Scared to Step Onto That Plane? 10 Essential Tips for Travel Anxiety

Roman Maas
Oct 14, 2016 · 8 min read
Photo: Steven Lewis

So, you are about to leave for another country. You have booked a flight and accommodation and bought comfortable new shoes and those small travel sized toiletries. You have saved up hard earned money and are looking forward to this journey for months. Your dream location is waiting for you and you have so many plans. But then again, something feels not right in your belly. Anxious thoughts are going through your head:

“I am leaving for a different country! There is so much that can go wrong! What if I lose my passport at the airport? What if I get sick? I get sick all the time and especially in stressful situations like this. Nobody knows before when illness strikes them and I have been healthy for a suspiciously long time. Also, injuries happen to me a lot when I am in a rush. Imagine spraining my ankle somewhere on the street in a city where I know absolutely no one. I have to look up the phrase ‘Help me, I need to go to the hospital’ and ‘I need crutches otherwise I am helpless!’ in their language.“

Those thoughts and feelings can increase when the date of departure gets closer. Restlessness, nights without sleep, ruminations, physical symptoms of anxiety, even panic attacks can occur. One of the reflexes of someone suffering from anxiety would be to make up some excuses for oneself and cancel the trip:

“I think I am staying at home. I have slight headaches and this usually is a sign that I am going to become very, very ill. I have the choice of risking a path of suffering in an unknown and probably dangerous environment or just stay in bed, heal and wait for a better opportunity.”

Many people have robbed themselves of great experiences this way. But the right thing to do is: If you are physically able to go on a plane or a train, do it. But this is easier said than done. Here are some thoughts and tips what to do when travel anxiety hits you before or during your trip.

Plan Ahead

Several studies of plane accidents and panic simulations have shown that there is one group of people whose survival chance is significantly higher than everybody else’s: Those who have a plan for when things go wrong.

If you know what moves you have to make to get out of there and spend no time on thinking what’s the best decision, you’ll be quicker and more clear-headed than the rest.

Write down, what you’d do if things go wrong. Make copies of your important documents and keep the originals in a safe hiding place. Scan and save them in a safe cloud service like Spideroak, so that you have access to your bank data, Passport ID, etc. even if they rob everything you have on you. The more you prepare beforehand the more relaxed you will be while abroad.

But: be ready to throw your plans out of the window when you have arrived. There will be so many new options you haven’t read about on the internet.

Photo: Morre Christophe

Put Music on Your Ears

Music and sounds can be very important when it comes to emotional stability. The right tunes can calm down or wake you up within minutes. With portable music, there is always a way to change feelings. On airports, it helps to listen to peaceful sounds, especially if you feel uneasy and anxious before the flight. On the plane music and audiobooks can turn the negative thoughts away.

Use music consciously to change your mood, not only to calm down but to get pumped as well. If you are sitting alone in the hotel room, afraid of exploring the nightlife of an unknown city, put on some powerful dance or rock music, start moving and soon you’ll be dying to get out.

Learn Relaxation Techniques

This might sound like a large commitment for someone who has never done anything like that before, but it actually takes just a couple of minutes every day. There are countless techniques that teach you how to calm down and work out negative thoughts and feelings: Meditation, yoga, autogenic training, self-hypnosis…if you feel stressed but are skeptical towards spiritual stuff, Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) might be worth looking into, it is scientifically backed and stripped of the esoteric stuff. Methods like that are applicable everywhere and anytime, be it in the departure lounge or on a speedboat.

Photo: Ezra Jeffrey

Never Cancel, Go With Your Program

Sometimes the urge of going back or staying where you are is overwhelming. When it comes to travelling this is totally understandable. You are going to step in a plane that is speeding up to 900 km/h into an altitude of 10.000 meters. Hours later it is hopefully landing safely on the other end of the world in a country where you know nothing and no one and cannot even speak the language. In the hotel room, you might feel that it would be absolute madness to go outside, everybody will know you are a tourist and therefore an easy victim for bandits.

