How a book taught me how to travel better

We’re baaack! After two whole weeks in Greece–completely disconnected, fully honeymooning, and gloriously eating–we’re back to our daily routines and our screens. It’s a little weird to go from full days of being out in “the real world” (aka, not online) to spending 8+ hours a day staring at these little boxes we call computers, but it has also felt so, so good to be productive and have a sense of purpose again. Turns out, I’m one of those travelers that needs some useful work to do in between the gyro-inhaling and beach-sprawling.

I don’t know how I got so lucky, but it turned out that my author Jaime Kurtz’s book, The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations, published just in time for this big, glorious, and very long vacation we had planned for ourselves. So even though I was thousands of miles away, I got to spend long hours on the beach listening to her wise voice tell me exactly how I could squeeze every last drop of goodness out of our honeymoon.

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As I wrote about here, Jaime pitched me her book idea at the Writer’s Digest Conference, and I immediately said, “I NEED that book!” That’s the same reaction I got from every editor I later pitched the idea to, and the same reaction I get from nearly every person I tell about it. I honestly don’t know how I spent my whole life traveling without this book!

To give you a sense of how the pitching process works, here’s an excerpt from the pitch letter I sent, along with the proposal, to editors:

“Several years ago, Dr. Kurtz decided to treat herself to a solo tour of Eastern Europe. Her task was simple: to create a really nice experience for herself. And, as someone who researches happiness and decision-making for a living, who was better suited to the task than she? Yet Dr. Kurtz soon found herself in the stunning coastal town of Hvra, Croatia, completely homesick and lonely. When she sheepishly returned home, she was greeted by similar stories of travel gone awry. Nearly everyone she knew—from other happiness researchers to the most wanderlust-stricken of her friends—had no idea how to travel better.

And, yet, travel is one of the most sought-after experiences in life. Travel serves as a canvas onto which we project our deepest desires and needs: escape, relaxation, meaning, connection, edification, cultural education, and more. Few things hold such a privileged place in our culture, but for those that do—romantic love, childrearing, homeownership—there is a wealth of advice on how to do them well. Travel, on the other hand, has no such instruction manual.

The Happy Traveler will be the much-needed road map to more meaningful travel. Backed by over 15 years of Dr. Kurtz’s original research and assessments, as well as groundbreaking new studies in the field, The Happy Traveler will teach readers how to deeply savor new sights, unplug the right way, spend money and time in a way that enhances enjoyment, and bring the same sense of aliveness associated with travel to everyday life. With The Happy Traveler, readers will be equipped with tools to make their next trip a source of excitement, growth, and rich memories, as well as with enduring techniques that can make their daily travel through life happier, more meaningful, and more fulfilling.

Jaime L. Kurtz, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychology at James Madison University. Her groundbreaking research has received national media attention, including features on National Public Radio, the Today show, Psychology Today, Business Insider, National Geographic, Science, and Nature, as well as in journals such as Psychological Science, Developmental Psychology, the Journal of Positive Psychology, and the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Dr. Kurtz’s popular Happy Trails column for PsychologyToday.com is frequently named one of their “Essential Reads.” Whether hiking the fjords of Norway or hanging out in her backyard in Charlottesville, Virginia, Dr. Kurtz is always putting her own research to the test to become a happier traveler through her own life.”

The process of going from query letter to pitch letter to holding that finished idea in your hands never stops feeling like magic. I’ve always thought there was something hard-to-believe about finding an idea, then holding that tangible idea in your hands two years later. Books really are magic, and they can teach you almost everything you want to know.

So here are a few things I learned, smack dab in the middle of my honeymoon, about how to travel better (and how to travel better with others, just in case your favorite person in the world happens to get a little, um, annoying at airports):

1. You have to start by knowing your travel personality.

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Are you allocentric or psychocentric? Introverted or extroverted? Do you even know? Here’s how these personality types differ and intersect:

“To highlight how extroversion intersects with allocentrism, imagine an allocentric traveler who is also highly extroverted and outgoing. This person most enjoys seeking out challenges and adventures with friends, thrives in places buzzing with activity, and loves chatting with those he meets in backpackers’ hostels or on airplanes. But you could just as easily envision an allocentric traveler who is more solitary, quiet, and reflective, who enjoys solo travel and sitting back, quietly observing his surroundings. Both types like novelty and pushing their boundaries, but they seek different amounts of stimulation.

