How to embrace the pre-holiday high

Why the days before a trip can be just as exciting as the time away

Illustration: Dilianny Espinoza
Words: Caroline Butterwick

For many, a holiday brings joy – whether it’s a city sightseeing break, a few days’ walking in the countryside or a fortnight on an idyllic beach. But there’s also excitement to be found in the weeks leading up to a trip, especially one that’s long in the planning or a childhood dream.

‘Anticipating a holiday can help us to tune in to positive emotions in the lead-up to our trip, which can include excitement, joy and the anticipation of relaxation,’ says Charlotte Russell, clinical psychologist and founder of The Travel Psychologist website. ‘Having a trip booked can also provide us with a focus to get through the day-to-day challenges that we may be facing.’

Making the most of the holiday build-up

In their study published in 2010, looking at the association between holidays and happiness, Jeroen Nawijn et al discovered a greater degree of perceived happiness among holidaymakers in the pre-trip period than among those who were not going on holiday. But there was little difference in levels of happiness between the two groups in the post-holiday period. Commenting on the pre-trip high, the researchers noted that ‘possibly, anticipation played an important role in explaining the observed differences’.

It’s easy to see why. It’s a time when you’re looking forward to good things. The joy of walking through ancient buildings, over hilltops or along a quiet beach is within reach. The history, the views, the feel of the sand. Then there’s the food, the people, the permission to pause and draw breath. In fact, for many, embracing and maximising the pre-getaway build-up is as important a part of the holiday as the time away itself.

Setting holiday expectations

It can be helpful to think about what you want this holiday to bring you. ‘It’s important to separate intention from expectation, as setting an intention is mood- and emotion-based. It’s about making a commitment to yourself,’ says coach and keen traveller Chloe Gosiewski. ‘Unlike expectations, intentions are detached from a specific outcome. High expectations often lead to feeling underwhelmed or disappointed because you’ve attached the holiday to playing out in a certain way. The best way to approach an intention is to say: “I am going on holiday, and I will have a great time. How the great times happen is beyond my control, but I trust that it will be exactly as it should [be].”’

What do you want from your time away?

Do you want to relax, try something new, be with loved ones? It’s tempting to create an itinerary that includes a string of museums and activities, just because they’re there and it feels like that’s what you’re supposed to do. But if your intention is to rest and recharge your batteries, you might be better off opting for a less-is-more approach. And, as you plan your holiday around your intentions, the greater the chance you’ll have of maximising the pre-trip anticipation, as well as putting together a schedule that delivers what you want while you’re away.

‘People vary in how much they like to plan or be more spontaneous,’ says Charlotte. ‘The type of trip is also important. City breaks, for example, often need more planning, if there are certain sights you want to see and restaurants you need to book. This can be part of the anticipation, and it’s a great way to spend an afternoon in the weeks leading up to your trip.’

How to ease holiday anxieties

As well as ratcheting up the anticipation, holiday preparation can help to alleviate any anxieties about a trip. ‘When we travel, we’re often visiting new places, and this creates uncertainty,’ says Charlotte. ‘Will we like it there? Have we made the right choices with the destination and accommodation? What if something bad happens? New situations and uncertainty can trigger our threat system and, when this happens, we may experience negative thoughts and feelings of anxiety. Holidays can also create a lot of pressure to get things right and enjoy ourselves.’

To combat this, Charlotte suggests homing in on specific fears that contribute to your travel anxiety. ‘If you’re anxious about flying, for example, think about how you can prepare yourself for – and manage – these fears,’ she says. ‘[Or], if there’s something about your destination you’re worried about, try to find information that will help you to handle this. Talk through any fears with your travel companion or a trusted friend and come up with a plan about how you’ll manage your worries.

What’s your pre-holiday routine?

In a similar way, a pre-trip routine – be that finishing work a day earlier than necessary, getting your nails done or choosing your travel reads – can heighten the holiday spirit, while also helping to overcome nerves. Whatever you do, though, Chloe says to keep it light: ‘I’d advise against having a very busy period in the days before a holiday, as this can trigger your threat system and it can take a few days to wind down from this [experience].’ Instead, she suggests becoming as familiar with your destination as suits your needs.

Some will want to know as much as possible and swot up on every guidebook and travel vlog going, while others will be happy to set off knowing only the best route from the airport to their accommodation. Many people, of course, are somewhere in the middle. But, whichever camp you’re in and wherever you’re venturing, finding ways to embrace the pre-holiday build-up will make your time off even more rewarding.

To find out more about Charlotte, visit or follow her on Instagram @the_travel_psychologist. Learn more about Chloe at

You can read more articles about wellness in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.