I’m a Travel Editor Who Gets Major Pre-Trip Anxiety. These Are My Coping Tools.

A love of travel doesn’t automatically translate into a seamless journey. For those who battle with serious pretravel worries, one travel editor offers ways she has found to lessen the stress.

Illustration of a person with brown hair who's wearing a sun hat and looking nervously at an open suitcase with various folded items in it

How can the thing one loves the most cause so much stress?

Illustration by Shutterstock

Planning, booking, packing, and then heading out for a trip—big or small—is a roller coaster of emotions for me. The planning and booking phases are usually a caffeine-fueled euphoria. Somewhere within my complex travel-decision math lies a formula that factors in all parties involved (typically myself, my husband, and our two young kids, ages five and seven) and whether we will all have a good time, whether the time frame fits into our work and school schedules, and whether the destination is calling to me (don’t ask me how this last one works, it’s almost a spiritual experience?).

Finally, the trip is booked. Is there a better feeling than this? The days, weeks, or months following the booking period are spent marinating in my accomplishment and wondering if my family realizes how lucky they are to have such an astute trip planner within their ranks.

But then, the tides start to turn a little, usually at around 3 a.m., as the departure date begins to near. I suddenly wake up in the middle of the night, and the doubts creep in. Did I choose the right destination? What if someone gets sick? Is the flight time too early? Is the connection too tight? Do we have all the gear we need?

The truth is, my pretravel anxiety has gotten a lot worse since I’ve become a parent, for a couple reasons: (1) I’m responsible for additional human beings now, and (2) kids (especially small kids) get sick a lot. The latter one is key because it emphasizes a loss of control over the situation, which is hard for me to grapple with. Control is a big factor when it comes to anxiety, at least for me. The notion that we could wake up on the day of our flight and one of the kids might have a fever or start puking is just a smidge more than my nerves can handle at times. Unfortunately, that means that leading up to a trip, I start not just getting stressed but also having anxiety attacks that can result in everything from frustration and rage to tears of overwhelm, necessitating meditation and box breathing to calm myself and ideally get us out the door with some semblance of the hope and optimism that conjured the trip in the first place.

It has gotten so bad that I have literally whispered to my rattled self as I stumble over the trip-departure finish line in veritable shambles, “I’m never doing this again.”

As if.

Once we are on our way, however, like the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of mental health struggles, I’m in heaven. My absolute happiest place is heading out on a new adventure to explore the great unknown. Because I love it so much, not only will I never give it up, but also I’ve been working on ways to minimize my pretravel stress and anxiety. Here are some of the things that have helped me.

Recognizing that the anxiety exists

For me, the first step in conquering my pretravel anxiety has been recognizing that it exists and getting a better sense of the patterns and triggers. It kind of snuck up on me after I became a parent, so it took me a while to be like, “Oh, I get extremely stressed before trips now. This is new.” But once I did, I could better identify the recurring nature of these episodes and explain what was happening to my spouse (in a calmer way than by hysterical tears as we headed out the door).

Organizing my home

What does cleaning the house have to do with leaving the house? In my anxious mind, everything. If the house is cluttered, my brain is cluttered, and I get increasingly flustered and frustrated. I have found that spending the time to get the house into decent order before I start packing is worth the effort for the amount of stress it reduces. It comes with the major benefit of returning to a home that is not in a state of full-blown chaos. Prior to my uptick in pre-trip anxiety, cleaning and organizing my abode predeparture was an optional bonus activity. But I’ve come to realize that it is now nonnegotiable, and I have carved in the time to make it happen.

Starting to pack far in advance

Now that the house is decently clean, it’s time to start packing. Scrambling to complete all the packing and other to-dos for an on-time departure (I’m an early-to-the-airport girlie, after all) only adds to my pretravel anxiety. That’s because it inevitably takes more time than I think it will. And any need to rush or do too many things at once starts to pile on to my feelings of overwhelm. Given that, I have taken to pulling out the suitcases at least a week or two in advance so that I can start filling them up little by little, which reduces the last-minute stress.

