Travel fatigue has kicked my butt more times than I’d care to admit.
I remember walking out of the train station in Severobaikalsk, Russia, in tears, without the train ticket I’d queued for almost an hour to buy. Why? Because when it was finally my turn to approach the cashier, the Russian ticket agent took one look at me, slammed the window shut and put up the “closed for lunch” sign… while everyone around me laughed.
There was also the time I found myself in tears in the McDonalds in the Berlin Hauptbahnhof train station, when I arrived at the station at 11:30 pm for my overnight sleeper train, only to find it was cancelled and the night staff at the information desk (wrongfully) told me that not only was I not eligible for a refund, but I would also have to purchase an expensive last-minute ticket to make the same journey by regular train (with no bed) and with three transfers… oh, and the ticket machines were broken and my phone was out of batteries and they don’t accept in-person payments that late at night.
Don’t get me wrong… it’s not only train travel that has reduced me to tears. I have been a long-term traveler for the past fourteen years, frequently leaving home for anywhere from seven weeks to eight months at a time, and for a long time I pushed myself way beyond my limits. After five or six weeks on the road, feelings of travel fatigue often meant that the tiniest little problem would set off the waterworks.
It took a few years, and a lot of trial and error, for me to not just learn, but also consistently implement, strategies to reduce my feelings of travel fatigue during long trips.
Generally, I knew what would trigger my feelings of fatigue, stress, exhaustion or frustration during travel, but I wasn’t always willing to actually do anything to fix the problem. I knew that I was always grumpy after taking an overnight bus… but I still booked them because I thought that taking a bus during the day was a waste of time. I knew that I felt crappy after drinking six beers… but I still ordered another, because you only live once, right?
Today, I have a much healthier attitude towards travel. I’ve learned to strike the perfect balance between wanting to see and do everything, and wanting to actually feel like a reasonable and composed human being. I’ve learned that I enjoy and appreciate the experiences I have abroad much more when I’ve taken care of my physical and mental health. And I’ve learned how to plan trips that make me feel happy, not exhausted.
Now I’m sharing my top eight tips for avoiding travel fatigue, with strategies to implement before you book your trip, while you’re away and even after you get home. I don’t want to be overconfident here, but I can almost guarantee that if you follow all eight tips you will never find yourself in tears in a German train station McDonalds at 11:55 pm!
#1 – Travel Slow
Some of my first big trips involved covering huge distances in short periods of time. One summer I traveled from Istanbul all the way to Budapest, and then back to Bucharest for my flight home. Another year, I started on the island of Corfu, in Greece, and made my way overland to Tallinn, Estonia. Although I look back fondly on these trips, I also remember how rushed I felt, constantly packing and re-packing my bag as I moved from city to city. Although these were great itineraries, I needed more time to travel these routes in a healthy way.
Interestingly, I also remember getting extremely sick during both of these long trips. Fortunately I didn’t experience anything worse than a common cold, but both times my cold was terrible, with a violent cough, runny nose, painful throat and pounding sinus headaches. Even when I was feeling under the weather, I still pushed myself to go out and play tourist because I didn’t want to waste a moment of my time abroad.
Lately, I’ve been taking trips that are just as long, but that cover a lot less ground. Instead of rushing from place to place, I’ve been basing myself in one city (like Tbilisi or Berlin), getting to know it better, and doing more day trips to areas and attractions nearby. I’ll often stay in one city for a week or ten days before moving on to my next destination.
My new, slower travel schedule feels so much healthier, and although I’m seeing fewer cities, I’m seeing more cities in depth. I feel less travel fatigue because I’m not constantly packing my bags, worrying about if I’ve left something behind, rushing to catch a bus or train and then leaving a city feeling sad because I didn’t see everything I’d wanted to see. As a bonus, I can’t even remember the last time I caught a cold while I was traveling… my new, slower travel style has been a godsend for my immune system.
#2 – Schedule Some R&R
It’s no secret that I love visiting spas when I travel, but I rarely admit just how often I spend an entire day at the spa. The truth is, I squeeze in at least one spa day every month during my long-term travels, and I am completely convinced that it’s my commitment to rest and relaxation that keeps me from getting knocked on my butt by travel fatigue.
Personally, I think spas are essential destinations for long-term travelers, regardless of age or gender. (Yes guys, in Europe, it’s totally normal for men to spend the day at the spa!) Spa days are about slowing down, doing a little digital detox and focusing on your mental and physical well-being. Every time I walk out of a spa, I feel physically lighter, less tense and more appreciative of all the privileges that allow me to travel around the world from spa to spa.
My favorite spas are European-style day spas with expansive sauna facilities, like Caracalla Therme in Baden-Baden, Vabali Spa in Berlin and QC Termemilano in Milan. In these massive spa complexes, a single admission gives you unlimited access to all of the facilities, which range from traditional steam rooms and dry saunas to more interesting services like salt rooms, hot-cold foot baths and Vichy showers. However, great spas can be found all over the world: don’t miss a trip to the banya in Russia or a visit to the sulfur baths in Georgia.
