Your Complete Guide to Overcoming Travel Anxiety
How to tackle the most stressful elements of travel—including planning, packing, and flying—according to experts.
Hitting a white, sandy beach for a week sounds like a slice of self-care heaven, so why does the thought of traveling strike fear, dread, and worry into your soul?
If taking a trip gives you major anxiety, you're not alone. Planning your dream vacay is a huge undertaking—both of your time and energy. There's all the logistics you need to sort out (where to go, where to stay, what to see), not to mention everything that can go wrong, from losing your luggage to unexpected weather.
"A lack of predictability and control tend to contribute to stress and anxiety, and travel has plenty of both," says Martin M. Antony, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto and co-author of The Anti-Anxiety Workbook. "There are lots of unknowns over which we have little control."
Basically, traveling is a series of unpredictable events that can challenge and stress out even the most zen person. But don't panic. A little anxiety is totally normal and expected given the inevitable hassles of traveling. Fortunately, it's totally manageable and, perhaps, even avoidable.
We've broken down the most stressful elements of travel—from start to finish—and steps you can take to ease your pre-trip nerves, according to experts.
Budgeting Hacks to Reduce Travel Stress
Sometimes just thinking about how you're going to pay for a trip can cause heart palpitations. "Studies have found that planning a vacation—and specifically the financial cost associated with it—is the most stressful part of travel," says Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott's Cheap Flights, a flight deal website.
Let's face it, you go away to escape your everyday problems not to create more (like going into debt). So how do you stretch your dollar and visit the destination of your dreams?
According to Keyes, planning a budget-friendly getaway without sacrificing quality is totally possible, especially if you're a savvy flyer. With a better understanding of how to find cheap flights, you can reduce your trip cost and stress by keeping your spending within your means.
Knowing when to book is half the battle. For the best rates, book one to three months in advance for domestic flights and two to six for international, Keyes says. Another way to fly on the cheap? Breaking up your trip into two separate itineraries. For example, if your destination is Santorini, which can be super expensive, fly into nearby Athens for a two-day "layover." Then hop a cheap flight to Santorini and save upwards of $1000, he suggests. (Related: How Taking a Spontaneous Vacation Can Actually Save You Money and Stress)
If you're really creative, you can actually make dollars while you jet set. How? Sublet your apartment during the same week of your trip, says Jo Franco, co-founder and co-host of Shut Up and Go, a travel blog and YouTube channel for accessible travel. This way, your vacay practically pays for itself, and you can travel without the stress of a looming credit card bill.
A few other money-saving hacks to keep your costs down and your anxiety about budgeting in check: If you're traveling solo, stay in a reputable hostel or an Airbnb located in residential neighborhoods where food and shopping will likely be cheaper for the locals, Franco says. Staying in a house or a hotel with a kitchen will also allow you to buy groceries and cook for yourself rather than eating out every day. Acting like a local by walking and taking mass transit (rather than wasting money on taking taxis) and learning basic phrases in the local language (to barter in markets) can also be money-savers.
Choosing the Right Travel Buddy
Vacationing alone can be adventurous, liberating, and rewarding, especially if you're an experienced traveler. But, if you're a less seasoned jetsetter or already pre-disposed to pre-trip jitters, the idea of traveling solo may kick your anxiety level into overdrive. Luckily, there's a simple solution: travel with a trusted friend.
But before you go inviting your bestie, take a second to consider whether you'll make a good fit as travel buddies. "You need to make sure you're the same kind of traveler in order for the vibes to mesh well," says Franco.
He suggests asking yourself the following questions to see whether your travel personalities are in sync: Are they activity people or lounge people? Are they willing to improvise, or do they need something planned every 45 minutes? Do they sleep until noon or wake up at 7 am? Do they need to have a bucket margarita in hand while exploring, or do they avoid alcohol altogether? Can they explore on their own or do they need hand-holding 24/7? Can they enjoy a moment in real life or need to see beautiful things only through the screens of their smartphone?
