In a dream world, we could travel or go on vacation and have absolutely nothing go wrong. Nothing. No missing baggages, no unexpectedly awful hotel experiences; everything would happen on time and just as planned.
If you’ve traveled a lot though, you’d probably laugh at the thought. A trip where your expectations and hopes are met?! Crazy talk!
It is an unfortunate reality that something is bound to go wrong, but you don’t have to let that spoil your trip. You certainly don’t have to lower your expectations so low that you’re just miserable. There are things you can do to prevent things from going wrong, and if something does go wrong, there are ways to mitigate the damage too.
We’ve talked about minimalism a lot before, both in reference to travel and in reference to general quality of life, but it bears repeating – being a minimalist at least when you travel can make your life a lot easier.
When we traveled in our pre-minimalist days, we took way too many things and this caused us innumerable headaches. In one instance, we had two checked suitcases packed to the brim on our way home from China and neither of them were at baggage claim waiting for us. Not only did we waste a lot of time trying to get a hold of someone to help us locate our bags and eventually file a lost baggage claim, but we also suffered the stress and emotional consequences of being too attached to things.
Thankfully, we got a knock on our door at three-freaking-a.m. by a kind airport employee with our recovered luggage. We got lucky, admittedly. Baggage is lost all the time at airports. Trying to keep track of hundreds if not thousands of bags is tough, and so losses are bound to happen sometimes. This experience really made us re-examine our priorities and packing style.
Headaches from taking too much can happen from more than just baggage claim though; you inevitably lose things in the hotel, transporting those bags to and from the airport and your hotel is a pain and they only wind up being an unnecessary source of stress. It’s unnecessary because the majority of what people pack with them are all unnecessary items. You just don’t need so many things. On our most recent trip, we managed to pack everything we needed – clothes, extra shoes, a laptop and a minimal amount of toiletries into one backpack. That was the least we’ve ever taken, and honestly the freedom it gave us was invaluable – freedom from worry, freedom to be more mobile, freedom to be flexible with our plans, so on and so forth.
Carefully examine what you plan on taking and pare it down to only the absolute essentials, ideally enough that you can carry it onto the plane with you. The more control you keep over your possessions, the easier trips to the airport and hotel will be.
Don’t Set Too Rigid Schedules
The more you try to schedule and plan every minute of your trip, the more you set yourself up for stress, headaches and disappointment. You’re lowering the amount of control you have and increasing your dependency upon others – on something to not delay your flight, transportation to run on time and for traffic to be ideal.
The easiest and, in my opinion, best way to take back that control is to give yourself some freedom. Take your time, enjoy the journey and be careful not to plan things too close together so you have ample time to get from place to place.
We’ve all had problems arise from situations out of our control like traffic on the way to the airport or an activity running long. Part of our study-abroad in China included our weekends being carefully planned, minute-by-minute and so not only were we not free to enjoy and spend extra time on things we found enjoyable or interesting, like exploring the gorgeous Summer Palace, but if one of us in the group took too long we would be literally sprinting to the bus and, lacking good judgment, the bus driver would drive recklessly to get us to the next location on time. He always got us there, somehow alive.
So don’t over-schedule yourself or plan things out too rigidly. Give yourself time to not only enjoy your precious time spent there, but also space between activities so if there is an unexpected mishap in transit you won’t be left sweating about a missed reservation or time lost.
Check Your Expectations
Be careful of what it is that you are expecting – especially if traveling overseas. Obviously you can’t expect everything to run perfectly, but don’t expect everywhere else to be the same or have the same standards as the United States, or where ever you are from.
Customs and definitions of terms vary from place to place so it’s important to not hold other countries to our cultural norms and standards. For example, we were told the dorm we’d be staying at in China was new, very modern and swanky. And it was. Except that we didn’t have hot water past 7:00 a.m. (for reference, our classes didn’t begin until 9:00 a.m.), we were given a washing machine to do laundry but no dryer and furthermore we could never have guessed that we’d be awoken at 5:00 a.m. by actual gongs to wake up construction workers building more dorms near ours.
Not to mention, running the shower meant flooding the bathroom because there was no divider on the floor to keep the shower water contained.
I learned very quickly not only how to do laundry and just how long clothes take to hang-dry, but also not to wait until all but one outfit is dirty to wash them.
Your hotel may have plumbing, but that doesn’t mean you can get it anywhere near your mouth nor that it’ll be hot on-demand. Your hotel may be a 4-star hotel, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a 4-star hotel by American standards.
I’m not saying you should expect the worst or for everything to go horribly wrong – but you should be careful about what you do expect. Your accommodations may be amazing – just not all day. Don’t expect it to be perfect, don’t expect it to be terrible, and don’t let it ruin your trip.
Expect the Unexpected
Along with being careful of what you expect, you can be guaranteed that unexpected things will happen. You can mitigate some of it by being proactive with things like being a minimalist traveler as noted above, but you can’t plan for every possible scenario. Sometimes, there’s simply nothing you can do either.