My packing lists for myself and my kids are ingrained in my mind at this point, but I do keep an ongoing packing list in my Notes app to help ensure I remember everything. I especially rely on it for more complicated trips—for instance, a longer trip abroad or to a hot or cold destination where we need water or snow gear that we don’t usually pack. I don’t use the list for every trip, but it’s there for when I do need it or start to feel overwhelmed.

I also use the laundry day up to about one week before our travels as an opportunity to sort all the clean clothes directly into luggage. Rather than put those clothes away only to have to pull them out again to pack, I fold them up, and into the suitcases they go. If it’s a road trip, the same can apply to any gear and dry foods we plan to bring. Gear can be added to the back of the minivan (aka the world’s best travel car), and the sandwich bread, peanut butter, spaghetti, and sauce are piled into our Yeti cooler bag (don’t ask me why we use a cooler bag for dry goods—progress, not perfection, right?) several days before departure.

Making peace with the worst-case scenario(s)

What causes me much pre-trip stress, especially in recent years, is my internal battle with “the worst-case scenario,” which in my mind is usually medical: an unforeseen illness or injury that derails the entire trip before or during our travels. But, as with many other fears, there’s nothing I, or anyone, can do about this (it’s a fictional future scenario!).

So, I decided that rather than resist the spiraling, I embrace the spiraling. I take the “what if” thought process all the way to the end zone. Perhaps one of the kids does wake up with a massive fever. We can’t fly. Now what? Well, we’ll have to cancel or postpone the flights and hotels. We might lose some money. Maybe we’ll lose a lot of money. Okay, well, we have credit cards with some degree of coverage, and we have travel insurance. (While we don’t invest in travel insurance for simple road trips and such, we do when we purchase four pricey round-trip flights for domestic or international travel.) We’ll recover what we can. So what? No big deal. Life will go on.

I’ll engage in this exercise with any fear or concern that crops up. I’ve found this to be much more effective than trying to suppress those worries, which then haunt the back chambers of my mind, spurring mounting nervousness. With this method, I regain some sense of control when faced with anxious thoughts about all the things that could go wrong—because we all know that what we think will go wrong is not, in fact, what will actually go wrong (but that’s a whole other can of anxiety worms).

Packing an anti-anxiety tool kit

Whatever is causing me to worry regarding my travels, I like to think about what I can have on hand to tackle those issues head-on during the trip. I keep returning to health issues because that is the root of a lot of my recent pre-trip anxiety, but this hack can be applied to other anxiety-inducing concerns as well. It helps me to pack a thermometer (this Braun no-touch thermometer, our go-to for years, has been around the world with us) and children’s Tylenol in our carry-on, along with a plastic bag in case someone gets sick to their stomach. This makes me feel a bit less helpless at the thought of a health problem arising suddenly when we’re on the move.

If I’m worried about connectivity at our destination, maybe it’s as simple as bringing an old-fashioned fold-up map to know that we’ll still be able to get around if I lose access to Google Maps (the horror). To find road maps, head to your nearest AAA office, and they’ll help you. If I’m worried about getting enough sleep, having a sleep mask, noise-canceling headphones, and a great travel pillow helps me to believe I’ll find a way to settle into snooze mode.

I find that just having these tools on me is enough to stave off at least some of the stress—a sort of travel anxiety security blanket, if you will. (I like to think that it brings me better luck, too. You know, the whole bring-an-umbrella-so-it-won’t-rain idea.)

Embracing the pitfalls

In some weird way, I kind of love it when things do (occasionally) go wrong on the road and the so-called worst-case scenario finally (gasp!) happens: when my husband does twist his ankle on our last night in Mexico before our full day of flying home, or when we do miss a flight connection. Travel has an amazing ability to show us what we’re made of. And when things go sideways, we can look back and say, “Hey, we got through that. We can get through almost anything.” I always tell my kids that travel teaches us how to problem-solve in situations that we don’t get to experience at home, and that’s a big part of what makes it so interesting and exciting. Ultimately, those tougher moments help inform my ongoing struggles with anxiety as I carry with me the knowledge that the trip was, indeed, worth it after all.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at Afar where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined Afar in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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