Ideally, you'll choose someone who provides the right balance and complements your personality. For example, if you're shy and quiet, you might want to travel with a friend who's more outgoing and outspoken (think about all the times you may need to ask for directions or restaurant recommendations).
Research Your Destination
If you're traveling abroad or somewhere you've never been before, research basic travel logistics beforehand to get a lay of the land. Look into things like: Where to exchange money for the best rate; cultural faux pas to avoid; if it's safe to drink tap water; the customs for tipping in restaurants and taxis; what type of electrical outlets people use; who to call locally in case of an emergency; a few common phrases in the local language.
Franco suggests joining an online travel forum—like Shut Up and Go's private Facebook group—where you can get insider info and tips about your destination from people who've traveled there.
This legwork can prevent things from going awry and put your mind at ease. "Researching these sorts of details helps to reduce a sense of uncertainty, which is likely to help with anxiety," says Antony.
Make These Calls Before You Go
To avoid headaches and increase the chances of your trip running smoothly, two things are key: making sure you have access to money and reliable cell phone service while you travel. Luckily, unlike crappy weather or miserable flight delays, both are within your power as long as you prepare in advance.
Firstly, contact your bank before you leave, says Keyes, otherwise they might assume your card's been stolen and block your ATM withdrawals or credit purchases. Also, be sure to inquire about international transaction fees. Sometimes banks charge you for ATM transactions, which can add up. Knowing about extra costs ahead of time will help you factor these expenses into your budget.
Secondly, research your phone company's international plans. Some carriers offer free international roaming (yay!), but the data speeds may be hella slow (womp womp). Others charge you an arm and a leg for data. But you have options. If you don't want to waste souvenir money sending a text or uploading pics to Instagram, download WhatsApp which allows you to call, text, FaceTime, and send videos for free when connected to Wi-fi.
Packing can be daunting, especially if you're not Marie Kondo. So many decisions, so little space! Before you tear out your hair, try these hacks to make packing a little less painful.
Resist the urge to overpack. Lugging around a heavy suitcase isn't fun (especially if you're traveling to multiple locations) and neither are the excess baggage fees. Whenever feasible, Franco recommends packing only a carry-on bag to avoid baggage claim chaos and the nightmarish possibility of lost luggage.
Stick with essentials. Chances are, you won't wear half the stuff you pack. Despite fantasies of traveling in high glam a la Kim Kardashian West, you're more likely to default to comfy clothes. Bring items you can wear more than once. Bonus if they're multi-purpose pieces that can take you from day to night. (Related: How to Pack for an Active Vacation Without Checking a Bag)
Pack travel-size duplicates of your toiletries. To save space and keep your suitcase as light as a feather, buy reusable, TSA-friendly, travel-sized bottles for things like shampoo, conditioner, and lotion. Also, make it a habit to collect sample-sized products from wherever you go – Ulta, the dentist, your hair salon – and toss them into your toiletry bag. (Related: The Best Durable Makeup Bags That Are Actually Cute)
Bring a mini-medical kit. No need to go overboard, just keep a small bag stocked with essentials: Band-aids, alcohol pads, Neosporin, Pepto Bismol, pain relievers, cortisone cream, and cold medicine. We hope you won't need to dip into your stash of supplies, but better safe than sorry.
Don't forget the electrical converters. Few countries in the world use American-style outlets, says Keyes, so buy one or two converters before you leave and pack them ASAP. The last thing you want is to realize your phone is dead with no way to charge it.
Print copies of addresses, directions, and maps. Carry a hard copy of directions to where you're staying and up-to-date maps of surrounding neighborhoods and public transportation systems. This way, even if you've got crappy cell service, you'll be able to find your way around.
How to Fight Anxiety In the Airport
Long lines through security, jarringly loud (but totally muffled and undecipherable) PA announcements. Ugh. Airports can fluster even the most unflappable traveler. But there are actionable steps you can take to make your experience way more chill (and dare we say, enjoyable).
