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I wrote the first draft of this post on my flight from JFK to Cartagena, and I’m embarrassed to say that I almost didn’t get on the plane.
As the departure date of my Colombia trip loomed, knots grew in my stomach. Was I only traveling because I thought I should be traveling? Did I want to be away from my friends and family in New York for 19 days when I had so many more travels coming up this fall?
Would I be able to get work done there? Would I miss a lot of cool events at home? What was the point of paying rent in expensive New York if I was going to be paying for simultaneous accommodation as well?!
I flipped back and forth a lot. As late as the day before, I told my friends I was split 80/20 in favor of not going.
This happens to all of us — even the pros.
At some point before your trip, you’ll likely feel a few doubts creeping in. Usually at the last minute, within a few days of your departure.
This is completely normal and it happens to everyone at some point.
What can trigger this? Something as innocuous as hearing friends make plans for when you’ll be away. It could be an offhand comment from someone about how your destination is dangerous or boring. Or realizing that you accidentally booked a trip during the Olympics and won’t get to watch them.
Soon, those doubts can snowball into a monster, making you second-guess your thoughts and feelings. But if you plan a strategic defense for this anxiety, you’ll be able to manage it better.
Practice Extra Self-Care Before Your Trip
Even if you feel confident, it’s good to guard against anxiety triggers before you go on your trip. This is especially important if you’re trying to finish up big projects at work or home before you leave.
Here are some ways to practice self-care:
Exercise. Whether you’re a fitness pro or couch potato, make sure you break a sweat regularly. I’m a fan of the 7-minute workout app and dance workouts on YouTube.
Take long walks. Save your podcasts or audiobooks for these walks if you need the motivation.
Meditate. I’m a big fan of the Headspace app, which is ideal for beginners.
Read, write, make music, or release creative energy. Have an outlet that lets you express yourself and your feelings, even if indirectly.
Spend time with loved ones. Let them know how much they mean to you, even if you’re planning a trip without them.
Stay healthy. Eat well, get enough sleep, don’t go on any benders with your friends.
Figure out the source of what’s bothering you.
If your trip is arriving and you’re queasy at the thought of it, try to pinpoint what’s bothering you. Are you nervous about being robbed? Not being able to communicate with anyone? Are you afraid of flying? Or that you’ll be lonely? Do you think you’ll miss an important event at home?
Once you identify the source, see what you can do to remedy it. Would you feel more confident about not getting pickpocketed if you bought a camera bag that locked? If you’re nervous about meeting people, why don’t you post a message on the local Couchsurfing group or book yourself into a dorm or private room at a social hostel?
Sometimes you’ll only be worried about the unknown. Which, again, is totally normal. In that case, it can help to plan out your first day on the road.
Plan your arrival and first 24 hours on the ground.
I did this meticulously for my arrival in Bangkok in 2010, the trip that kicked off my full-time travels. This was my first time in Asia and although I knew intellectually that Thailand would be an easy region in which to travel, I was nervous about facing an entirely new culture.
Here’s what I planned:
After going through immigration, I would go to the ATM and take out cash.
I would get a taxi to my guesthouse, Wild Orchid Villa, and I had a piece of paper with the address written in Thai as well.
I would check into my guesthouse and email my family to let them know I made it.
I would go to sleep and then walk to Wat Phra Kaew to see the Grand Palace and Wat Pho the next morning.
I would get street food somewhere for lunch.
I would meet blogger friends for dinner on Khao San Road that night.
Now, that didn’t all go to plan. The cab driver had trouble finding my guesthouse and kept stopping to ask people for directions. I had to ask for new rooms twice because the doors didn’t lock well. And I didn’t sleep a wink my entire first night due to jet lag. But having that outline kept me focused and comfortable.
I reminded myself of this for my Colombia trip. I didn’t have to have Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park completely figured out before I left. Just a few things to do in Cartagena would be enough. (As it went, I axed Santa Marta and Tayrona completely because I couldn’t stand the humidity on the coast.)
Give yourself an extra financial cushion.
One of my top tips for travelers, especially solo female travelers, is to financially invest in your safety. That means spending money on a cab if you’re not comfortable walking or taking public transportation at night. Or booking a more expensive hotel if it’s in a nicer neighborhood.
