In praise of... is a new weekly Travel feature in which NationalWorld writers extol the virtues of a particular aspect of adventuring. From the idiosyncratic, divisive, or sometimes just plain quotidian - these are the things we love to do on our holidays.
I won prizes in High School for debating. And while those accolades exist so far in the recesses of the past now as to make it Frankly Embarrassing I even mention them, they came thanks to my ability, as the designated third speaker in every debate, to hear a moot line then passionately argue for or against whatever position the moment required. This is a worryingly self-aggrandising means of confessing, while I write in praise of planning holidays, I could, just as easily, extol the glories of keeping every sojourn unscheduled and loose-y goose-y. I can see and vociferously argue the virtues of both.
Talking to friends and colleagues, the two approaches seem to cause a strict divide. But here, I come to sing a song of planning, so schedulers of the world, unite.
Do you like to plan ahead?
“Colour-coded spreadsheets” came the snappy response from our team’s data journalist when I inquired if my colleagues enjoyed planning holidays, or if they preferred to leave it in the lap of the gods. While that couldn’t be more on point for someone who lives and breathes Excel all day, it transpires she is in fact maximising the pleasure you can derive from a vacation by planning so meticulously.
A 2010 study by Jeroen Nawijn, a tourism research lecturer at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, found that planning a holiday is, for most people, actually the most pleasurable part. Surveying 1,530 Dutch adults, 974 of whom took a vacation during the study period, he found that those people planning a trip were happier than those not going away, more so than when they were actually on the trip. While it's not surprising that the happy effects of the trip fell away quickly afterwards (in most instances in under two weeks after a return to normal life, in extremis after eight weeks), as normal routine was resumed, it is somewhat illuminating to find the planning part was more effective in elevating people's mood than the holiday itself.
"The practical lesson for an individual is that you derive most of your happiness from anticipating the holiday trip," Nawijn later explained to the The New York Times. This makes perfect sense to me. As you trawl through booking.com, read excursion reviews, consult guide books (some of us still enjoy a good Lonely Planet), you're dreaming into your own future: enjoying a holiday vicariously, before it begins, by living it in your mind ahead of living it outside. Like anticipating Christmas, placing holiday gifts under the holiday tree for later.
Often times it's enough of promise to live off: stuck on deadline at work, staring at a sink of dirty dishes, fretting about whether a minor medical malady will turn into A Major Incident? Taking a few sneaky minutes to scroll through the Instagram hashtag #maldives takes you away from the quotidian and plonks you in a possible paradise momentarily. It's down-right sexy: casting yourself as the lead in a Major Motion Picture about a sophisticated, wandering traveller, someone who rides horses down beachfronts and sinks tropical cocktails, rather than one elbow deep in dishwater scum wearing a grease-stained hoodie. It's part of the treat.
While at the planning stage, when the fig tree of possibilities are bearing fat, un-plucked fruit, you can envisage the holiday in myriad ways. This break, will you indulge in adventure travel? Get back to nature, camp under a canopy of stars? Take slow trains everywhere, keep things sustainable? Try a writing retreat, a yoga camp? Or chart out your journey via Michelin starred restaurants, a peripatetic pac-man, devouring the continent? As you research a holiday, any and all of these options are viable. It's a powerful aphrodisiac.
And, of course, it comes without the downsides of travel. You won't be hindered by a bad airport security experience, beset by mosquitos on a hot summer evening, stuck next to an overbearing bore on a train, as you plan. In some ways, the pre-trip dreaming is any holiday's Platonic ideal: better in some cases than the shadow-play experience of actually going away. You, before sunburn, a decimated bank balance, jeans tight from too many tacos.
Not the end of spontaneity
Sometimes forward planning is a delightful way of keeping things spontaneous. One of my best friends researches meticulously the bars, restaurants, stores she wants to frequent, entering them as saved locations into Google maps. They’re colour-coded: ‘must-see’ ‘bougie’ ‘vintage’ ‘cocktails’.
That way, if she has headed to a specific neighbourhood to check out a museum or local sight, she can easily triangulate where nearby is good for a cold pint and a sterling meal. If there’s a cluster of locations, so much the better: she can check them all out in an afternoon. It allows her to travel judiciously, but not prescriptively. A word, though: make sure to download your map so it is available in offline mode, unless you want a wallop of data roaming fees.
Permit me - I have to offer the counter-argument
The downside of planning travel, ironically, is the same worry people seek to alleviate as they stare at their colour-coded spreadsheets: what if there's something amazing I'm missing out on? While for the world's assiduous planners, those specific itineraries signify the 'best things' being ticked off, I have a different worry. Every hotel booked, every reservation fixed, every activity pre-planned, for me, is the loss of something potentially spectacular that arises on the spur of the moment on the road. I recall another vestige of my high school self: rudimentary economics, 'opportunity cost is opportunity lost'.