It is important to know that having bad feelings and negative thought loops about those extreme situations is absolutely normal. Everybody has them. Especially on the day of departure, this can become harrowing. But you have made up your mind about going. Everything you do is small steps. Packing the bags is a couple of dozen small actions, all of them doable. Taking your key and going out the door is doable. Stepping into a plane or onto a boat and taking a seat is doable. Often enough the anxiety will vanish once you stop thinking about it and start doing it.

Eat Healthy and Exercise

Well, this is an advice you might have heard before. Of course, exercise and healthy food are always good for you, but preparing for a travel adventure might give you a new incentive for adjusting your daily habits. Even if you are not going free climbing or rafting, it still is a good thing when you are in shape and don’t collapse after a couple of strokes in the pool. Endurance is also a good thing to have when exploring new environments. And cutting down on sugars and fats before you take off will definitely heighten the joy of trying plenty of new foods abroad.

If you have increased your training, you have taken more action towards your trip, are much better prepared and have therefore fewer reasons to be afraid.

Don’t Confuse Excitement With Anxiety

Travelling is, just like about everything else, never one hundred percent fun. There will be stressful situations, moments when you are lost or frustrated, maybe even dangerous situations where your heart beats like never before. This is all part of it. And the good thing about it is, that a certain amount of struggle is necessary to enjoy the really good moments. When you go on an all-inclusive trip where the agency picks you up from the airport, drives you to your club hotel and shows you the beach while carrying your luggage, the view will not be half as beautiful and fulfilling as if you would have made a one day trip without enough water through stony hills to see the seaside.

The feeling you get when you read an adventure story or watch a movie might be excitement for the hero. But when you find yourself in a similar — albeit less dangerous — situation, you feel that unnerving pressure in the belly that tells you to leave it be and go home. Don’t think about it as anxiety, think of it as excitement, a little bit of stress before things get really great.

Express Your Worries

When coping with anxiety issues, it is always helpful if you have the chance to unload your problems to someone who will understand. If there is no one near you, there are tons of forums and self-help groups on the internet. Writing down how you feel, even if no one else will read, helps to clear up your negative thoughts.

Photo: Wil Stewart

Watch Your Surroundings

Thinking ahead is a good thing but when you are in a foreign location, it is realistic that every plan you thought of in your home gets messed up by unpredictable events. In your hometown it is not really necessary to be attentive all the time, when you have taken the same train, walked the same route and ate at the same shop for years and years. But when you are in an unknown environment your everyday blindness can not only keep you from discovering new things but also bring you in stressful situations.

Keeping your eyes and ears open not only in traffic but also for the behaviour of people helps not only with getting to know another culture but it also sharpens your senses when it comes to suspicious situations. Just like planning ahead, watching your surroundings helps with anxiety because it turns something unknown into something familiar. And stop looking in your phone every minute!

Don’t Forget Your Connections Back Home

If you are feeling unwell while on the road it is good to have someone at home who can listen to your troubles and helps to get your mind off the stress. It‘s good to tell someone trusted before you leave that you might call. In times of Skype, Whatsapp and so on, communication should be no problem anywhere. On the other hand, don’t forget why you went on that trip and compulsively hang on the phone or laptop every day. Travelling is a time with reduced digital communication.

Accept That it Cannot be Perfect

So, you managed to get on that plane, check into that chill hostel, and take a walk all by yourself. You have beaten fears, that many people will never overcome. But now you’d like to go into that gloomy local bar to have a beer but you just can’t step inside. You see a group of nice people sitting in the park but you will never have the guts to just join them. Nothing will ever play out perfectly and the sooner you accept this the better. Even when you have reached your dream location there will be annoying things and people who you’ll like to avoid as hell. But this is just how things are and now you are on vacation and you have it fully deserved to just once in a while give a damn about your problems.

Photo: Patrick Fore
Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade