Mental Health in Transit: Your Summer Travel Survival Guide

If you or someone you know is experiencing a medical emergency, call 911. For 24/7/365 support during a mental health crisis, call 988 or Colorado Crisis Services (1-844-493-8255).

After missing your connecting flight because thunderstorms delayed your first leg, you find that your bags were sent somewhere else. Of course, your child didn’t use the bathroom when you told them to – before you left the airport, without your bags – which adds another layer of urgency when your rental car gets a flat tire on the highway. Yes, it is raining, and yes, your raincoat is in your luggage, currently on its way to Manitoba (or did the clerk say Mauritania?).

There are people who can travel around the world without a single worry, and we’re so happy for them. For the rest of us, even small hiccups in our plans can turn the butterflies in our stomachs into full-on knots.

With summer travel season upon us, how can we maintain as much of our well-being as possible? Whether you have an international itinerary, a family reunion one state over, or a long overdue staycation, you deserve to enjoy the journey. Read on for a few tips to support your mental health in transit.

Mental Health and Traveling

First, let’s define our terminology. By “mental health” here, we mean the overall experience of well-being: our thoughts and feelings, and how they relate to ourselves and the world around us. We all have mental health, and some of us live with mental illness. It’s important that mental illness be managed in partnership with professionals. What we’ll discuss here does not replace the treatment developed with a therapist, psychiatrist, or any other care provider.

This article will focus on ways of managing the stressors and anxieties that are common during travel. We’ll go through a few tips during the beginning, middle and end of your journey. Feel free to pull from whatever might work for you along the way.

Before Traveling

Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or leaving the comfort of home for the first time, we can all benefit from brushing up on the basics.

Make a List and Check it Twice (or More)

Not everyone is a list person – some prefer to keep everything in their heads and handle to-dos as they come to mind. When you are looking at a complex undertaking like traveling, whether a few hours by car or a day or more across national borders with family members, writing down all of the tasks that have to be completed before departure can help organize your thinking. Even for those with visceral aversions to lists, simply writing down a few topics with a general time frame can serve as useful reminders when it’s time to start thinking about something. Here are two examples of ways lists can support your preparations:

(If you like lists) “Travel To-Dos”
– Book flight
– Book hotel
– Reserve rental car
– Save and print confirmation emails
– Arrange pet sitting
– Make packing list
– Make list of things to buy beforehand
– Check suitcase will work
– Go to ATM
– Etc.  

(If you don’t like lists)
“For the Trip”
Logistics: How am I getting there, where am I staying, how am I getting around?  

Luggage: What do I need to bring, will I need anything I don’t have right now?

Pets/Plants/Parents: Which things here will someone else need to take care of while I’m gone?

Practice in Your Head

If you’re someone who gets stressed by all the steps involved with travel, try rehearsing the whole process in your head. Visualize what it will be like to do the final clean-up at home, leaving for the airport, finding your gate, all the way to stepping into your hotel room after you’ve finally made it. This can help you anticipate moments along the way that might contribute to higher levels of stress, or that might require you to think on your feet.

Along your mental journey, think about what you might do if something unexpected happens – if you’ll need to call someone, make sure you have that number handy before you leave; if you’ll need to go to a particular part of the airport, take a look at an airport map before you leave; if you’re driving across the country, use Google Maps to locate all the gas stations along your route.

And while you’re thinking ahead to different scenarios, try upping the ante by doing some light catastrophe planning.

Go Ahead, Catastrophize

We often hear “What’s the worst that can happen?” as a way of disregarding our legitimate concerns. In catastrophe planning, though, this is an intentional question. One version of catastrophe planning follows three questions intended to help us handle the worst case: 1) What are some bad things that could happen? 2) How will I prepare before they happen? 3) How will I respond if they do end up happening? Here are a few examples to get you started:

