'One size fits all' is a phrase you may be used to hearing in a clothing store.
But have you noticed how many aspects of our modern society it's really applied to? From the best careers to peruse, to hobbies you should enjoy, to the destinations and activities to choose on your next vacation, we're all expected to be the same.
Many aspects of modern travel can be overwhelming to Highly Sensitive People (HSPs). Follow these 13 tips to ensure your next vacation is the perfect fit for your sensitive nature.
Since discovering I am a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), I've learned that in these areas, just as in clothing stores, one size may fit most, but it certainly doesn't fit all.
The term "Highly Sensitive Person" (HSP) was coined by Dr. Elaine Aron to explain 20% of the population with a heightened nervous system and a unique way of processing information. HSP's have several gifts like empathy, compassion, and an intense awareness of subtle details. We also have several challenges, including heightened sensitivity to loud noises, cold temperatures, strange smells, and large crowds that may not bother our less-sensitive counterparts.
HSPs & Travel
At home, most HSPs naturally develop a healthy routine to bring balance to their sensitive nervous system with activities including:
- Walks along the beach or through the woods
- Light exercise like yoga
- Meditation and breathing exercises
- Quiet time alone
- Deep friendships, and
- Flexible work schedules.
When we travel, these therapeutic activities tend to get thrown out the window and replaced with unfamiliar surroundings, loud noises, crowds of tourists, and jam-packed lists of things to see and do. It's a lot to take in.
When I first started long-term travel, the time I spent enjoying the surrounding exotic locations seemed minimal compared to the time I spent feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and exhausted for no apparent reason. I ignored my HSP trait and pushed ahead to see the most iconic sites in the most popular cities at the busiest times. I couldn't fully enjoy culturally rich cities like London and Rome without recognizing I needed to approach travel slightly differently to non-HSPs. I needed to learn my limits and mindfully plan my activities to allow time to rest, restore, and soak up life-changing experiences.
I now use these 13 HSP travel tips to ensure vacations work for and not against my HSP trait, and so can you.
1. Plan Ahead… Way Ahead
HSPs get a lot of satisfaction from planning and organizing, but when it comes to travel, planning can turn from fun to overwhelm very quickly. I find it helps to have a thorough to-do list for each trip and to get stuck into it as early as possible. As a rule, the timeframes I follow are:
- Flight bookings: 6-9 months in advance
- Accommodation bookings: 2-6 months in advance
- Activity/attraction research: 1-2 months in advance
- Tour/attraction ticket bookings: 2-4 weeks in advance
- Packing list development: 1-2 weeks in advance
- Start packing: 1-4 days in advance
Other planning tips include:
- Use packing cubes to organize clothes and belongings and feel more prepared for your trip.
- Develop a prioritized list of things you want to see and do. I use 3 categories: must-see, would-like-to-see, and not-fussed. Once on vacation, prioritize the 'must-see' list to avoid FOMO should you need to rest more than expected.
- Take the day before your flight off work to avoid feeling rushed during last-minute errands and packing.
2. Choose a Quiet Hotel in a Quiet Area
Having a calm, safe, and quiet place to retreat after a busy day sightseeing is perhaps the most essential thing for an HSP on vacation. Choosing quiet accommodation focuses on two factors: the area of the city, and the specific hotel and room.
The sweet spot in terms of location is typically just on the outskirts of the city center, so you're away from the hustle and bustle but can still easily access restaurants and attractions, either on foot or via public transport. For example, in London, I stayed in Paddington, which is quieter and more peaceful than central Westminster or South Bank and only a short tube ride to the city center.
When it comes to choosing a specific hotel or apartment, go straight to the reviews. If some guests have complained about loud noises, it will probably be too noisy for you as well.
Try to choose modern buildings with sound-proofed window seals or double glazing wherever possible. As tempting as it is to stay in the historic center of old European cities like Dubrovnik, Croatia or Valencia, Spain, older buildings probably won't have sufficient sound-proofing for an HSP.
When booking a hotel room through booking.com, tick the box that says, 'I'd like a quieter room.'
3. Know Your Limits
On vacation, you'll be exposed to new and unfamiliar stimuli (sounds, smells, tastes, people, information, etc.) that will take a toll on your nervous system. There's no avoiding it. You will get exhausted more quickly than you would at home, and that's normal. However, each HSP has different limits, so know yours and never push past them.
For me, I can squeeze in 4-5 days of non-stop sightseeing before completely collapsing on the 5th or 6th day, which isn't much fun. If I space the same activities out over 6 or 7 days, with plenty of time to rest in between, I'm a far better travel companion and also better able to appreciate and absorb the sights.
4. Choose Activities with Deeper Meaning
It's also important to know the types of activities you do and don't like and to respect your boundaries. Rollercoasters and waterslide may be one of the most popular things to do in Orlando or Singapore, but I couldn't think of anything worse, and have only recently learned to accept that's okay.
HSPs tend to prefer activities with deeper meaning, like museums, historic ruins, or art galleries. These types of attractions will bring more satisfaction to an HSP than taking a selfie at a popular Instagram spot.
5. Schedule Time to Rest
Regardless of how many iconic and remarkable sights you want to squeeze into your vacation, HSPs simply must allow themselves sufficient time to rest and restore.
When I started traveling, I thought I'd be able to tell when my body needed rest and naturally slow down. Wrong! What I was doing was ignoring my body's signals to rest, instead choosing to push through and go faster and harder than ever. I don't need to explain to fellow HSPs the emotional mess that ensued.
