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Stress is a given on vacation, so plan on it -- and then relax

Delegating pre-trip chores and using tension-reduction techniques can add up to a smoother ride.

November 20, 2005|Kathleen Doheny | Healthy Traveler

IF you're dreading holiday air travel and all it entails — long lines, weather delays, stuffed-to-the-gills airplane cabins — just hope you're on a flight with someone like Barbara Lewis.

The Texas teacher was a one-woman stress-reduction show on a delayed flight from Istanbul, Turkey, to New York's JFK Airport a few years ago.

"We had actually started moving, and then they decided something was wrong with the plane," Lewis says. While mechanics worked on the problem, passengers stewed. "People were getting very cranky," Lewis recalls.

"The flight attendants didn't pass out any food or drink because they kept thinking we would be leaving any minute, but it stretched on to about two or three hours."

Then Lewis, who was traveling with a friend, remembered that she had a stash of Christmas cookies she had planned to take home to Dallas. "So we started munching," she says. "Then we figured everyone else was hungry, so we started up and down the aisle handing out Santa Claus-shaped butter cookies…. Then we started being silly and singing Christmas carols and, I think, managed to jolly along the other passengers.

"Would this have worked on a planeload of New Yorkers? I don't know, but the Turkish people seemed to enjoy it."

If you've traveled during the holidays, you know you're more likely to bump into Scrooges than Barbara Lewises. So you'll have to employ stress-reduction techniques yourself.

Start with planning, say stress-reduction experts and airline officials. That goes double if you're traveling with small children or older people.

Stress reduction begins well before departure, says Peter A. Wish, a Sarasota, Fla., psychologist: "Lay out the game plan ahead of time as much as you can."

Compile lists of what needs to be done before departure, such as making arrangements for mail pickup and newspapers.

"Women have a tendency to be the self-appointed social directors in a family," Wish says. He tells them to delegate some pre-trip preparation to their spouses and to their children, if they're old enough. Older children can pack on their own, with parents checking contents when they are done.

Discuss ahead of time with the people you're traveling with what the stress points are, Wish says, and try to resolve them.

"We took our daughter on a cruise one year, and she was dreading that there wouldn't be any other kids her age," he says. As soon as they boarded, Wish's wife found a family traveling with nine teens.

"My daughter was in heaven," Wish says. And she's still friends with them, he says.

Airline officials have other ideas for reducing your stress and theirs: When booking your reservations, give the airline officials the scoop on what you and your party will need. (If you've already booked, call and tell them before departure.)

For elderly passengers, that might mean finding out about onboard oxygen policies, requesting a wheelchair or special assistance if they are traveling alone, says Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines. Older people who don't need a wheelchair but aren't savvy about making flight connections can get assistance from what American calls its "meet-and-assist" program: An airline official can meet the passenger at the gate and see that he or she gets to the connecting plane on time, sometimes by means of an electric cart.

(Other airlines offer similar assistance but may call it by a different name.)

Give the airline people as much information as you can, Smith says, and you'll be likely to get the equipment or assistance you need. For instance, if you are requesting a wheelchair, it helps to explain how mobile you are. You may be fairly mobile but need extra help when walking long distances. Alert the airline officials if you or your traveling companions have visual or hearing problems and may need help understanding or reading instructions or information.

Traveling with young children is less stressful if you pack books, toys, DVD players and other equipment to keep them occupied.

Sounds obvious, but Smith says he's amazed at the number of parents who expect kids to stay happy doing nothing for hours. Be sure to check the batteries on toys and portable equipment.

Parents can also help their child visualize peacefulness, especially if you have a child prone to airsickness or fears about flying or, if traveling by auto, carsickness, says Dr. David Gottsegen, a pediatrician in Holyoke, Mass., who sometimes uses hypnotherapy on his young patients.

During takeoff, a parent can suggest to a nervous flier that he imagine he's in a favorite place — his room at home or the backyard or Disneyland.

For queasy tummies, Gottsegen tells parents to suggest their kids imagine their stomach has a switch and they can reach down and turn off the achy tummy.

Young children, especially first-time fliers, might need reassurance when going through security, Gottsegen says, especially if they have placed their favorite toys on the X-ray belt. Preschool children are still getting the concept of something being gone temporarily, he says, and "they may think it's going to disappear."

Getting infants and toddlers their own airplane seat is recommended as a stress reliever and a safety measure, Gottsegen says.

If traveling by car, a good rule when kids are along is to stop every two hours and let the kids burn off energy.


Healthy Traveler appears every other week. Kathleen Doheny can be reached at

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