people sitting on chair inside building
Photo by Rayhan Fahmi

8 Tips to Beat Travel Anxiety

Traveling is almost unbearably stressful – even if it is for vacation. Especially if it is for work and you have to be places on time. Ironically not traveling during the pandemic was taking a serious toll on our mental health. But now, traveling again is affecting our mental health in new and different ways.

Sleep deprivation, time pressure, lack of a regular food and exercise routines, and unavoidable delays are hallmarks of travel, even pre-pandemic. But now, there is definitely a more palpable pressure and it seems to boil over when you get to the airport. Even if you have your boarding pass prior, you have to figure out what to do with your checked luggage, where to go to verify your documentation, and then deal with security, having your bags taken aside for screening, and long, crazy lines. That is, if random storms and airline strikes do not cause your flight to cancel altogether. Airlines are making things a little bit easier by allowing you to upload test results and attestation forms beforehand, but it still is a big to-do to even get through airport security. And, if your last journey was like mine, you will sit on the tarmac for 3 hours because of some “missing paperwork.” Why is paperwork always such an issue – is that code for something else? Seems like an almost anachronistic reference, like isn’t everything in the cloud? Regardless, these delays can cause you stress especially if you have a connecting flight.

This current situation has turned up the travel stress to about 1000. But we need to keep on going – especially for business travel. So how do we deal with the stomach-gnawing anxiety and uphold our mental health? My tips follow – and they are the best ones, because I just tried them out on myself in real time.

Tip #1 – Be Prepared

You can manage a lot of the stress up front. Here are the best ways you can be prepared:

  • To the best of your ability, book direct flights and avoid layovers. If there is no direct flight, consider alternate ways to get to your destinatoin, like trains, rental car, ferry or Uber. One airport is stressful enough. Even though this cannot always be accomplished at least try to minimize the layovers and leave plenty of time between flights. An hour or even 90 minutes no longer cuts it.
  • Make sure your passport is good for travel for at least 9 months. This will prevent a lot of unpleasant last minute surprises, like having to cancel your trip (generally, the rule is that you have to have 6 months on your passport, but it varies).
  • Have the most updated version of your airline app on your phone, and make sure the notifications are turned on and that you are signed up for text alerts
  • If you have not already gotten TSA pre-check and CLEAR, get both ASAP. Global entry too. This used to basically eliminate waiting at the airport and it still makes it a whole lot better.
  • Log into your airline profile on the web and update all of your information: Passport, legal name, known traveler number, so that all this information is set up for when you need to check in.
  • If you have to get a test the day before you fly out, make sure you have an appointment and a reliable way to scan and upload it to your airline.
  • Check in and get a mobile pass and then save it to your wallet. It is also a good idea to print it out if you have access to a printer as a back-up. Most of the time for international travel you have to go to the desk, so make sure that the agent prints out a paper boarding pass as well.
  • Be super organized. Get a multi-compartmental carry on travel bag, several of which I recommended in my post on staying fit while traveling. Make a checklist for your carry-on luggage. Here is a sample from one of mine.
    • Paperwork: Identification, Covid documentation, Contact tracing forms, printout of airline travel confirmation with booking reference number.
    • Electronics: phone, laptop, chargers, USB cables, adapters
    • Pens and extra paper in case you have to take down information quickly
    • Liquids packed and ready to go
    • Gum and breathmints
    • Makeup and a small travel hairbrush to freshen up before you land (or if you are a guy, consider some facewipes and a comb)
  • Get a separate small bag for your passport, phone, and boarding pass. Something that you can also place inside a carry on bag. You can get some ideas for bags in this post . I love the Roma travel cross-body bag, it is so functional:
This is a great place to keep your phone, passport, boarding pass and vaccine card.

Tip #2 – Get the Earliest Plane (or Train, Bus, Boat) Possible

This is just a smart way to manage risk. The earliest flights means that the departing aircraft gets in the night before. If there is an issue with that, you will likely discover it BEFORE you leave for the airport. If the flight is delayed, no matter by how long, worst case scenario is that you will sit on the plane or in the waiting area for more time. I will tell you what to do with that time in a bit.

