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36 mind hacks for a happier vacation

rod cuthbert vacation rules travel happiness
When it comes to travel, author Rod Cuthbert says that following the rules -- actually, they're more like guidelines -- can lead to happier vacations.Rod Cuthbert

Travel isn't a destination, it's a state of mind.

That’s the premise of Rod Cuthbert’s new e-book ($4.99), “Vacation Rules: A Guide to Travel Happiness,” now available for the Amazon Kindle. Co-authored with Sebastian Filep, a tourist behavior expert at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, the 61-page volume puts forth 36 mental maxims travelers can use to avoid having their dream vacation turn into a travel nightmare.

We caught up with Cuthbert, founder of the tour-aggregator site,, and now CEO of, a travel start-up, via Skype to see if we could enhance our own travel happiness. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NBC: You say “Vacation Rules” is a travel guidebook but unlike most, it’s not about a specificdestination. What do you mean by that?

Rod Cuthbert: Travel guidebooks are generally about a place — Barcelona, Seattle, Paris — that’s what we’re used to. This is a guidebook about you as the traveler. For example, you’ve probably had the experience where you talk to a couple of friends about, say, Paris. Person A says, "Oh my god, I love Paris" while Person B says," I can’t stand the place." Paris is obviously the same so it’s all about their reactions to it.

NBC: And that requires a different approach?

RC: The way people approach vacations today is to jump on the web and become their own travel agents. You can find great flights, great destinations and super deals on resorts and rental cars. It’s very tactical; it’s focused on the mechanics of travel. That’s great but it doesn’t address what is, in fact, the more fundamental determinants of whether or not you’ll have a good time and those are the psychological issues.

NBC: Which are?

RC: It’s important to ask why are you going on vacation? To escape something? To recharge your batteries? Because you and your partner are having a tough time of it and want to rebuild your relationship? The idea is to think about your goals and state of mind before you dive into Maui vs. Oahu or the Caribbean vs. New York City.

NBC: The rules borrow much from the concept of "PERMA," the acronym for the five principles -- Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement -- that underlie the discipline known as positive psychology. How does that apply to travel?

RC: Positive psychology is all about thinking about the things that improve our well-being and lead us to having better emotions. It’s about achieving what psychologists call "flow," where you’re so enjoying what you’re doing that you’re fully engaged in it. That clearly applies to travel.

NBC: So, what’s a vacation rule that applies to Positive energy?

RC: "Kindness pays." When you’re traveling, you have so many chances to interact with people whether it’s letting someone take the next taxi or distracting a crying baby on a plane. There’s substantial research which proves that if you do have a dozen little acts of kindness every day, it’s you who benefits the most. Travel provides such a wonderful setting for that sort of attitude.

NBC: How about Engagement?

RC: One of my favorite rules is "Do less, enjoy more."

Let’s say you’re going to Italy. It’s a natural, logical approach to say I’m going to be there for 10 days and I won’t be back soon so I want to see everything that I can. Soon you’re in Rome for two days, Venice overnight, Milan and Cinque Terre, and none of those places gets a chance to make an impression. You can’t discover what makes a place what it is in just a snippet of time.

NBC: The “R” in PERMA — Relationships — would seem to be dangerous territory...

RC: As a general rule, the thing that will make or break a vacation is your travel companion(s). If you’re not getting on well, you could be on Maui or in the Caribbean and it’ll just be a nightmare. That’s why we say that who you go with matters more than where you go. If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me, ‘I used to be friends with so-and-so and then we went on a trip together and I haven’t seen them since then…’

NBC: Where does "Meaning" fit into it?

RC: One of the rules that expresses that really well is "Shop for meanings, not just things." There’s a lot of research that says the experiences you’ll have will last a lot longer than the tchotchkes that you buy. People come to Australia and buy didgeridoos and boomerangs and they don’t usually have much call for them in their day-to-day lives.

NBC: And Achievement?

RC: I think the best rule here is the first rule in the book: "Vacation more, live longer." This is particularly true for Americans. Americans don’t vacation enough; their employers don’t give them enough vacation days, and even with the days they do get, they tend not to take them. Yet, the research clearly demonstrates that taking regular vacations makes you more productive at work, improves health and decreases your risk of mortality.


Now, that’s an achievement we can all aspire to.

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.