THE (APPARENT) IMPORTANCE OF PLANNING
Once upon a time, many moons ago, I used to think that seasoned travellers must have a recipe for how to travel right. This recipe would involve a kind of routine following which you’d have a perfect or near-perfect trip every time you go on one. I genuinely believed that regardless of the destination and circumstances there is a way to make any adventure superb. If you travel regularly and still do not know how to make the most of it, what a dummy you must be - so I thought. Yet 7+ years of globe-trotting later, I am still not sure how to achieve this level of travel expertise.
A couple of days ago I went on a short trip to Brussels. It was a very spontaneous, last-minute idea; I decided to go to an event 210 km away the night before it was on. I was totally gambling in this case: the performance was hopelessly sold out and there were at least 20 other guys scouting for spare tickets on the event’s Facebook page, but there I was, full of determination to make it there regardless. I rang up a local friend up, booked my bus ticket, and within 10 hours I was on my way to Belgium.
Such impulsiveness, or being able to indulge in it, is a luxury. Take said friend in Brussels, for instance, who is now committed to a serious job at a big European organisation with annual leave of 10 days. Ten days in one calendar year! Even though he managed to get three rightfully deserved days more, his time off was limited to a brief summer holiday in Croatia and Christmas in his home Germany. Of course, there was still an option of going away just for a weekend - we are in Western Europe after all - but that does not always work. My friend mentioned that one of his favourite parts of any trip is having enough time to get excited about it. I couldn’t agree more, especially having written a blog post entitled Anticipation is Half the Fun, but isn't there just something so wonderfully liberating about dropping everything and taking off whenever you please! No burden of expectations, no pressure of itineraries. If anything, it is my preferred way of travelling, money and time permitted. Once again, it is an extravagant bliss.
While on my graduation trip, I read Alain de Botton’s book The Art of Travel. The work spoke to me so much that I had to restrain myself to only a few pages a day just so I could enjoy it a bit longer. Throughout his career as a writer and now a co-founder of The School of Life, De Botton has advocated for more meaningful travel experiences and more thoughtful approaches to travel as a whole: “Travel is considered a bit of a sort of light area of life; I think it is a very deep area of life. […] We should set out on a journey with big ambitions about what that journey can do for us. Travel has become so fatefully easily we book without thinking what we’re trying to get out of it." Indeed aside from love, few activities promise people as much happiness as going on a trip: taking off for somewhere else, perhaps far away from home, a place with more interesting weather, customs, cuisine, and scenery. Whereas options for where to travel are plentiful and overwhelming, few people seem to talk about why we should go to these places and how one can become more fulfilled by doing so.
“One question revolves around the relationship between the anticipation of travel and its reality,” de Botton writes in the opening chapter of The Art of Travel. And what if the reality does not live up to your expectations? Indulging in anticipation might end up in a potential disappointment. De Botton goes on to talk about how in today’s age of persuasive marketing, glossy brochures seduce us to destinations that do not always resemble our assumptions because they only expose us to a very limited part of the travel experience. They do not mention a word of endless queues at the airport, then boarding an airplane with seats so narrow that even a child would find uncomfortable. They do not hint at the prospect of jet lag and other (inevitable?) shortcomings, but de Botton reminds the reader that to travel is not only to lose ourselves but also to discover ourselves, to “observe and to appreciate surroundings that ordinarily may not be meaningful.”
In each chapter, de Botton explores a question in the context of a trip he once took and a so-called “intellectual guide”, an author or a painter whose aesthetic endeavours and travel experiences he blends with his own memories. The guides include Flaubert on the exotic, Hopper and Baudelaire on travelling places, von Humboldt on curiosity, Wordsworth on the rural, van Gogh on art, and Ruskin on beauty. Their ideas, de Botton argues, should show us how to appreciate nature, to fall in love again, and to recognise the beauty, meaning, and poetry of such ‘unspecial’ scenes as a motel, service station, or an airport. From feeling too shy to eat alone at a restaurant in Madrid to questioning how to preserve the feeling evoked by some encounter with beauty, he once again underlines the importance of seizing every element of a trip, be it joyful or not so pleasant. As the writer reasons later on, “it is perhaps because, in spite of their architectural compromises and discomforts, in spite of their garish colours and harsh lighting, we implicitly feel that these isolated places offer us a material setting for an alternative to the selfish ease, the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world.” Preach, Mr. de Botton!
