You've booked your ticket, flicked through your guidebook, and you're counting the days to the big holiday. But you can't help feeling just a little nervous. Pre-flight tension affects first-time travelers and old hands alike, but it doesn't have to ruin the fun of anticipating your big trip. It also doesn't mean you have a fear of flying – unless you have a specific phobia involving planes, getting the jitters before your travel is often a case of what psychologists call anticipatory anxiety.

Anticipatory anxiety is the result of your body preparing for the possibility something might go wrong, from a forgotten passport to lost luggage. Even if you've perfected your packing game and have flown a hundred times, your mind is still combing over your pre-travel checklist trying to think of anything you might have overlooked. And that can accidentally kick your parasympathetic nervous system into overdrive, causing shortness of breath, racing thoughts, and sweaty palms. 

Fortunately, pre-travel tension is not only common, it's simple to tackle head on. For some, simply naming the problem is a big first step to calming down pre-flight. Acknowledging our own feelings and accepting them without judgement can be very powerful, even if it sounds deceptively easy. But for those who need a stronger treatment, these steps can help you simmer down that anticipatory anxiety so you can get back to looking forward to all the fun things you'll get to experience in the near future. 

Foreign currency banknotes
Don't forget cash for emergencies, or simply picking up postcards along the way © Getty Images/iStockphoto

Take care of essentials

There are lots of little things to organize before an overseas trip and you'll feel a lot better if your paperwork is organized well in advance. Passport up to date? Check. Visa if required? Check? Insurance cover suitable for your destination and activities in which you'll be participating? Check. Keep important documents together and make a couple of sets of photocopies to be kept separately. Make sure your bank ATM and credit cards will work in your destination, let your bank know you'll be traveling, and get some paper currency for emergencies.

Planning on keeping in touch with friends and family? Check now to see if your cell phone plan is international, or if you'll need to purchase a global burner phone, a special SIM card, or even a sat nav device if you're headed somewhere seriously remote. Look up ahead of time if your hotel or other lodging has WiFi, or if you'll be burning through mobile data using your phone as a hot spot.

If there's something you'll need on arrival, but can't bring onboard a plane (like fuel canisters for your camping stove, for example), make a plan ahead of time for where to purchase or rent that equipment at your destination. Many mountain towns that serve as gateways to US national parks, for example, have outfitters where you can pick up last-minute outdoor gear, or even kiosks at the airport where you can rent things like bear spray that you probably won't use, but are necessary to have on hand.

You'll also buy yourself a lot of peace of mind if you make a check-list of everything that needs to be done at home before you depart. Making arrangements for your pets or houseplants, putting your mail on pause, setting up an out-of-office message on your work email, adjusting the thermostats, putting your home lights on a timer, and similar prep can become an assuring habit that gives you extra confidence that all will be well in your absence.

Multi-ethnic passengers sitting on bench and waiting at airport
Doing your homework can give you a sense of control, and get you even more excited about the adventure at hand ©wundervisuals/Getty Images

Brush up

Reading up on your destination is half the fun. Your guidebook, websites and online travel forums will get you excited and confident about the journey that lies ahead.  It's important to know handy information like museum opening times or days that certain attractions are closed, of course, but a great antidote for anticipatory anxiety is the pleasurable kind of anticipation that comes from feeling well-versed in your own itinerary. 

Make sure you know the best way to get from your destination airport to your hotel on the first day – especially if you'll have to explain the directions to a taxi driver in a foreign language or navigate an unfamiliar public transit system. Read up on whether you should have your passport and visa on you at all times, or if those items will be held by hotel management. Learn a few words in the local language like hello, goodbye, and thank you, or how to ask for your favorite (or forbidden) foods.

