Samantha Hamilton was more than ready for her two-week solo trip to Thailand. She purposely packed her schedule to the brim to fit in everything she wanted to do: have an ethical elephant encounter, visit a Buddhist temple and snorkel its clear turquoise waters.
Partway into her trip, she realized she wasn’t enjoying her itinerary and was operating on autopilot. She felt “completely drained, mentally and physically.” That day, she had plans to go on a hike and snorkel, but felt like she wouldn’t even enjoy those activities because of how tired she was.
So she took the day off and did absolutely nothing except catch up on sleep in her hotel room.
Looking back on her trip, she said that day off “saved” her trip. “I know it sounds silly, but that one day of rest completely recharged my batteries,” she said. The next day, she woke up feeling recharged and ready to engage with her trip.
It can feel strange to take a vacation from your vacation like this, and Hamilton admitted she sometimes feels “a pang of guilt” when she does spend a day not leaving her hotel. “I think there’s so much pressure to see and do everything while traveling that it’s lost on a lot of people that we also need time to rest. That’s what a vacation is for, right?”
The case for taking a rest day during your vacation can seem counterintuitive, but it may actually help your vacation – and mental health – in the long run, according to Ellie Borden, a psychotherapist in Canada.
“It is crucial to remember the purpose of a vacation. Most of us live busy lives with little downtime,” she told USA TODAY.
Vacations are the perfect opportunity to be fully present and engage in elements of self-care, such as unwinding, recentering and gratitude, Borden said, which can leave you feeling recharged for when you return to everyday life. That may mean going off on some adventures but also taking the day off to bask in total leisure, like ordering room service or napping with a movie on.
The cost of a trip can place pressure to make the most of it
As Hamilton experienced, it’s easier said than done to sit back and relax while on vacation. For many Americans, vacation is precious and literally sitting a day out can feel like a waste. About two out of three Americans said they feel “too much pressure during their vacation to actually enjoy it,” according to a survey by Club Wyndham.
Taking a vacation isn’t something Americans are good at. Paid time off for most Americans is limited to begin with. In 2021, one-third of private industry workers received 10 to 14 days off a year after one year of working. Americans also take fewer vacation days than the rest of the world, according to a 2022 report by Expedia.
Remote working brought on by the pandemic has given some people more flexibility on where they can work, but many people have experienced serious burnout after the boundary between work and home blurred during the pandemic.
BOOK A TIMESLOT: Are reservations system the way to manage overtourism in Hawaii?
WORKING ABROAD: The top 5 safest, healthiest countries for female digital nomads
Inflation and rising costs also make going on vacation a burden on folks’ wallets. Not everyone has the luxury to travel more than once a year or for long periods of time, so “giving up” a day or two can feel disconcerting.
Faith Hansen and her family used to feel this way on their vacations.
“As budget family travelers, we are always conscious of the cost of a trip,” she said. “And with that awareness of the cost can come the dreaded mentality to ‘get the most out of every single day of travel.'”
On a trip to Copenhagen with her 11-year-old in tow, the family felt obligated to go on a canal cruise since everyone said it was a must-do and it was included in a city pass they already bought. So the family dragged themselves and their tired child onto the boat for what ended up being “a wonderfully awful afternoon.”
Now the family allows themselves to say no to “amazing” activities on vacation if they feel like they are forcing themselves to go.
People should redefine vacation not just to include exploring the destination but having “down time” too, according to Anita Astley, a Chicago-based psychologist.
“Time is your most important commodity, so spend it wisely,” Astley told USA TODAY. “Downtime is and should be an integral part of any vacation.” (For what it’s worth, Astley said even a staycation or taking time off and unplugging at home count as downtime.)
“Work through your guilt by giving yourself permission to not be active,” Astley said. “It’s OK. Remind yourself why you’re there in the first place; to get some much-needed rest from your day-to-day grind.”
As a London-based travel and money writer and mother of two, Kathleen Porter Kristiansen said she used to “fight my own guilt of watching (my kids) do something in an incredible location that they could do at home,” such as watching television in the hotel room, but “the pandemic taught me to slow it down a bit.”
Can you get fatigued during vacation?
“As enjoyable as it may be to explore your surroundings while on vacation, even fun activities can eventually tire you,” Borden said.
“If you don’t take the time to properly relax when on vacation, and come back home feeling as if your vacation was somehow unsatisfying or unrelaxing, despite having participated in all the activities you thought would leave you feeling as if your vacation was a lot of fun, that is when you should feel guilty or like you’ve just wasted your vacation time (not to mention your money),” she added.
Hamilton agreed with first-hand experience. “Fatigue plays a big role in preventing yourself from being in the moment, and eliminating this opens up easier opportunities to stay present on your trip,” she said. When she’s tired, she doesn’t take in the new food and culture of the destination the way she wants to, and that feels like a waste of her time and money. She now tries to plan each trip to include a two-night stay so she can dedicate one day or night for rest and still explore her destination.
When thinking about her first rest day on that vacation in Thailand, Hamilton said: “The next day, I woke up and had more focus and appreciation for where I was. I felt more prepared to be in the moment versus thinking, ‘I just have to get through this day until I can sleep again.’ I think everyone’s been there on a trip, and it’s no fun.”
Now Hamilton always strives to strike a balance by taking at least one day dedicated to rest on her trips, and she chooses the day based on what her body says. On that day, she’ll sleep in, read a book, eat at the hotel and nap.
How to work rest days into your vacation
Constantly being on the go or not catching up on sleep from a long travel journey can impede on your ability to enjoy your vacation, Borden said. Start your trip off by recharging your batteries and sleeping as much as you need. “You will know when you have caught up on your sleep when you begin to feel restless, and that is the time to start going out and having a good time,” Borden said.
Strike balance on your trip by planning down time for every activity you plan. “For example, if you spend one-day visiting sights, take the next day to relax by the pool,” Astley said.
If it’s a group trip you’re going on, Astley recommended having a conversation with your travel companions to share your needs and set expectations around vacation time.
If you struggle to “enjoy doing ‘nothing,'” Astley said a good starting place is reading a book or journaling during your rest day. “It’s not too often that in our busy lives we get to take advantage of some ‘me’ time; something we all need to calibrate ourselves,” she said.
Do you incorporate rest days into your vacations? Why or why not?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Relaxing vacation ideas: The best advice is to do nothing. Here’s how.