When I told my friend of this rather romanticised idea of travel, he smiled leniently. A native German, he did not find this approach rational enough. What was I thinking! In turn, he told me about a theory conducted by Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman distinguishes the way people experience things and how we remember these things afterwards, claiming that our memories, more often than not, are terribly biased. There is an experiencing self, who lives in the present and knows the present - the self that can evaluate an event while it is still happening. Then there is a remembering self, who keeps score and maintains the story of our life - the self that declares what was important and what was not, the decision maker. These two are different entities, and they can be in direct conflict. The remembering self governs what the psychologist called the Peak-End Rule: people tend to have a bias for holding onto short periods of strong emotions - or peak moments - and onto events that occur at the end of an experience, rather than thinking back to a longer period of moderate feelings, or the average quality of an experience. In other words, our evaluation of past experiences tend to be based on their most intense point (best or worst), and how they end.
Think about the last time you got off to a bad start. Delays, traffic, whatever the cause, you probably could not have been more annoyed and upset while going through the moment. And you would have probably reported this leg of trip as a negative one. Yet as bad as it was for a while, by the end you still made it to the destination and the rest went pretty well. Now think of an experience that started out well but ended badly. Which one of the two strikes as worthy of most vociferous objections? According to Kahneman, the first one is more likely to be remembered fondly. Case in point: my weekend trip to Prague last year, when I managed to leave my phone at a bar 8 hours before the flight home. Even though it was a great getaway, almost all I can recall of that trip now is the stress of getting it back (thank you Christopher!). The Peak-End Rule points at only one of many errors of people’s judgment that affects the accuracy of our cognitive apparatus, no matter how illogical or irrational it is.
A study published by Springer Netherlands a couple of years ago suggests that the more reliable boost of happiness associated with holidays comes in the period of anticipation between booking and travelling. So Alain de Botton was after something after all, wasn’t he? It might be easier to think of planned holidays not as a few weeks in June, but 6-9 month experiences encompassing a before, a during and an after. Our memory might not be 100% reliable, but Kahneman's theory equips with tools to manipulate creation of new memories and to design experiences as such. His idea about the two different selves is very relevant to travelling, because when thinking about an upcoming trip, we do not normally think of our future as experience. We tend to think of our future as anticipated or desired memories. If going on a holiday is done in the service of our remembering self, not the experiencing one, then the reasonable question is: Why do we put so much stress on memory in contrast with the stress we put on experiences? Although the theory does not have answers to this question yet, it provides us with a framework which we can employ to our day-to-day life. While some folks who take holidays and agencies that sell said holidays seem to think that the very experience of the holiday is what they are buying (a pre-packeged tour, for instance) and the benefit they will derive from it, in reality the outcome is the memories you go back home with.
So how do we help to create good memories? The first – and most obvious – part is to carefully manage the “peak” and the “end” of your trip. Have one day that’s a guaranteed success – full of the activities you’re sure you’re going to love and cherish memories of them. It can be absolutely anything: a trip to the sight you have been day dreaming of since you were 12, a visit to a museum, a cooking class, a sky dive, you name it. Then save one or two wonderful things for the very end of the trip, and if it is weather-dependent, have a back-up plan that is just as good. Treat yourself to a spa getaway, go to a fancy restaurant, scuba dive, whatever you fancy. Fill the rest of the trip with low-cost or free activities. Invest some time in research to have copious options. Go about them at a whatever pace you are comfortable with, and you might discover serendipity in the unexpected. Find a suitable way to keep memories alive. Personally, I like to keep or do things that will reinforce my positive memories upon return home, such as sending postcards to family, friends, and even myself. These corny cards proved to be a sure blast from the past! While on my round-the-world trip, I had a small book of sudoku, so if I tore a page off I would complete the game, and then on the other side I would write down a couple of sentences about how my day was going. A couple of those pages actually survived the trip, and coming across them always puts a smile on my face. Whatever it is that works for you - a short clip a day, disposable pictures, receipts - stick to that routine.
“All’s well that ends well.”
- W. Shakespeare
Happy travels! x