Vacations are deceptively complex.
By their very nature they’re meant to be stress-free, so we assume we shouldn’t put too much thought into them.
But behavioral science research actually tells us that certain strategies will almost always make certain types of trips better than others – both in cost and overall satisfaction.
Here’s how to take the perfect vacation.
Plan as far ahead as you can to build anticipation.
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely points out that a week-long trip to Disney World is actually composed of three things: months of anticipation, the trip itself, and the pangs of nostalgia you experience for years afterwards.
To maximize your enjoyment, you should cater to all three stages.
Airfare is cheapest approximately 57 days before a flight, so it's wise to hold off on finalizing until then. But you can still browse hotels or take virtual Mad Tea Party rides on YouTube months before that. One 2010 study found that the majority of people were happier before their trip than they were after they returned.
That's because anticipation is a powerful thing - it's essentially the same reason you're happier on Friday than on Sunday.
Limit yourself to a few options to minimize regret.
Do you take a cruise in the Caribbean? A hike through the Rockies? What about a food tour in New Orleans? And how do you guarantee that selecting one won't make you regret not choosing the others?
Psychologists have shown that when the human brain encounters too many options, it shuts down. Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls it the "paradox of choice." Some choice is better than none, he says, but it doesn't hold that more is always better than less.
Before your trip, narrow down your choices to just two options. You'll feel better knowing you picked the best one.
Take a one-week vacation; you won't remember two.
Famed behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman argues we're made up of two selves: our experiencing self and our remembering self. The experiencing self lives in the moment. The remembering self lives in the past.
Our remembering self has a hard time telling apart a one-week vacation from a two-week one because, as Kahneman says, "there are no new memories added. You have not changed the story." From the perspective of the remembering self, short and long vacations are effectively equal.
Give yourself time to mentally ease into vacation mode.
Al Gini, a business ethics professor at Loyola University of Chicago, is the author of "The Importance of Being Lazy." He suggests people take a few days to unwind before the trip actually starts. You can use the time to pack up and get chores out of the way so that you're fully ready to settle into your trip.
The less you rush, the easier it'll be to start the vacation on the right foot.
Spend money on experiences, not stuff, to maximize happiness.
Vacations are already on the right track when it comes to maximizing happiness: Spending money on memorable experiences instead of the cool new car or gadget is probably going to make you happier.
You can take that wisdom into the vacation itself. Minimize the budget you set for coffee mugs and hoodies, and spend as much time as possible building the memories that your remembering self will love.
Explore in the beginning, savor at the end.
Brian Christian, computer scientist and co-author of "Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions," says probability can help us decide when to try new things and when to stick with the familiar.
It's called the "explore/exploit" problem. ("Exploit" here is a computing term that basically means "savor.")
"One should generally be more exploratory at the start of a vacation ... and more 'exploitative' at the end," he told Business Insider. This is because your chances of finding a place, meal, or experience that you like better than the ones you've already tried go down as time passes.
Everything is new on Day 1, so embrace that. By Day 7, you pretty much know what you like, and even if you make a great discovery, you won't have time to come back. So savor your favorite things.
Plan your most exciting activities for the middle or end.
Another finding from Kahneman is the so-called "peak-end rule": people mostly remember the peak of and end of a given event. If I gave you a list of names, for instance, you'd probably remember last names on the list and the most unique one.
Vacations work the same way. If you can, schedule the ziplining or the big winery tour toward the middle and the giant bonfire at the end.
Once you're home, talk about your trip to make your memories permanent.
If a rafting trip got you super fired up, tell all your friends about it over coffee after you get back. Research on happiness suggests that people can preserve how they feel about an experience by talking about it.
A 2015 study even found people reported greater happiness levels when they talked about their experiences rather than their material purchases. It's a surefire way to keep the joys of vacation alive, even in the months after you've returned to your cubicle.