In anticipation of his first visit to Paris, Shawn Richards created the perfect plan for seeing the Eiffel Tower. Because he was only going to be in the city for one day, he decided to start with the Arc de Triomphe and the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and save the most famous site for last. But after a day of sightseeing, he was too tired to tour the Eiffel Tower and instead ate ice cream in a cafe. On the plane back to Las Vegas, he regretted his decision to skip one of the most iconic monuments in the world.
When you read the negative reviews of Disney World from families who saved up for years only to experience unbearably long lines and what they consider motel-level accommodations at resort prices, then you soon realize travel regret is a common occurrence. And fluctuating pandemic travel restrictions have also upended and/or ruined people’s plans, leaving them bitterly disappointed.
“It’s kind of nice to have high expectations and high anticipation of the trip. But by the same token, you have to realize — especially in this environment that we’re in today — that plans can change on a dime,” said Irene S. Levine, a clinical psychologist and travel journalist in New York.
Vacations are supposed to be fun and are often expensive, so feelings of disappointment after your return can be especially acute. Experts shared their opinions about common reasons people have regret and how to prevent them, as well as how to cope with those feelings if you weren’t able to head them off.
There are many reasons people may be dissatisfied with their vacations, some of them specific to the traveler, but experts agree that these are some of the most common:
Overdoing it: This can refer to overeating, overspending or overplanning. Sometimes, people think a vacation means a respite from all constraints. They eat and drink whatever they want, spend whatever they want and schedule themselves nonstop. Levine explained that it’s easy to overspend when using credit cards, or to overeat or drink when you’re away from regular routines. Some people also overplan for fear of missing something or knowing they may never return.
How to avoid it: Before your trip, set spending limits and research the comparative costs of restaurants or attractions. You can also preload a debit card with the amount of money you want to spend. When you’re at your destination, Levine recommends using public transportation, because it’s a great way to save money and see a city. You can also check for any free or discounted activities or programs. Discounted travel pass programs, like CityPass, abound for big cities in the United States and other countries.
Instead of overindulging at the buffet, “find healthy ways to treat yourself. Treat yourself to sleeping in or to a massage,” said Jaime Kurtz, a psychologist and a professor at James Madison University and the author of “The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations.” She also said that if you do gain weight from overindulging, try to be kind to yourself and remember that once you return to your routines, you will probably lose the weight.
Levine also recommends trying to strike a balance between making plans and allowing for spontaneity. She suggests you only plan one activity per day and leave the rest for serendipitous opportunities.
Having unrealistic expectations: If you don’t have a good understanding of hotel categories or the type of weather at your intended destination, or how many Parisian sites you can reasonably tour in a day, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. “We’ve learned this ourselves as a small business through the pandemic: Expectation is everything,” said Shelby Dziwulski, founder of the Denver-based travel company Authenteco.
How to avoid it: The best way to have realistic expectations is to do research. Talk to people who have been to the same place, read travel reviews or guidebooks, find sample itineraries online or consult a travel agent. And, Kurtz said, remind yourself: “No place is going to be perfect. No place is going to solve all your problems.”
Don’t forget to research how the coronavirus pandemic may have affected your destination. Have services been cut back at the hotel you’re planning to stay in? Are people required to show a vaccination record to get into certain venues? Are all the tourist sites you want to see open?
During the pandemic, situations are rapidly changing, so it’s essential to have current information regarding covid travel restrictions. Dziwulski recommends you hire a travel agent who can deal with all of the new hurdles, such as vaccination or testing requirements.
Being incompatible with travel companions: Whether you are traveling with friends or family members, it can sometimes be challenging to get everyone to agree on the same plans or type of vacation.
“I hear stories about girlfriend getaways. One person has an idea of lying on the beach, and the other person has an idea of a party,” Levine said. “Unless you talk about it beforehand, there not only could be conflict, but you could be pressured into doing something that you don’t want to do.”
How to avoid it: Dziwulski offers her clients a travel survey before planning their vacation. “We ask every single question we could possibly think of.” After completing the survey, people can home in on what they want in a vacation.
Another way to ensure everyone who is traveling together has the same expectations is to discuss your trip beforehand, including how you plan to spend your time. Levine recommends trying to work out your differences before you travel. She also said you can divide your time, so you spend time together and time apart. Kurtz suggests you take a small weekend getaway with your potential travel companion to test out your travel compatibility before committing to a longer vacation.
Not understanding your travel personality: Sometimes people fail to consider how their traits might impede their vacation. “If you think you are spontaneous, but you’re not, and you plan an international trip and things change or go wrong, you’re probably going to regret” going on vacation, Dziwulski said.
How to avoid it: Vacations can be a time to go outside of your comfort zone, but you should also consider how far you can go. If you are not an outdoorsy person, agreeing to a camping trip might be too drastic, whereas a “glamping” trip might be a good first step into trying something new. If you like to do your own thing, you might want to avoid guided group tours. If you don’t like crowds, think twice before booking a trip during a destination’s high season.
“I think people need to recognize who they are. Are you like Tarzan, where you’re spontaneous and wild and free, and you can change, you can adapt to change quickly? Or are you like Monica from ‘Friends,’ where everything has to be perfect all the time?” Dziwulski said.
How to cope with travel regret
If you weren’t able to prevent vacation regret, and you’re looking back with disappointment at a much-anticipated trip that didn’t live up to your dreams and won’t provide the memories you had hoped for, experts offer some suggestions on how to deal with your feelings.
“Now you just got to sing ‘Let It Go’ from ‘Frozen.’ That’s just a mental mind-set shift,” Dziwulski said. “Instead of viewing it as, ‘I just wasted my money on something that wasn’t fun for me or enjoyable,’ you can view it as, ‘I just spent money and learned a really big life lesson about myself about how I like to travel, and about what I need to do next time.’ ”
If there was an issue with your hotel or transportation, contact the companies’ customer service or management. Often, they will try to correct the situation by offering you a discount on your next trip.
Levine recommends focusing on the positive aspects of your vacation by looking at pictures of those experiences or reminiscing about them with your travel companions. She also said you should remind yourself that you will hopefully go on other vacations. You could even start planning your next vacation to help get over those bad memories.
Kurtz suggests trying to find ways to laugh about the situation. “Even if something goes badly, hopefully you’ll find a way to see the humor in it.”
Finally, if none of this works, Levine said time may do the trick. If you allow some time to pass, you may view the vacation more favorably and forget about the things that went wrong.
Maguire is a writer based in Massachusetts. Find her on Twitter: @CherylMaguire05.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.