Updated: Jul 20
There you are with luggage in hand, a glorious and meticulously-planned itinerary ahead of you, your body thrumming with the excitement of a dog who’s just giddily peed all over the floor. You’re practically bursting at the seams for new experiences and the anticipation of the lifelong memories you’re about to make on your vacation. And then something goes wrong.
This is the part that lots of travel experts and bloggers glaze over because it’s the ugly, supremely disappointing side of travel. You plan and save and look forward to a trip for months, and then you’re thrown a curve ball that threatens to derail everything. This has happened to us in Spain, Cuba and most recently, on a trip to Sedona we’d been wanting to take for years (more on that below).
Here’s what you have to remember: a really crappy vacation happens to all of us eventually. It’s what you do next that will make the difference between the worst trip you’ve ever taken and a laughable set of circumstances.
This scenario just happened to us. We’d waited YEARS to visit Sedona, always preoccupied with far off destinations instead of those a little closer to home. But no matter how desperately we were looking forward to exploring Sedona, the universe had other plans. What we’d hoped was just a bad burrito turned out to be a stomach bug that knocked each of us down like dominoes. Instead of wine tastings, we chugged Pepto Bismol and Ginger Ale. Instead of breathtaking hikes, we did back-breaking loads of laundry. Instead of dining in Sedona’s most revered restaurants, we lived on sleeves of Saltines. We’ve traveled enough to know that once it’s far enough removed, even the not-so-great vacation memories serve a purpose, we will either laugh about them later or they teach us lessons. But here’s what you need to know to salvage your trip, even when it sucks.
What to do when your vacation sucks
1. Assess the damage
Did you lose your passport? Did you have an accident in the rental car? Are you so sick that catching a whiff of scrambled eggs has you praying to the porcelain gods? Assess the situation calmly and objectively. What is the right next step for you? It’s easier said than done, but the more you panic, the worse the situation will become, so stay calm and clear headed.
2. Adjust your expectations immediately
One of the worst things you can do, and I’m speaking from experience here, is to spend the time you do have dwelling. Nothing ruins potential like focusing on all the things that have gone wrong, especially when you’re still on vacation. Sure, your trip doesn’t look anything like you thought it would, but the more you dwell, the more the gloom snowballs and you end up wasting the time you do have left. You know that old adage, “if your expectations are low, it’s harder to be disappointed?” This is where it really works. If you let go of the idea of what you thought your vacation would be like, you create room for what it could become.
3. Look for beauty and you’ll find joy
In “Man’s Search for Meaning” by the late psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, he details his time as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in World War II. Among many observations like our motivation for life comes from meaning and purpose, Frankl found that humans could find hope in even the darkest of places.
At any given moment of our day, we are surrounded by pure, unadulterated beauty in so many forms. Whether it’s a flower in bloom, a thick tumultuous thunder cloud, the way the sun gleams on everything it touches as it sets for the evening, the sound of laughter…where there is beauty, there is joy. We spent nearly four entire days stuck at our vacation rental in Sedona, unable to leave because someone was always sick. But you know what we could do?
Soak up the scenery. The house we rented had a terrace overlooking one of the most FOMO-inducing views in all of Sedona, so we found joy in the way the apricot sunsets bathed everything in a warm glow. We folded all five loads of soiled towels and sheets while we listened to the birds sing and stayed stock-still as a wild pig strolled through the yard munching on grass.
Take a deep breath, get quiet, and look at things with fresh eyes. Viktor Frankl lost his entire family in those concentration camps, if he could find hope in beauty and joy, so can you.
4. Steal whatever moments you can
Say your entire family is sick, like mine was. I started finding the joy in the route to the pharmacy to pick up medicine, even more Saltine crackers and Pedialyte. In fact, I made five separate trips to CVS, it felt like the only place I became intimately familiar with the entire time we were in Sedona.
Sure, I was covered in various shades of baby vomit and poop, but the drive had a million-dollar view, so I put the sunroof back, rolled the windows down and cranked up the radio for 10 minutes of bliss and normalcy. There’s a good chance there will be windows of opportunity for you too, so look for them constantly.
They may be brief, but they’ll be there. These tiny pockets of glory give you a reprieve and help you reframe the situation.
5. Find reasons to smile
You know that funny thing that happens when someone yawns and the next thing you know, you’re yawning too? Man, I yawned just typing that. The same thing happens when you smile.
In “The Happiness Advantage,” author Shawn Achor discusses research about the receptors in our brains that mimic actions like yawning and smiling. When we see a non-verbal queue like a smile, it signals to our brains that we should also smile because we’re experiencing the same excitement as the person who smiled at us. So, this idea of positive inception indicates that positivity is contagious.
If you look for reasons to smile when things are going badly, your smile can actually trick your brain and those around you into feeling happier.
6. Accept that you ain’t gonna win ‘em all
We spent two beautiful weeks eating and drinking our way through Spain, only to end up with a gnarly case of gastritis and needing to go to the hospital. Apparently when you partake in lots of pintxos and have no way of knowing how long they’ve been sitting there, it can catch up with you quickly.
My point is, there are going to be bumps along the way. Some of them are going to be more like train wrecks and others are going to be potholes, but you have no way of knowing what’s coming. This is part of the travel experience, and more importantly, the human experience. Things are going to go wrong; it’s how you handle the adversity that makes the difference in whether or not your vacation is ruined, or you just encountered a setback. Follow these tips on what to do when your vacation sucks and let me know how they worked for you too.
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Ashley Oñoz-Wright has been a travel writer and editor based in Las Vegas, NV for the last eight years and is a regular contributor for Manifesting Travel, Modern Luxury, Sophisticated Living, Greenspun Media Group, Vegas.com and LasVegas.com. She holds a degree in Sociology & Anthropology from DePauw University.