Read for fun

Reading novels or travelogues about your destination can be a wonderful way to set the scene, too – an enrich your experience once you arrive. It can be immensely pleasurable to, say, arrive in Istanbul with Orhan Pamuk's descriptions of its back streets and private homes fresh in your mind, or to set foot in London picturing Charles Dickens' own nighttime perambulations through the city two hundred years before. A good book can be an incredibly tour guide in its own right, whether you pick a novel like James Joyce's Ulysses or non-fiction like David Talbot's Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love. 

Woman hand preparing summer luggage
Don't forget a few treats to help you feel at home on the road, like a travel-sized scented candle, a favorite scarf, or your slippers ©bymuratdeniz/Getty Images

Pack. Then pack again

The old travel cliché of packing what you think you need, then halving it, rings true every time. Traveling light is not just a way of avoiding backache, it means less pre-flight stress. Make a realistic list and stick to it – if you're not sure where to start, we literally wrote the book on what to pack.

The key to packing well is to edit, edit, edit. For example, jeans and jumpers probably won't see the light of day at that beach destination, and three pairs of shoes? Forget it. Instead, focus on versatile pieces that are weather appropriate, go from day to night, and make you feel your best. Remember that you can buy anything you need (or have forgotten) when you get there. Just don't skimp on your favorite toiletries and underwear! 

Make sure your carry-on includes something warm for the flight, a good book, basic toiletries and handy things like your phone charger and iPod. Camera gear and laptops should also go on the plane with you, but anything sharp (scissors, pocket knives) definitely shouldn't. A good rule of thumb is to imagine what you'd absolutely need on hand if, in a worst-case scenario, your main suitcase gets lost or delayed. 

If you're big into organization, having an official packing list to physically check off can do a lot to quell any anxiety that you've forgotten something. If you start to get nervous, just take a look at all that comforting ink by each item.

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Whether you're getting a ride from a friend or a cabbie, leave plenty of time for traffic and the unexpected ©Guillaume Gaudet/Lonely Planet

Get there, stress free

Getting to the airport is easy enough – trains, buses, taxis or a private car will all get you there – but plan for contingencies. Traffic jams, train delays and parking problems can all add to your pre-flight stress. Check timetables, allow for traffic congestion (will it be peak hour?) or arrive early at your pickup point if you're taking an airport shuttle. These days, airports all have quite different systems for handing ride share traffic, too, so if you're planning on using a service like Uber or Lyft, check ahead of time where you'll be dropped off in relation to your gate, and on the other side where to queue up and what the procedure is.

Factor in some extra time so you arrive early and stress free. Most airports recommend arriving at least two or even three hours early so you have plenty of time to print your boarding pass, check baggage or make inquiries at the airline customer service desk, and get through security. If you're traveling with small children or pets, have unusual luggage like skis, or need to ensure accommodations for your disability or religious needs, give yourself extra time.

Conversely, however, if you're flying very early in the morning, especially in or out of smaller airports, keep in mind that the airport may not be open two hours ahead of the earliest flights. The last thing you want is to awkwardly loiter outside a dark airport with your baggage hoping you haven't made a terrible miscalculation.

Young woman with a suitcase traveling solo on the Qatar airport
A young solo travelling woman with a suitcase in the evening at an airport in Doha. ©lechatnoir/Getty Images

Relax

With your luggage checked in and your boarding pass in hand, head for the departure lounge. If there's time to burn, browsing the shops, flicking through magazines in the bookstore or picking up a few last minute gifts can be good stress-busters. If you're a foodie, seeking out the best-rated airport restaurants in your city of departure can be a fun treat – especially now that so many celebrity chefs and local restauranteurs are opening outposts in concourses across the country. Trying a regional favorite while you're waiting for a connection can do a lot to get you out of your own head and into the vacation spirit.

When in doubt, however, just find a seat near your check-in counter and relax – airline staff will take care of the rest. Enjoy your holiday!

You may also like: Plan your next adventure with these expert tips from a Lonely Planet writer
10 ways to improve your travels in 2020
How to pack like a pro for a backpacking trip

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This article was first published July 2012 and updated June 2020

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