If you really can’t wrap your head around the appeal of a spa day, you can still indulge in a little R&R by getting a massage, booking a pedicure or simply visiting the local pharmacy and picking up some local skincare and haircare products. I may be aging myself here, but… treat yo self!
#3 – Pursue Your Passions
Standing on a hard marble floor, in front of my five-hundredth portrait of George slaying the dragon, I asked myself, “Is this traveling? Because if this is traveling, I hate traveling.”
If you blindly follow others’ recommendations, whether those suggestions are coming from a guidebook, a travel blog or your BFF, you’re eventually going to experience travel burnout. You’re basically tagging along on someone else’s trip, so of course you won’t be feeling fully energized and enthused about your own journey.
When you’re ready to stop dragging your feet, ditch the expert travel tips and focus on the things that you know you love.
As I mention in my post about Yangon, Myanmar, I’m all pagoda-d out. I’ve visited hundreds of pagodas across Southeast Asia, and unless they have something seriously different (like Yangon’s Snake Pagoda!) they don’t bring me any joy. Furthermore, even though I absolutely love art, I’ve seen enough Old Masters to fill my own Louvre. I know that it’s contemporary art that resonates with me, so I seek out contemporary art galleries with exhibits that make me think about current events and the world around me (like Castello di Rivoli, shown above).
How can you find local attractions that align with your interests? I suggest starting with Facebook groups, both with geographical and topical focuses. Search the groups first, to see if anyone else has asked your questions, and then post your own queries. You can also post on relevant Reddit forms (come join me on r/solofemaletravel!) or on Quora. Other sources of niche inspiration could include documentaries, coffee table books and websites like Atlas Obscura.
# 4 – Pay More for Convenience
Want to hear about the worst flight I’ve ever taken? I was traveling from Vancouver, Canada to Vladivostok, Russia, to begin my Trans-Siberian Railway Journey. However, I was obsessed with finding the cheapest possible flight, and discovered that by redeeming some credit card reward points I was able to fly from Vancouver to Moscow, return, for free… as long as I transited through Frankfurt. I heard the words “free” and jumped on the reservation, without fully considering the fact that I was essentially adding an extra 10,000 kilometers of travel to the routing. I almost flew a complete circle, all the way around the world, to get to my starting point!
I learned my lesson on that trip. My time, energy and health are valuable, and there’s more to life than finding the absolute cheapest airfare. Now, I am willing to pay a small premium for flights that depart at a reasonable hour and get me to my destination without too many lengthy connections. Yes, I’m spending a little bit more money, but I feel more refreshed and relaxed when I reach my destination, and I spend less time fighting the effects of jet-lag and travel fatigue.
# 5 – Invest in Your Comfort
I often go away for Spring Break or Christmas Break, and on these short trips I don’t mind staying in big dorm rooms with lots of people. For a short road trip, I don’t mind the occasional chicken bus or regional train. But for when it comes to long-term travel, sometimes it’s worthwhile to pay a little bit more for a more comfortable travel experience.
My current accommodation strategy for avoiding travel fatigue involves staying in a mix of small dorm rooms (preferably female-only because I find men snore way more than women… sorry guys!) and private hotel rooms. If I’m staying in one city for a while I will usually start in a hostel to meet some other travelers, but then move to a private hotel room for the second half of the trip so that I can enjoy a little bit of peace and quiet (and walk around with no pants on!). In many countries, the price of a private hotel room in a simple guesthouse is significantly cheaper than a bed in a dormitory in Western Europe or North America (I mean, did you see my super-cool private room on Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua?).
When it comes to transportation, I try to strike a similar balance. For short trips, I’ll take the slow-moving local bus or the train that stops in every town along the way. I actually like slower methods of transportation, because I feel like I get to see more of the places I’m visiting. But when it comes to long trips, like overnight rail journeys or red-eye flights, I am willing to pay a little bit more for a sleeper berth (especially the bottom bed, so I don’t have to worry about rolling over in the night!) or an Economy Plus seat.
# 6 – Just Walk Away
Have you ever gone somewhere and just hated it? I’m talking about anything from a tourist attraction to a hotel to a city to an entire country… for whatever reason, you’ve found yourself in a place that just doesn’t resonate with your travel style?
Sure, I’m all for trying new things and having new experiences, but I also believe that we know enough about ourselves to know that something just isn’t right, and forcing yourself to stay in a situation that is making you unhappy is one of the biggest contributors to travel fatigue.
If you’re starting to feel travel burnout because you’re unhappy with your surroundings, the first thing you should do is change those surroundings!
I once found myself in a horrible hostel in Yekaterinburg, Russia. I had booked a private room in a city-center hostel, but they changed my reservation to their partner hostel outside the center. I showed up at their partner hostel, and their staff sent me to a third hostel even further away. When I arrived at the third hostel, they then told me they had no space and tried to move me to a fourth hostel far outside the city! All of this took place between 3:00 and 4:00 am, and although I was too tired to think clearly, I was pretty sure they were planning to move me to their Murder Shack in the countryside.
When I refused to go, they magically found a bed for me in an otherwise-empty dorm room, where I could barely nap for more than five minutes without wondering if The Axe Murderer from the Murder Shack had come to the city to chop me up into little pieces.
