Is planning a holiday better than the real thing?

Sometimes there's more fun and freedom in the planning than in the execution, as GEMMA NISBET discovers

There’s a point during the planning of any travel when I surface from my research to realise I have a couple of dozen tabs open in my internet browser and a brain that feels similarly scattered. Perfectionist tendencies and the seemingly infinite possibilities available online can be a potent combination when you’re getting ready to go away. Throw in a sense of professional obligation — even if I’m not travelling for work, I’ll probably end up writing about the trip — and you have a high likelihood I’ll resort to needless online shopping, my preferred method for soothing pre-travel anxiety (we all have our vices).

Still, I’m convinced that in some ways, travel is best at the planning stage. As much as I enjoy travelling, the actual being away part can be tiring and occasionally tiresome, an odd mix between the mundane (what should we have for breakfast? Where’s the closest chemist?) and the sublime. And even if you don’t encounter any particular problems, you might find an unbridgeable gap opening between expectation and reality: the meal that didn’t measure up, the weather that didn’t play along, the crowds you hadn’t anticipated.

In contrast, during the planning, a trip is all possibilities and potential, with relatively little in the way of reality to to intrude on your travel fantasies. That flip in your stomach when you come across something that strikes your fancy can be especially magic. One minute, you’ve never even heard of Asheville, North Carolina, or the Setouchi Islands in Japan, and the next you’re all excited to explore the former’s hotly tipped food scene, or the latter’s open-air art galleries, or whatever it might be.

And, for all the potential to get overwhelmed by a deluge of digital information, drilling down on a specific trip can be just as enjoyable, whether it’s researching restaurants or reading relevant novels. The spike of excitement you get when booking a nice hotel or reading about a market you’d like to visit is a little like the small thrill you get when buying something online — somehow, the delay between ordering the item and receiving the package means you get the pleasure of making the purchase twice over.

Indeed, there is some research which suggests that looking forward to a trip is the part of the holiday equation that provides the biggest boost in happiness, even more so than the pleasures of the trip itself or of reminiscing about it afterwards. In many ways, this shouldn’t be surprising: the benefits of delayed gratification have been well documented, as has the fact that spending our money on experiences generally makes us happier than acquiring material things.

Amit Kumar, a consumer behaviour researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, has suggested people can maximise such benefits by “increasing the amount of time and hence the number of opportunities they have to think about, to talk about, and to savour their future experiential consumption”. When it comes to holidays, then, it seems that beginning the planning process for a holiday earlier — and really savouring the research phase — could be beneficial in providing additional opportunities to anticipate the good things to come.

The danger is, of course, that you’ll get so deep into the planning process that it threatens to spoil the holiday. I’m not a particularly free-and-easy traveller — I like to have my hotels booked in ahead of time, for example — but neither am I on the level of a family member who produces a detailed day-by-day schedule, complete with lunch suggestions and train reservations, before each trip. Research and planning can free you up to actually enjoy yourself while you’re away, and they can help to avoid missing out on things while you’re there. But, equally, an itinerary needs space for spontaneity — for time to follow your nose, and to abandon your plans.

Then there’s that gap between expectation and reality. The intuitive assumption would seem to be that ramping up your excitement levels before a departure would lead to a greater sense of disappointment if the holiday doesn’t ultimately measure up. But as Elizabeth Dunn, a happiness researcher at the University of British Columbia, told the New York Times, the opposite may be true. Referring to anticipation as not only “a free form of happiness” but also “the one that’s least vulnerable to things going wrong”, Dr Dunn suggested “we’re less likely to be bothered by these little holes if we build up our expectations ahead of time”. She provided the example of her own holiday-gone-awry, when she was bitten on the leg by a shark during a trip to Hawaii. “At least looking forward to it was still great,” she said.