The same goes for psychocentric travelers. The extroverted type loves group-based travel, enjoys preplanned tours that center on socializing and activity, and thrives in bustling, crowded places like casinos or cruise ships. The psychocentric introvert may travel with a partner or a friend, wants everything planned out to avoid uncertainty, enjoys repeat visits to the same destination, and seeks places of quiet relaxation.”

Jarrett and I are both a bit more introverted than extroverted, but I’m a bit more allocentric and he’s a bit more psychocentric. (And yes, there’s a questionnaire in the book for discovering your travel personality!) This means we have conversations like, “No, you be the one to call the hotel/ask the question/approach that stranger.” And also conversations like, “No, Jarrett, we can’t go to that restaurant you got tunnel vision for again.” (We did double-dip at two restaurants over our 5 days in Ios. But to be fair, I barely fought it, because I loved them, too.)

2. You’re probably overestimating how much you can relax.

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The Happy Traveler makes a great case (backed by many scientific studies) that humans overestimate their ability to predict what they’ll enjoy in the future. We daydream about lying on a beach for a week and doing absolutely nothing, but by Day 4 we’re restless and looking for something to do. So ask yourself early on: how much downtime do I really need? Then plan some activities to break up the downtime–even something as simple as a hike or half an hour of snorkeling can add more dimension to your day.

Jarrett and I know we like a mix of challenge and comfort, which worked out perfectly with our week of touring ruins and ancient monasteries in Athens and Meteora and then our week of beach-bumming in Santorini and Ios. We also broke up the week at the beach between two islands and visited Homer’s grave and a cheese factory while we were on Ios.

And yes, Jaime has a fabulous scale in the book for determining your level of comfort versus challenge on a trip!

3. Even introverts can benefit from immersion.

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Are you the type that wants to strike up a conversation with everyone, even if you don’t speak the language? Or does the thought of talking to a local on your trip make you antsy and awkward? According to one study, even introverts can benefit from pushing themselves a little more toward immersion:

“Surprisingly, the emotional benefits of connecting with strangers hold even for the introverts among us. When introverted participants were told to ‘act extroverted,’ they found that doing so actually felt pretty great. This confirmed a novel hypothesis: introverts underestimate the pleasure they can gain from social interaction. … Researchers have recently found that interacting with ‘weak ties’–people that we don’t know well–actually brings an unexpected boost in mood and feelings of belonging.”

Both Jarrett and I want to have more immersive experiences and talk to locals, but we sort of have to push each other into our extroverted modes to make it happen. Case in point: We’re in Ios, and I’m lying on the beach reading sections from the book’s chapter on immersion out loud to Jarrett and saying that we should try harder to get to know locals, when he corrects me that, in fact, he has been making friends with the bartender this whole time. Okay, I say, ordering drinks from someone doesn’t count as cultural immersion on any planet.

But he insists he is really and truly bonding with this bartender, and actually, the bartender wants us both to come up and have a drink with him later. I, being sane, say yes to the free drink, which turns out not to be a free drink at all. It is shots. Of a liquor made from the vines of grapes. (?) And it is not one drink, but eight. Two hours later, we know Andres the bartender’s entire story of heartbreak, escape to the islands, and an unused degree in mathematics, and we roll ourselves back to our AirBnB and eat cold spaghetti straight from the pot. It’s 4 pm.

Does this count as immersion? I’ll leave it to the experts, like Jaime, to decide.

4. Give yourself a day or two to settle before going back to work.

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The smartest thing we did was leave a buffer of two days to get readjusted to home before starting work. As Jaime writes:

“…there is a psychological cost to running your trip down to the wire, if not an obvious financial one. One survey examined German teachers before and after a two-week Easter vacation. They reported more energy and engagement with work following the vacation (regardless of whether they actually traveled anywhere), but it faded after about a month. Crucially, though, it faded out more slowly for those teachers who used postvacation evenings and weekends to relax. Those who skipped this relaxing seque into reality did not feel reenergized for long once work resumed.”

Three days into this work week, and this guinea pig can confirm those findings.

 

Right now, I’m loving the last chapter in the book, “The Art of the Staycation: How to Live Every Day Like a Happy Traveler.” I’m finally eyeing all the quirky little ethnic restaurants, the historic tours through town, and the museums and monuments and sending a big fat “I’m comin’ for you” warning to them.

