Lonely Planet Writer

Travel rituals: how do you get by in the sky?

We all have our travel rituals. Whether it’s at packing, departure, check-in, the hotel, unpacking or the flight back home, they are our little habits, things we do to make sure the trip goes well.

Actually, these are more than habits. With a habit, you can easily skip the process. A ritual must be completed, otherwise there is a sneaking suspicion the trip is doomed.

When I land in Japan, I run – feverishly – to a favourite diner to get a bowl of beef. I won’t 'be' in Japan until I have done that. I won’t 'be' in London unless I have my breakfast at a particular greasy spoon. One friend says hello and goodbye to her house 'because it’s just polite', while another takes a US$50 note given to her well over a decade ago that she has no intention of spending in the belief that taking the note will ensure there’s no trouble on the trip.

It takes little prompting to get fellow travellers to reveal their rituals: a triple check to see the gas is off, pre-flight gorging on junk food or a few cheeky drinks, smuggling a joke prop into a friend’s luggage, compulsive cheese hoarding during a flight...

After every return flight I go, bags and all, to my favourite café. The seasoned baristas politely ignore the fact I look like seven sheets of freshly laundered hell after a long-haul flight as we trade tales on coffee in other countries. After that, it’s a short walk home for a nap. It’s my home-coming ritual, an end to my wanderings and a way to ease back into things.

Why do we do this? We perform our little travel rituals to quell anxiety and celebrate being away from home. It’s both an anticipatory and learned behavior. When I go to the café before stopping home, it’s because I want someone to welcome me with open arms before I admit that the holiday is well and truly over. When my friend hoards cheese, it’s because she’s learned there is always a moment on the flight when you’re cold and hungry. Also, she’s a cheese-eating freak.

That doesn’t mean our travel rituals are always sensible. For years I only travelled with one pair of shoes. Just one. A pair of slightly fancy boots that were perfect for long walks, cold weather and were so perfect it would be plain crazy to pack a second pair. They broke as I touched down in Paris, leaving me to spend my entire trip there looking for shoes that would fit and not hobble me after a 20cm stride. In related discoveries, I can’t wear heels and have feet the size of a small Parisian apartment.

Is there anything wrong with these rituals? Not at all but that doesn’t mean a traveller should rely on rituals above common sense. Travel can be an uncertain thing. New people, new languages, sights and experiences. That’s a whole lotta new and with the new experiences can come that sneaking fear that it will all go belly up. It’s that risk of disaster that sends us reeling, compelling us to make our travel version of a rain dance. It may not do anything but it lets us think we’ve done everything we can.

Further reading: Arrival rituals - the Pope's got 'em, Van Halen's got 'em, we all got 'em.

And in even further reading, dive into Lonely Planet's Best Ever Travel Tips