Jaime Kurtz has visited 29 countries and 45 of the 50 United States.
She’s backpacked through Southeast Asia, ridden a motorbike in Vietnam, and eaten pintxos y jamon in San Sebastian, Spain.
And she’s done it on a budget.
“Travel contains so many hidden costs, and many people are making a living off of your travel buck,” she writes in her new book “The Happy Traveller,” which will be published in July 2017. Spend too much and you may regret it, she says, but spend too little and you may miss out.
Kurtz knows what she’s talking about. The self-proclaimed “happiness researcher” is a professor of psychology at James Madison University and writes that being happy on your travels without shelling out a fortune requires “a consideration of human psychology: decision-making, hedonic adaptation, and the power of persuasion.”
She’s boiled that study down to five questions you can ask to make sure you’re getting the most happiness for the least money on your next vacation:
1. What will I adapt to? What will stop bringing me happiness after a few days?
People tend to adapt to the circumstances and surroundings, and travelling is no exception, says Kurtz. To keep things “fresh and new” she recommends avoiding staying in the same place for a long period of time, as it might start to feel ordinary. “A key factor here is novelty,” writes Kurtz. “Build it into your travels yourself, strategically. Be sure to see something new or do something different everyday,” she continues.
2. Will choosing cheap cost me time and stress later on? If so, is the trade-off worth it?
Sometimes, the immediately more expensive option can save you money — and stress — in the long run. For instance, you may end up spending more money in an attempt to entertain yourself during your six-hour layover than you would have to take the direct flight. Or, you may choose a cheaper hotel on the outskirts of the city or town you’re visiting, which means you have to find transportation into the town every day … and pay for it. It’s important to consider stress as well as money, says Kurtz.
3. What can I pay for upfront, before the trip even begins?
Book things online if possible, or buy tickets ahead of time for activities you are sure you want to do, such as visiting a particular museum or a show. That way, you can be thoughtful about what you want to spend money on and what’s most valuable to you, rather than making impulsive decisions in the moment.
4. What kind of souvenirs do they sell in these locations?
Think about what you want to buy on your trip “before you’re put into a high-pressure, now-or-never spending situation,” says Kurtz. At home before your trip, when you aren’t tempted by overflowing shops and endless options, you can decide which souvenirs are worth the money and what gifts would be best to buy for friends and family. When you are in the moment, ask yourself, “Is this item tied to any special memories or unique emotions?” says Kurtz. When you return home, you’ll probably value a tee-shirt from the bar you closed out every night more than a magnet you grabbed in the airport.
5. How should I arrange my experiences over the course of my trip?
Take advantage of a few common psychological concepts to figure out when you should do what. Specifically, Kurtz suggests, “anchoring” and the “peak-end rule.”
“Anchoring” works particularly well when you’re travelling to more than one place. By anchoring the most expensive destinations at the beginning of your trip, you’re setting yourself up for greater satisfaction when prices go down and you can get more for your money in cheaper destinations.
The peak-end rule, as Kurtz explains, was coined by a Nobel-Prize winning researcher named Daniel Kahneman, who investigated whether a memory is influenced by its emotional peak (its best or worst moment), and also how the experience ended. As Kurtz highlights, he found that how the experience ended was “most critical for satisfaction.” Make sure to plan for a great last night of your trip.
“One well-established piece of happiness advice is to buy experiences over material possessions,” writes Kurtz. So if you’re planning a trip, you’re off to a great start.
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