The Traveler’s Guide to Happiness

How does travel make you happy? In our first-ever Travel Happiness Survey, presented by the Aruba Tourism Authority, we turned that question over to you.

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We asked how often you travel, which cities make you smile, and how you hang onto travel bliss once you’re back home. More than 15,000 of you replied, sharing stories about what delights you on the road. Read on to explore how, where, and why AFAR readers travel. You’ll also discover which destinations are the happiest in the world—and why they’re so special.

How You Travel, by the Numbers

More than 50 percent of AFAR readers take between one and three trips per year for business and pleasure—but they sure would like to take more. When it comes to seeing the world, 20 vacation days per year just don’t cut it. And no one ever wants to go home. AFAR reader Fatima Hanif said she craved more time rafting Class IV rapids in Santa Maria, Peru, while Alexandra Stewart wanted to spend a few more days at the Happiness Festival on Skarva Gard farm in Karlskrona, Sweden. On a trip to Jamaica, Laine Perry gave in to the desire, rescheduling her return ticket (twice!) to enjoy extra days on the beach and exploring the sugarcane fields.

Time to connect

We discovered that most people prefer to leave room for spontaneity rather than have a completely planned trip. In Spain, for instance, most of our readers said they had planned to tour Gaudí’s magnificent La Sagrada Familia and view the extravagant procession of relics through the narrow cobblestone streets of Seville on Palm Sunday. But in Granada, Maggie Clarke said she was equally thrilled stumbling upon an impromptu flamenco show in a town square overlooking the Alhambra at sunset. And Richard Frisbie was delighted by an invitation from a gastronomy club to feast alfresco on fresh catches of the day and txakoli (a local sparkling white wine) in a fishing village outside Bilbao. “It was a bit of heaven, a rare experience unlikely to be duplicated,” he says. “I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and smart enough to say yes.”

Connecting with local people and unplugging from technology to fully immerse yourself in the culture are some of the best ways to experience a destination, according to our readers. Peggy L. Stecklein, for example, visited a local Maasai tribe while in Tanzania: “Although we didn’t speak the same language, we communicated through hand signals and facial expressions,” she says. “Some of the young children were playing peekaboo with me, and the locals gave me a bottle of soda.” When reader Tamara Manik-Perlman traveled to Cuba, she appreciated the opportunity to unplug—from the internet and from media influences. “It helped me to be truly present and interact with other people,” she says.

Travel buddies

Travel connects you with a destination, but it also connects you to the people with whom you share the experience. That’s probably why most AFAR readers prefer to travel with a significant other, family, or a group of friends. We read about a firework-lit proposal on St. Stephen’s Day in Budapest, the look in a daughter’s eyes the first time she saw the castle at Disney World, and friends circling Iceland’s otherworldly terrain by camper van. It’s clear: Some travel memories are best when shared.

Capturing the memories

We’re not surprised photography is the way most people prefer to capture their travels, with posting on social media coming in second. Taking photos and sharing them with family and friends are great ways to commemorate the experience. And they’re also the perfect way to relive that joyful event after the trip has ended.

We also asked our readers how they hang on to post-travel bliss once they’re home. Here are the top five ways they keep the travel magic going. Some are obvious. Others might come as a surprise.

1. Look at photos from the trip

2. Share memories with family and friends

3. Plan another trip

4. Make a scrapbook, shadowbox, or video collage

5. Recreate trip-inspired recipes at home

Dream trips

AFAR readers—overwhelmingly—prefer sun-filled holidays on tropical islands. But they also agree that a cross-country train ride or a long road trip are good ways to spend a vacation. These are their top three destinations for each type of trip.

Your Happiest Travel Memories

In the survey, we asked readers to share their happiest travel memory, meaning we received 15,664 happy moments—and we read every one. Susan Dutilh learned to polka dance with lumberjacks in Tromsø. “They’d rarely seen the likes of me,” she says. “Although I was mortified at first, I quickly discovered how incredibly fun it is to rely on nothing more than a dance and a smile to communicate.” Amber McCafferty played underwater-fetch with a sea lion in the Galápagos Islands. And Eric Gurevich summited Mount Kilimanjaro just in time for sunrise: “I didn’t expect to get emotional,” he says. “But as the sun rose over the roof of Africa, the waterworks turned on and only stopped once my tears literally froze.” Find 25 of our favorites stories—including videos inspired by a few readers’ happiest travel memories—here.

The Top 5 Happiest Destinations

. . . According to Our Readers.

The crowd favorites? Tropical holidays and European getaways. Turns out AFAR readers like to chill beachside and try new foods, soak up natural beauty and dive into local culture, push personal boundaries and connect with wildlife. These are the chart-topping destinations—and how our readers find happiness in each.

1. Italy In Italy, happiness is dolce far niente, sweet idleness: the second scoop of gelato, the strong caffè, the time with family and friends. Our readers relish the grandeur of Rome, but also savor the smaller moments—inhaling the lemony aroma of the seaside town of Sorrento or snacking on coffee and cake while overlooking the vineyards in Certaldo.

2. Hawaii Natural disasters have battered the islands in recent years, but the archipelago’s beauty remains. A few of readers’ favorite things: watching fiery lava meet the ocean waves on the Big Island, stocking up on fresh banana bread along Maui’s winding road to Hana, and exploring the Jurassic landscapes of Kauai’s Na Pali Coast.

3. Mexico Our daredevilish readers head to Cozumel, where a typical dive includes sightings of green moray eels, nurse sharks, and turtles—and eagle rays and black-tip reef sharks on a good day. Tulum, with its pristine cenotes and well-preserved Mayan ruins, and Isla Mujeres, the sandy stretch off the coast of Cancún, are where readers go for more subdued adventure in Mexico.

4. France The French Riviera and its iridescent-blue coastline is a big draw for our readers. They like to picnic seaside on Nice’s Plage Publique Magnan and enjoy the winding corridors in the hilltop commune of Èze. But who could forget Paris? With its sophisticated cafès, avenues full of high-end shops, and dazzling views of the Eiffel Tower, Paris is a fan favorite for romance—and lots of cheese.

5. Costa Rica In this country, ripe with jungle flora and filled with people who emphasize simple living, it’s easy to channel pura vida. To get a taste of the pure life, our readers kayak the turquoise waters of the Osa Peninsula, enjoy high tide in the coastal towns of Tamarindo and Jacó, and tour the local chocolate and coffee farms.

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