Earlier flights also mean less crowded airports, less hassle at security lines, and having the rest of the day to figure out whatever may have to be done if interruptions occur, not to mention getting to your destination earlier. Since most hotels have a 3pm check-in, call and ask for an early check-in option. In some cases, you can specify when you make the reservation online. 

Tip #3 – Do not check bags. Just don’t do it. 

Checking a bag adds fifty levels of complications to your trip. It’s difficult to get a boarding pass in advance. You have to wait in line before you can even go through security. In many cases, there is a “self-drop” off and it can be confusing if the primary language is not English. Inevitably, there will be droves of people waiting to check in with shopping carts and at least 8 bags in front of you.

Not to mention, when you get to your destination, the last thing you want to do is wait around at some baggage carousel, often in stuffy and sometimes unairconditioned situations. Being able to trot off the plane and get out to where you are supposed to be is an exhilarating feelings. 

Unless you are moving to another country, no person should need to check bags. I feel very strongly about this. I have an ex-client and great friend who is a world traveler, and this is her number one rule. Carry on and make your life easy. “But I have too much stuff!” No you don’t. You are taking TOO MUCH STUFF. And you will have to pack even more stuff when you come back. Even many airports are encouraging passengers to avoid carrying on luggage. Also, you don’t want to end up like these KLM passengers in Amsterdam

Here are the tips from an experienced carry-on traveler you can use to be a carry-on superstar. 

  • You really don’t need as much stuff as you think you do. Think about when you pack and how often you think, well, I might need to wear this. Uh-uh. Unless you know for sure you will need an evening gown, do not pack one. And remember unless you are traveling on a Peace Corps mission where you really do not need anything that you will be going to a place where there are plenty of stores and you can buy an extra outfit, sunscreen, shampoo, or whatever you need. There is no need to pack toiletries beyond what you can fit into a TSA approved bag. 
  • Learn how to pack. No, seriously, there is a “rolling” technique for your clothes that you need to learn ASAP if you do not know it already. And who better to teach you than Marie Condo in a TWO MINUTE video. The takeaway is this – fold vertically, and put heavier items like shoes on top. Wear your sneakers in transit, because you need to be able to get through airports quickly, and they take up the most space in your suitcase. 
  • Take a few staples, and mix and match. Guess what. No one will be tracking what outfit you are wearing every day. For business travel, I often take a black blazer and mix that with different pants and skirts, or I wear the same suit more than once. On vacation, I wear the same pair of jean shorts almost every day with a few different tops on rotation. I bring ONE dress for dinners out, and ONE day dress. And that’s IT. There is always a store you are going to run into when you buy a dress like this one: 

Tip #4 – Make the Airport a Destination

If you do need to have a flight layover, consider the international hubs and what to avoid. For example, at this time, you probably want to avoid airports like Heathrow, Schipol, and Charles de Gaulle. You can even check out this list from Timeout Magazine on the airports with the most flights and cancellations. 

Schedule at least a 2-hour layover, or even 3 to be safe. Even if that means a longer layover, you can usually get a “pass” to enter the city and be a tourist for a day. Large airports also have a lot to explore: restaurants, shopping, bookstores. At a long layover in Berlin, I bought this very unique necklace and to this day still get stopped on the street asking where I got it: 

The great thing about airport shopping is that you can but the most unusual things.

If you are a frequent flier or have certain credit cards (e.g., Amex) you can get access to premium lounges, which provide quality spaces to work, great wi-fi, fancy buffets, and nice, single person restrooms. Having to spend some extra time in one of those will not be so bad. 

Even sans lounge, many airports boast a wide selection of restaurants and coffeeshops, so you can definitely plan on treating yourself to a nice sit-down meal, a massage, even a manicure. In airports like SFO, they even have a yoga space. The silver lining is sometimes hard to see but it helps when it looks and smells good.

Tip #5 – Accept the Chaos

I recently read a great Vox Article, The Case for Caring Less. It gives a lot of really great down to earth advice about how to zoom out the lens and put things in perspective. Which especially applies when you are traveling at peak times. The article advises that when you are constantly stressed, your body goes into “flight or flight,” and this makes it difficult to find the right perspective. In these instances ask if what is happening has anything to do with your ultimate values or goals. If it doesn’t do not give that situation or people surrounding it power by letting them dictate your outlook on your life in general. This will free up space in your mind to care more about things that really matter and less about things that are annoying but will not last beyond the day.

