Pre-trip anxiety can be utterly debilitating – trust me, I know from personal experience. But it’s still something that’s so rarely talked about by… well, anyone.
After all, travel is meant to be easy, breezy, and beautiful, right? If you believe some of the images of travel that we’re presented with, you’re meant to glide through an airport like an international jetsetter, relax on a plane in first class with a martini and a perfect smile, then have a totally perfect experience on a beach in the tropics. But… you don’t feel like it’ll go that way, do you? You feel like you’ll miss the plane, be involved in an awful crash if you do get on it, and then probably be mugged in your destination.
Don’t worry – everything I wrote in the above paragraph is a lie. All of it. No-one’s travel experience is perfect – but it’s very rarely a total disaster, either. And there’s plenty of simple, actionable things that you can do to help it go as smoothly as possible.
I’m going to give you my best travel tips for squishing pre-trip anxiety for good – and it doesn’t even require over the counter anxiety medication.
What is pre-trip anxiety? Is it just a fear of flying?
Although it’s often confused with the fear of flying, pre-trip anxiety can be a completely different beast. After all, there’s people who suffer with travel anxiety but have no fear of flying, and vice versa. Instead, it can be an all-encompassing fear of what lies ahead of you, on your journey into the unknown.
If we take a look at the official definition of trip anxiety, it’s categorised as a persistent sense of worry and impending doom when thinking about upcoming travels, with the following symptoms:
- Rapid heart rate, and difficulty with breathing
- nausea or an upset stomach
- restlessness and agitation
- Difficulty focusing on everyday tasks
- Difficulty sleeping
- Panic attacks (and if you’re reading this because you’re feeling on the verge of an attack, please read my guide on how to overcome panic attacks when traveling)
If any of the above sounds familiar – don’t worry, you’re in the right place! I didn’t travel for years because of travel anxiety, before I worked out simple ways to overcome it. I even lost a large amount of money because of it. So settle back, because I’m going to tell you my story!
Ten years ago, I booked a solo trip for myself. I was going to the fly to the United States on my own, then join a guided tour and see the Grand Canyon, Arches National Park, Sedona, all that good stuff. I was super-excited for it, was absolutely in love with the thought of it (after all, I’d flown to the States twice before, to Colorado and New York). I didn’t foresee any problems.
A month before I was due to leave, I suddenly developed a total, and incredibly upsetting, vacation anxiety. I worried about literally everything – I couldn’t stop thinking about the flight, and the chance of developing blood clots in the fifteen hours it would take me to reach Phoenix. I worried about not meeting up with my group, or not getting along with them. I worried about snakes, scorpions, and my accommodation near the Grand Canyon being involved in a landslide into the abyss. Seriously.
With two weeks to go, I was frantic. I couldn’t concentrate at work, and kept having to dash to the toilets because I felt sick. With one week to go, I cancelled the trip. Because it was last minute, and because there was no medical reason I couldn’t fly, I lost my fee of £1500. Ouch.
I regretted it almost instantly, and swore that I’d find ways to overcome that feeling of irrational fear. It took a long time, and a lot of years, but I worked out what I’d been feeling, and how to counter it. Now, I’m going to share those proven tactics with you!
How to overcome pre-travel anxiety
Okay! Let’s take a look at some pretty simple concepts, which can be so completely mighty when it comes to changing up your mindset, reassuring you, and generally chasing all those anxious thoughts out. Because heck, we take enough stuff with us when we travel; we don’t need a whole bunch of anxiety to come along too!
Identify what is making you anxious
There’s some things on this list that will grab you immediately, and others that you might not be so keen on. And whilst you should definitely check all of them out at the very least, this entry is a MUST.
In order to defeat pre-trip anxiety, you have to know what it looks like. Grab a piece of paper and a pen (or your phone, whatever floats your boat), and write down a list of all the aspects of your trip which are causing you travel anxiety. Don’t edit: even if some of them sound silly, write them down.
Now, you’ve identified the enemy. You might have a wide-range of aspects that are causing you fear, everything from packing, to the flight, to eating different food abroad. All of them are legitimate aspects of fear. Sure, fear of flying might be a little more recognised than “what if my resort is invaded by giant human-eating moths”, but these are your fears, and now you recognise them, you can tackle them individually.
Keep your list at hand, and keep reading. Now you’ve found the aspects that are causing you anxiety, this is going to be a breeze!
