To be truly happy on vacation, psychologists have found you need to feel in control of the itinerary and activities. This is a subtle but important point for vacationers: for a great vacation, you need to do what you want to do, not what your traveling companions want, and not necessarily what the guidebook suggests.
I often hear from travelers who have visited perfectly wonderful destinations yet returned disappointed; after a little searching I generally discover that they didn’t enjoy being dragged along to museums or cathedrals or shopping districts that their partner (or their partner’s guidebook) had recommended, and that they were too shy or embarrassed to insist on the vacation activities they wanted to do.
Embarrassed? Yep, that happens a lot. I have a friend who likes nothing better than spending an afternoon wandering through the aisles of a foreign supermarket, picking up their packaged foods, greeting cards and cleaning products while marveling at the cultural differences that could produce such strange offerings. Odd? Maybe… but understandable, and a great way to spend an afternoon if that’s what floats your boat.
A cousin of mine is a schoolteacher who always finds the time to visit local schools when she is abroad. It’s easy nowadays to research this type of thing, make contact and arrange things in advance, but even before the internet she would roll up to the village school and introduce herself. Invariably they were delighted to have her and she would spend hours in classrooms and common rooms, building bridges and forming friendships that in many cases have lasted to this day. I’ve heard of firefighters doing the same thing; it makes so much sense to take advantage of these ties that bind us, even across borders.
Some predilections are more nuanced: there are travelers who photograph graffiti, others who fixate on doors. I’ve a relative who does nothing on vacation beyond sitting in bars, drinking with locals. He comes home with the very best understanding of the culture, politics and sports, though admittedly little first-hand knowledge of the scenery. Still, that’s what turns him on, and he’s strong enough to insist on doing just that.
Use guidebooks for logistical help—maps, transportation advice, calendars of events, and the like. Knowing that there’s a great outdoor market held only on Tuesday mornings, and getting your family there on a trolley car with the locals will make you feel good about your planning skills. But don’t let any guidebook tell you what is or is not interesting or worthy of your admiration. For those things… go with your gut. It’s usually a better guide.
– Rod Cuthbert
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