The Working Vacation

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Bringing your work on vacation with you is one thing. But what about when the vacation itself becomes work?

Why are We Doing this Again?

As far as tourism is concerned, I am a rank amateur. I have several friends that are well-heeled travelers who regale me with tales of their most recent trips. And while I enjoy their stories, I am rarely tempted to emulate them. So perhaps this is more a meditation on my own travel incompetence than an observation of human nature writ large. Yet I don’t think I’m alone when I say that vacationing often seems more like work than work.

Planning Hard to Relax

Reliably, the Internet multiplies our ability to research destinations, activities and attractions. Booking flights, hotels and rental cars, seeking the lowest combined price, comparing deals, making bids; planning travel almost becomes a computer game in its own right. And travelers are playing for big money.

Travel planning in the network age invokes all the perils described by Barry Schwartz as the “paradox of choice.” It makes intuitive sense that having more choices would permit higher-quality decisions, but exactly the opposite is true. Being confronted with more than a few options stops people in their tracks. The fear of picking less-than-the-best overrides the need to get the choosing done.

I could definitely identify with Shwartz’s ideas when planning my own trip. My family and I hemmed and hawed for weeks over when to book and where to book, and through whom. I am sure we didn’t get the “best possible” price, but hopefully far from the worst.

The Tourism Industry

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Visit a hotel lobby and you’re very likely to see a large rack full of glossy brochures touting tours, activities, eateries, and a constellation of other diversions. Let’s be practical: people in the tourism industry want to make as much money as possible and they do so only in proportion to travellers’ willingness to step up for paid events.

This goes double when your destination includes theme parks, as mine did. Then economics again take center stage. Much like a person at a buffet, a theme park admission is a fixed-price for an all-you-can-ride experience, and just like at a buffet, the urge to “stuff” yourself with food or rides leaves one uncomfortable and dissatisfied.

By Way of Example

All of these factors played out in one of my own recent trips. The plan was one day travel out, three days away, and one day coming back. Driving out, I was in full “working vacation” mode. There didn’t seem to be any choice, as I was coordinating two cars with ten people between them, with 400 miles between us and our destination.

Day two was much the same. We had planned to visit three theme parks in three days and the pressure to “see it all” weighed on us. That’s when aspirations ran head-on into reality as we slogged through hour-long lines at the parks. We quickly adjusted expectations about what we might and might not see before the day ended. Yet we drove ourselves hard until near the end of the day. We arrived back at the hotel and collapsed in a heap.

Our bodies insisted that day three start later in the morning. I tend to be the early riser and rather than try to make everyone fit to my schedule, I brewed some hotel coffee and sat out on the balcony before the day turned hot. Slowly and without words, our attitudes were changing. We still wanted to go to the parks, but we weren’t willing to stress ourselves to do it. Despite our new point of view, day two ended up being the most challenging because the lines had stretch to the two-hour point, and once we stood in line for a ride for about an hour only to learn it had broken down. By late afternoon, we craved dinner and a swim at the hotel pool far more than more theme park time, and were happier for our choice.

By day four, we were applying our hard-won lessons in earnest. We also delighted in lines that were “merely” 20 or 30 minutes in comparison to day three’s monster waits. We started talking more, figuring out which attractions we really wanted to see and which we didn’t care about. By early afternoon we had seen everything we wanted to see in the park and headed back for another leisurely swim.

Recreation Reconsidered

First, a caveat: not all of us travel for the same reasons. Some travel for excitement or challenge, and if that’s what you’re after, and you know it, then go with my blessing. However I’m making the assumption that when we “get away”, we get away from the repetitive stress of workaday life, into a quieter, more relaxing rhythm. This being the case, I find that travelers have to swim against the currents of the tourism industry and their own impulses to find the best deals and “see everything” in order to get what they came for: a good, relaxing break.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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