Remember that you’re not psychic
First, before we dive into some actionable activities, a reminder: you don’t have superpowers, and you’re not psychic. No, really, you’re not.
Let me guess: every time you feel anxiety symptoms flaring up, your fear-ridden brain says “this is a sign from the universe/God/my deceased granny. They’re trying to tell me that I shouldn’t go.” You start seeing images in front of your eyes: a newspaper with your face on the front page, or news footage of a stricken plane, or your loved ones crying.
Stop that right now.
I hate to tell you this, but you can’t see the future, and you don’t have superpowers. The universe/God/your granny wouldn’t send you a warning message, only to spitefully crash a plane because you dared to ignore it. Banish those fears and images from your mind, because they’re one of the biggest causes of pre-trip anxiety, and they can be safely ignored. Don’t feel like you’re a leaf adrift in the river of destiny – when it comes to your trip, you’re going to make your own destiny. And it’s going to be awesome!
One of the best ways to control travel anxiety is to research everything you can about your trip. After all, part of the anxiety is the fear of the unknown – what will the flight be like? What kind of area is the hotel is, and is it safe? What kind of food will you have to eat? Are there any particular dangers to look out for?
Well, research, research, and research some more! I’ll bet you that if you start looking for the answers to your newly-identified fears, you’ll discover that a lot of them were never a concern in the first place. You’ll discover that the hotel is in a fantastic area, and the food looks great. Simply tailor your fear to your trip, and see if they apply to your destination. Typing “are there giant human-eating moths in Mexico?” will give you all the info you need to dispel your worries.
You can go into even further depth. TripAdvisor will allow you to look up hotel reviews (don’t panic too much at any bad ones – people love to complain), check out possible places to eat nearby, or plan your itinerary out. Phone apps such as TripIt are a must: not only do they organise your flights, but you can research the safety score of a neighbourhood.
Once you’re more comfortable with your travel anxiety, you’ll feel more confident to do something a little spontaneous. But in the meantime, plan. Make yourself a list of things to do, and schedule them out. Know what you’re going to do each day, know that they’re safe, and even plan out where you’ll eat. You’ll feel so much more in control of your situation!
Sign up for online therapy
Getting therapy for travel anxiety, or any kind of anxiety, is always a good idea – no one is going to be able to help you as much as a trained professional can, and the results are real.
But if you’re worried about feeling extreme anxiety while you’re traveling – after all, who wants to be crippled by fears when you’re in another country? – you might feel like therapy isn’t a viable option for you. After all, you might be a in a situation when you need help now. How is taking a round of therapy before you leave going to work? Should you just buy your therapist a ticket, and bring them along?
Good news: there’s no need to do that, saving you both ticket money and an awkward vacation! Online therapy is a thing, and there’s no-one more experienced and trustworthy than BetterHelp. They offer professional care, and a therapist who can be there for you wherever you are in the world. Thanks to their excellent telephone counselling service, you’ll get all the help you need – and all you need is a phone in your pocket.
And I know what you’re thinking – yes, online and telephone therapy has been researched by psychologists, and found to be just as effective as face-to-face therapy. This makes it an absolute must in your anti-anxiety weapon locker!
Check a flight tracker
Fear of flying can be a major part of pre-trip anxiety. I suffer from it myself; although I’ve largely beaten it thanks to the SkyGuru app, it still creeps in whenever I’ve gone a little while without a flight. You know it’s a safe form of transport; you know it for a fact. But it can still be difficult to reassure yourself.
I don’t know about you, but I like to see some visual reassurance. Such as, lots and lots of planes going about their business, doing their plane thing, having no problems whatsoever. It just makes me feel a bit better when I’m up in the air myself, knowing that I’ve seen with my own eyes how safe air travel is. The good news is that you don’t need to hang around at airports to get that confirmation – you can do it from your computer or phone!
Go to FlightRadar 24, and you’ll see the world – and all of the planes currently in the air. Seriously, click on it, and take a look – you see how many are there? How many are in the air on a single moment, in a single day? And all of those planes are going from A to B quietly, safely, and efficiently. No big dramas or problems; they’re just coasting on jet streams, like big metallic birds.
It may not work for everyone, but using a flight tracker to see how many flights are safely making their way around the world gives me major reassurance!
Take an online anxiety course
Whenever I write tips on how to overcome pre-trip anxiety, I like to include a link to Lauren Juliff’s How To Overcome Travel Anxiety course. Why is is it my go-to? Simply, because it worked for me.