Airline loses my luggage– Pack 1-2 days’ clothing and essentials in my carry-on
– Budget for new clothes at destination
After getting settled at destination, look for places to buy clothing within budget – maybe a few things that can be washed partway through my stay  
Rental car breaks down or gets a flat tire– Before I start driving, find the phone number for roadside assistance with the rental company, credit card company, AAA
– Locate the spare tire and equipment (road flares, jack) just in case
– Find a safe place to pull over
– Make sure everyone in the car is OK
– Call the assistance number
– Replace the tire if I’m able, otherwise wait for help
A kid – mine or someone else’s – spills something, vomits, or otherwise makes a big mess, probably on a stranger– Bring extra napkins, paper towels, wet wipes, hand sanitizer
– Pack a plastic grocery bag or a few extra Ziploc bags for anything wet/smelly
– Practice apologizing
– Make sure the kid is OK
– Clean up mess and invite the kid to help
– Issue any requisite apologies
– Remind myself that this is just one mess among many
My purse or wallet gets stolen – with my credit cards, phone, passport and hotel key– Before I leave, make copies of credit cards, emergency phone numbers, plane e-tickets and (if applicable) passport – keep copies in luggage or securely online
– (If abroad) Make sure I know the location and contact info of my embassy
– Keep some cash on me but separate (a different pocket, sock, etc.)
– Use the cash I’ve kept separate to take a taxi back to my hotel
– Inform the hotel staff and ask for their help
– Find the copies of my credit cards in case I need to buy something online or over the phone
– (If abroad) Contact the embassy for help with my passport
[Your catastrophe here]    
[And the next one]    

Look Forward to the Good

Now that you’ve spent some time with the bad, it’s important to be intentional about the good. Take some time to think about what you’re looking forward to the most. Are you visiting friends or family you haven’t seen for a long time? Diving into a new local cuisine? Even just having a quiet night in a hotel all to yourself?

If you’re really feeling ambitious, you might make a list of good things you expect and then check them off during your trip. Making a list can also be helpful if this is a trip you’re not particularly excited about – pull it out as a reminder of what to look for when you find yourself carrying more stress, fatigue, or discouragement along the way.

Set Realistic Expectations

While you’re preparing for the good, it’s also important to set realistic expectations. Even if you’re setting off to experience one of the wonders of the modern world, it’s very likely that every moment won’t be Instagram-ready. Your flight might be exhausting. The weather might not be ideal. Maybe your hotel neighbors are too loud, or you end up waiting in line for everything. The point is to be open to the thrilling or even just mildly pleasant aspects of your trip without setting yourself up for disappointment if everything doesn’t come right out of a movie.

During Traveling

You’ve done your homework – made lists, visualized the trip, planned for the worst and primed yourself to look for the best. Here are a few things that can help support your well-being during your travels.


One breathing technique that can help manage stress is known as “square breathing”: breathe in for four counts, hold for four, breathe out for four, hold for four, repeat. This helps us intentionally slow our breathing, which signals to our brain that “everything is OK.” It’s not a perfect cure for stress, but it can be helpful. Try using square breathing before you anticipate changes or stressful moments during your journey – maybe as you’re walking to the line for security, or while you’re waiting at a red light to get onto the interstate.

Eat and Hydrate

This is more than just avoiding “hangry.” Making sure you’re eating when you’re hungry and drinking plenty of water can have a real impact on mental health. Regular meals can support healthy blood sugar levels, and water is critical to how our body functions. Making sure our bodies get the fuel they need will directly help our minds focus, relax and manage stress much more effectively.

Find the Good

You’ve made your list of things to look forward to during your trip. Are there any that might be happening right now? Anything about your traveling so far you could add to the list? Maybe a surprisingly good airport sandwich, someone who held the door for you at the gas station, a nice view out the window you weren’t expecting? These small moments can make a big difference.

Focus on “The Next”

For those stressful trips that just need to be over as soon as possible, try breaking the whole journey into small pieces and focusing on the part that’s coming up next – the next five miles in the car, the next 10 minutes on the plane, finding the hotel. It might make a large undertaking seem more manageable: this is just a series of small steps you can take in stride.

After Traveling (Or, After Reaching Your Destination)

You made it! As you unwind from your journey, there are some small things you can do to get the most benefit from it.

Reflect on Your Experience

Take a moment to reflect on where you are and everything you’ve gone through to get here. Did you have a long flight? A bumpy drive? How many lines did you have to wait through? Now, how does it feel to be where you are? Even if the purpose of your travels isn’t the most thrilling or uplifting, there might be moments along the way to appreciate, at least a little.

Try this same reflection after you return home. Because our memories are so subjective and changeable, this kind of positive reappraisal can help us hold onto the most valuable parts of our travels.

Share Your Experience

We know from the science of well-being that sharing positive experiences with others can amplify them. After you return, take some time to share a few moments from your trip with a friend, family member, or even online community. You might be surprised that people actually want to hear about it. Retelling the high points of your travels can help reinforce those aspects for your own memory, allowing you to recall the positives more easily in the future.

And, if any of these tips have been helpful to you, feel free to share them with the people in your life.

Have any questions about travel and mental health? We’d love to hear from you:

Bon voyage!