One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn during my six-month sabbatical is how to recognize and respond to travel fatigue. I’d heard of ‘travel fatigue’ and its more serious cousin, ‘travel burnout’, but naively thought they wouldn’t affect me because my boyfriend and I have decided to travel slowly, avoiding frantic jam-packed sightseeing days, staying for at least two nights in most of our destinations and not whizzing through cities – or countries – too quickly.
I also didn’t think travel fatigue would affect me because when I’m back home, I don’t have a problem finding the time for self-care. If I can look after myself while juggling a full-time job, a relationship, friendships and all that dull grown-up stuff we have to deal with, why would it be a struggle during my sabbatical? You can imagine my surprise when I started to identify the tell-tale signs of travel fatigue. It can be different for everyone but here are some of the most common symptoms:
- disinterested in sightseeing and exploring
- highly stressed and anxious
- irritable and grumpy (especially about local customs and quirks which are different from your home country)
- feeling negative and critical, of yourself, your surroundings and other people
- withdrawn and anti-social
- apathetic (‘Oh, what’s that? Yet another temple‘)
We have been backpacking for five months now and I have certainly felt many of the aforementioned symptoms. It’s frustrating when it strikes; I wonder “Why do I feel so stressed when I am literally on a six-month holiday from my regular life?”. Then I think of all of the people I know who would love to have a break from their routine, who are going through tough times and deserve a relaxing break much more than I do. Then comes the guilt; guilt about ‘wasting’ this wonderful opportunity that we have, guilt that I am lazing around in bed watching Netflix when I could be outside, ‘making the most of’ wherever I am. Guilt that I might never have the chance to take a sabbatical and every day of this six-month adventure is precious. Guilt for being a burden to my poor boyfriend. Logically I know it’s important to balance the busy days full of activity, excursions and sightseeing, with the much-needed restoration and relaxation. Logically I know that six months is actually a really long time – far longer than any of my previous holidays – and I have time for plenty of energetic and slow-paced days. Logically I know that being constantly on the move – visiting every temple and monument, booking every tour, eating out for every lunch and dinner – would both bankrupt and exhaust me. Still, logic doesn’t keep the feelings of guilt at bay.
How to handle travel fatigue & burnout
When you’re on the go so much, it can be tiring and overwhelming. This is true for a three-week holiday, as with a three-month trip. Self-care is harder to do on the road, simply because you don’t have access to your usual items. Some improvisation is required! Book yourself into the nicest hotel you can afford (I use Agoda and Price Line for their amazing deals). Pamper yourself with a massage or another spa treatment. Have a bubble bath if you’ve got access to one (or soak in a Jacuzzi or hotel pool!). Spend the day in bed, reading, snoozing and watching your favourite shows. Allow yourself time to cry and feel sad; I have cried more on this sabbatical than all of my previous holidays combined and there is something very cathartic about letting the tears flow. Find a place you like, both in terms of accommodation and location, and slow your trip right down. Instead of thinking ahead about where you’re going next, book several nights in the same place and indulge in some much-needed self-care.
Try to create some sense of routine; wake up and go to bed around the same time every day and find some nice cafes and restaurants to go to every day so you become accustomed to the menu, staff and surroundings. You could even go to Starbucks or McDonalds if you want somewhere really familiar. We went to KFC – somewhere I haven’t eaten in over fifteen years – and it was both comforting and tasty! As tempting as it may be, try not to hibernate indoors. Sleeping and resting are crucial, but so is fresh air and exercise. Let those endorphins lift your mood! I find that a twenty-minute walk works wonders for my travel fatigue, especially if it’s through a park or along the riverfront. Your diet is also very important – have some comfort food if it cheers you up (i.e. KFC) but ensure you are eating some fresh fruit & vegetables too.
Reach out to fellow travellers in the place you’re staying. You could search for hostels which seem sociable and fun, especially if they organize events for their guests. If you still need your privacy and quiet time to unwind, book a private room in a sociable hostel so you can have the best of both. Plan some excursions like city walking tours and Airbnb Experiences so you can meet people in the same position as you. Join some online groups like Girl Gone International, an excellent online community with branches in 150+ cities, which regularly organize meetups between its 250,000 members.
You may feel like you’re lacking purpose. I’ve certainly felt that way! It feels weird not having a job – I’ve worked solidly since I left university in 2008. I don’t actually miss working, but I have felt aimless and overwhelmed by how much free time I have (I know it’s a luxury, but it still feels odd!). I love having so much freedom and flexibility, but I also miss having a routine. Sleeping in my own bed every night, having a kitchen where I can prepare and cook meals and having more than fifteen items of clothing available at any one time! If you are lacking purpose, you could try volunteering in a charity or sanctuary, or doing an online course for some personal development (such as learning a foreign language or practical skill). Even if it’s something you don’t need or might not use back home, it’s interesting and invigorating to learn something new.
My final tip for tackling travel fatigue: if you don’t like somewhere, move onto another destination. It may be that where you are isn’t the right place for your present mindset. Just like people, there are some places you just don’t vibe with. We recently arrived in Bangkok and realized within a day that it wasn’t the right place for us at that time. It’s an enormous, sprawling metropolis and we were craving some sun, sea, sand and relaxation. So after two days in the capital, we flew to Krabi, which was absolutely the right decision. If you’re not feeling a place (and you have a flexible schedule), just move on. Don’t try and force yourself to enjoy somewhere if it doesn’t feel right.
Shouldn’t I just go home?
Travel blues are something that you can usually bounce back from within a few days, and you may regret shortening or cancelling your trip without trying out some of the techniques I talked about earlier. In most cases, I think communication with kind, compassionate friends and relatives can work wonders. Talk about your feelings with friends and family back home, along with whoever you may be travelling with. Choose people who won’t mock you or call your gripes ‘trivial’ – just because you’re travelling doesn’t mean your feelings and issues aren’t valid! If you need more professional guidance than your loved ones can offer, what about a remote counselling session? You can talk to a professional counsellor via video chat or phone call. Two well-regarded virtual counselling services are Talkspace and Better Health.
However, if you’ve tried all of the above and still feel miserable, more drastic measures may be necessary. These could include cancelling upcoming accommodation or flights in order to stay put in one location. It could even mean cutting your trip short to travel back home, if that is what’s best for you and your mental health. I encourage everyone to travel with an ’emergency fund’ so you have enough money to fly home at short notice if needs be. If you do decide to head home, try not to view it as a failure. Listening to your body and what it needs shows strength and self-awareness. Don’t beat yourself up about it; go home to recharge your batteries and reconnect with your support network. The country you’ve left behind will be there to revisit at another time.
The bottom line…
Experiencing travel fatigue or burnout doesn’t mean you’re ‘bad at travelling’ or are a failure in any way. Even professional full-time travel writers have gone through this! Learning how you like to travel, where to and for how long are all useful lessons for future holidays. Perhaps you’re really not a hostel person, or solo travelling isn’t for you. Maybe you prefer the quiet countryside to busy, bustling cities. Take those lessons and apply them to your next adventures.
Remember every holiday won’t be your best holiday, each day won’t be your best day and each place won’t be your favourite place. You will not enjoy every minute, but try to be kind to yourself. This is a reminder for me as well as for you. Travel is supposed to be fun, not something that makes you feel anxious, guilty or unhappy. Listen to your body and mind, prioritizing your physical and mental health. Be proud for what you have accomplished; what you’ve seen, done, felt and experienced. Whether you continue your trip as planned, take a break or return home, your memories and accomplishments will stay with you.
You’ve got this,
The Curious Sparrow