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Play these mind games for a better vacation

By Sean O'Neill
updated February 21, 2017

It's an open secret that everyone's mind can work in counterintuitive ways and that sometimes we're our own worst enemies. Yet new psychological theories are specifically relevant to travelers.

Three new studies have shown how the typical traveler's mind work when faced with vacation-related problems. Here's the scoop about each theory, plus tips on how you can outsmart yourself to have a better vacation.

Beware of "the return trip effect"

Trips home feel about 20 percent shorter than trips arriving at a vacation spot, suggests a study published in the August edition of the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. The average traveler expects a journey to their destination to take less time than it actually does. Naturally, because getting there took longer than expected, the trip back home seems shorter in comparison. The study showed that "the return trip effect" isn't due to being more familiar with the route on the way back.

The takeaway: Don't be over-optimistic about how long your flight to your destination will feel, so you'll avoid feeling disappointed on arrival.

Beware of low blood sugar

Even the most easygoing vacationers can find it hard to avoid losing their cool in the face of tough situations, such as receiving bad directions, seeing storm clouds, or sitting next to screaming children. But you'll be better able to cope with travel headaches if you can keep your blood sugar level steady. In their new book "Willpower," authors Roy Baumeister and John Tierney write:

"When you're on a romantic trip across Europe, don't drive into a walled medieval town at seven in the evening and try to navigate to your hotel on an empty stomach. Your car can probably survive the cobblestone maze, but your relationship might not."
The takeaway: Using willpower to cope with stressful travel situations requires glucose. In other words, you need to eat regularly when you're mentally exhausted, not just when you're physically hungry. So always pack some small snacks, such as packages of nuts, raisins, chips, beef jerky, or fruit. But avoid sugary snacks and drinks that will give you a sugar rush followed by a sugar crash.

Beware of the "adaptation vacation"

Research by social psychologists suggests that you’ll get more bang from your vacation buck if you break your trip up into pieces. Rather than stay on the beach for a full week, mix it up with different locales or activities. The reason a single long beach vacation isn't as enjoyable as it could be is that we adapt to our surroundings quickly. Yet the more novelty we experience, the more vivid and lasting our memories are, according to Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich, co-authors of Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes...And How To Correct Them: Lessons from the Life-Changing Science of Behavioral Economics.

The takeaway: Travelers with more active schedules who packed their days with, say, tango lessons or parasailing outings claimed higher contentment levels than those who lazed for hours on end.


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