Simple ways to make travel less stressful

by Kaiser Permanente |
A happy family in a tent on a camping trip

Whether you’re taking a road trip out of town or flying halfway around the world, travel can get stressful. Crowded airports, health concerns, and interacting with more people can make any trip less relaxing.

If just the thought of a getaway makes you anxious, you’re not alone. As much as 40% of the U.S. population has a fear of flying,1 COVID-19 still affects how and when people can travel at all, and even simple complications, like forgetting to pack something, can cause unexpected stress. A recent survey showed that 1 in 4 Americans expect something wrong will happen on every trip they take.2

“Traveling can be fun but also stressful,” says Kaiser Permanente marriage and family therapist Anabel Basulto. “You have to plan where you’re going, pack, ask for permission from work — and if you’re going to a new country or new language, there’s a new culture. All of those things are added stressors.”

The good news, Basulto says, is there are plenty of ways to help keep your cool and enjoy the journey.

Get organized

Planning ahead can help reduce travel stress. Start with a packing list for clothes and toiletries, plus a general to-do list. These steps can minimize travel anxiety that may arise as your departure date gets closer.

  • Do the research: Be sure to learn about where you’re going. Pack for all kinds of weather (always bring sunscreen), and visit to learn about local travel restrictions, currency exchanges, and any required immunizations for your destination, like the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Pack self-care essentials: Remember to pack any items you’ll need to help you feel your best, both physically and mentally. This includes everything from prescriptions to that lavender essential oil spray you love.
  • Print your itinerary: If you lost your phone, what would you do? It’s a good idea to print your itinerary, along with flight numbers, hotel confirmations, important phone numbers, and addresses — just in case.

Prioritize self-care

With so many travel logistics to work out, it’s easy to forget to take care of yourself. Be sure to get a good night’s sleep before your trip, drink plenty of water (avoid alcohol, sugar, and caffeine if you can), and eat well. Try to pack healthy snacks, too. Solid foods — like carrots, dried fruits, and granola — are usually allowed through airport security, and you can pack all sorts of treats in a cooler if you’re taking a road trip.

But self-care also means managing stress. Fortunately, there are plenty of quick ways to relax anytime, anywhere:

  • Breathe: “Breathing exercises can be helpful in calming the nervous system and allowing for a more relaxed state,” Basulto explains. One easy option is a 4-4-4 technique: Breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4, and breathe out for 4. Or try inhaling in while saying “I am” and then exhaling with a positive statement like “at peace.” Repeat either of these as often as you need.
  • Visualize: Imagine a place that makes you feel safe, comfortable, and completely at peace. Think about the details of that place and let yourself go there in your mind.
  • Distract yourself: For some people, music and movies offer a distraction to pass the time. Others find comfort in quiet activities, such as books and puzzles. Basulto is a big fan of the Calm app for breathing techniques and meditation.

Enjoy the ride

Travel can be full of surprises — both good and bad. Try to be flexible and go with the flow. There are many ways to lift your mood and stay positive, as well as strategies to make the best of any situation.

For example, when things don’t go as expected, try something new. The change of pace can challenge you in a different, positive way. So, if your tropical beach vacation gets rained out, maybe look for a local museum to visit or try salsa dancing instead.

If you’re feeling social anxiety in a new environment, embrace what’s right in front of you. “Immerse yourself in learning about a new language, or new foods, or meeting new people,” says Basulto. “Most importantly, see it for what it is: an adventure in trying something new and getting out of your comfort zone.”

Prepare for a healthy trip

You never know what might come up when you’re away from home. Learn how to get care while you’re traveling.

Gavin I. Clark et al., “Processes Contributing to the Maintenance of Flying Phobia: A Narrative Review,” Frontiers in Psychology, June 1, 2016.

Alex Temblador, “New Study Shows Americans Have 240 Stressful Travel Experiences in a Lifetime,” Travel Pulse, November 27, 2018.