On my recent trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama, I described how the vacation was slightly outside of my comfort zone – which led me to think about not only how rigid my comfort zone really is, but also how important it is to be in touch with your own limits. All travelers, no matter how adventurous or safe they claim to be, have a comfort zone to adhere to.
Think of it as a thermometer
You’re most effortlessly comfortable in the smack dab middle, but your comfort zone may include several notches up (less comfortable) or down (too comfortable to the point of being boring) the thermometer. How many notches depends on the individual. For instance, I know people who would not go more than 1-2 notches away from their comfort zone when travelling and other people who would feel perfectly fine with expanding their comfort notches much further.
Be aware of outside influences
For me, I am almost always anxious when I first arrive to a new destination. I’m bad with directions and in general, feel disoriented in a new place – especially if it’s the first leg of a trip (for example, I felt anxious when I arrived to Barcelona but not when I arrived in Seville). It takes me a day or less to start feeling confident again, so I always need to keep this in mind when I start feeling like I’ve gone too far outside of my comfort zone; when really, it’s just an unusual yet predictable bout of anxiety that I know will pass. If it doesn’t pass in a few days, I would know that I’m probably in a situation that’s too high on my comfort zone thermometer.
Know how to adjust
So, what happens if you find yourself somewhere where you’re a little too high or too low on your comfort thermometer? When I was in Fiji, I was a newbie (still am, to be honest) to hostels and was feeling slightly outside of comfort zone – but nothing that would cause serious anxiety or fear. That changed when on the last two days of the vacation, I became very sick from an infection. I made the decision to book my final night in Fiji in a fancy hotel and it was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I had a comfortable bed, a warm shower, room service and a doctor on call. And yes, I ended up calling him in the middle of the night when I woke up with the worst fever I’ve ever had.
I made a decision that allowed me to step back into my comfort zone – for you, this might be changing your plans to stay in a fancy hotel, visiting a familiar restaurant or even spending a day inside, enjoying WiFi and chatting with friends from home.
On the other end of the spectrum is when you feel your vacation is stagnant or boring because things are just too easy. Not everyone likes to spend a week relaxing on a luxurious beach yet may somehow find themselves at an all-inclusive resort. At this point, it’s time to take a day trip to a different town or sign up for an excursion run by locals.
My personal comfort thermometer
The best way to create your own personal comfort thermometer is to set it against trips you’ve already taken. As you can see, I’ve clumped my trips to Australia (Sydney, Cairns, Byron Bay), USA (Hawaii, Minneapolis, New York City) and Canada (Edmonton) all in the same category – Comfortable. I can communicate easily in these places and there’s no real culture shock. Travel isn’t effortless, there is still planning required and navigation. Stepping a bit outside my default comfort is Spain and Fiji, which were both easy trips since Spain is very touristy (yet not many people speak English/are not eager to help tourists). In Fiji, I was on a tour that required no effort on my part, but there was a bit of a culture difference. Bocas del Toro, Panama was the most outside as it required boat rides (which I was scared of) and staying in slightly more rustic accommodations. On the opposite end of the spectrum was Mexico – land of the all-inclusive resort. All of my experiences in Mexico with the exception of several trips when I was a child, involved staying at an all-inclusive resort. While I love buffets, unlimited drinks and beautiful beaches/pools, it did get a little stagnant and I always find myself craving more adventure.
So far, I’ve never actually had a trip where I felt I wasn’t enjoying myself because I was too uncomfortable or too bored. Of course this prompted me to think of what destinations would likely push me higher or lower on my thermometer. India and China would likely be way too high on my thermometer and a trip to Grand Forks might actually be safer than an all-inclusive Mexico vacation. But those are just guesses ;).
So, what’s your comfort thermometer?