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Fifteen Commandments of Vacation Travel

We all know people who come back from a vacation feeling on top of the world, and others who seem vaguely disappointed. Here's how to put yourself in the first category, not the second.

  1. Know yourself. A successful vacation is one that works for the person you are, not the person you think you should be. Confirmed couch potatoes who resent having to walk from the far end of the parking lot will not find true fulfillment on a trek through the Himalayas. If privacy is a top priority, a group tour or communal lodge will turn fantasy into frustration. Acknowledge your own comfort levels. Are independence and flexibility top concerns? Or being structured and secure? How essential are the creature comforts when it comes to sleeping, eating, and bathing? Would you rather have one week of luxury travel or two weeks of budget food and accommodation? And remember that while your personality doesn't change, your needs do. The type of vacation you plan for a romantic getaway is totally different from a family reunion.
  2. Know your travel companions. Adjust your plans to accommodate your travel partners. Whether you are traveling with friends, spouse, children, and/or parents, you'll need to take their age, attention span, agility, and interests into account. If you're traveling with the kids, balance a morning at an art museum with an afternoon at the zoo; if you're spending time with elderly parents, make sure that they can stroll a country lane while you go rock-climbing; if your group includes skiers and non-skiers, pick a resort that has appealing shops and off-slopeactivities.
  3. Plan ahead: anticipation is half the fun. Enjoy the planning process. The more you know about an area you're going to visit, the more fun you'll have. Check out destination websites; skim a guidebook; read a novel or watch a movie set in the region; talk to friends who have been there recently.
  4. Don't bite off more than you can chew. Keep your itinerary in line with the amount of time and money available. Focus on seeing a smaller area well, rather than trying to cover too much ground and seeing nothing but interstate highways. Don't over-program; allow yourself the luxury of doing nothing.
  5. Avoid one-night stands. Plan to stay a minimum of two nights everywhere you go. A vacation made up of one-nighters is a prescription for exhaustion. You will sleep poorly, spend most of your time packing/unpacking and in transit, and will get only the smallest glimpse of the place you're visiting.
  6. Travel off-season. Unless your vacation dates are dictated by the school calendar, off-season travel offers many advantages: fewer crowds, greater flexibility, reduced costs, and a more relaxed atmosphere. Learn to pick the best dates for off-season travel; typically these are the weeks just before and after seasonal rates change.
  7. Book well ahead for peak season travel. If you must travel during peak periods to popular destinations, make reservations well in advance for the key sites to avoid aggravation, extra phone calls, and additional driving time.
  8. Take the road less traveled. Get off the beaten path and leave the crowds behind. Instead of booking a room in the heart of the action, find a quiet getaway tucked in the hills or in a neighboring village.
  9. Ditch the car. You’ll need a car to get most destinations, but once you're there, get out and walk. You'll see more, learn more, experience more at every level, while avoiding crowds at even the most popular destinations.
  10. Hang loose. The unexpected is inevitable. When your plans go astray (and they will), relax and let serendipity surprise you. And keep your sense of humor in good working order. If possible, travel without reservations or a set itinerary.
  11. Carpe diem--seize the day. Don't be afraid to follow your impulses. If a special souvenir catches your eye, buy it; don't wait to see if you'll find it again later. If a hiking trail looks too inviting to pass up, don't; that museum or outlet mall will wait for a rainy day.
  12. Don't suffer in silence. When things go wrong--an incompetent guide, car troubles, a noisy room--speak up. Politely but firmly express your concern then and there; get your room changed, ask for a refund or discount, whatever. Most people in the travel business would rather have you go away happy than to leave grumbling.
  13. Remember--being there is more than seeing there. People travel to see the sights--museums and mountains, shops and scenery--but it is making new friends that can make a trip memorable. Leave a door open to the people-to-people experiences that enrich travel immeasurably.
  14. Don't leave home to find home. The quickest way to take the wind out of the sails of your trip is to compare things to the way they are at home. Enjoy different styles and cultures for what they are and avoid comparisons and snap judgments.
  15. Give yourself permission to disregard all of the above. Nothing is immutable. If you find a pattern that works for you, enjoy it!
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