No matter how much you can do to prepare, you can’t prepare for everything. Unexpected messes will happen. Before you get to the airport, consider doing a short meditation (which you can get from my YouTube playlist), and take several DEEP breaths. You will need them. Don’t drink too much coffee or energy drink, because your adrenaline will already be flying. Manage your expectations that everything will not go perfectly. Of course you should not expect it to go Meet the Parents bad (in the first film), but definitely be prepared for uncertainty and for being surrounded by frustrated, anxious people. Including the people who work at the airport. They may come off rude, but they are trying the best they can to do their jobs in pretty bad conditions, so try giving everyone a pass and always take the high road.

This is as simple as resisting the temptation to engage with someone who insists they were first before you in line (or imaginary line), or dealing with impatient people who respond poorly when you try to get clarification on something. Air rage is a real thing. It is important to remember that no matter how right you may be in the situation at the moment, the problem is always by definition temporary because none of it will matter 6 hours from now and you will likely never see those people again.

Tip #6 – Focus On What You Can Control, Not What You Cannot

Focusing on what you can control will rebuild a sense of power and calm. You cannot control the situation, but you can also control your reaction and the way you process the information. Stopping and slowing down can be difficult, but it helps if you ask yourself questions like:

Is this an actual problem? (because sometimes it is not, you are just catastrophizing?)

Is there something I can do about this situation?

Do I have to act right now?

And if the answers are no, then let go. You cannot do anything, nor should you try. That worry and fear is likely to damage you more than the event itself. So what should you do instead?

Instead, focus on what you can control. Sometimes when flights are delayed I find it is the best time for getting work done, so be sure you always have a personal hotspot. If you have to be offline, make sure you have downloaded work you can do even without a connection.

If you find that too stressful, distract yourself with other things. Some people like to play games on their phone. I enjoy reading fitness magazines (shocker). But immersing yourself in something entertaining – a book, game, or magazine, will buy you time, which is all that is usually needed for the situation to resolve. You can also listen to a podcast or watch a YouTube video, but make sure you have the other ear uncovered to hear important announcements. I can really get distracted by a good True Crime channel, especially one hosted by women who apply makeup while talking about the case (this is really a thing).

Or pick up the phone and call someone you have been meaning to catch up with, like a good friend or your parent. Hearing a comforting voice will also calm your anxiety and make you appreciate the people and things that really matter. When we travel, we are thrown into this artificial capsule of time and space. When you see other people, remember that they have actual lives and people who care for them, and try to be kind, even if they totally disrespect travel etiquette.

woman holding pink luggage
Photo by Danijela Prijovic

Tip #7 Learn From the Past For An Easier Future

Once the travel is over, we tend to treat it like a bad dream – forget about it as soon as you can. But it is going to benefit you in the future to take some notes about what you may have learned to make your experience easier. For example, note what airports have extra security or passport controls. Or which airports have CLEAR lines, Amex airport lounges, or good Wi-Fi. All of these factsrs can help you navigate through much easier on your next trip.

It also helps to remember those times when you experienced situations and those moments when you feel helpless. In those moments, you felt like something was slipping away, but eventually it would come back and you’d move onto the next thing.

Because all the worry and anxiety in the world is not going to stop it happening – either in full or in part.

Tip #8 Give Yourself Time to Decompress

If you are traveling for business, it can often be in the middle of the week. If you can, plan on taking the rest of the day after you arrive off and is possible the next day to give yourself time to get organized, depending on the length of the trip. Especially if the trip is international, you need time to adjust to the jet lag and get back into your routine. Plan on something relaxing the day after, like a massage or a yoga class. Drink a lot of water because being in the air dehydrates you, which leads to more stress.

More resources:

Travel Stress Advice (International Association for Medical Assistance for Travelers)

5 Tips to Reduce Stress While Traveling (Passport Health)

Leave a Reply