By Nikki Rappaport
Here’s a secret that nobody talks about: Going on vacation can be both the best form of self-care and also its own suitcase full of stress. I often find myself on the road for fun, work, and family, and I know it’s a privilege – but being on the road for any amount of time can start to wear on you. The first step is acknowledging that.
We often think of travel as a self-care solution, but over the last few years, I’ve learned that taking care isn’t something you can just check off your list as soon as you hit the open skies – it’s an ongoing practice that has to extend into your trip as well.
At the beginning of this year, I spent a couple months living abroad, and while this trip was a dream, there were parts that were just plain harder than I thought they would be. One example: Early on in the trip I went to this amazing food hall and while deciding whether to eat a doughnut or dumplings, I instead found myself in a full-on panic attack. I had to escape the crazy crowds and leave the dumplings behind, which ultimately just left me upset with myself.
I felt like I was missing out and wasting a day of my adventure, but really my body was telling me I needed to slow down. I realized as the weeks unfolded that I had put a lot of pressure on myself around what this trip was supposed to do and mean for me. It took me a bit to figure out, but ultimately I needed to learn how to fold self-care into my travels and not just expect it to happen as a result of new surroundings and a departure from my daily life.
I realized that high expectations for travel can come at a high cost. It’s easy to see glamorized Instagram posts and expect every moment of every day to look like those vignettes, but this is life we’re talking about – and it doesn’t come with a self-care filter.
At a certain point, many packed suitcases ago, I had to stop and ask myself why my expectations were that travel would be so much more perfect than everyday? Why did I have different expectations of French me, beach me, and new-city me? Ultimately, I created a playbook for caring for myself – the everyday me – as I see the world. Travel is one of the best opportunities to get to know yourself better, so here’s how I make sure I’m serving myself (when possible) on trips, small and large:
1. Get comfortable with plans and no plans
Some people love a well thought-out itinerary. Some people want to wing it. If I’m able to choose, I want a little of both when I’m traveling. But here’s the reality: sometimes there will be a plan and sometimes there won’t. And often you’re not the one making or changing the plans (thanks planes and trains).
Here’s how I find the right balance for me:
• Set aside a little time before you go to save places to your Google Maps app ahead of time (more on this below) so you can always find a place nearby (think: coffee shops, bars, museums).
• Have a chat about “leading” and “following” and what everyone wants to get out of a trip. I’m a natural leader, especially when food is involved, but the pressure of picking a foreign city’s best restaurant for a group of people with all different preferences? Ack. Divvy up planning responsibilities so everyone is on the same page.
• Be okay with things being just okay. Once I realized that every meal didn’t have to be the best I became a happier traveller. It got even better when I embraced something unexpected, like how a random restaurant that wasn’t on “ the list” turned out to be a really fun night.
2. Make time for yourself and just yourself
I traveled for two months with my boyfriend and there were days that went by that I didn’t speak to anyone else. I love him, but oh man, that was not healthy. Consider your everyday life – do you spend every waking minute with another human? Likely not. Treat your vacation the same way. I love solo travel and highly recommend it, but even if you don’t, you’ll likely get some energy by switching things up and exploring solo, even for just an hour or two at a time.
• Can’t get away? Stuck in a group house or surrounded by family? Take a long hot shower. The bathroom is your “do not disturb” sanctuary.
• Have 30 minutes? Take a walk. Find a new coffee shop by yourself and people watch.
• Be together, but not alone. Go on a free walking tour, take a group cooking class, attend a free event (I love Creative Mornings for this), where you’re surrounded by the opportunity to talk to other humans if you’re in the mood to do that.
3. Take a piece of your routine with you
Travel is an adventure, but you don’t have to gamble on all of it. Pick one or two things from your regular routine that you can continue while you’re away. One of the best things I brought on my two-month trip was my pillow. Not my travel pillow (see below for that) but my fave squishy bed pillow that I’ve had forever, and my softest pillowcase. It brought me so much comfort especially on a long plane ride and strange Airbnb beds.
Self-care routines you might have at home but not think about doing while traveling:
• Cooking (thanks Airbnb!): even better if you shop at a farmer’s market where you’re staying
• Fitness classes: Forget the hotel gym and find a local studio and you’ll feel like you’re leaning into a treat-yourself vacation activity while also doing something that’s vital to your routine.
• Bedtimes and wake-up times: It’s nice to sleep in, but if you’re a morning person, there’s so much to see in a city before 10am.
• Alcohol consumption: Yes, you’re on vacation – have another glass of wine if you want it and have a healthy relationship with it. But keep in mind your body will notice a significant uptick.
• Bonus: Learn from your surroundings and stay open to taking a new routine home with you. Think of it as a self-care souvenir.
4. What makes you anxious? Try to prep for that.
I’m always worried about getting sick while traveling. From a terrible cold to IBS to motion sickness and vertigo. I’ve learned to pack the essential meds, even the “in case of emergency” stuff and it makes that big anxious black cloud go away because I am prepared and I know how to handle it.
Other worries you can prep in advance:
• Money: Make a budget and plan a few things in advance, try to limit shopping to one memorable thing.
• Eating well: I am a big proponent of packing delicious healthy snacks for travel (my go tos: Chrissy Teigen’s orzo salad that I make the night before and a big container of blueberries).
• Work: Unless you absolutely have to, don’t bring your laptop. It’s physically and mentally heavy. Make a plan with your team. If you must do some work/emails etc., communicate to your travel partners when you have to work and for how long.
4. Airplane Mode. Really. You can do it. I promise.
There are two essential things on your phone when traveling (and no, Instagram is not one of them.) First, your camera. You’re going places and doing things. Take all the photos. Don’t feel pressure to share them in real time – you can always share them later! Second, Google Maps. You can save all the places you want to go and, like magic, GPS usually works without cell data so you can still find your way around.
Some perks that were a treat to discover on my trip:
• Apple Pay and downloaded podcasts don’t require cell service.
• Your phone stays charged so much longer on airplane mode!
• Carrying a small journal for moments when you’d otherwise be scrolling makes for a great end-of-trip log full of gratitude, favorite places, and generally identifying your feelings.
5. Make packing stress-free by being practical and predictable.
Seasons aside, I pretty much pack the same things for every single trip. And by now, I’m sure you’ll guess this, but what’s in my suitcase looks a lot like the things I wear/use every day. Will I wear those heels I’ve worn only two times before? No chance. I’m more likely to pack my basics and end up buying one classic item while I’m on my trip that makes me feel closer to that place (think: Havana hat). I recommend finding a comfortable travel day uniform you don’t need to think about. No matter where I’m going, mine is: black leggings, tee or tank, long sleeve shirt, jean jacket, thin scarf (both the jacket & scarf can become “pillows”), socks and sneakers.
A few other things I bring on every single trip:
• My Dagne Dover backpack (not only do I take this on longer trips, but it’s also my only bag for 1-2 day trips.)
• Away large carry on
• Travel pillow – this one looks a bit silly but I promise it’s actually comfortable (and machine washable!)
• Essential oils and face masks
• Extra canvas tote
When all’s said and done, it’s easy to book a trip and call it self-care; but a little preparation and self-understanding can actually make it so. Wherever you’re headed – whether it’s a local beach weekend with family or a weeks-long European adventure – keeping your true self in mind (and not just what you think your vacation self will be like) will help you take a trip that fills you up instead of wearing you down.
Images via @nikkirap.