Lauren is one of the most awesome people I know, and I first learnt about her by buying her book How Not To Travel The World on a whim. She overcame anxiety so severe that it prevented her from leaving the house, and threw herself on a journey around the world in order to satisfy a lifelong desire to travel. Every sentence resonated, and made me think “that sounds like me!”, and it inspired me to take my own journey back into traveling.
When I discovered that she had a course dealing with pre-travel anxiety, I snapped it up. And I was not disappointed! Every section gives practical advice on how to prepare to travel, especially if you’re considering doing it long-term. There’s tips on what to do if you run into trouble abroad, and how to just take time away from your stress. It’s just all wonderful, useful advice.
I wouldn’t be where I am now without Lauren. It’s that good. Go get it!
Get all the items you’ll need
The thought of an small emergency happening whilst you’re abroad is a big part of pre-trip anxiety, just as much as the thought of a major emergency. You know how it goes; those feelings of “what if I hurt myself, and it gets infected?” “what if my phone runs out of battery, and everyone thinks I’m dead?” “what if the giant human-eating moths steal my luggage?”
Thoughts like these can seriously psyche you out, and convince you that you’re just better off staying at home. It’s just too much stress, right? Well, that’s not true – if you plan, prepare, and get all of the items that you’ll need in the first place, then you’ll be equipped to deal with anything that occurs when you’re traveling.
One way to do it is to Google packing lists, or to download packing list apps on to your phone. You don’t necessarily have to use them religiously, but you can look at all the item suggestions. Do you need that, or would you feel slightly safer if you had it? If so, pop it on your list. Don’t leave it until the days before you travel: do it as far in advance as you can, and you’re almost guaranteed not to miss anything crucial.
If you want to make life even easier, pop your email address into the subscription form at the top of this page, and I’ll send you a packing list specially designed for anxious travelers. Or you can check out a curated list of items for your anti-anxiety kit – no nervous traveler should be without them!
Pay special attention to your health before you travel
Remember that expression, “you get out what you put in”? Well, the same goes for your body when it comes to travel anxiety.
Eat a ton of processed meats, candy, fried foods and drink a bunch of alcohol and coffee in the week before your flight, and you’re more likely to feel a build-up in anxiety. Ditch the alcohol in particular: you may feel like its numbing your nerves and helping you through it, but it’s actually just making the whole thing a lot worse. Instead, eat whole grains, vegetables, and fish – foods proven to keep anxiety levels down, and your body feeling good.
Similarly, make sure you hydrate as much as possible. Nothing makes you feel strung out and on edge quite like being dehydrated, and keeping yourself well-watered will help a lot. It’s also a huge boon when it comes to the flight, because air travel is hella dehydrating. You’ll feel less anxiety, and feel much better when you get to your destination! Bonus!
Also, step up exercise in the week preceding your trip, and get those muscles working. It’ll get you feeling good, and help with sleeping at night. A hydrated, rested, well-fed body is going to cope much better with the effects of anxiety – it’s a small change, but it can have a massive effect!
Get to the airport early
Travel anxiety doesn’t get spoken about enough, but you know what gets talked about even less? Airport anxiety. Think about it: how many people do you know who hate airports, or get actively anxious when they have to go into one?
I’m actually one of those weirdos who like airports (I can’t help it; they’re so international-feeling, and looking at expensive perfumes in the duty free is kind of my thing), but I know so many people who absolutely despise airports, and get nervous about the whole trip purely because of having to overcome that big hurdle before the trip even begins.
If you want one, simple tip to defeat airport stress, here it is: get there early. Aim to arrive about three hours early – two, at the very least. It gives you more time to deal with the queues, check in at your leisure, have a bit of food or drink to settle yourself, and not have to run around like a maniac. And a top tip from a friend of mine who works at an airport – getting there early reduces the chances of your baggage going missing. Baggage handling takes a while, and often gets backed up due to volume; the majority of bags that go missing are from passengers who arrived only an hour before their departure.
If airports are a big contributing factor in your pre-trip anxiety, take a look at my guide to airport anxiety for some in-depth tips!
Create a kickass playlist
Music is an underestimated aspect of travel. Songs can take you back to a specific time, place, or moment – I’ll bet that you can think of plenty of tunes which remind you of that trip to Spain in 1995, or what was playing on the radio when your first boy/girlfriend broke up with you. Hey, these things happen.
