Sure, the beach is relaxing. But should you go there every time you have a vacation? Sure, the beach is relaxing. But should you go there every time you have a vacation? Sure, the beach is relaxing. But should you go there every time you have a vacation? (Photo: Yan Lev / Shutterstock)

The secret to planning the perfect vacation

Scientist discovers key to traveling and, surprisingly, it has little to do with the vacation itself.

Should you go to Las Vegas, Disney World or Jerusalem? A mud spa or a climbing hotspot? Perhaps you want to rent your own private island. Most of us only have a finite number of vacation days each year, so figuring out the best place to go can be a tough choice.

But science has figured out the best way to plan for it, as well as how to extract the most happiness out of the experience. Dan Ariely is an Israeli-American behavioral economist at Duke University. He has studied everything from the perfect date to how to declutter your inbox. And now he's set his sights on vacations.

According to Ariely, we should divide up vacations into three timelines: The time before the vacation, the actual vacation and the time after the vacation.

Think of it like this: If you're planning a trip to Paris next summer, you'll be spending the next 12 months getting excited about the upcoming vacation. So even though the trip itself might only last a week, you'll be getting many months of joy and happiness just thinking about the trip. Similarly, when the trip is over, you'll be able to spend years looking back at the photos and fond memories from that vacation. The times before and after the trip will end up giving you more joy than the trip itself.

When you look at the vacation in the totality of these three time periods, the vacation itself is the shortest one. "You should think about the anticipation and also about the memory," Ariely explained.

Along the same lines, other research has shown that when you look back at a trip, it doesn't really matter if the vacation itself was short or long. This notion has been crystallized by Daniel Kahneman, Ariely's mentor and fellow Israeli. The Nobel Prize-winning economist has explored the two perspectives on how we go through life – with experiences themselves (which are short) and the memories of those experiences (which can last a lifetime).

Added Ariely: "You really want to think about the whole experience, and which vacations are actually going to enrich your lives." To that end, some people go on voluntouring vacations where intrepid travelers can merge a vacation with an opportunity to volunteer somewhere. One of our reporters, Ilana Strauss, did this recently when she explored the Amazon rainforest and helped out a local tribe.

While I was still wearing sandals like a fool.From The Grapevine's Ilana Strauss helped a local tribe on a vacation to the Amazon. (Photo: Courtesy)

So should you repeat the same vacation twice? On the one hand, you know what to expect and will therefore have fewer disappointments. You won't be taking any risks by going to the same beach you went to last time. On the other hand, there won't be any unexpected excitements. "Too often we don't do the amazing things because we go for the OK things," Ariely said.

Ariely knows about grand gestures when it comes to vacations. For his 50th birthday, he and his childhood friend decided to take a month off from work and hike the entire 620 miles of the Israel National Trail. (He let us tag along to experience it with him, so now we have our own vacation memory.)

"Vacations need to be something that is beyond the specific vacation," he said. "And we need to be worried about doing the comfortable thing, rather than the real pleasure."

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