How to plan the perfect vacation, according to science

The perfect vacation is not merely a matter of luck; it’s also down to cold hard science. And when it comes to your precious time off, you don’t want to be taking any chances.

With that in mind, we’ve created a go-to formula for planning your holiday of dreams – as directed by some of the world’s leading researchers, psychologists and neurologists.

Put that breakfast burrito down and look alive; this shizzle just got serious…

Relish the build-up

A work diary on a table

The true happiness of a great escape come from the planning of it, according to this 2010 study.

Dutch researchers found that the expectation of a vacation held a potent feel-good spike that lasted up to eight weeks, and was markedly stronger than the impact of actually being on holiday.

Read more: 5 solo travel cities to dream up big ideas in

“The practical lesson for an individual is that you derive most of your happiness from anticipating the holiday trip,” notes the study’s lead author, Jeroen Nawijn.

So, make the most of that pre-trip excitement; whether you’re fuelling your Kindle with must-have beach reads or posting exuberant “this time next week!” missives on Instagram. It’s not bragging when it’s good for you…

Focus on who you travel with

Travellers in Cuba

Forget where or how; when it comes to a great vacation – just like a certain group of 60s rockers – it’s all about The Who.

This 2012 study shows that relationships bring us more long-term happiness than either prestige or money invested when it comes to shared events.

“In terms of happiness, the relationships people build through shared experiences are more important than the experience itself,” confirms researcher Graham Hill.

Read more: Want a career break? Don’t overthink it

So, who is this who? The obvious choice is your loved ones. But interestingly, research shows that connecting to new people makes us happiermore confident and better understood.

When you travel with a group of like-minded strangers, it encourages you to look out to the world. You build up confidence through fresh connections.

Aim for an eight-day break

Travellers on Vespas in Spain

It’s natural to assume that the longer you spend on holiday, the happier you’ll be.

But this Finnish study suggests that gleeful “whoo, I’m on vacation!” feeling plateaus after eight days away.

In part, this is to do with keeping up the energy levels.

Read more: Myths about travelling alone in your 30s and 40s

“People constantly mention how every day seems to be perfect,” says host Javier Bartolomé, who coordinates Flash Pack’s four-day Vespa road trip in the Spanish countryside.

On a longer trip, it’s impossible to keep up that momentum but here every day is exciting, and even better than the day before. People can basically be on a high for three or four days. It’s very special.”

Want to hit the eight-day margin fair and square? Look to our adventures in Kerala or Jordan.

Choose a friendly, well-located hotel

The Santa Teresa neighbourhood of Rio, Brazil

Helpful staff, comfortable beds and a great location are the three most important values when it comes to nailing the perfect place to stay, according to research by

The bookings website analysed data from 148million sentences filed in customer reviews across the world.

While features such as rooftop bars and statement pools get all the glory, the statistics show just how important our basic needs are.

Read more: Flashpacker Alex shares her journey in Morocco

“The fact that staff friendliness plays such an important role in guest satisfaction shows that, as intrinsic social creatures, that we love to be greeted with a smile and a chat,” says lead researcher and psychologist Dr Simon Moore. “It makes us feel welcome and part of the group.”

Other research shows we are most likely to pay more for a hotel in our 30s, the age when we truly begin to enjoy holidays – so says science.

The bottom line? Invest a little more for a welcoming bolthole in a good area, and you’ll be a happy bunny indeed.

Prioritise novel experiences

Surfing in South Africa

Lounging on a beach for two weeks might seem like the dream, but it’s unlikely to make your vacation stand out in any way.

Science shows that when we sound out novel experiences – whether that’s abseiling down Table Mountain, or horse-riding through the Patagonian hills – it manipulates our perception of time.

Neuroscientists say that when we encounter something exhilarating, or even terrifying, the brain zooms in on it. As a result, memories “stick” better, and time appears to last a third longer than in normal or repetitive activities.

Read more: 10 ways to develop your life skills with adventure

“Time perception is related to information processing so the more information our minds and our senses take in, the slower time seems to go,” says psychology professor Dr Steve Taylor, of Leeds Beckett University. “Unfamiliarity – new experiences, new environments, any kind of newness – slows down our perception.”

Bear in mind, too, that new experiences conjure up a happiness that goes hand-in-hand with learning. It doesn’t matter if you flounder hopelessly with a new skill like salsa dancing or surfing; you’ll feel good just for trying.

“Learning can help us build confidence and a sense of self-efficacy. It can also be a way of connecting with others too,” says positive psychology expert Vanessa King, of the organisation Action for Happiness.

Leave time to be spontaneous 

A woman bungee-jumping into a canyon

That said, it’s worth not over-scheduling your time. Research published last year shows that when we plan a leisure activity down to the minute, we enjoy it less than if it’s impromptu.

That’s because when we meticulously manage time off, it starts to blur into an obligation; occupying the same kind of space that a dentist’s appointment might in our minds.

“It becomes a part of our to-do list,” explains Selin A. Malkoc, associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University, who co-authored the paper. “[…] When scheduled, leisure tasks feel less free-flowing and more forced.”

Read more: 5 great reasons to travel with strangers

The key, she says, is to follow “rough scheduling”, which leaves room for a degree of flexibility. And happily, this chimes with Flash Pack’s ethos of an ideal trip.

“Booking every minute of your day in advance is looking for trouble,” says co-founder Radha Vyas. “The best way to ensure you have an unforgettable trip is to flow with the current of now, and remind yourself that the most memorable moments of our lives happen when we least expect it.”

Make sure you end on a high

Sundowners in the Chilean desert

According to Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, our experiences of events are shaped by two major factors; what we feel at the most extreme moment, and how it ends.

This so-called Peak-End Theory suggests that our memories are highly biased. Rather than recalling everything in factual detail, we edit our own show-reel of highlights.

Read more: How solo travel can fix your toxic relationships

And whether this recap is positive or negative depends largely on how we were feeling at the time of the experience; with peak and finale moments outweighing all others.

“Whether the memories were happy or miserable, your overall impression of your last vacation likely featured a few particularly strong moments,” explains UX designer Lexie Martin. “[…] Last impressions are lasting impressions. When we remember an episode in the past, the most recent events are activated quickly in our memories.”

Don’t tail off your holiday: go out with a bang.

Ease your way back and tell great stories

Sunset drinks at Hotel Altiplanico in Chile's Atacama region

We need a little time to adapt post-holiday, says happiness expert Christine Carter, of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

Carter suggests easing your way back into the grind. Perhaps take a few extra days off after your holiday to adjust, and don’t schedule any major meetings on your first day back.

Also, get someone to filter your email so you’re not facing a mountain on return; or you can set your out of office message a few days later than when you’re actually back, to give yourself breathing room.

Read more: How the 5 second rule can change your life

Then, remember that the stories we tell ourselves hold a powerful influence over our memories and behaviour.

So, if you dive straight back into your work routine, throwing memories to the wind, that holiday high has no chance of lasting. Instead, take time to share your stories and get your photos framed. You’ll feel all the happier for it, FACT.

Images: Shutterstock, Flash Pack, Unsplash



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