If you want to know what “baffled amusement” looks like, tell one of your neighbours at a block party that you hate travelling anywhere, under any circumstances. People love to travel. They love it so much it’s usually on top of their list of things they’d do if they had the time and money, right below smiting their enemies and owning a private island.
But if you’re one of the minority who knows travel is objectively awful, then you also know the only thing worse than travel is travelling over the holidays to visit family living in preposterous places. The world is starting to wake up to us — Apple TV+ just announced that Eugene Levy of Schitt’s Creek fame will be hosting a new show called, yes, The Reluctant Traveller — but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re going to have to survive another holiday season of packing, unpacking, and generally doing things you’d rather not do.
So if the unique Venn diagram that represents you includes both a hate of travel and a preference to be eaten by hungry bears instead of spending one more minute with your extended family, holiday travel is a special, special time. Here’s how you’re going to survive.
It’s OK to not want to travel for the holidays (or ever)
The first thing you need to do is validate yourself: Travel Anxiety is totally a thing, and you are not alone in hating travel as a concept. Like any dominant culture, it can seem like you’re the only person in the world who hates jetting off to exotic locations (just ask someone who doesn’t drink alcohol how many times they’ve had to painfully explain this to concerned strangers). But give yourself a break: You’re allowed to not like things.
And, frankly, there’s a lot to not like about travelling. It’s expensive, it disrupts your routines, and it’s often exhausting, especially when you add in family baggage — and you are not the only person who doesn’t like their family. There’s a strong push from society to regard family ties as an unassailable facet of everyone’s lives, but in the end, they’re just people you have a relationship with, and you don’t have to love them — or enjoy visiting them.
But accept the fact that you are going anyway
Next, accept your fate: You are going to travel. You wouldn’t be reading this if a stressful trip to visit the folks wasn’t in the cards for you. One of the best things you can do, psychologically, is accept this fact and avoid being passive-aggressive about it. This starts with accepting that you’re making a decision. Whatever the potential consequences might be, you do have the choice to not travel to visit your family. Choosing to avoid those consequences is still a choice, so own it. This will put you in a position of control and power even though you’re doing something you might not enjoy and would prefer not to because you’re choosing to do it in order to avoid something you will enjoy even less and really prefer not to (divorce, for example).
Once you’ve done that, you can take some steps to help you survive both the mechanics of your trip and the family time portion of it.
How to survive the actual travelling
There are generally three major pain points for folks who despise travel the way most people despise 5 p.m. Zoom meetings: Leaving our safe space and routines, dealing with the physical horrors of modern transport (planes, trains, and rental automobiles), and the weird off-rhythm life of hotels or guest bedrooms. For some folks, spending three hours strapped into a seat next to Dwight Schrute with only an edited version of La Brea to distract them is no big deal, but for the rest of us, the only thing worse is imagining our cat slowly dying of loneliness.
There are a few steps you can take to make the physical act of travel more tolerable:
One reason travel sucks is the fact that we suddenly find ourselves relying on the unfamiliar, which comes with a learning curve and is usually disappointing. Instead, bring the familiar with you: Favourite snacks so you’re not stuck eating airport or aeroplane food, downloaded movies and TV shows, and bedding that will transform a strange bed into a familiar retreat.
Maintain your routine
For most, travel is a way to break out of a routine, but what if you love your routine? One way to stay sane is to maintain as much of that routine as possible. This will take some work and planning, but the psychological impact of keeping up with your workouts, sleep schedule, and reading/TV schedule can’t be overstated.
A lot of travel stress stems directly from our insane attempts to make travelling across the country or world a puzzle box of perfectly-timed connections and just-in-time logistics. The more you micro-manage your itinerary, the more stress you’ll experience. Instead, build in extra time. A little boredom is better than a lot of stress, and it will serve you well when you discover the security line is so long airport staff is handing out blankets and pillows. Besides, you don’t want to get where you’re going, so stop acting like you do.
The less stuff you have to manage, the less stress you’ll experience. Wheeled luggage obscures how much stuff we’ve packed, because we don’t feel the weight, and having to tear through your luggage to find something you’ve cleverly hidden inside one of your socks is never fun. The less you have to interact with baggage carousels or even overhead compartments, the better — and having one light bag makes transitioning from a plane to a taxi or train much, much easier.
How to survive the family
Congratulations, you survived several hours in a terrifying metal tube packed in with a lot of people who apparently never learned how to use a restroom! Your reward is to spend several days with your family. Cue the sad trombone.
Here’s how to make it to the other side with your sanity intact:
Manage your expectations
Most of our family-related holiday stress comes from the gulf between our expectations and reality. If you go into your annual pilgrimage expecting a movie-perfect trip, you’re going to be stressed the moment anything is out of place. Instead, assume the worst: This trip will be at least as bad as the last one. That sounds depressing, but expecting the worst means a normal experience will register as a positive.
War-game the visit
It’s your family, so chances are you know what the pain points will be. The cousin who forced you into an angry political debate last year? They’re probably going to do it again. So why allow yourself to be surprised and flustered? Work out a game plan for each potential encounter. It may not go exactly as you imagine, but having planned responses or an exit strategy for unwanted topics of conversation at least means you can avoid panic reactions.
Build in some “you time”
The fundamental key to making a visit with the fam less terrible is making plans. Abdicating your right to choose how you’re going to spend all of your time is an easy way to become resentful, angry, and generally unhappy. Reduce the amount of time you’re actually stuck in your aunt’s living room eating from a communal cheese log and listening to the latest QAnon theory about JFK, Jr. Make plans to visit with local acquaintances, for example — and if you lack for local acquaintances, invent some and make plans with them.
Stay in a hotel
Visiting family often means pressure to stay at relatives’ homes — maybe even your own childhood bedroom. While this is comforting and enjoyable for many people, if you don’t get along with your family — or don’t feel particularly close to your in-laws, maybe — having a separate place to retreat to at the end of the night can have a huge positive impact on your stress levels. The most difficult part of negotiating this is bringing it up for the first time, which can cause some hurt feelings and ruffled feathers. But it gets much easier once you’ve established it — and your family realises how much easier it is on them, as well.
One of the biggest sources of stress when visiting family are the culture wars. Your various drunk uncles and Aunt Karens may have been warned not to bring up certain subjects, or the memories of last year’s nuclear-level dustup may still be fresh enough to leave everyone subdued, but someone’s going to choose violence while you’re visiting. The best thing you can do is simply not engage. These arguments are unwinnable, and simply cause stress.
Finally, one of the most powerful decisions you can make to reduce your holiday stress when visiting family is so simple we tend to overlook it: Don’t go in the first place.