I've since learned to allocate time to rest proactively. For example, I might plan 1.5 days of sightseeing, followed by half a day of relaxing with a book by the hotel pool.
Resting isn't something we should expect to happen naturally. It's something we need to consciously schedule into our vacation.
6. Maintain Some Aspects of your Usual Routine
A vacation can provide a much-needed break from the stress of day-to-day life, but a complete loss of familiarity and routine can leave HSPs feeling overwhelmed and agitated.
I find it helpful to incorporate a few aspects of my daily routine at home into the vacation. For example, if you usually go for a morning run, go for a jog along a nearby beach or riverbank, or even jump on a treadmill at the hotel gym. Other routines easily incorporated into travel include yoga classes, meditation, using essential oils, or placing familiar items like a teddy bear or photo on your bedside table.
7. Don't Deviate Too Far from Your Usual Diet
As tempting as it can be to indulge in bottomless curries in India, street food in Malaysia, pasta in Italy, or souvlakis in Greece, HSPs digestive systems tend to be, you guessed it, sensitive. That doesn't mean you have to miss out on the enticing food the world has to offer, but dine in moderation to avoid an unscheduled retreat to your hotel room with stomach problems.
I find it helpful to stick to ingredients familiar to your digestive system. If you don't eat much spicy food at home, order mild stir-fries instead of spicy curries in Thailand. I also suggest avoiding animal products as much as possible, as these are where bacteria you're not used to are likely to hide.
8. Pack a Warm Jacket or Jumper – Even if You're Traveling in Summer!
Are you that person always walking around in jackets and boots when everyone else is wearing shorts and t-shirts? I certainly am, and I suspect many other HSPs are too since we're sensitive to cold (and hot) weather.
If you're traveling to any destination not located in the tropics, I suggest packing at least one warm jacket in case the sun decides to hide behind a cloud for a day or two.
9. Avoid Large Group Tours
Sharing the cost of a tour guide with 50 other tourists is undoubtedly the cheapest way to travel, but being surrounded by that many people for 3+ hours can take its toll. HSPs sense the emotional state of others, so if just one person on your tour is having a bad day, WHAM! You can go from feeling calm and interested to miserable or pissed off for no apparent reason. I had this experience on a group tour of Florence, Italy. As soon as we finished the tour and separated from the group, I returned to my happy, cheerful self.
I find it far more enjoyable to book private tours with only you and the guide. With no other tourists, you're free to go at your own pace, amend tour stops, and ask as many questions as you like. Two private tour companies I often use are Withlocals and ToursByLocals.
10. Travel in Shoulder Seasons to Avoid Crowds
Some destinations, like Thailand and Vietnam, are blessed with decent weather all year round. Others, like most of Europe and North America, get a few months of sunshine each year, enticing millions of tourists to vacation at the same time. Although the Greek Islands and Italy's Amalfi coast are undoubtedly more enjoyable in the summer sunshine, the few weeks either side of summer have several sunny days and half the tourist crowds. Instead of exhausting your nervous system by battling the throngs in July and August, plan your trip to Europe or North America in May, June, or September.
Also, be mindful of crowds caused by public celebrations, festivals, and school holidays. Our last visit to Italy happened to coincide with Easter when every good Catholic around the world flocks to Rome. If you can't avoid traveling during peak season, like we couldn't in Italy, try to visit the most popular attractions, like the Colosseum, as soon as they open and save less popular sites, like Vila Medici, to later in the day.
11. Spend Time in Nature
One of the easiest ways for HSPs to restore our nervous systems is by spending time in nature. Destinations and activities centered around the beach, woods, rivers, or mountains are the best vacation choices for HSPs. Examples include:
- Relaxing on a white sandy beach in southern Thailand
- Bird watching and nature walks in Malaysia
- Strolling through the woods in northern England
- Exploring mysterious rock formations in Western Australia and
- Chasing waterfalls in Scotland.
If your vacation doesn't involve leaving the city center, you can still find opportunities to get close to nature, even if it's as simple as reclining against a park tree, reading a book.
12. Travel with People You Trust
Travel companions can either make or break a vacation for an HSP. If you travel with someone who doesn't understand and respect your trait, adhering to points 1 to 11 above becomes so much harder.
I'm lucky to travel with my husband, Josh, who has been part of my HSP journey since the beginning. He understands my trait as much as I do and is always willing to change plans on the fly if I get upset or exhausted by overwhelming stimuli like large crowds or loud noises.
Traveling with people who mistake your sensitivity for being paranoid or dramatic is a recipe for disaster. Being understood at home is important, but being understood when you're exploring new environments with unfamiliar people, sounds, and languages, is non-negotiable.
13. Don't go Back to Work Straight Away
If you have the luxury of additional leave, take the day after your flight home off work to unpack and settle into your routine. Alternatively, try to return on a Friday or Saturday, so you have the weekend to recover.
This is doubly important if you are traveling across time zones and need to recover from jet lag. HSPs do not function well when tired, so be kind to yourself and give yourself a day to rest.
Natural supplements like valerian and melatonin can also be useful in adjusting your circadian rhythm to your home time zone.
To Wrap it Up
Vacations can be both rewarding and challenging for Highly Sensitive People. Rewarding in that they provide an opportunity to rest, recharge in nature, delve into history, and learn fascinating stories about other cultures. Challenging in that new destinations and experiences come with unfamiliar and easily overwhelming stimuli for our sensitive nervous systems.
The good news is that you can have your cake and eat it too. With the right preparation and healthy expectations, a completely enjoyable vacation is no longer out of reach. Use these 13 travel tips for Highly Sensitive People and your next vacation may just be your best yet.