Travel is my drug. Whether I’m in Aspen or Athens, I get a rush from the colors, the sounds, and the tastes. It’s all so exciting. But travel can also be overstimulating, when suddenly -- without warning -- the novelty and sensory input are just exhausting. The fatigue can last as little as half an hour, or it can go on for a day or two. In some intense countries I’ve visited, like India, it can last much longer.
The word “travel” is related to the word “travail” -- to engage in painful or laborious effort. The connection may seem odd to us now, but etymologists believe it’s probably because travel was a rather strenuous experience during the Middle Ages. Even today, it takes effort and energy -- and sometimes we just run out!
Over the years, I’ve developed numerous strategies to prevent and reduce travel exhaustion. Here are the 12 best.
1. Know Your Enemy
Identify exactly what tires you. Crowds? Noise? Traffic? Babies crying? Teens shrieking? Deafening music? Too much running around in too short a time period? Define the source of your stress, and then strategize. For example, I find that noise from heavy traffic can be overwhelming, so I avoid wide, busy avenues. The same goes for noise in restaurants. Before I decide where to eat, I sometimes use an app like SoundPrint to gauge the noise level in a restaurant.
2. Pack Comforts From Home
It’s well worth the trouble to bring things from home that restore and sustain you. I bring tea bags (because the tea flavors I like are not always available), a mug, an electric immersion heater, my iPod, headphones, a headlamp (for reading at night without waking my husband), and Sudoku puzzle books. What’s on your list?
3. Rely On Routine
Often, when we travel, we forget the importance of routines, but without them, we can become as cranky as three-year-olds. The Dalai Lama, who has been exiled from his native Tibet for more than 60 years, knows something about stress. When asked if he had one word to describe the secret to happiness, he responded, “Routines.”
These routines will vary, of course. When my husband, Barry, and I first visited Oaxaca, Mexico, we took Spanish classes in the morning, keeping afternoons free for visiting museums, textile markets, and other tourist spots. Years later, while visiting Angkor Wat, the ancient and extensive Hindu ruins in Cambodia, we explored the sites in the morning. Then we’d relax at the hotel during the midday heat, napping and swimming in the pool. In the late afternoon, after the weather had cooled off, we’d check out another part of the ruins.
One of my favorite routines anywhere is to sit in our room or Airbnb in the mid-afternoon, drinking a cup of tea. I might go through the photos I took that morning, deleting the bad ones, or write in my journal.
4. Rest, Read, And Restore
Make your hotel room, Airbnb, or wherever you’re staying a sanctuary, your personal safe place where you can settle in and nest. After more than 40 years of marriage, I know that Barry (a true Virgo) is an expert nester. It makes no difference whether we’re camping, on a road trip in our camper van, or spending a night in a hotel or a month in an Airbnb -- the first thing he does is put his belongings into their respective nooks.
If you’re traveling alone and can afford it, I recommend investing in a private room rather than a hostel, at least some of the time. And if you’re traveling as a couple, you might enjoy the indulgence of two beds so that one person can stay up reading or watching Netflix while the other goes to sleep early, without either of you being disturbed.
The summer that Barry and I bicycled across southern France, I had to take a day off from time to time to recharge. I love cycling, but day after day it sometimes can feel like a job. One August morning, Barry knew he wanted to cycle from the French town of Arles, where we were staying, to Avignon, about 25 miles away. I took one look at the wind and knew this was the day to give myself some rest and relaxation. After he took off, I settled into my perch in the cafe near our hotel, reading my juicy novel while drinking a cafe au lait and indulging in not one but two croissants. That afternoon, when Barry returned, saying the wind had been horrendous, I knew I had made the right decision.
5. Enjoy A Duvet Day
Respond to the call of the bed! This can happen at any time on a trip -- even the very beginning. A friend flew from the West Coast to Quito, Ecuador, for a monthlong trip around the country. Apart from Canada, he had never been outside the United States. After an hour wandering the streets of the Old City, he was exhausted. Jet lag, elevation gain (Quito is at 9,500 feet), and culture shock created the perfect storm for overwhelm. He sank into his hotel bed, where he stayed for 14 hours before resurfacing.
6. Go Through Your Bags
I’m often surprised by how soothing it is to organize and order my things. Knowing what you have and where is strangely calming. Every so often, I’ll take everything out and inspect each item, making sure I need it. Things that are extraneous I’ll either toss or send home. (Yes, I hate to spend money on shipping, but it’s less stressful than carrying a heavy bag.)
7. Carve Out Alone Time
If you’re traveling with your partner or a friend, sometimes it’s rejuvenating to spend some time by yourself. My mother modeled this for me when I was a teenager. One late afternoon in the mid-1960s when my family was visiting Rome, she announced she was going to wander and window-shop for a while before dinner. “Could I join you?” I asked. “Well, you can come if you want, but don’t expect me to talk,” Mother said. “I feel like having some time on my own.” Looking back, I’m impressed with my mother for claiming her space in an era when moms were all about their children.
8. Make Time To Socialize
Then again, maybe what you need is time with another person. When Barry and I were on our sabbatical in 2000, he and I visited the Republic of Georgia for a month. It’s a fascinating country, but I felt lonely for female companionship. Luckily, I had met an American woman who taught ESL in Tbilisi, the capital, so I called her and asked if she’d like to go out for coffee. At the cafe, she regaled me with stories about Georgian-style female gynecological exams. We were both in hysterics -- it was just the therapy I needed! Nowadays, when I can’t find another person to hang out with in the flesh, I’ll Skype with a friend.
9. Concentrate On Just One Thing
Even a few minutes spent focusing on one thing helps to relax the mind. Start by sitting comfortably, inside or outside. Then focus your attention on a nearby object, such as a candle flame, a flower, or a tree. Let details and other things in the area fall away.
Your object of focus doesn’t have to be visual. You could concentrate on a particular sound, like the birdsong you hear outside, or the farthest sound. Or pay attention to your breath.
10. Do A ‘Body Scan’
Lie on the floor and get comfortable. Take a few deep breaths. Now slowly bring your attention to your feet and begin observing the sensations. If you notice any tension, focus on it. Visualize the tension leaving your body through your breath. When you feel ready, move on. Continue scanning your entire body, gradually moving up through your feet until you reach the top of your head. Notice how you feel and where you're holding stress. If there's any tension, breathe into it as you release it.
11. Do Gentle Yoga On The Floor
Simply lying on the floor can be deeply restful. Soften into the floor and let the earth hold you. Stretch. Notice which parts of your body are touching the floor and which aren’t. Then, lift your knees and rock from side to side. Try a spinal twist. Afterward, place your legs up against a wall. Lie on your back with your sit bones as close to the wall as is comfortable. Extend your legs up the wall, so that the backs of your legs are resting fully against it. This is a great way to ease fatigue and tension in your legs and feet. Finally, lie on the floor, stretch out your arms, and rest your knees on the bed or on a chair.
12. Seek Quiet Places
When you’re out and about, look for calm, unhurried places like churches, hotel lobbies, green spaces, and benches where you can slow down and pause.
If you’re like me, you’ll find that by incorporating one or more of these ideas into your traveling day, you’ll be less likely to get overstimulated. Take a nap, sip some tea, or stare out the window at a nearby tree. Chances are that before long, your enthusiasm and energy will return, and once again you’ll be appreciating the unique joys that only travel can bring.