How was your last holiday? Here’s a guess. Three frantic days of work so you could safely put the out-of-office on, a last-minute wobble over whether to bring your laptop, then a mad dash to jam in as many ‘must-see’ sights as possible without ever straying too far from an internet cafe. Sounds about right? Unless you decided to flip the script entirely and go coconuts on the beach for the duration, it’s likely you’re one of the many, many people who returns from their travels more stressed than they left. In a recent study from the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, researchers found that, out of 1,500 subjects, almost none reported any change in happiness after a typical vay-cay – and the various stresses abroad, from unfamiliarity with local customs and dealing with details to a perceived lack of safety were all contributing factors.
It’s time to make a change. Not by giving it all up for a staycation – you’re better than that – but by changing the way you think about holidays. Plenty of people still fancy nothing more than a couple of museums or a chance at some #nofilter snaps on the ski slopes, but in the age of Airbnb, ultra-budget airlines and the self-erecting tent there are more ways to take a break than ever. Cast your eyes over the alternatives, and book a break worthy of the name.
Time off: 4-8 weeks
Some things – cliff jumping, 20-hour bus rides, getting violently ill from Thai street food – just aren’t as much fun when you’re in your 60s…so putting off your bucket list until retirement isn’t as smart as it might sound. The mini-retirement, pioneered by 4-Hour Work Week author Tim Ferriss, suggests an alternative strategy: an extended period off, for both fun and self-reflection, letting you relax and immerse yourself in a new country. The result? Less stress, since you’re not hitting a new spot as soon as you’ve adapted to the last one.
How to do it: It’s not strictly for the self-employed – but you’ll need to hoard your holiday, negotiate with your employer (explain why the break will make you a better-adjusted worker) or be prepared to find a new job once you get back. While you’re doing that, pick your country – Ferriss recommends Argentina – and think medium-term apartment rentals rather than hotels, and consider putting your stuff in storage to save on rent.
Time off: 12-48 hours
Can’t afford to leave the office for a day? Peter from accounts breathing down your neck? Real talk: it’s probably fine, but just in case you can still whack the reset button with a micro-adventure, popularised by mega-adventurer Alastair Humphreys – and designed to be small and achievable, even for people with hectic lives. The basic idea: take a bivvy bag or a bike to work, head off to explore some aspect of your surroundings you’ve never seen before at knocking off time, then back at your desk by 9am (or on Sunday).
How to do it: The high-intensity option is to book a flight or bus ticket somewhere remote and aim to have breakfast on a mountain somewhere, but it’s equally valid to just take off in a new direction, says Humphreys. Bike or walk a route you usually take to work, head to a bit of the city you haven’t seen before, or sleep somewhere different (and preferably under the stars).
The Vision Quest
Time off: 1-2 weeks
In his early 20s, Phil Knight quit his job as an encyclopaedia salesman, bought a round-the-world plane ticket, and went from Japan to Rome to Paris, reading about Da Vinci’s fascination with the human foot and General George S Patton’s obsession with army boots…then stopped off in Greece to visit the temple of Nike. And while, yes, you’re unlikely to build a $30 billion company from two weeks on a Eurail pass, a fortnight of focused travel will do much more for your mental agility than two weeks of tanning: recent studies suggest that new sounds, smells, language, sights and sensations all improve cognitive flexibility and neuroplasticity, enabling your brain to link disparate ideas better.
How to do it: ‘The key critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion and adaptation,’ says Adam Galinsky, author of several studies on travel and neuroplasticity. Engaging with local culture is key: use Duolingo or Facetime-but-for-teachers app Verbling to learn the basics of the language, then dive in. And structure your trip to hit your interests rather than just whatever the guidebook recommends – if you’re into wrestling, you’ll get more from a trip to Tokyo’s Korakuen hall than any number of Shinto shrines.
The Action Pilgrimage
Time off: 2-14 days
One benefit of foreign travel is that, if you’re smart, your flights can pay for themselves in cost-of-living savings – and nowhere is that more true when things get physical. Whether you’re investing in Scuba lessons, taking tango classes or getting a beasting at a Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy, chances are that you can do it cheaper by travelling. Figueira da Foz in Portugal, for instance, offers a week of bed and breakfast, kit hire, surf lessons and pizza for less than most hotels cost for one night, while Rawaii Muay Thai starts at around AED700 for seven days of fighting and accomodation.
How to do it: Do your homework ahead of time. Booking once you get to your hotel means you’ll probably pay the tourist prices for a one-off lesson, while going full commitment means you’ll benefit from inter-academy competition and local rates. Do make sure you’re going to a place with adequate safety standards and translation, but don’t be afraid to be a first-timer – most places will be used to dealing with hopeless newbies.
The Self-Propelled Sojourn
Time off: 3-14 days
Planes are all well and good, but they do tend to make the scenery a bit…well, antlike, no? For a more slow-paced appreciation of your surroundings, the increasingly-popular option is to move under your own arm or leg-power: getting between locations by bike, kayak or (if you’re Expedition1000 founder Dave Cornthwaite) ice trike. ‘It’s not a competition,’ says Cornthwaite. ‘Just make a decision and do something challenging that means you’ll bring home a good story.’
How to do it: First, pick an interesting route: Shikoku’s 88-temple pilgrimage, for instance, offers a fascinating look at a little-seen part of Japan, while America’s Pacific Crest Trail lets you get into the American wilderness without ever straying too far from civilisation. Don’t skimp on boots, but if you’re biking remember that your steed doesn’t have to cost the same as a small car: Tom Allen, founder of tomsbiketrip.com, scrounged up an entire touring bike setup for less than AED125. By all means book your accommodation ahead of time, but remember that it’ll glue you to your schedule – it might be worth packing a tent.