7 prescriptions for happy travel

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Happiness is part science, part art, part luck. For travelers, if the most detailed itinerary can’t guarantee good weather, it certainly can’t guarantee a happy travel experience, and the perfect holiday doesn’t come in pill form. But with a little knowledge of the inner workings of the human brain, a savvy traveller can do a lot to set themselves up for success.

The high road to happiness might require more than a guidebook to navigate successfully, but if you’re looking for fun adventures along the way, here are seven simple prescriptions for happy travel:

1. Research more, spend less

Don’t waste buckets of valuable time tracking down those rare-as-a-jackalope deals unless you want to find yourself frustrated before you’ve even started your trip. Instead, try this approach: choose somewhere that you can comfortably afford, and do just a little bit of research to learn more about the place you’re going and find experiences and sights that suit your interests – even 30 minutes will help.

Why does this lead to happy travel? Not surprisingly, consumer satisfaction studies have found that people prefer pricier options and, without any other information, assume pricier means higher quality. But if they have additional knowledge or a personal connection to a more affordable option, consumers will change their preference. This works for chocolate, perfume and wine just as well as it does for destinations. Beyond that, not breaking the bank while still having a great time will make any sensible traveller happy.

Related article: How to travel like a kid

2. Make the trip better than the anticipation

Studies have found that many travellers find the most enjoyable part of a trip to be the anticipation before the trip. Some might advise planning a trip well in advance to get the most enjoyment out of the anticipation. But if the trip itself is less fun than thinking about the trip, that’s what some psychologists might call ‘a major bummer’.

There are many advantages to booking travel in advance, but don’t underestimate spontaneity: anticipation won’t trump the trip, and there’s something delightfully crazy about jumping on a plane to a distant locale with little notice. You planned to be at work on Thursday filing those reports your boss gave you, but instead you’re jetting your way to a Thai island – are you grinning yet?

3. Add a dash of discomfort

If it’s memories and stories you’re after, keep this in mind: strongly emotional events create the most vivid long-lasting memories. A week sunning yourself in a hammock reading vampire novels might sound like just what the travel doctor ordered, but a pulse-quickening white water rafting trip will stay with you for much longer.

Travel writer Tim Cahill summed this up for travellers in with the following truism: ‘Adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility.’ It’s a classic travel paradox: if you’re willing to suffer a little here, get scared out of your wits there, memories from your trip will be stronger – and fonder – than from one spent in action-free leisure.

4. Build your own luxury

If you can’t afford luxury, change your definition of luxury. Many ‘luxury’ hotels charge extra for superficial opulence and formality that has no effect on your trip apart from padding the bill. Follow Chandelier’s Law: the larger the chandelier in the lobby of hotel, the more you’re overpaying.

Surveys have found that many travellers rate the physical appearance of a hotel as being more important than quality of service. Don’t be duped by the designer wallpaper. When booking a trip, list the factors that make you the most comfortable and feel the most relaxed, and focus on those. (If your answer is ‘a big-ass chandelier’, by all means go for it.) Unless you’re spending your entire trip in the hotel, find a comfortable, convenient, and (if possible) culturally interesting place to sleep, and save your travel cash for the experiences you’ll remember.

5. Set out on a quest

The happiest moments in travel are nearly always the ones you never saw coming. This holds true outside of travel: a surprise party is only a fun surprise if you don’t know that your friends are waiting to leap out from behind a sofa and scream at you. The size of any emotional response is modified by your expectations – that is, serendipitous fun will always make you happier than planned fun.

So how do you grab a slice of serendipity? To quote John Barth, ‘You don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings.’ Many of the greatest travel stories start with a quest, and suddenly unexpected interesting things happen along the way. Try it yourself, it works. It doesn’t have to be a big quest, it just has to be a quest. Trace your ancestry and find the house your great-grandparents lived in. Look for a rare bird that hasn’t been seen in the wild in decades. Find the best hawker stall in Penang. The house might be gone, you might never see the bird, and one of the less-than-stellar hawker stalls might give you a severe case of the ‘Malay's malaise’, but along the way you’re guaranteed to meet people, have unforgettable experiences that will never find their way into a guidebook, and interact with the world in a way you wouldn’t even think to do as a tourist.

6. Give the gift of travel

Which do you prefer, giving or receiving a gift? If you said ‘giving’, you’re not just an amazing generous person, you’re in the clear majority. (If you said ‘receiving’, you might be a greedy five-year-old, in which case congratulations on making it this far through the article.)

We like to give because it makes us happy to make others happy. Behavioral research has shown that people given money to spend on themselves or on others are significantly happier if they spend it on others. Is there someone you’d love to travel with but for whom the expense would be a burden? If you’re in the position to help out, and they’re willing to accept, make a travel dream happen for someone you love and go along for the ride – you both win.

7. End well

Have you ever returned from a trip feeling like you need a vacation to recover from your vacation? Travellers can avoid this all-too-common problem with some simple advance planning.

If you’re roughing it or moving constantly without respite, schedule time for comfort at the end. Don’t worry about wasting precious vacation days: studies have found that the length of travel has little effect on overall happiness after the fact, so it’s best to leave well-rested. Splurge on yourself or take a few days to unwind at home for a day or two – it leaves you with a good taste in your mouth and prepares you for a gentle re-entry into the day-to-day.

Andy Murdock is Lonely Planet's US Digital Editor and resident science geek. He dislikes paying extra for hotels with large chandeliers, even ones made by Dale Chihuly. Follow Andy on Twitter @LPUSAstaff.