The other day, I was talking to a friend who had just gotten home from a road trip. “Why is travel so exhausting?” he asked. “I feel like I just ran a marathon. I have travel fatigue.”
“We’re getting old!” I joked.
But then I got to thinking about it. Is it because we’re in our 30s? Are we really just old and decrepit?
Or, are travel fatigue and travel burnout real?
In my 20s, I remember taking terrible cheap flight routes with four layovers and 45 hours in transit. I remember walking around new towns, hunting for a hostel with an open bed. I remember riding buses and trains and taxis…but I don’t remember being tired!
So yeah, maybe part of it is that I’m just not 22 anymore. But I’m only 36. I’m a runner. I sleep well. I’m in good health. I can’t be falling apart yet.
Travel Fatigue: What Causes You to Burn Out?
While I was thinking about all of this, I flew home to visit my mom in the States. Out at the theater one evening, I ran into a friend. He asked how my most recent Southeast Asia trip was — and before I could self-edit, the truth just came out: “It was so tiring.” (Usually, I start with the positives; most people don’t want reality.)
He said, “Well, of course! Travel is seriously fatiguing. You have so many different things to deal with on the road than you do at home.”
It took a minute for that to sink in, but he was absolutely right. Travel, either long-term or short-term, is essentially a stream of non-stop decision making!
How Travel Burnout Happens: Decision Fatigue
Think about it. If I want to go to a grocery store at home, I hop in the car and drive there. As long as I have my wallet and keys, I’m good.
If I want to go to a grocery store in a new country, I have to:
- Get on Google maps to find a store near me
- Look up reviews/images online to make sure it’s an actual grocery, not one of those creepy dark corner stores with no selection
- Find directions to get there
- Figure out if I can walk, or if I need to take public transportation
- Find out how much it costs to take a bus/train/tram
- Check to see if I have enough local currency/small enough bills
- Find the stop or station
- Figure out how to buy a ticket/get through the turnstiles/locate the right platform
- Be on alert the whole ride so I don’t miss my stop
- Try to find the correct exit
- Stare at my phone and scrutinize local street signs — all without looking lost so I don’t attract weirdos — and walk until I find the grocery store
- Make sure I have enough cash
- Realize I don’t, and hunt for an ATM because I don’t want to be rejected because my bank has decided that X country is a red flag (I know they’re protecting me but seriously)
- Try to read labels (or use Google Translate) to find what I need
- Try to remember if the Airbnb has a coffee maker, or filters, or an electric kettle
- Swipe through the Airbnb listing photos to catch a glimpse of the appliances. No luck. Realize I’ll probably buy the wrong thing and resign myself to coming back for coffee supplies.
- Get to the register and look around to see if the store gives bags, or if I need to grab them from under the conveyor, or ask for them
- Communicate to the cashier that I don’t speak the local language
- Crane my neck to see the total on the screen because I don’t understand what the cashier said
- Watch other shoppers to see if there’s a counter to bag my groceries, or if should do it right there
- Be very aware of other shoppers watching me because I almost never fit in
- Find my way back to the Airbnb, loaded down with bags
Individually, these steps are not exhausting. But when you’re traveling, it happens all day, every day. It’s like being on high alert, all the time.
Have you ever been in a high-stress situation where you were inadvertently tensing your muscles? Then, when the stress goes away and you finally relax, you feel like collapsing? That’s kind of what it’s like. After a while, that leads to travel fatigue. If you don’t do something about it, you end up dealing with travel burnout.
Can Travel be Fun AND Stressful?
Of course it can! In the moment, all of these little decisions don’t FEEL stressful. It feels fun and exciting (well, usually). I love exploring new cities. I love mastering a new public transportation system. I even love wandering around foreign grocery stores.
Even so, all of those little mini-decisions are constantly going on in the background. And every time I go to a new place, the whole process starts again!
And then, there are the actual stressful situations. Oh crap, I turned down the wrong street and now I’m in a scary part of Mexico City. How do I get out? How can I avoid the drunk guy chasing after me at 5AM in the Copenhagen train station? What do I do about this guy that’s been following me for 20 minutes through Buenos Aires? (All of these things have happened to me.)
Physical Fatigue After Traveling
We can’t forget the most obvious contributing factor in travel fatigue — travel is super physical. You’re walking way more than you do at home. You might be renting bikes and climbing to viewpoints and strolling along rivers.
Then, there are the travel days! I carry a 40-45 pound suitcase, a 10-pound backpack, and a 5-pound purse. That’s a lot of extra weight to be hauling around — especially when you need to walk over cobblestones and rough sidewalks to get to your bus/train. I lift that weight up stairs, down stairs, onto shuttle buses, and over curbs.
No wonder that after a few weeks, I’m so exhausted I want to check into an Airbnb and watch Netflix for a week!
How to Combat Travel Fatigue and Prevent Travel Burnout
Here’s the thing: if you’re not vigilant about taking care of yourself when you travel, all of that physical and mental fatigue starts to build up. If you’re like me, you ignore it and ignore it…and then one day, it gets to be too much. One thing sends you over the edge, and suddenly you’ve booked a flight home and you don’t leave the country for three years.
Yes, that happened to me.
Now that I’m older and (hopefully) wiser, I’ve found ways to prevent travel fatigue:
1. Don’t explore on the first day: Travel days are exhausting. If you arrive at a new place and immediately go out to explore, you make the fatigue even worse! My solution? After I check into an Airbnb, I find the closest store. I pick up dinner, water, coffee, and a snack to get me to lunch the next day. Then, I spend the rest of the day lounging around, watching Netflix and letting my body recover from the travel day. I talk to friends/family to get those good endorphins flowing. Most importantly? I go to bed early! When I wake up, I feel rested and relaxed. This is HUGE in beating fatigue.
2. Follow challenging destinations with comfortable ones: This is SO IMPORTANT. Travel fatigue can happen anywhere, but it’s especially strong when you’re visiting a challenging country. For me, that’s anywhere in Latin America (I am blonde and I get a lot of unwanted attention) and Southeast Asia (something about the heat and the car exhaust and the sameness of the buildings). I love traveling to both of these places — but when I’m done, I need a break. So, I “treat” myself to a more comfortable country. If I’m near Europe, that’s usually London or Budapest. Or Scotland (my happy place) when things are really dire. I’m always so grateful for the convenience and predictability and creature comforts and familiarity. It gives me the break I need to prevent travel burnout and gear up for the next adventure.
3. Be gentle about exercise: I’m a runner, but it is hard to run when you’re traveling! However, I also know that when I don’t run, I feel like garbage. (And not myself) The solution? Find beautiful routes so I can sightsee as I go. And more importantly, I’m super gentle with myself. (This is not easy for me). If I’m feeling sore or tired or out of shape, I go super slowly and take plenty of walk breaks. If it’s too cold, I buy a gym pass online and run indoors on a treadmill. If I still feel crappy after 2 miles, I have permission to stop.
4. Recognize when it’s time for a break: We’re human. We have limits. The trick to preventing travel burnout is to recognize when you’re getting fatigued — and then take action! My solution varies based on finances and location. Sometimes, I just need to fly home and hang out with my family. Other times, I need to spend a week drinking wine with my best friend. When the travel fatigue isn’t too serious, I just splurge on a beautiful Airbnb and just do normal things for a week. Work, eat, run, watch Netflix. Sleep a lot. Avoid all touristy activities. It’s so refreshing!
For long-term travelers, travel fatigue can be a real issue! But, if you can find ways to be gentle with yourself and work some comfort and familiarity into your trip, you can avoid travel burnout and stay happier on the road.