The next morning, I was faced with a dilemma. I had booked a multi-night stay at the first hostel, and the third hostel, where I was now, seemed to think that I would stay with them for the rest of my reservation, paying the price of a private room in the city center but actually residing in a ten-bed dorm room on the outskirts of town.
I quietly packed up my bags and left. The receptionist tried to block me from leaving, saying that I had to pay for the full reservation (again, even though they’d given me the wrong room type… in the wrong hostel… on the border of being in the wrong city!). The receptionist screamed at me and followed me outside of the building, and I remain convinced that she actually called some of her male friends to intimidate me, as I noticed a group of men appear behind me and follow closely until I reached the nearest main road and hopped on the first bus that passed by.
I rode the bus into the city center, got off and checked into the first nice-looking hotel that I saw (which happened to be the Novotel Ekaterinburg Center, who were absolutely lovely to me when I explained what happened and allowed me to check in right away, at 8:00 am!).
What does this have to do with travel fatigue?
That mostly-sleepless half-night in the terrible hostel was one of the most stressful travel experiences I’ve ever had. Just writing about it, two years later, my heart is pounding. Something was so wrong with that situation, and I can’t imagine what would have happened if I’d stayed there for a second or third night out of some kind of misguided feeling of obligation. I literally might not be alive.
You can always walk away. You don’t have to stay in a boring museum, or sleep in a dirty hostel, or even stay in a city where you’re not having fun. If something is making you unhappy, change it!
#7 – Doctor’s Orders
You’re in the middle of a trip, you feel fatigued, exhausted and grumpy, and nothing seems to be going your way. You’re probably saying to yourself, “I hate traveling. Why did I ever leave home?”
I don’t want to be patronizing, but one of my final tips for avoiding travel fatigue is pretty obvious. All you have to do is imagine you’re walking into a doctor’s office and describing your symptoms. What would the doctor say?
You know exactly what she would say. The doctor would tell you to eat healthy foods, stay hydrated and get a good sleep. In the back of your mind you probably knew this all along, but it’s easy to forget the importance of making healthy choices when beers cost less than a dollar and a bottle of water is twice as expensive. And honestly, who wants to sleep when Berlin nightlife starts at 3:00 am?
On a short trip, sacrificing your short-term health for your short-term fun isn’t a big deal, but when you’re a long-term traveler it’s essential that you take care of yourself. Reduce your intake of fast food, greasy food and sugary food, and focus more on eating dishes with lots of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and lean proteins. Drink at least two liters of pure water every day, and increase your water intake if you’re active all day or drinking a lot of alcohol. Try to maintain some kind of regular sleep schedule, where you’re generally going to bed and waking up at the same time every day.
Your body, and your mood, will thank me (and the imaginary doctor!).
#8 – Add a Buffer Day
I’ve always loved travel, and when I was younger I would try to spend every extra minute traveling. Often, this meant leaving work in the afternoon and heading straight for the airport, or arriving home in the early morning, squeezing in an hour or two of sleep and then heading straight to work that same day.
Needless to say, those weren’t my finest days. My departure days were always filled with anxieties about whether I’d remembered to lock my front door or whether I’d left my straightening iron plugged in. I hate to admit it, but I was often half asleep for my first day back at work and I definitely wasn’t my normal, cheery self.
Now, I’ve learned the value of a buffer day before and after every trip. With a full day between work and my departure, I have so much time to take care of the small details around my house, like emptying out the fridge, stocking the freezer for my return (I keep a frozen pizza in the freezer for my first dinner back, along with frozen waffles, whole coffee beans and shelf-stable almond milk for my first breakfast), taking out the trash and yes – remembering to unplug my straightening iron! I can finally start my long-term travels knowing that I’ve taken care of everything at home.
Similarly, having a buffer day on the way home means that I never spend the last day of my trip worried that a flight delay will cause problems at work. I get to have at least one proper night of sleep before going back to work, and I can spend that extra day doing some quick grocery shopping, washing the clothes I took with me on my trip and reading emails so that I know what to expect in the office the next morning.
These buffer days are huge stress relievers, and worth every missed second of travel time (especially on longer trips!).
Other Ways to Avoid Travel Fatigue
Experts do recommend other strategies for avoiding travel fatigue, although they often overlook the fact that travel fatigue for long-term travelers is very different than the jet-lag experienced by most business travelers and family travelers. Some of the strategies that fight jet-lag can reduce travel fatigue, like gradually shifting your own internal clock a few days before you travel to a distant time zone, or appropriately using sleeping pills (which can be prescription strength, or a natural supplement like melatonin) to help with sleeplessness in new and noisy environments. If you’re starting to feel like you’re literally being dragged down by your backpack, consider lightening your load by unpacking some of your possessions and shipping them home. And never, ever, ever feel bad about spending a day in your hotel room, ordering room service and watching the worst English-language program you can find on foreign cable.
Want to know more about travel health? I have a complete guide to pre-trip travel health planning, including buying travel insurance, getting immunizations and packing a first aid kit.
Do you have an embarrassing travel fatigue story? Share your worst travel meltdown – and how you’ll avoid travel burnout in the future – in the comments!