How to Handle Travel Stress

Michelle Litwer, Psy.D. | Staff Psychologist

The holidays come with a lot of excitement and things to look forward to, but they can also cause stress, especially if you’re traveling. You may feel run down moving from place to place, consistently living out of a suitcase, eating and sleep schedules may change, and your wallet may be feeling the pressure of airfares and car rentals. You also may have unrealistic expectations for your trip, and feel really let down, which can bring about a lot of unexpected emotions. There are many things you can do to make travel less stressful, more enjoyable, and easier to recover from.

1- Financial stressors: Make sure to carefully check your finances and create a realistic budget. It can also be helpful to plan the trip in advance. Research shows that booking a flight at least a month in advance reduces travel expenses. It’s important to plan ahead and map out the activities, restaurants, and sites you are planning to see. During the holidays, it’s important to also factor in the money you are spending on gifts for friends and family members when traveling. Think about dining out less that month to have a little more saved for holiday travel.

2- Planning travel: It can feel very overwhelming to plan a trip, which includes packing, making an itinerary, taking days off, and communicating with family/friends that you are visiting. It’s important to break the planning into separate parts. Make a checklist of all the parts involved in planning, and check them off, one at a time. You may even create small goals such as checking off three items a week from your checklist (for a month). You will feel much more accomplished, less pressured, and more organized. Reward yourself after you accomplish several goals (e.g., buy a really yummy smoothie). Make sure to talk to your boss and employees in advance when booking travel, as others in the workplace may also be traveling during the holidays. If you’re traveling with someone, ask your travel partner to help out with planning tasks. Also, be willing to compromise on the activities you choose if traveling with a partner, family, or friends. If your partner really wants to spend some time in the hotel room watching sports, let them have that time! Find a way to balance activities so that each member gets their desires fulfilled.

3- Unrealistic expectations for vacations: Expectations can be very high when planning to travel for the holidays. You may imagine your trip will be an escape from reality, a time away from all problems, and a time to decompress. Although some of this is definitely true, it is important to be aware and consider the moments that may stress you out, especially during the holidays (i.e., being with family, weather conditions, etc.). It is important to be flexible while traveling. A Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skill called Cope Ahead, teaches us how to prepare for a distressing situation coming up, by rehearsing ahead of time how you will cope effectively with a situation that can prompt strong emotions. For example, if you are going to be spending time with a family member you have conflict with, you may rehearse in your mind your actions, thoughts, what you will say, and how you will say it, and how you will cope with the most feared catastrophe if it happens. You will feel much more prepared for the worst-case scenario if you practice how you will handle it ahead of time.

4- Anxiety/ worries related to travel: You may feel a high level of anxiety when traveling, whether it’s spending several hours in the car, flying, or other forms of public transportation like a long bus ride. While you can’t predict or control traffic, airplane delays, you can be prepared for the stressful parts of travel. For example, you may want to bring your own snacks and food. I know that when I’m hungry, I feel more irritable, which makes me more likely to be cranky while traveling. Make sure to charge all your electronics, so you can distract by watching shows, listening to music/podcasts, or complete some simple work. Bring an air pillow, eye mask, wear comfy sweats and socks, and incorporate some relaxation techniques such as belly breathing, muscle relaxation, listen to a meditation, have a stress ball with you, or bring a great novel/ coloring book to get you through the moment.

5- Difficulty disconnecting from situations at home: It may be really tough to disconnect from things that you leave at home, whether its work related, your pets, appliances at home, family members left behind, etc. This is likely going to impact your experience in a negative way. You may have a hard time connecting and enjoying your time in the present. It may be helpful to set up a time throughout the travel to connect with the people back home. Discuss with a colleague at work ahead of time of tasks they can help you with when you’re out of the office. As difficult as it is, being mindful during the experience can increase positive emotions such as joy, excitement, and feeling connected to others. Try to redirect and refocus your attention to the sights, smells, and sounds around you, and fully throw yourself into the activity you are doing.


I hope these tips help your travel be a little less stressful this holiday season. Enjoy the great moments and be prepared for the moments that may be challenging!

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