Vacations begin with ambition and high hopes. But the time away from work can quickly turn sour, as the reality fails to meet expectations. As you prepare for your summer vacation, here are some tips for avoiding a flop:
Don't buy into the ideas or dreams of others. Make sure you have a good idea about what you want to do on vacation. "A vacation shouldn't be about 'should dos,' " says Michael Campbell, director of the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba, whose research involves recreational ecology. Increasingly he finds vacations have become "should dos," with competitions flaring between friends and workmates about who has taken the most fabulous vacations, as if they get a notch on their belt for each fantastic site they visit. "If it's in your nature to get notches in your belt, then by all means notch away. But if it's not, stay away from that competition," he says.
Be alert to conflicting values
As you become aware of what you want, make sure it doesn't conflict with what others on the trip want, since conflicting values can ruin a vacation. It might be as simple as you wanting a vacation to relax while your spouse wants a vacation of stimulation and buzz. Or mom wants to hike, dad wants to golf, and the kids want to swim. "Either go by yourself or travel with family and build in times where people go their separate ways," says Jill Scott, a Queen's University professor who studies conflict reconciliation. On a recent trip to Europe, the best day was when her husband and son went off to an aerospace museum while she and her daughter shopped at the Galleries Lafayette. "I'm mildly interested in aerospace but really interested in shopping," she acknowledges. She also warns you to keep in mind that vacations are about new experiences, which can be exhilarating, but can also be uncomfortable if you don't really value new experiences. People travel to a foreign country, for example, but don't like the food. If that's your issue, stay in a five-star hotel where you can get your corn flakes every morning.
Be realistic about plugging-in or going offline.
Vacations are usually thought of as a time to unplug from work but that simply may not be realistic, says Scott Schieman, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. He studies high status individuals whose decision-making role in their organization means they can't just go on vacation and unplug entirely. He notes that as a professor he often has to keep up with the various projects he's involved with so they don't grind to a halt while he takes a break. "Just because you are stepping away from work that doesn't mean the pressures and demands of work stop. Some things can't wait until you come back," he says, citing an issue that cropped up on his last vacation. "If I hadn't checked, it would have created a bigger problem," he notes. Try to hand your responsibility off to someone else, but also carve out some times when you will check e-mail, or call the office, or be available for telephone consultations, without it leaching into the full day. At the same time, try to avoid reading about things – even newspaper stories – that might bring your mind back to work.
Enjoy the planning (and the memories)
Agricultural economist Marion Clawson set out a model with four stages of outdoor recreation – anticipation, planning, participation, and recollection. Prof. Campbell says that for many people the planning is an important part of the experience, and they should therefore gather the various tour guides and talk to friends who have had similar vacations. Don't plan every minute of every day, but make sure you know what will be available to you. Christine Van Winkle, a professor of recreation management at the University of Manitoba, urges you to not forget the recollection phase. Her family always frames one or two photos from a trip: "That keeps the vacation with us afterward."
Match destination, interests, and finances
The destination you choose should match up with your reason for the vacation and your finances. Prof. Van Winkle says there is always a destination that fits your finances, as long as you are honest with yourself. You can spend time with your kids at Disneyland but you can also have a wonderful time at county fairs in the area. Prof. Campbell warns there is nothing more frustrating than travelling a long distance to a glorious locale yet not being able to fully plunge in because of financial restraints. He notes some Japanese visitors to Banff have saved 10 to 20 years for that trip, but when they finally arrive can fully enjoy the experience.
Deal realistically with children
If your children want to be on the iPod all day and eat at McDonald's, you may not want to take them on vacation with you, says Prof. Scott. Or put a moratorium on gadgets for the vacation. If that's too drastic, negotiate certain hours in which they can play video games and listen to music. "It's awful to take a 15-year-old who on the whole vacation constantly has on ear buds. That's a pretty expensive paperweight you have with you," she notes. Prof. Van Winkle says research shows that children want to be involved in planning vacations, so give them some options. She involves her three-year-old daughter in basic aspects of planning like what they will bring with them.
Address mind, body, and soul
Prof. Van Winkle's research shows that you should involve all aspects of your being in a vacation for it to be successful – mind, body, and soul. Dana Cudney, a professor of sociology, whose spends the academic year wrapped up in mind and soul, likes to extend the body on vacations, and each year plans some big physical project around the house: One year it was putting in a stone patio, another building a porch. "It gets me away from going online. And while I'm thinking, what I'm thinking about is different, using spatial reasoning. There's also a nice feeling of accomplishment," she says. "If I was a house painter, maybe I'd want on my vacation to write a novel."
Special to The Globe and Mail