I feel like our trip was so enriched and broadened by the insights and research in this book, and now I’m looking at travel and our daily lives with fresh eyes, in a way I never have after other long trips. That’s why I love this book–I see the world a little differently now. And that’s what we’re searching for in every book, isn’t it?

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There’s a whole world outside of our computer screens, and I hope that when you go exploring it, you’ll have a wise voice like Jaime’s with you.

You can order The Happy Traveler here or find it at your local bookstore. And in case you’re wondering what Greece is like, here are a few shots from our trip. You know, to prove we were there and all. (And yes, there’s a chapter in the book about how many photos is the right amount to take and how to savor a place even when your hand is itching to grab your camera!)

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book secrets to better travel

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What I’m Reading This Week:

For the Most Helpful Recipes, Unplug Your Internet (Sarah Whitman-Salkin on Food52): I am all for online recipes, and I adore food blogs, but I also think those can live happily in our kitchens alongside our vintage cookbooks, especially old spiral-bound community cookbooks or early classics like The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph. Food can do so many different things in our lives, and so can cookbooks. (H/T to Dianne Jacob for sharing this link in her newsletter!)

How to Deal with Rejection: 7 Habits That Have Helped Me (The Positivity Blog): One of the tools in our creative shed we have to sharpen and shine is resilience to rejection. This reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert writing in Big Magic that she had a “stubborn gladness” for her work. It doesn’t much matter what anyone else thinks; as long as your work is building you, you’re building something really great.

5 Research Steps Before You Write Your Book Proposal (Jane Friedman): I highly recommend doing serious market research before diving into writing a book proposal. As Jane writes: “Writing a nonfiction book proposal—a good one—requires not only sharp clarity about your idea, but also how that idea, in book form, is relevant and unique in today’s market. You’ll have a much easier time writing your proposal if you take time to conduct market research beforehand.”

5 Rookie Mistakes in Cookbook Proposals (Dianne Jacob): Yes, we see these mistakes all the time! Another big one is not refining your concept enough so that it’s unique in the marketplace (see above). We see hundreds of proposals for family cookbooks, or happiness books, or wellness books, and we love to see that an author has done the research and knows exactly how to position their book snuggly into a hole in the marketplace.

The Simple Facebook Posting Strategy That Helped us 3x Our Reach and Engagement (Brian Peters of Buffer): Consider this your data-backed excuse to post less on Facebook. Quality > quantity, every time.

Billy Collins’s Advice to Writers (Maria Popova of Brain Pickings): “Collins employs his usual method of using warm wit to give shape to wisdom of a higher order — in this case, the awareness that we are embodied creatures whose psychological states are deeply influenced by our physical environment; material orderliness, he reminds us, fosters mental orderliness, and a mind unassaulted by chaos is a mind free to create.”


What We’re Eating This Week

Well, we all knew this would happen. Two weeks x 4 meals a day x 3 drinks a day x lounging on the beach x so much cheese = I can’t remember how to not eat twice my body weight. Obviously, it was worth it, and I wouldn’t take back a single olive oil waterfall, ginormous gyro, or basin of tzatziki. But that just means we need to do a little bit of getting back to normal this week. Here’s how it’s going:

Monday: Okay, healthy eating starts tomorrow, I promise. It’s not our fault our friends invited us over for a Memorial Day BBQ with amazing ribs, mac and cheese, and ice cream sandwiches. Not our fault at all.

Tuesday: Greek chopped salad. With salami. It’s cool.

Wednesday: I want spaghetti with pesto, but I’ve also consumed enough olive oil in the last week to slick every ocean, so I’m making franken-pesto by combining a creamy vegan sauce recipe from Love & Lemons by Jeanine Donofrio and the Creamy Pesto from Comfort Food Makeovers by America’s Test Kitchen. Wish me luck and strong digestion.

Thursday: Well, it’s Thursday, so…CHEAT DAY! Again, not our fault, because Jarrett’s think tank is celebrating its fifth anniversary and throwing a party. A BBQ party. As a supportive wife, it’s my duty to eat them all under the table and get their money’s worth at the bar. Not all heroes wear napkin bibs, but this one does.

Friday: Grilled chicken drumsticks, grilled asparagus, and some sort of coleslaw-chickpea-hummus-mayo mash that I dreamed up that might or might not work. Adventure!

Cheers!

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