Franco suggests signing up for trusted traveler programs like TSA Precheck, which speeds the security process for those departing from U.S. airports or Global Entry, which includes the same benefits, plus it expedites U.S. customs screening for international flyers when re-entering the United States. "The process of going through security feels like a walk in the park (while keeping your shoes on)," says Franco.
And if you really want to enhance your airport experience, consider splurging for the Priority Pass, a network of worldwide independent airport lounges. "These lounges can be quite posh, with free food and alcohol, plenty of seating, and a much more relaxed vibe than the terminal's hustle and bustle." Umm, free mimosas and peaceful vibes? Yes, please! The standard membership rate starts at $99/year, so if you travel often, this might be worth checking out.
How to Fight Anxiety On the Plane
According to Antony, traveling exacerbates many types of pre-existing anxiety problems, including phobias of flying and being confined in enclosed places. Even if you don't suffer from a full-blown phobia, flying can be an unpleasant challenge. In effect, you're trapped in an airtight tube, thousands of miles in the air, with no control over what happens. Sounds like a blast! (Related: I Lived with an Undiagnosed Panic Disorder for 25 Years)
So, what can you do to relax? Focus on things that are within your power. For one, distraction is a good place to start. If you're traveling a long way, in-flight entertainment is your new bestie—binge on movies and catch up on your fave television shows (Game of Thrones, hello!). Get lost in a novel you've been dying to read. Listen to inspiring podcasts. Tap into your creative side with an adult coloring book. Or, if you're so inclined, strike up a convo with your neighbor. "Slow breathing, meditation, or a glass of wine can all help to ease anxiety at the moment as well," says Antony. (Related: The Best Meditation Apps for Beginners)
But, ICYDK, these are only short-term strategies, which can become crutches over time. "To overcome a fear of flying over the long term, the best approach is to practice flying whenever possible," says Antony. Essentially, the more you fly, the more you'll realize your fears (of crashing, terrorist attacks, etc.) are unfounded because they don't happen.
If you're not freaked out about flying (kudos!), but the idea of sitting for hours at a time still makes you a tad antsy or claustrophobic, try choosing an aisle seat and stretching your legs every 30 minutes. Take a quick walk to the bathroom even if you don't have to pee just to get out of your seat and splash some water on your face. You'll be amazed at how doing these little things help you maintain your sanity. (Related: Travel Beauty Products That Will Refresh Your Hair, Face, and Body After a Long Flight)
How to Beat Travel Anxiety Once You Arrive
Even though you're stoked to be at your destination, you might still notice a few jitters. That's okay! Part of the butterflies is excitement and the other part is likely feeling out of your element in an unfamiliar place. Again, completely natural.
To feel a little more at ease in your new surroundings, make sure you're taking proper safety precautions. As a tourist, you might be a bit more vulnerable to scammers and pickpockets. Lower your risk by following a few commonsense rules: don't carry around valuables and keep your belongings where you can see them; don't wander around desolate areas at night; always tell a friend or family member where you're going if heading out alone.
Of course, staying safe is paramount, but don't get preoccupied with all the bad things that can happen, says Keyes. Obsessing over safety will detract from your overall enjoyment.
When you find yourself fixating on some specific worry, try using cognitive strategies to confront your negative, irrational thoughts, says Antony. Questioning your logic can be a useful tactic. For example, if you're traveling to Naples and you're consumed by fear of a terrorist attack, ask yourself, realistically, how likely is a terrorist attack to happen while I'm here? And, if it did happen, what are the odds that I'll be in the exact location when and where it takes place? Probably not very likely.
But again, as with flying, the best antidote to travel anxiety is experience. "Exposure to feared situations is often the best way to overcome fear," says Antony. Trek across the world enough, and you'll realize that most of your anxiety-provoking predictions rarely come true. And, if you forget to pack something or get a stomach bug or the airline misplaces your luggage, you'll survive. Pretty sure you've conquered worse.
"The best part of travel is the improvisation," says Franco. "Trust yourself that it will all work out and that the unplanned moments are almost always the most memorable."