5 Ways to Feel the Benefits of Travel, Even If You Can't Take a Vacation Right Now

It Could Be Years Before We Take Real Vacations Again — Here's Why That’s Horrible for Mental Health


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The odds for 2020 travel plans aren’t looking good. Unfortunately, that comes not only as a hit to our sense of wanderlust and, for the 10% of people employed in tourism globally, a hit to pocketbooks. This inability to travel carries major consequences for our mental health, too.

We know that travel isn’t only good for mental and physical health as it’s actively being experienced. The thought alone that you’ll soon travel, as well as the act of planning for a vacation, comes with loads of mental health benefits, too. 

Simply the idea of upcoming travel is proven to significantly enhance happiness.

One study put out by the University of Surrey found that people are at their happiest when they have a vacation planned. Not only that, but with a forthcoming trip on the horizon, people also feel more positively about their health, economic situation and general quality of life. Another study from Cornell University found that anticipation over an upcoming trip increases happiness more than the anticipation of buying a new possession. 

“As humans, we spend a lot of our mental lives living in the future,” Matthew Killingsworth, a co-author of the Cornell study and senior fellow at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, explained to National Geographic. “Our future-mindedness can be a source of joy if we know good things are coming, and travel is an especially good thing to have to look forward to.”

Most of us aren’t able to live our lives perpetually in vacation mode. But even if you’re someone who’s only able to travel once or twice a year, the psychological spillover of that travel is vast, Killingsworth said. 

“Since we know a trip has a defined start and end, our minds are prone to savor it, even before it’s started,” he said. “Sometimes people even prefer to delay good experiences like a trip so they can extend the period of anticipation… In a sense, we start to ‘consume’ a trip as soon as we start thinking about it. When we imagine eating gelato in a piazza in Rome or going water skiing with friends we don’t see as much as we’d like, we get to experience a version of those events in our mind.”

But today, COVID hasn’t only eliminated the possibility of current travel. It’s also casting serious doubt over our ability to travel in the future.

While all industries have been dealt blows by the pandemic, the travel industry was one of the earliest and hardest hit. As a new reality takes hold in which travel restrictions loom large in a significant, extended way, what travel could look like months from now remains deeply unclear. Many of us question whether we’ll be able to take trips booked for later this year, and countless others have already had to cancel long-awaited vacations and traditions, like family reunions, that require travel. Others are opting to “postpone” plans rather than cancel them outright, getting their money back from airlines and hotels as a credit for future use. But when some experts are predicting it could take five years before air travel will be able to return to its pre-COVID levels, postponing carries with it a significant asterisk — that, for now, the trip is really postponed *indefinitely.  

But just because prior travel plans may not be so possible right now doesn’t mean that we have to completely eliminate the mental health-boosting benefits of travel dreams. We need things to look forward to, especially today. This current state of things won’t last forever, and when the day comes that COVID is finally behind us, it’ll find many of us fervently checking off boxes on our travel bucket lists once again. 

Until that day comes, here are five ways we can still keep the spirit of travel alive — and continue to reap its health benefits — even in this new normal.

1. For the near future, consider planning a road trip. 

Given the precariousness of airlines and international travel, experts are projecting a major rise in the popularity of good, old fashioned road trips. Of course, regional differences in COVID concentrations will come into play here, and you’ll need to pay close attention to the latest risk levels and restrictions in your area before, say, planning a road trip that requires a hotel stay. But provided that you’re healthy and wearing the proper PPE when gassing up and making pit stops, road trips can offer a safer and more viable alternative to other types of travel. 

2. For the less-near future, use some of your free time now to research and plan your top five dream vacations. 

Maybe you tend to be more of a fly-by-your-pants-seat traveler. Although there’s nothing wrong with that, certain trips do require more forethought if they’re going to be pulled off spectacularly well, particularly if there are seasonal specificities involved. (Seeing the lavender fields in Provence, for instance, only works if your trip is happening during a very precise two- to three-week window.) Some research now could be the difference between a good trip and an unforgettable one down the road. 

For the sake of creative planning, it may be more effective to give the lists a certain theme — the top five coastal trips you want to take or the top five pilgrimages to go on as a Beatles fan, for instance. 

3. Need some inspiration? Try taking a virtual tour.

World-class museums, national parks and UNESCO World Heritage sites alike are offering free virtual tours to homebound wanderers right now. Go on a couple to spark ideas for actual trips that you can take later. 

4. Study a new language, or watch foreign films. 

By taking the time to immerse yourself in another country’s language and culture now, you’ll appreciate it that much more deeply when you one day do visit. Open up that dormant Duolingo app on your phone, queue up Netflix with some French films, or cook a dish that’s native to the country you’re intent on visiting. This could be a great family project for those with kids, too. 

5. Plan a staycation.

But… isn’t this just what our lives already look like right now? A fair point. 

However, there’s still a lot to be said for approaching the free time that’s at your disposal with a vacation mindset. In 2019, researchers at the Harvard Business Review studied what happened when half of the study’s participants were told to treat the weekend ahead of them “like a vacation” and the other half were told to treat it like a “regular weekend.” What they found was that the people who looked at their weekend as a vacation were significantly happier come Monday than those who didn’t, and that was true regardless of how much money participants spent on activities. Although the “vacationers” did perform less housework, sleep in a little longer and eat more, researchers determined it was really their perspective that made them happier — simply thinking of the weekend as if it were a vacation meant they were more mindful of and attentive to the present moment. 

So while you totally have the right to mourn that trip to Brazil you’d been dreaming of or your ability to stroll past the Eiffel Tower anytime soon, know that for the immediate future, there are at least a handful of alternatives. And, for the sake of mental wellness, they’re ones worth hanging onto.