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How to beat the end-of-summer-vacation scaries

Don’t wallow. Here are six ways to cope and look forward to your next adventure.

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)

I start mourning a trip before it’s even over.

The stages of grief came in full force on Day 5 of a six-day bike trip through Maine, complete with bargaining to extend the trip; anger and depression when my boyfriend said we couldn’t; and finally acceptance, which hit a few miles from our final destination.

It’s not that I hate life at home, or that I’ll never travel again. It’s knowing that each trip is like a snowflake: unique and fleeting. You can plan a similar trip or go back to the same place, but you’ll never be able to capture its exact magic again.

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As far as life’s struggles go, this one wallows at the bottom of the barrel — way, way below the actually painful stuff. But I’m not alone in feeling this way.

“We hear it from patients and our friends and our colleagues — I think it’s a pretty normal thing,” said David Rakofsky, a psychologist and the president of Wellington Counseling Group. “No one wants to say goodbye to a good time.”

For the travelers who share my sense of despair, this time of year can be the worst as we watch summer vacations fade in the rearview mirror. Here are six ways to cope.

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Put joy — and more travel — on your calendar

The most obvious way to get you on the path to recovery from post-vacation gloom is to start planning your next trip. Many clients of Anthony Berklich, a travel consultant and founder of the travel platform Inspired Citizen, use this tactic so they have something to look forward to down the road.

“Whether it’s for a holiday or a school break or a family vacation, they have something on the horizon that can serve as a milepost,” Berklich says.

Rakofsky recommends coming up with three specific “future-oriented items” to put on your calendar to anchor your optimism — and they don’t all have to be trips.

The first should be something low-lift and coming soon, about a couple of days or weeks after you get home from your trip. It doesn’t have to be extravagant; it could be grabbing coffee with a friend, booking a massage or going for a nearby hike.

Your second item should fall in the remote future — maybe a trip you take in a year or two that requires planning in advance. The third item should be a dream in the distant future. “This can be something like a retirement plan or a great retirement trip,” Rakofsky says. “Have a vision of your future that feels realistic but maybe a small reach, too.”

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Start a travel fund

Whether you’ve picked a place to go or are figuring it out, you will need a way to pay for the trip.

To get motivated to save, you can start a travel fund, find a budgeting buddy to hold you accountable for your spending goals, log your efforts into a spreadsheet or try financial planning apps such as Mint, Marcus Insights, Dollarbird, TravelSpend and YNAB.

You can also start hoarding miles through a travel credit card and learn the complicated world of points, fees and perks.

Set price alerts for potential future trips

If you’ll need to fly for your next trip, set up price alerts ASAP. You can track specific flights, routes and dates based on your preferences, then get notifications when the price changes. Those daily or weekly emails can give you a jolt of optimism for that next trip.

If you can be flexible with your travel dates, you are more likely to find good prices on airfare. If you can be even more flexible, sign up for airfare newsletters from sites such as Scott’s Cheap Flights, Thrifty Traveler, Airfarespot and Airfarewatchdog, and plan your trip around a great deal.

Once you book something — whether that is airfare, hotels or a rental car — you should feel some “anticipatory pleasure,” says Chloe Carmichael, a clinical psychologist and the author of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety.” By solidifying any detail of your trip, you cause your brain “to feel more excited about the reality of it, because it’s certainly a step closer.”

Be your travel self at home

Carmichael says people tend to have a black-and-white attitude when it comes to travel: Being at home is for work, and being on vacation is for fun. The end of a trip means it is back to the doldrums.

Don’t relegate your best self to your vacation days. Incorporate some of your travel self into your daily life. Think about what made you happy on your trip, and find out how to emulate those experiences.

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Were you joyful on vacation because you were having adventures with friends? Spending more time in nature? Eating delicious meals? Reading good books? Can you do that at home?

One way Berklich re-creates his favorite mornings in St. Barths is by bringing home croissants from his favorite bakery, freezing them and popping them in the oven to enjoy with his coffee.

Invest in pre-trip skills

Use your upcoming trip as an incentive to learn skills that will enrich your travel, such as taking samba classes before a trip to Brazil or reading books about art appreciation before you go to the Louvre.

If your trip will be packed with action and adventure, figure out a training plan to work on your endurance.

Going somewhere where they speak a different language? Learn in the months leading up to your trip. Travel writer Malia Yoshioka swears by picking up helpful food phrases, such as “It’s delicious!” and “What do you recommend?”

I’m a huge fan of Mango Languages, an app you can use free with a library card. But there are plenty of other foreign language tools, such as Duolingo, BBC Languages and Language Learning with Netflix.

Appreciate your old travel photos

When we were locked down at the beginning of the pandemic, mental health experts encouraged us to look at our old vacation photos for a dopamine boost. Take their advice when you’re back home, and dig into those vacation memories. You took those photos for this reason!

To go a step beyond scrolling through pictures on your phone or iPad, “spend time collecting your photos from vacation and making a photo journal or scrapbook,” Rakofsky says.

As someone who loves travel journaling, I can vouch for Rakofsky’s tip. I love making them during a trip or when I get home, and flipping through them for a dose of nostalgia months or years later.

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