The Real Reason Traveling Makes You Happy

UPDATED: May 11, 2023
PUBLISHED: January 14, 2023
two women enjoy traveling together

Saying I caught the travel bug several years ago would be an understatement. I discovered I enjoy travel in a wayI hadn’t known before. Typically an anxious and tightly wound person, I feel spontaneous and free when I travel. My anxiety vanishes (for the most part) and I truly enjoy myself. I make sacrifices where I can if it means I’ll have more money and time to travel. Nothing gives me quite as much joy as trying new foods in exotic places; hiking a new, difficult trail; and planning the perfect week-long getaway.

The key word in that last sentence is planning. Several years ago, I took a trip to Aruba. Though I certainly enjoyed the trip itself, I found myself most excited while planning. I would sit at my computer to search “best seafood in Aruba” and have visions of myself eating the best scallops I’d ever tasted by crystal-clear water in perfect, 80-degree weather. I wouldn’t say the trip itself didn’t stack up, but we tend to create an idealized version of things in our minds when we plan for our vacations, which stirs up excitement.

Tips to enjoy travel more

While planning for a trip can bring me a lot of pleasure, I’ve learned going with the flow can, too. Here are some planning tips so you can find the perfect balance, get the most out of your next vacation—before, during and after—and fully enjoy travel:

1. Relish the unexpected.

I’m the epitome of a planner—my underlying anxiety fuels my obsessive list-making and color-coordinated calendar. So naturally, I tend to overschedule and overplan when I travel. More recently, I’ve learned how nice it can be to explore a new city for the day without any plans at all. You can discover places you might not find on Yelp and uncover a city’s true culture.

2. Relax, relax, relax.

If a vacation is meant to be a break from the hustle of our work lives, it’s important to actually take that break and enjoy your travels, even if it’s only for a long weekend. A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that even after a short, four-night vacation, participants experienced a decrease in perceived levels of stress “until day 15 [post-vacation], as well as recovery until day 30 post-vacation. Well-being and strain levels remained significantly improved for 45 days post-vacation with no difference between the groups” who stayed in a hotel versus those who vacationed at home. Additionally, the study found that taking time to engage in physical activity had the potential to affect how long these benefits lasted.

3. Do some research.

I’m an extremely organized person, so for me, touting the benefits of being organized is par for the course. But for the less-organized people out there, a little extra planning upfront can mean the difference between a mediocre, expensive meal (such as the time I paid $55 for five prawns in Spain) and a secret gem (i.e. the Hawaii food truck with a cult-like following that’s just $10 for a heaping plate of shrimp). And there’s nothing worse than being in a new city and spending an hour scrolling through Yelp for a restaurant. 

Although too much planning can stress you out, a little bit can be good and let you fully enjoy traveling. When searching for places to eat, sightsee or shop, make a few dinner reservations or find a few places you want to try or see ahead of time so you don’t waste time sitting in your hotel room on the phone. 

4. Enjoy traveling on a few small trips per year instead of one big one.

To get the most benefits from your vacations, it may not be the length of a trip that matters. Instead, it might be the number of trips that has the greatest effect. A 2021 study published in Tourism Analysis found that participants who “reported regularly traveling at least 75 miles away from home also reported being about 7% happier… than those who reported traveling very rarely or not at all” in response to queries about their well-being. So, it may be more beneficial to aim for several small trips per year rather than one or two longer experiences.

The study also determined that the number of vacations you take may be affected by how often you discuss them. Participants who “[paid] more attention to tourism-related information and frequently [discussed] their travel plans with friends” displayed an increased potential for taking regular vacations than those not engaging in regular consideration of future travel. 

5. Put the camera down to enjoy your travels more.

Don’t get me wrong—I love taking photos. I never go on a trip without my DSLR camera draped around my neck. But I’ve learned the benefit of leaving the camera at home every so often. On a trip to Spain several years back, I took photos constantly. Although I love having them as memories, I now see there are moments when I didn’t need to snap a photo. I don’t need a picture of my seafood paella or my feet in the sand.

6. Pack wisely.

Most of us can only dream of being as adept at packing as this woman. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t small things you can do to pack smarter. Try bringing lightweight fabrics that are easy to layer, as well as versatile shoes—hiking shoes that double as athletic shoes, wedges that can work both for your night out and during the day, etc. There’s nothing worse than hauling 50 pounds of luggage around a new city while searching for your hotel.

7. Keep your spirits high once it’s back to real life.

One trick I’ve found to enjoying travel is having an extra day or two at home to relax before going back to work. Having even one day to complete all of your errands before returning to work can help eliminate unneeded stress.

This article was published in September 2016 and has been updated. Photo by NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock

Jamie Friedlander is a freelance writer based in Chicago and the former features editor of SUCCESS magazine. Her work has been published in The Cut, VICE, Inc., The Chicago Tribune and Business Insider, among other publications. When she's not writing, she can usually be found drinking matcha tea into excess, traveling somewhere new with her husband or surfing Etsy late into the night.