How to Stay Calm When Your Trip Goes Wrong

If the road gets bumpy, try these mindfulness techniques.

A sand boarder tumbling backwards down a dune

Author David Gelles says mindfulness can help you deal with the inevitable uncertainty that comes with travel.

Courtesy of Cros Studios/Stocksy United

Planes get delayed, reservations blundered, restaurants overbooked. Sometimes it even rains on your only beach day. “Travel inherently involves uncertainty,” says David Gelles, author of Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out. “Mindfulness can make us more comfortable with that uncertainty.”

The practice of mindfulness—focusing on the present moment without trying to change it—is rooted in centuries-old Buddhist traditions. But in recent decades, Western medicine and psychology have acknowledged its benefits on emotional well-being. Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness helps reduce stress and anxiety and can even contribute to improved memory, focus, and emotional flexibility. But some people still understand “mindfulness” as an empty buzzword—or as an intimidating spiritual journey that requires years of devotion in order to derive any real results.
“Mindfulness is a capacity that anyone can develop,” says Holly Rogers, a psychiatrist who helped create the Koru Mindfulness program specifically for young adults. “But you have to practice. It’s just like lifting weights.” So what techniques can we use to channel mindfulness when travel mishaps occur? Here’s where to start.

To stay calm in tough travel situations, try meditating or finding small sources of comfort.

To stay calm in tough travel situations, try meditating or finding small sources of comfort.

Courtesy of Spring Fed Images/Unsplash

Take daily moments to meditate

Whether in your hotel room or on a public park bench, find a comfortable place each day where you can close your eyes and practice meditation. “It’s about [taking] short moments, many times,” Gelles says. “Apps like Headspace, Calm, 10% Happier, and Insight Timer are all great entry points for developing the habit.” The idea of meditation is to gradually train your mind to be present and in tune with the moment. “Feel your senses,” Gelle says. “What does it sound like where you are? What does it smell like? It takes practice, but even just a few minutes a day is enough to start changing the way we think.”

Find your motto

“A gatha is a series of phrases [or mantras] that you repeat in your mind, linked to the rhythm of your breath,” says Rogers. If a canceled flight leads to botched trip plans, the solution to your stress can start with just a few simple sentences. Rogers recommends the gatha “acceptance reduces suffering” to help you calm down when flustered. Focus on breathing deeply while reciting the gatha of your choice. The point, Rogers says, is to “try to let go of frustrations about what has already happened or worries about what might happen in the future.”

Seek small sources of comfort

“One of the main principles of mindfulness is that most of our suffering is caused not by what happens to us, but instead by what our mind does with what happens to us,” Rogers says. For this reason, it can be helpful to seek out specific sources of comfort on the road—especially for travelers with common anxieties such as a fear of flying or anxiety in large crowds. A favorite travel pillow won’t make a turbulent flight less bumpy, but it might enhance your sense of serenity until the storm has passed. Identify what soothes you in moments of stress, and consider it an act of self-care to pursue what brings you solace without shame.

Have a backup plan

Imagine lousy weather at Machu Picchu fogs out your postcard-perfect view, or the Paris museum you’re most excited to explore is closed for renovation during your visit. When you can’t complete your travel “to-do list,” pursue a plan B. “Rather than get caught up in wanting things to be different than they are, [mindfulness is] about recognizing that we’re faced with one reality, and it’s our choice whether that is one we embrace,” Gelles says. Try checking out a lesser-known museum in a nearby neighborhood or wandering down a hiking trail you might not have noticed otherwise. “Mindfulness isn’t about not having expectations,” Gelle says. “What’s important is that we recognize that our expectations are not the determinants of whether or not we have a satisfactory experience. After all,” he continues, “travel, at its best, is not about checking off boxes.”

But if it’s a flight delay or cancellation we’re talking about, arm yourself with the knowledge of what next steps you need to take—so you’re ready to spring into action after you’ve found your zen.
>>Next: 9 Essential Tips to Help You Get Better Sleep on a Plane

This story was originally published in 2019; it was most recently updated with new information on May 6, 2024.

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