I used to fancy myself a pretty good vacationer. I’m a lifestyle reporter; excelling at leisure was sort of my thing. But on my family’s recent weeklong trip to Mexico — our first real getaway since the pandemic began, and our first family vacation since our baby was born — I floundered.
You may, too, if you’re planning a trip this summer. No matter how mellow a traveler you are or how lucky you might feel (as I did) to take a holiday at all, vacationing this year is likely to be intense. As Covid restrictions are lifted around the world, we are heading into what experts warn will be a chaotic summer tourism boom driven in part by people’s desire for something called “revenge travel” to make up for experiences missed during the pandemic. They promise airport pandemonium caused by airline staff shortages, exorbitant inflation-driven prices and crowds at popular vacation destinations that rival prepandemic levels. Fun!
And many of us vacationers are not in the most adaptable frame of mind. Even for those who have avoided serious illness, anxiety or depression, the pandemic has been emotionally taxing. I doubt I was the only one to daydream about the fabulous trip I’d take when I could, or to build up some unrealistic expectations of it.
The collision between these expectations and the realities of travel hit me a few hours after my husband, 1½-year-old daughter and I landed in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Driving our rental car to Walmart to stock up on groceries before heading up the coast to our destination (which seemed a sensible idea at the time), we found ourselves stuck in standstill traffic for over two hours.
“Why did we do this?” I beseeched myself and the blue cloudless sky, watching our first afternoon of vacation tick by. Did we think there wouldn’t be paper towels in the condo we had rented, or at a nearby market? Or that Walmart would have superior limes and mezcal, compared with a roadside stand or a local bar? (My theory is that the pandemic left me overly concerned with having groceries on hand, and averse to unnecessary outings for sundries. I’d forgotten that unnecessary outings for sundries are actually one of the great joys of traveling!)
I comforted myself with the thought that once we arrived and unloaded the stroller, three giant bags and groceries from the car, my vacation self would emerge: relaxed, flexible and ready for a surf session followed by a mezcal margarita on the terrace — while wearing one of several sundresses that had been gathering dust in my closet since 2020.
Reader, she did not.
In retrospect, I see that my struggle began long before we left home. Over the last several months of the pandemic’s repetitive grind, I had invoked the promise of vacation every time I found myself feeling trapped. I’d spent countless hours texting friends about their favorite vacation destinations, gazing at live footage of surf breaks around the globe and scrolling through photos of rental units clearly taken with fisheye lenses.
At first, we kicked around a trip to Hawaii (the TV show “White Lotus,” may have been satire, but we all saw that beach). We researched Maui, then Kauai, then Oahu, before becoming overwhelmed with the choices, the costs and the prospect of many hours in an airplane over the Pacific with unmasked strangers and an unvaccinated toddler.
By the time we decided to go instead to Mexico — more affordable, and just a couple of hours away by plane — it was so late that we had to expedite our daughter’s first passport, and scramble to renew mine. Pre-Covid, I would have never allowed my passport to expire. But who needed a passport in 2020? Or 2021? Or early 2022? Not us. And as my passport had languished in a drawer, so too did the adeptness at travel that I had previously prided myself on.
You might be thinking, Well yes, you had a toddler, what do you expect? But it wasn’t just that. I was also exhausted by what felt like 36,902 months of Covid and other horrific world events. When we finally boarded the airplane, I was wound tighter than my overstuffed roller duffel.
In the scheme of things, these are minor challenges, I know. We were lucky to have the freedom, funds and good health that this kind of travel requires. But for a few days, that sort of reasonable perspective and good old gratitude was largely beyond my grasp.
First, I was flattened by what I will modestly refer to as “traveler’s tummy.” Then, I was scared out of surfing by waves that seemed too messy and powerful for my skills. A chilly, billowing fog kept me from unrolling the sundresses I’d carefully packed, and I ended up wrapped in the same milk-stained sweatshirt that I wore on the airplane (and for approximately two years preceding the trip).
To the seasoned traveler, such hiccups are just that — hiccups. But instead of slapping on some SPF and a smile as I might have in 2019, I spiraled: Here we were, finally on our Big Vacation, the one I’d been looking forward to for months, and I wasn’t even enjoying myself. And then I was beating myself up for not enjoying myself. When I made the mistake of opening Instagram, as one is wont to do when a stomach bug lands one on the toilet several times over the course of a morning, I was inundated by action shots of friends splashing happily in the sun. Scrolling through the news was worse: It was all horrific, and I felt guilty for feeling sorry for myself amid all the real suffering in the world.
There’s a concept known as “psychological flexibility” — the quality that helps us to go with the flow in an unpredictable or stressful situation — the Los Angeles-based therapist Stephanie Pearl told me. Covid gave us very real and scary reasons to try to control our circumstances and environments, which left us with few opportunities to use the psychological flexibility that could help us cope with an airplane full of unmasked tourists or a jet-lagged toddler. “We couldn’t practice loosening our grip,” Ms. Pearl told me. “And the control that we did have was coming from a fight-or-flight place.”
Given this context, my utter inability to relax didn’t seem quite so absurd. During such an episode, Ms. Pearl advises acknowledging your feelings and granting yourself some patience and compassion: “We drive ourselves crazy trying to be like, ‘How can I make this better? Can I find a different route in the traffic? Can I do a weather dance?’” she told me. “And sometimes it’s just acceptance: getting into the moment, accepting what is, and trusting — trusting this may not be the best moment of the vacation, but there can still be good moments of the vacation.”
Indeed, I noticed a shift in my mood — and the vibe of the rest of our holiday — when my generally optimistic husband made me laugh with his list of all the small annoying things that had gone wrong. “Of course you’re grumpy!” he told me. By showing me the understanding that I was having trouble extending to myself, he relieved the pressure I was feeling to turn things around. Instead of focusing on what the trip should be, I started enjoying it for what it was. (I also deleted Instagram from my phone.)
At some stage I did drink a revelatory mezcal margarita (and quickly thereafter, a second). Eventually, I had an epic afternoon of surfing in the sun. But when I fondly remember this vacation now, I more often return to snuggling on the rental condo couch with my husband, watching “Stranger Things” in sweats; navigating the butcher case of an unfamiliar market on a busy afternoon; or sitting sand-caked on the beach watching our daughter digging with a local girl.
In those small moments, I was simply present. That’s what vacation is all about.