I sighed. After an eight-day solo vacation, I was back in New York, antsy and anxiety-ridden, and caught in a deadlock with a therapist I’d recently begun seeing. I’d talked about the complete freedom I felt roaming winding alleys in San Sebastian and how I’d had no problems striking up conversations with cute French guys in cafes while in Paris. Now, I wanted, desperately, to bring some of that me — the braver, bolder me — back to my established New York City life. My therapist seemed to take the tack that it was impossible: It was good that I’d had fun, but it was time to settle back into my "real" life and focus on that.
And, day by day, as I got bogged down by routines and to-do lists and Spin classes and OkCupid dates, I found myself in the same place I’d been before I took the trip: confused, questioning everything, unsure of what I really wanted in life, and in need of another vacation. Which is how I found myself in a frustrating pattern where I would spend all my extra money on travel, have an amazing time, return feeling brighter and bolder and funnier than I ever had, and then quickly fall back into the old habits that led me to want a vacation in the first place.
I imagine anyone who has a copy of Eat, Pray, Love on their bookshelf and a battered travel journal on their bedside table has experienced a similar struggle. But, it doesn't have to be that way. The more I made travel a part of my regular life (as a freelance writer, all I need to work is a WiFi connection, so it's pretty easy — I’m currently backpacking around Europe), the more I consciously realized how I could take the lessons travel taught me and apply them to my daily life. To my real life, if you will.
It wasn’t easy, and the first step was realizing that my well-meaning therapist was wrong. Vacation is a part of real life, and learning to treat it as exactly that — i.e. forgetting axioms like “what happens in Vegas,” and believing that my decisions have real-world implications — was the first step to using travel as a tool to help me live the life I wanted. What did that entail? A whole lot of realizations.
I realized I don’t like partying until dawn; I need plenty of downtime to read, write, and recharge to be my best self around strangers; that there’s nothing wrong with taking a day by myself to binge-watch Orange Is the New Black; and that I will never like bicycle-riding as much as I say I do. I can go weeks without weighing myself and find self-worth beyond a number on a scale, and that I don’t need to publish a book a year to identify as a writer. I'm fine with telling people my real age (31); and fine not knowing where I’ll live or work when I finally decide to settle down Stateside.
And, these life- (and perspective-) changing moments can happen anywhere. Sarah V., 29, a Lower East Side yoga instructor, found that a trip to Rio was the one that changed her entire outlook. “I loved that one of the biggest cities in the world could exist next to this gorgeous natural landscape,” she explains. “I didn’t want my time there to be just a vacation. I realized I wanted to be in touch with nature, to be in touch with my body, my health, my happiness.” When she came home, Sarah began taking classes to get certified as a yoga instructor, became a pescatarian, and generally started focusing much more on her inner life, instead of the packed-to-the-max schedule she, like so many other New Yorkers, had been all too familiar with.
Similarly, Jessica Pan, 29, a writer and co-author of the memoir Graduates In Wonderland believes it’s all about changing up your scenery. “When you’re in a new place, life feels technicolored — our senses are more responsive, we’re more observant about the world around us, and life seems full of new possibilities. It’s as if the 'real world,' with all of its problems and headaches, just doesn’t exist anymore,” she explains. In other words, because you’re eating new foods, interacting with different people, and following a completely different schedule than you would normally, you’re forced to figure out pretty quickly what you like and what you don’t, and some crucial basics (two days separated from social media won’t kill you).
Beyond that? You may need some outside input. Ahead, see how travelers and experts alike maximize their trips, to make each one a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
2. Go it alone. Elyse S., 26, from Wayne, New Jersey, set off on a solo backpacking adventure full of nerves and unsure of what was going to happen. “Before, I always thought I needed a man to make me happy. But, when I was on my own, I had so much time on buses, planes, wherever, to reflect and think about who I was. What I found was more self-love than I thought imaginable, and an inner strength I didn’t know I had. Now I’m home, but I’m happier than I’ve ever been.” If you're still not sold, take a few small steps first: Poke around a city solo while crashing on a friend’s couch at night. It's the best of both worlds.
3. Or, go away for a fling. Jessica Pan never thought her trip to Malaysia to meet a former flame would turn into anything more than a good time. She lived in China, he’d just moved to Australia, and she assumed that the two would enjoy five days together, then go off in separate directions. Instead, the five-day fling led to marriage. “It never would have happened if we hadn’t met in Malaysia. It totally changed my life,” says Pan. Lesson: You never know. If you genuinely adore the company of a romantic partner, even if it’s an ex or someone you haven’t known for very long, the trip could be the beginning of something amazing — even if that something isn't marriage. At the very least you're going to have a better time than you probably would hanging out at home.
4. Meet new people. Because I’m single, I’ll Tinder when I’m in a new town, and have gone on more than a few fun dates with locals I’d never have met otherwise. I also love asking bartenders and waiters where they hang out — they have the kinds of awesome insights into the town that a tourist office just won't, especially if said tourist office is catering to older, more affluent travelers than 20- and 30-somethings.
5. Dig your downtime. One of my favorite memories of a recent trip to Paris was attending three Bikram classes over the course of a few days. I loved the fact the class was in French, loved seeing how French women looked while sweating it out in an insanely hot room (spoiler alert: still chic), and also enjoyed the comfort of doing something that was similar to what I’d have done if I were still in New York. Bonus: Getting a regular routine — same café for breakfast, same grocery store for staples, same walk to the town center — makes everything feel just familiar enough to ward off any homesickness.
6. Enjoy the planning and the journey. You’ve likely heard that studies show people are happier paying for experiences rather than things, but studies have also shown that people are happier with those travel experiences the farther out they book their plans. Nothing against last-minute getaways, but if you have time to make a plan, do it — off the clock. Because the same study found that people were less satisfied with their hotel choices if they booked during work hours.
7. Shed your expectations. You’ve packed. You’ve planned. You’re ready for a major life-changing epiphany. Now, the best way to ensure that happens is to stop thinking about it. “Any expectations of a vacation not only set you up for disappointment but limit your possible experiences. The more open-minded you are going in, the more opportunities you'll stumble upon, to meet people and experience things that may not be on your agenda — but could be experiences of a lifetime,” says Hassler.