Before we can start thinking about how to travel well, we ought to take a step back and think about traveling badly. Travel, like anything, can’t be enjoyable all the time — there’s always an element of a challenge, whether that’s completing a mountain of work before our next vacation, the line at airport security, or lost luggage. Eliminating those obstacles is pretty much impossible, but there are things we can do to ease the pain a little bit. 

On the other hand, there are simple mistakes we can make that will complicate these relatively small challenges and turn them into potential trip-wreckers. These are errors travelers should seek to avoid at all costs — ones I’m sure we have all made at one point or another. There are enough random forces out there in the world that can conspire to ruin your trip (massive clouds of volcanic ash being my personal favorite), so why ruin it yourself by accident? Here’s how you might. 

Overplan 

Each of us knows a diligent planner — if you are that person, good on you. It’s people like you who allow me, a serial underplanner, to feel like my life has some semblance of order just because I spend time around you. But I do think that a tendency to overplan is a symptom of the busier-than-ever society we live in, where we’ve been told success depends on the constant, regimented “grind.” I am really guilty of taking that attitude home from my professional life and into my personal life, finding it hard to relax on days off

beefeater guards at windsor castle

When that happens, it feels like traveling is the only thing that will return balance to my life, and recalibrate the pressure I’m under. I can get so excited about an upcoming trip that I overcommit myself while I’m away, trying to eke out as many new experiences in that small slice of free time. That is, of course, completely counterproductive to enjoying the journey. While it’s only natural to want to do as much as possible, traveling is a rare opportunity to sit back and take account of just how much time we spend doing. Maybe it’s better to just let things happen instead. 

Underplan 

Then again, even a chronic underplanner like myself can admit the value of planning…something. Forget the kind of trip we wait all year for―the kind of trip the travel community spends a lot of time discussing these days is the spontaneous weekend getaway.  You might see a traveler drop his or her career and finally get away on that dreamy trip around the world. 

a red london bus on oxford circusWhether or not you know about a trip in advance, and whether it lasts two days or two hundred, there are some things you do need to plan. Do you need a visa? Do the main attractions have tickets that need to be booked in advance? Does your trip overlap with any national holidays that might close everything? Is transportation readily available, or would you be better off having your hotel arranging it? While you don’t want to spend too much time planning, there is something to be said for having as basic itinerary before you go.

Last-Minute Packing 

This is another of my great personal pitfalls. Packing last minute is a great reminder that just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. While packing doesn’t always require a lot of planning, it’s still most important that you pack specifically for the trip you’re taking. That doesn’t just mean looking at the weather forecast or taking a bigger bag because you’ll be gone awhile. Do those things, of course, but also try to pack with the in-between moments in mind. 

a stack of suitcasesDoes the trip have long layovers or a lot of ground transfers? If that’s the case, you might want to opt for a suitcase with wheels and keep your carry-on item light. That will make it easier to get around in general, but especially if you want to squeeze in extra time to explore. What are all the situations you might need to dress for? If there’s a fancy dinner on the same trip as a beach day, consider luggage separators like packing cubes to keep the sand off your slacks. These small changes might seem obvious, but they’re easily looked-over if you’re packing in a rush.

Neglect your body

I’m as big a fan as anyone of the “treat yourself” mentality, but it’s easier to get carried away when we travel. While airport and airline food might have vastly improved in its taste and availability, it is mainly there for convenience, and getting proper nutrition while on-the-go remains a challenge. We all know how quickly our diet rules can go out the window, especially when it comes to drinking (I’m looking at you, 8am glass of wine in the lounge). If the booze and sugary snacks are complimentary, it’s even harder. Just remember that you’re not losing anything by turning them down. You paid for the ticket to get the ride. 

Furthermore, given how difficult it is to stay hydrated while traveling (at least without overpaying for bottled water), you should treat caffeine and alcohol with extra care. Certain foods and drinks might make the trip better in the moment, but being smart is what makes a trip easier in the long run and helps to avoid jet lag the next day. This ties into packing, too: if you often catch a cold when you travel, make sure to bring some Vitamin C along. If there are some spare hours for exercise, pack your gym clothes or running gear. Most of all, live your life, but also remember to get some sleep. We all want to squeeze the most out of our travel experiences, but it’s not worth doing more if you feel too sluggish to be present. 

Taking work with you

One of the best things about travel is the ability to slip into an entirely separate state of mind for awhile, but that pleasure can be so easily ruined if one isn’t careful. In this day and age, a lot of us work while we travel, and that’s fine — but it’s up to us whether we let work, or other aspects of out lives at home, distract us from the novelty of being away. Even if we’re not always traveling in luxury, travel itself is a luxury, and a privilege. It’s not a distraction, or an escape, but a chance at gaining perspective. Travelers ought to take great comfort in the vastness of the world and we can’t do that if we bring too much of home with us. 

What does that mean in real terms? Well, because travel means a lot of different things to different people, it could mean anything. For Passion Passport author Brad Donaldson, it meant traveling to another continent without a smartphone. If your cell plan doesn’t include any special deals on international roaming, it might be time to consider that a unique opportunity and enjoy having time away from a screen. Most of all, though, I think leaving home behind is necessary to nurture gratitude. If you travel and only eat the foods, or talk to the same people you would at home, there’s no room for you to miss those things. Appreciating different walks of life starts with appreciating your own, without comparison.

Check out our travel guides for more information on how to make the most of your vacation!

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Joseph Ozment
Originally from Tennessee, Joseph Ozment is a writer and musician whose relationship with travel was shaped by growing up between the Southern U.S., Wales, and Hong Kong. So far, he's written for a newspaper in Russia, released a handful of home recordings, and started a novel (with plans for more, someday). When he's not busy running country roads or cheering on Liverpool FC, he's most likely making the next cup of coffee, or plans for the next trip.