But I’ve found that you can take advantage of the mood-altering affect of music. Just as that break-up song can affect us negatively, you can use music to affect you positively. Sign up for a free Spotify account, or playlist supplier of your choice, and think about the songs which make you feel really pumped. What makes you feel like an utter rockstar? Or what are some songs that remind you of your destination, and get you excited about going there?
I do this myself. Although I’m pretty much cool with flying these days, I still get a bit nervous on takeoff. So I bust out my phone, plug in my earbuds, and listen to Dragonette’s We Rule The World. It’s got the right amount of tempo and awesomeness to make me feel like one cool cat, and taking off and looking down through sunny skies becomes a breeze. Works every time.
You can use music any time you’re feeling anxious about your trip – plug in, turn it up, and let those bangin’ tunes take you to another place.
Keep moving forward
Although it’s useful to keep your mindset in a state of moving forward – not staying stuck in time, stuck in anxiety and worry – it’s equally good to keep yourself physically moving forward!
When I flew to the USA for the first time, I was feeling understandably nervous, and when I got to the airport I really wasn’t sure if I could go through with it. I was waiting around in the airport, and I got mentally “stuck”. It’s that feeling of being rooted to the spot, like you can’t do anything because you can’t move, and therefore getting on a plane feels absolutely impossible.
My parents, wise things that they are, took me to walk laps of the airport, swinging by the departures gate each time but walking straight on if I didn’t feel ready. After five laps, I finally felt okay to keep moving forward and go through security – and I was fine. Physically moving forward cleared my head, and got me out of that mindset. Moving forward mentally naturally followed.
You don’t just have to do this in the airport. Any time that pre-travel anxiety strikes in the build up to your trip, take yourself off for some exercise, or give the dog an extra walk (they won’t complain); you’ll find that your mind clears super-fast!
Tell a flight attendant about your fear of flying
Believe me, way more people suffer with a fear of flying or trip anxiety that you ever thought. The estimate is that 1 in 3 people will suffer from travel anxiety at some point in their lives, and 25% of Americans have a fear of flying. That’s a lot.
This means that flight attendants are well-used to having passengers who are absolutely terrified, and they’re trained to reassure you so that you can have a comfortable flight. They want you to have a good time, just as much as you do! So don’t feel scared or too shy to tell a flight attendant about your fears as you board; you’ll generally find that they’ll keep an extra special eye on you, and be on hand if you’re feeling the fear.
I had a gaggle of very lovely attendants look after me when I flew with Delta to the States, and they really couldn’t have made me feel better. Apart from feeding me every single meal they had available (they even left snacks on my tray table when I was napping), they would stop and check in on me as they were doing their rounds – and it just makes you feel safer. They’ll even explain all those weird engine noises, and reassure you that it’s totally normal.
Never underestimate flight attendants. They’re not just there to hand out coffee and duty free; they’re highly trained, fabulous at reassuring you, and general badasses!
Remember that you’re not alone
Even the most experienced travelers experience pre-trip anxiety. Every single one of them. If they tell you any different, they’re probably lying.
Never feel like you’re alone in your fears; you’re not crazy, you’re not stupid – it’s a completely natural reaction to an unknown or unfamiliar situation, and your fight-or-flight reflexes are putting you on high alert accordingly. Even people who have dreamed of travel throughout their lives feel that sense of trepidation or fear, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the first time or the fiftieth. I carried out an interview with Nomadic Matt, a longstanding travel blogger, and even he goes through it. It just happens.
But remember that you’re never alone. Talking about travel anxiety helps; sometimes is just takes that friend who says “of course you’re not going to be attacked by giant human-eating moths! Those don’t even exist!”, and it can help melt those fears a little bit. Reach out to people – parents, friends, therapists, random strangers on Reddit.
There are always people there for you, to help you talk through things. And you’re always welcome to email me!
That wraps up our list of tips on how to overcome travel anxiety! You don’t have to suffer through pre-trip anxiety, and I genuinely hope that the techniques I’ve described above help you. Some of them require a little bit of financial investment, and some of them are completely free, but they’re all simple, life-changing things you can do to make your life better with very little effort. Let’s beat this thing!
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John GatesbyJuly 28, 2021 at 9:59 am
Great tips! I feel anxiety pangs when I have to fly for long hours and I have not been able to overcome this. But if it is car or mobile then there is no anxiety and I am all gung-ho and happy.
John Gatesby recently posted…Coronavirus Induces Oxidative Stress Leading to Autonomic Dysfunction – Part 5