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Tips for a stress-free vacation

Whether you’re backpacking through Europe on a shoestring budget or just heading to the beach, follow these 10 steps for a vacation that’s less stressful than the life you left behind.
/ Source: Special to msnbc.com

If spring brings wanderlust, then summer brings true travel love. Either school's out, or it's time for your two weeks' paid.  Time to go west — or east, north or south — young man! Whether you’re backpacking through Europe on a shoestring budget or just heading to the beach, follow these 10 steps for a vacation that’s less stressful than the life you left behind.

1. Avoid package tours
When planning the simple vacation, all-inclusive trips are very tempting. Buy a package tour, the sales pitch goes, and you needn’t worry about details. But is it worth losing your freedom? Daily activities, where you stay and even your meal times may be controlled. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself playing bridge with a gaggle of 80-year-old blue-hairs.

2. Be your own travel agent
Booking flights online is easier than placing a bet on Sunday’s game. The major travel Web sites (Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia) often offer the same flights within dollars of each other, and all have flexible searching options. Why pay a travel agent to do the exact same thing?

3. Keep it small
Show me a huge gang of friends taking a vacation together, I’ll show you Lord of Flies before the week is out. Owing to a natural human tendency to bicker, group travel can be very stressful. For your next trip, invite enough friends to play two-on-two basketball, not an entire football team.

4. Do leave home without it
Traveler’s checks and American Express cards are security blankets for mom and dad. For the rest of us, pack an ATM card. Most bankcards are accepted worldwide, and when I head overseas I bring an extra $50 or $100 in cash, just in case.

5. When in Rome …
A little goes a long way. If they don’t speak English where you’re going, learn the basics: “hello,” “please,” “thank you” and one through 10. You might also consider learning “bathroom,” “beer” (if you're of drinking age) and “No, I’m from Canada.”

6. Pack light
There’s nothing more stressful than carrying around too much junk. For my 12-month trip through Latin America, I’m carrying an inexpensive backpack that’s not much bigger than a pillowcase. Inside: one week of clothing and two weeks of toiletries. When I run out of underwear, I wash them in the sink. When I run out of toothpaste, I buy another tube.

7. Document your documents
Bring a photocopy of your ATM card and, when overseas, your passport. If something goes wrong, a quick call to customer service will prevent fraudulent transactions. The larger banks may also be able to authorize cash withdrawals, even without the card.

8. Maximize your weekends
A lot of people start their vacations late on Saturday, or even Sunday. I leave on Friday night and return three Sundays later — giving me 16 days for just 10 weekdays away from the job. Even a five-day school-break can be stretched to almost 10 days if you head out early on Friday afternoon.

9. Know your seasons
Busy seasons vary. Research your destination and decide if you should book rooms in advance. But don’t go crazy — there’s no need to over-plan. Usually, I find a room for my first night, then call ahead from the road.

10. Be flexible
The real key to a stress-free vacation? Flexibility. The happiest travelers know that life is unpredictable. So what if your room isn’t ready? Or that the train is running late? The tighter the itinerary, the more stressful the trip.

FIVE EASY PLACES

  • Europe Lite. Fly into Amsterdam on Friday, leave three Sundays later. In between, use a two-week Eurail pass for unlimited travel through Europe.
  • A New Orleans Weekend. All-night jazz, Cajun food and to-go cups? Even just a few days in the Big Easy will recharge the most stressed-out life.
  • Morocco. Land in Casablanca, then immediately head to the royal cities of Marrakech and Fez, which are friendly, affordable and safe.
  • Guatemala. Mayan ruins, beautiful landscapes and “chicken buses” make this one of Central America’s most appealing destinations.
  • West Coast Highway. Take your time driving between San Francisco to Portland, Ore., and see America at its more beautiful.

Jeff Koyen is a freelance writer based in New York City. He has traveled to four continents in the last two years, and doesn’t even own a credit card.