Learning to accept unexpected things happening and just rolling with the flow is tough, but it’s a valuable skill to have.
Getting sick on trips to new countries is almost a guaranteed “unexpected” thing to happen. It wasn’t until our third week in Seoul that I got hit with some kind of illness. I hadn’t eaten in a day and Adam insisted I try to eat something. I felt awful that my sickness was ruining not just my trip – but his too – and so I suggested we tried Chicken Lady’s* since it was a restaurant we had been past many times and he was very eager to try it.
I composed myself as best as I could and we walked a few blocks over to Chicken Lady’s and took our seat. I strained myself to read the only-Korean menu and we ordered. As the food cooked on the table-top grill I could feel myself getting dizzier and dizzier, and my stomach turning increasingly more. I suddenly told Adam that I had to leave. Now.
I literally jumped out of my seat and ran.
I was optimistic that I could make it back to our room, only a couple blocks away, but I couldn’t even make it to the street corner, where I did the unthinkable. I threw up in the street. When I looked back, Adam and the great Chicken Lady herself had seen it all.
On the bright side my stomach had settled.
Sick and ashamed I stumbled back to the restaurant and sat back down with Adam at our table. Chicken Lady disappeared into the kitchen and came back with bottles of 7-Up and patted my back. She said a bunch of things in Korean so quickly I could have never hoped to understand any of it with how poor my Korean was at the time. One thing did translate though – her kindness. She took care of us for the rest of our brief time there and as we left I asked Adam to tip. We knew that Korea doesn’t really do tips – but I wanted to give them something extra since she gave us sodas and things for free and showed us more care and kindness than I could have ever expected (and have yet to experience again) and because I was way too embarrassed to ever go there again. So I wanted to sort of pre-pay for a meal that I would theoretically have eaten in the future.
She didn’t accept our extra money, and chased us down to give us our change. Without being able to speak Korean well enough at the time to explain (and being way too scatterbrained to even try) our gratitude and what we were attempting to do, we just had to let it go. We went back to our room and just stayed there for the rest of the day until I was better, then promptly resumed our adventure.
I’m not saying you should expect something horrible like throwing up in the middle of the road, but you also never know when you’ll stumble upon something (or someone) incredible either. Expect mis-communications, that you may get sick, to get lost and to have to make compromises. Savor the great moments, accept the bad and move on.
More often than not it’s the unexpected things that you’ll remember the most – hopefully fondly. Even if it is something bad like my getting sick was, there may also be something unexpectedly nice that goes along with it like Chicken Lady’s unexpected care.
Not to mention, it appears the notion that 7-Up cures upset stomachs is universal. Who knew?
*We don’t remember the name of the restaurant, just that the sign had a woman’s face on a chicken’s body and so we refer to it as “Chicken Lady’s”.
Be Mindful and Choose Your Reactions
Most importantly, practicing mindfulness and living in the moment will get you the farthest in terms of having a great vacation or journey. You have control over how you react to things going wrong, whether you will worry about the past or the future, something going horribly wrong, or cross-cultural mis-communications.
It’s up to you if you let these things get to you and worry over every single little thing. If I hadn’t learned to just accept the bad things that happened and instead be grateful that I had the opportunities and adventures that I did I’m not sure I would have made it out sane.
Rather than complain about the gongs and cold water, we took the opportunity to go ahead and get up early. We’d sit on the rooftop of the dorm and watch the absolutely gorgeous sunrises over the East China Sea. Learning to be mindful will help you to see through the bad events that happen and make them less bad, if not good.
Take it slow, do things deliberately, whole-ass one thing – these are just a few ways you can practice mindfulness. Make a habit of being mindful well before you travel. On the road is no place to try to pick up new habits or virtues.
It’s not easy to change your habits – as they say nothing worth doing is easy – but begin working on it now. Don’t eat in a hurry or in front of the television but rather eat intentionally. Pay attention to every bite you take, to the flavors of the dish. Get into the habit of stopping when a situation or thing becomes stressful and take a breath – go for a quick walk if you must – this pause will help you refocus and to think more calmly. When you are stressed and distracted is the worst time to be making important decisions.
If and when things go wrong, or unexpected things happen, it’s up to you how you’ll react. Whether you hyperventilate, scream, have a panic attack and faint in the middle of the airport or if you take a deep breath, accept it, begin working through it and remember that in the future you’ll probably laugh about it – it’s all in your control.
You Can Only Control Yourself
Taking steps to ensure that your trip will be as stress-free as possible isn’t difficult, but it will take work. Examining and minimizing what you choose to take with you, planning some activities but not over-planning, setting the right expectations and learning to be mindful and in control of your reactions are only a few ways you can ensure a great trip but the impact from them is enormous.
The true value in travel isn’t the souvenirs, the cattle-like shuffle to see every single tourist attraction, nor about how fabulous you looked the whole time, but rather in the personal growth, the journey, the sights, experiences and people you’ll encounter.
What things or strategies have you employed to ensure your travels are stress-free and enjoyable? Share your thoughts in the comments below!