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Five Secrets to a Happy Vacation

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Vacations can be stressful. Even if the goal is to relax - which it (hopefully!) is - it's incredibly easy for something to go wrong either before, during or after the trip that gets in the way of having fun.

I'm about to go on a short vacation myself so I've been thinking a lot about holidays. And as I began to prepare for this particular trip, I realized that I've made a lot of mistakes over the course of my traveling life, which I've tried - over time - to rectify.

Here, in short order, are five tips for having more fun on vacation:

1. Make a Standard Packing List. I actually got this idea from my hubby. And while - like many of his suggestions (pickle pickers notwithstanding) - I initially railed against it, over time, I have come to see the virtue in having a standing "packing list." (For an eloquent defense of having a packing template, see this article by my Politics Daily colleague Emily Miller.) Our list includes all standard items of clothing for winter/summer wear, assorted cameras, ipods and videos that we might need for entertainment, children's medicine to cover just about any minor ailment and a list of things to do before we leave (e.g. cancel the newspaper, turn down the heating, etc.). We even have a column for those items we need to bring if we're staying in an apartment where we'll need to cook meals. Try it! You'll feel the pre-trip anxiety dripping off.*

2. Pack Light. A lot of people (including Emily Miller herself) disagree with this advice. And there's no question that it's easier to throw in outfits for any occasion/weather rather than trying to figure it all out in advance. But I just had a family of four visit me in London with - wait for it - one carry on suitcase for an entire week. That's right. Each person was allowed three shirts, two pairs of pants and a pair of shoes. That's it. Not only did they avoid all sorts of lines and baggage claim fiascos, they could easily schlep around their luggage *and* their children without having to stress about who was grabbing what. As someone with a family that usually looks like some sort of urban version of the Beverly Hillbillies when we travel, I've taken this to heart. My daughter has already begun identifying her two pairs of pants. (Note: Gretchen Rubin makes an exception for books, and I do, too. There's nothing worse than running out of good reading on a holiday.)

3. Figure out in advance if you plan to exercise. Another lesson learned the hard way. As with many things in life, I think one can easily divide the world into two types of people: those who like to work out while they're on vacation and those who don't. I know that I'm squarely in the second camp. I work out regularly during my "normal" life, so for me, it's really not fun to try and squeeze in a work out when I'm on holiday. Not working out is one of many reasons I think of it as a vacation. But I know lots of people - my husband, for example - who love working out, especially on a vacation. It relaxes them further. Either way is fine, but just be sure you are honest with yourself. Because if you are in the second camp, boy, can you save a lot of space (see #2) - not to mention guilt - by recognizing this ex ante. Staring at those running shoes gathering dust in the hotel closet? Yuck. Just say no. (Remember: There are no "shoulds!")

4. Leave at least one buffer day when you return. You can do this either by coming home one day early or by telling others that you're coming back to work one day later than you really are. Either way, the idea is to create some space for yourself to transition back to your real life, whether by answering email, doing laundry or just re-acclimating to your normal schedule rather. For the first time in ages, I'm going to take several days off next week after I return from holiday to get ready for my upcoming move. It was really hard for me to allow myself to do this (speaking of "shoulds!"). But now that I know that I have that buffer time, I'm much more relaxed about the vacation itself.

5. Be sure you have the credit card you booked your trip with on you. I know what you're thinking: duh! But my husband and I have twice had the experience where we happened to change credit cards right after booking a trip. We then promptly forgot that we'd done this, canceled the card (literally cut it up with scissors), and then showed up on the day only to discover that we didn't have the right card with us. One time, we actually had to miss our train and wait an extra hour so that the people at the train station could phone our bank. So: do as I say, not as I do, on this one. Trust me.

What have I left out?

*I'm a big fan of packing lists and checklists in general. But here's a great screed against becoming overly dependent upon them, from Big Little Wolf's Daily Plate of Crazy.

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