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Why travel feels longer on the way home

by Staff

The vacation is over. You’ve soaked up sun in the Caribbean, and now you must embark on the slog back to reality. On the way there, you were jazzed and distracted (did I pack enough underwear? Did we turn off the heater?); the travel day went by in a scramble.

Going home is another story. The same three-hour journey seems to drag on between layovers, traffic and rest stop food. The Biscoff has lost its novelty; the in-flight movies fall flat. As the minutes drip, you start to wonder “How did we ever do this?” and “Why god, why?” You swear to never to leave the house again.

How can one way feel so different than the other?

How optimism impacts your perceived ETA

When they say “it’s the journey, not the destination,” it’s the trip there we romanticize, not necessarily the trip home.

Yonason Goldson, an author and ethicist, says when we travel to a new place, we’re in a better head space. “There’s the expectation that something more exciting, something more interesting, something new, something fun is waiting for us,” he said. “That makes the trip part of the experience.”

By contrast, the trip home feels anticlimactic, Goldson says.

Neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, who practices in New York City, says it’s similar to the experience of your daily commute. On the way to work, you’re starting the day fresh with a lot on your plate. But when you’re exhausted at the end of the day, the sentiment is more, “I just want to get home already,” she said.

Hafeez experiences this after long weekends at her vacation home in the mountains. She’s done the drive enough that there’s no mystery as to how long it takes; just the mounting pile of chores looming in her future.

“That’s been my experience, especially flying coast to coast,” Gary Small, chair of psychiatry at the Hackensack University Medical Center and author of “The Memory Bible.” “You’re really anticipating getting home, seeing the family. You’ve had enough.”

Small likens it to being back in school. Toward the end of the day “we were always looking at that clock and waiting for it to hit 3:15, and those last minutes seem to take forever,” he said. “We wanted to get out and go home and play. The psychological component really colors it.”

Or maybe it’s the oncoming weight of post-vacation blues. The Germans even have a word for it, says travel planner Sandra Weinacht: Post-Urlaubsdepression. Translation: the depression after the vacation. As the saying goes: time flies when you’re having fun. Perhaps time crawls when you’re sad.

When the trip home doesn’t feel longer

In a highly unscientific poll I conducted on Instagram Stories, 126 responders said travel feels longer on the way home, while 41 said it feels longer getting longer. A handful of participants from the latter camp sent messages emphatically defending their experience.

Sometimes the journey back feels shorter because it is shorter thanks to the phenomenon of tailwinds — particularly when flying east — which can speed planes up. This could obviously work in reverse, making the trip there shorter.

But sometimes, it’s just a feeling. Hafeez and Small point to the “return trip effect” which argues that the first leg of a trip can feel longer because of our tendency to inaccurately predict how long it will take. We may guess the way there will go by quicker than it does, and end up having a “violation of expectation” as a result.

“On the way back, because you’ve already experienced the longer trip, the return can actually feel shorter by comparison,” Hafeez said.

It could also be that by the return trip, you’ve had some practice. The way there may feel mentally strenuous, but once you’ve gotten to know the route, Small says it can feel less challenging.

The return trip effect usually occurs when you’re traveling somewhere for the first time. So if you’re taking your usual summer vacation — the kind of trip you know so well you could get there with your eyes closed — the return can seem to stretch.

Small recommends introducing some novelty into the trip home to take the edge off. “That’s where the time distortion comes in,” he said. “Focusing on the anticipation of getting there rather than focusing on the moment and enjoying it.”

As a brain health and memory expert, Small often recommends people “train but don’t strain your brain.” He says that can be doing puzzles (if you’re not driving, obviously), engaging in conversations or taking different routes to challenge your mind during transit.

“When you don’t know the route and you’re discovering it, you’re kind of in the moment rather than anticipating the future,” Small said.

Hafeez recommends downloading plenty of podcasts or audiobooks, or arranging phone dates with people you’d like to catch up with if you’re going to be in the car a long time.

Or you can tweak how you travel altogether. Susan Sherren, founder of the travel agency Couture Trips, encourages clients to plan trips with a “bell curve” itinerary. Ease into the vacation, crescendo into the exciting, action-packed days, then slow down the pace before it’s over so you’re not left feeling as frazzled.

You can also plan activities to look forward to when you get home to soften a crash landing back into your normal routine. Every time I pad my trip with a buffer day, I am eternally grateful.

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