Relax, it's only a vacation

By Marnie Hunter, CNNUpdated 15th July 2012
Vacationing with no agenda -- for some travelers it's heaven, for others a week or more of unscheduled free time is like staring into an abyss.
Planning for a vacation is usually part of the fun for me, but largely skipping the research and reviews on a recent trip to Costa Rica was surprisingly refreshing.
Arriving without a bunch of expectations and a long list of things to see and do and accomplish wasn't entirely premeditated. I ran out of time, and since the friend I was traveling with is a native Spanish speaker, I felt great about being able to resolve those inevitable travel snafus. Also, we did book hotels a couple of weeks in advance. (I probably would have melted into a puddle of anxiety otherwise).
We did a lot -- zip lining, snorkeling, bird watching, tarantula spotting, sitting on the beach -- but without that gnawing sense of missing something really important. Ignorance might indeed be bliss.
Have I been doing it wrong all this time? After the trip, I consulted a trio of sages -- a travel agent, a psychiatrist and a life coach -- to see what vacationing advice they'd offer to people who want to avoid going back to work dragging, desperate for another vacation.
Studies have shown that not taking vacations is linked to health problems. Dean Obeidallah says "vacation or die."
Maybe you don't need three professional advisers to have a nice trip, but some Type A would-be vacationers could use a little help. You know who you are.
Loosening up
"If your vacation causes you stress, it's not a vacation, it's a should, a to-do or an overachieving chore," said Laura Berman Fortgang, a career and life coach and author of "Living Your Best Life."
Trying to squeeze too many activities into one trip with "no built-in time to chill" can be exhausting, especially when your trip lasts a week or less. (Ours was a weeklong trip and we visited three places. Overly ambitious?).
Consider this strategy, posted by enthusiastic planner Kris Stafira on CNN's Facebook page: "I usually do plan every minute of every day, but then our family sets our priorities and we make SURE we do those things -- the rest happens or not, depending on the day. I tell my kids they can relax at home -- vacation is for SEEING and DOING and LEARNING!"
Right. But what if life at home is just as busy?
Berman Fortgang recommends taking at least 10 to 14 consecutive days away, if at all possible, and building in time to do nothing.
"A week isn't a lot now. At the pace that we all go and the amount of adrenaline that we force our bodies to produce because we move so quickly -- your body doesn't really recover from that in a week," she said.
Berman Fortgang and her husband are self-employed and they shifted their family's schedules years ago to be able to take European-style, three to four week vacations in August.
"Just knowing on that sixth night you didn't have to pack up to leave, then we started relaxing," she said.
Finding flexibility
From a psychological standpoint, vacation offers time to build resiliency, according to Dr. Gregory Fricchione, director of the Benson-Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The term, adopted from structural engineering, refers to the ability to bend or adapt, but not break, under pressure.
I employed a little of that when I figured out shortly after we got off the plane in San Jose that two of the three places we'd picked to visit were not in fact within day-trip distance of each other, but actually three hours apart by van and boat. (Everything looked really close on the map. This is where reading up and carefully mapping things out comes in handy.)
Strong connections with family and friends and meaningful and positive experiences bolster resiliency. Your stress response, an alert to threats that spurs you to action, is also a key component, Fricchione said.
The stress response is essential, but it burns a lot of energy, so avoiding stressors is part of what's restorative about vacation.
If you want a restful trip, ask yourself "what's a nonthreatening and socially supporting and meaningful and positive experience for me to have? And it would be different for different people," Fricchione said.
Sitting on the beach reading books is just the thing for some people. For people with highly active, risk-taking personalities that don't satisfy that side of themselves at work, an adventure trip can be very fulfilling.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with having a very busy vacation. Being outside your normal habitat has its own benefits.
"There is something rejuvenating about that in the sense that your mind is very alert, your senses are very alert," Fricchione said.
"If you enter into that experience and you're not exhausted at the beginning, it can be very energizing. It's a nice kind of stress, in a way, and you have enough resiliency to deal with it."
Fricchione suggests taking stock of how you feel and what would be restorative for you and planning your time off accordingly.
Listening to yourself
People who go for the trips they think they want instead of the type of experience they really want and need are the ones who come home needing another vacation, said travel agent Anne Morgan Scully, president of McCabe World Travel in McLean, Virginia.
"The reality is a vacation should really be about you and what your body needs, what your mind needs, what your soul needs and what your heart needs, and that drives good vacation decisions," she said.
Scully asks her clients about their best trip ever and for two reasons why they loved it. She takes those and other responses and tailors a trip to suit everyone in the group.
"We try to put a balance in what they're asking for so if there are choices and options, something is going to work," she said.
You also have to assess a person's ability to relax. Some travelers are going to find lying on the beach about as enjoyable as having a broken leg set.
"You can have very active, very engaged businesspeople that you put them on a beach and they're there the third day going 'What am I doing? Where's my BlackBerry? Where's my computer? What am I doing here?' because their mind doesn't settle down, and it's not going to," Scully said.
Those people need kayaking lessons or surfing lessons or mountain biking to relax and escape from the grip of their gadgets and their busy lives at home, she said.
I'm not a gadget hound or a businessperson, but I'm not a big fan of sitting still either. In Costa Rica we did some zip lining, boat riding and snorkeling, a few nature tours, a bit of sitting on the beach and a whole lot of restful, sometimes jolting, and always thoroughly stimulating gazing across Costa Rica's undulating landscapes from the windows of tourist transport vans.
We missed a lot, I'm sure. We did touristy things, we didn't encounter much gourmet fare (not a big draw in Costa Rica) and our lack of planning was pretty inefficient and not particularly budget conscious. But it was fun and not knowing what to expect kept me in the moment.
That's kind of the essence of that lovely phrase used liberally in Costa Rica: Pura vida.
What's your travel philosophy? Read some of our readers' tips here and share your stories of unexpected vacation successes or failures below.