I think the same advice holds if you’re nervous before your trip. If you want to do a day trip somewhere that requires a lot of bus changes, why not book a direct organized tour? It will be easier and you might meet new friends. If you’re not sure whether you can handle a dorm, book a single room for your first few nights and then see if you feel like doing a dorm later on.
Just knowing that the extra money is there to spend it if you need it can be reassuring.
Remember that this is YOUR TRIP.
You can do whatever you want on this trip. You can be adventurous — or take it easy. You can be super social — or solitary. Nobody at home is judging you on just how far off the beaten path you go. (Granted, as travel bloggers, it’s different for us, but most of you reading this don’t have to worry about that.)
And sometimes your dream itinerary won’t work out. If you get to Venice and realize it’s sticky and expensive and overwhelmingly crowded, you have the freedom to leave. (My recommendation? Take a train down to Bologna to explore Emilia-Romagna, or get a ferry to Rovinj in Croatia.) Don’t feel like you have to stay because it’s Venice.
I spend a lot of time sitting in cafes, no matter where I go. That’s important to me. I need a caffeine hit every afternoon like clockwork, and as an introvert, I need that time to get back inside my head. Some people consider that wasted time. But for me, it’s vital.
Err on the Side of Going, But Sometimes It’s Okay to Cancel
There may come a point when you’re considering whether or not to cancel a trip. Most of the time, you should push through your fears and go anyway, but there are occasional instances when canceling is the right decision.
Thinking about the trips that I’ve had to cancel in the past, some of them were for better reasons than others.
I canceled Greece two years ago. I wasn’t in a good spot to travel — I was still reeling from several rough months in my personal life and I needed the extra time to put myself back together before Sri Lanka a month later.
I canceled Burning Man last year. It was July, I had done zero preparation, and it would be expensive and complicated, so it was easier just to sell the ticket. Burning Man is not something you can half-ass. You need to get a vehicle and bring everything you need to survive in the desert, plus costumes and/or art to contribute to the community.
Fortunately, my would-be companion felt the same way, and we had only spent money on the festival tickets. I had a buyer within one minute of posting on Facebook.
I came home early from Thailand last year. It was supposed to be a five-week trip to Thailand and Myanmar; I capped it at three weeks in Thailand. Honestly, as much as I enjoyed my time in Koh Lanta with Brenna, I probably shouldn’t have taken the trip. I was hypnotized by cheap fares and going through the motions of what a traveler was “supposed” to do.
I had secured a super-cheap $550 round-trip flight from New York to Bangkok; the flight was nonrefundable and I had to spend roughly the same amount to get home early. Eek.
I think I made the right decision on Greece and Burning Man; Thailand could have gone either way.
But Colombia? I’m so glad I’m here. The trip is about a week longer than it should have been, I’ll give it that. But it’s so good to be here for both personal and professional reasons. It’s been a while since I’ve been on an adventurous solo trip and I think I’ve got my groove back.
Remember Your Limits Before You Book Your Next Trip
What led to your anxiety in the first place? Write it down and don’t forget it when you’re planning your next trip. If you avoid these triggers, you might have an easier time on your next trip.
Today I know that my anxiety tends to stem from 1) spending too much time on the road instead of home and 2) getting overwhelmed when I have to do too much work for a complicated trip.
Going forward, I’m going to focus primarily on shorter trips (think 10 days or less) that take place far less often and I’m going to remind myself that I need to spend at least two thirds of my time at home in New York. (With my big New Zealand trip this fall, I won’t be able to put this into practice until January.)
I absolutely love travel planning, but trips that require months of intense work stress me out too much. Because of that, I’m probably best off avoiding trips like The Mongol Rally, which involves buying an old car, fundraising for charity, and securing a million complicated visas.
If I do Burning Man in the future (and I’d like to!), I’m going to pay for a camp where they provide the food, water, and shelter so I can focus on costumes and art. Organizing everything from scratch is too overwhelming for me.
Often, you need to get there before you relax.
99% of the time, you’ll be glad you went. Repeat that to yourself — I’ll be so glad I went on this trip.
But often you don’t realize that until you’re on the ground in your destination. Feeling the different temperature in the air, voices in a different language surrounding you, streets full of different smells and colors — sometimes that’s all you need to remind yourself why you love traveling in the first place.
Put your trust in that feeling, even when you doubt yourself. Almost every time, it will be there when you arrive.