strangeness. Too many travelers resort to anger and ethnocentricity when things are a bit wonky, in their view. (“What do you mean you don't serve cold beer?! “How come my shrimp aren't peeled?” “Why don't you savages have air conditioning?”) But traversing the unknown and exiting your comfort zone are what you expected when stamping your passport, right? If not, I suggest vacationing at one of those military-occupied beach resorts with the free Applebee's vouchers. Try the Oriental Chicken Rollup – it comes with fries.

Slip your temper a mickey.

Chloroform it, slash its tires, knock it over the head with a blackjack, do anything you can to keep your anger from getting in the way of your good time. Fake it if you have to. Pretend that you've hit your head or had a spiritual rebirth and are physically unable to become enraged. Trust me – it will help.

You could miss a train, have your passport nicked, be subtly insulted by a Frenchman or merely stub your toe. Under normal circumstances, that may be grounds for a tantrum. There are a million little things that may contribute to you losing your cool when you are a stranger in a strange land with strange, unwanted things happening, but there is one ironclad reason not to let it get to you: you're on vacation.

Stay focused on your main objective: to relax and enjoy yourself. If you manage to keep a good mood afloat even after having a potted plant dropped on your head from a second story window, then mission accomplished. If you let a soggy croissant, a long line or a flat Camera battery sour your mood for even one hour of your vacation then the terrorists have already won.

Try to stay optimistic, even when the shit hits the fan. This is doubly important when traveling with a companion. Moods are contagious, both bad and good, so a little bit of method acting will go a long ways. At the very least, be able to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. After all, the worst experiences abroad make for the best anecdotes back at home.

Forfeit a day, if you have to.

While you might envision yourself as a kid in a candy store in the vacation destination of your dreams, chances are you are actually a human being and are susceptible becoming burnt out. If you're like me, you don't normally wake up at 7AM every day and walk around for nine hours visiting museums and trying to decipher foreign signage. This can be exhausting, even before you factor in jet lag and the discomfort of having to sleep on a 25 Euro cot instead of your plush king size Tempur-Pedic back at home.

Don't be afraid to take a day off, even if you had something planned. You're not running a race or trying to win a car, so it's okay if you don't hit every single sight and tourist trap that you had hoped to see. It's better to sacrificed one day of sightseeing than to spend the rest of your trip so beat that you can't even appreciate the food.

The bean counter in you is going to flip out at this point, arguing something like, “You can lay around in your room for FREE back at home.” Satiate your inner miser by taking in some comfort food or media with a twist – you'd be surprised at how different even seemingly hegemonic agents, such as MTV or McDonald's, can seem when viewed from a different hemisphere. Rest up, enjoy your hotel room, and take a vacation from your vacation so you can rebound with gusto and exuberance the next day.

Don't forget the obvious.

There are numerous other quick tips that you've likely already heard that can help contribute to a good, incident-free time: Pack Light, Leave wiggle room and contingency days. Always be early. Stay safe and secure. Rise early, beat crowds and hot weather. Keep your passport and cash safely strapped around your middle in a money belt. You've read these before or ingrained them as conventional wisdom, but remember to heed them. Don't miss the forest for the trees and focus on your one, imperative goal: have a good time.

Jack Busch

Jack Busch lives in the Pittsburgh area where he writes and edits for fun and money.