The 1980s film 'National Lampoon's Vacation' is a classic tale of trip gone wrong. So how do you make it right? The 1980s film 'National Lampoon's Vacation' is a classic tale of trip gone wrong. So how do you make it right? The 1980s film 'National Lampoon's Vacation' is a classic tale of trip gone wrong. So how do you make it right? (Photo: Warner Bros.)

How to make a vacation better after it’s over

Trips end, but memories last a lifetime. And how you remember has a lot to do with this quirk in your brain.

One of the best parts of a vacation is the memories it leaves you with. You might be shivering in your wintry apartment weeks after you've returned from your trip to Mexico, but you still have memories of warm beaches.

That is, unless you're remembering the jet lag you had to deal with once you got back or the truck stop vending machine that ate your dollar. In their new book, "Dollars and Sense," Israeli behavioral economist Dan Ariely and American comedian Jeff Kreisler have found that people tend to remember endings of experiences better than middles. In fact, thanks to a quirk in our thinking, we often consider an event good or bad based on how it ended.

"Ending on a high note is important because the end of an experience informs and shapes how we reflect back on, remember, and value the entire experience," write Ariely and Kreisler.

For instance, some researchers looked at how the ends of colonoscopies, typically unpleasant procedures, affected people's memories. The scientists tried adding on five extra, somewhat less painful minutes to the end of the procedure. They found that patients who went through those extra five minutes actually remembered the whole procedure as being less painful. A good ending can make a bad experience seem better, while a bad ending can make a good experience seem worse.

That's the problem with vacations. Vacation endings are often filled with races to the airport and uncomfortable road trips.

"We often end vacations on a low note, with things we hate most: paying the hotel bill, shuttles, airports, taxis, suitcases, laundry, alarm clocks, and returning to work," Ariely and Kreisler wrote. "Those ending activities can color how we view the vacation as a whole and paint it in a less positive way."

That's why Ariely and Kreisler suggest symbolically ending a trip at a different time. For instance, when you plan your next perfect vacation, you could factor in some sort of ending celebration the night before you head back home, concluding the vacation before the annoyances of travel.

“When I leave a place, I try to think about the end," Ariely told me. "I think it's important to say goodbye to the place and think about where you’ve been, what you’ve seen."

Last year, he and his family went to Antarctica. Traveling back meant going on a 36 hour sea journey, followed by a long flight. So he and his family tried to emotionally end the trip before the long haul back.

A couple dances on the beach at sunset earlier this summer. A couple dances on the beach at sunset in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. Hopefully they'll remember this moment more than the bus ride home. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

"When we do that, we psychically place the packing, airport, and travel experience into the 'regular life' bucket rather than the 'end of vacation' one," Ariely and Kreisler explain. "We seal the trip in a box and keep the hassle outside it."

You could also do the opposite and extend the trip. After you get home, you could have a nice meal and look at photographs from your recent adventures.

"Spending time savoring the vacation brings the experience into our regular lives and this, too, can give us a softer ending," Ariely and Kreisler said. "Finally, we could improve our vacation if, at the end, we remember that it was better than a colonoscopy."

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