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How to Keep Your Dream Vacation From Becoming a Nightmare

7 tips for surviving that trip of a lifetime

By Patricia Corrigan

You work, you save, you book the trip of a lifetime — and it almost kills you.

dream vacation
"Gentle Walkers" group on a walking tour of Regensburg, Germany, with a local guide  |  Credit: Patricia Corrigan

Sweet rolls at breakfast, ice cream at lunch, fancy desserts at dinner and three different kinds of cookies available all day were not the problem on my recent 15-day river cruise through Central Europe. Instead, the culprit was a natural tendency to overdo while somewhere new and exciting. The physical exertion of twice-daily walking tours through intriguing cities, the nonstop intellectual stimulation, and OK, maybe a few too many of those cookies nearly did me in.

Many of my fellow travelers also found themselves feeling exhausted and overwhelmed instead of relaxed and inspired.

Why turn a delightful opportunity to play into hard work? Here are seven tips to help you survive a dream trip so you won’t need a rest after your vacation:

1. Know thyself

All walking tours and optional day trips included on Viking river cruises are labeled “easy,” “moderate” or “demanding.” Every outing also accommodates a slow-paced group, called “Gentle Walkers.”

Beer and a pretzel enjoyed on a shore excursion in Miltenberg, Germany
Beer and a pretzel enjoyed on a shore excursion in Miltenberg, Germany

At 68 and eager to keep occasional back pain at bay, I was happy to be among that group. I dubbed us “The Pokey People.” If you want to take advantage of every walking tour or day trip that interests you — and you will — don’t pretend to be anything other than what you are, by any name.

2. Be prepared

One night on the cruise, my dinner companions swapped stories about the many maladies suffered by some of the 180 passengers aboard. We’re talking aching feet, a kidney stone, heel blisters, a back spasm, crabby knees, sore muscles, swollen ankles, yet another back spasm and a handful of cases of random respiratory rot.

Fortunately, most had brought along the medications or remedies they needed to get by. When a passenger’s leg suddenly gave way in the hall, I loaned her my “just-in-case” cane. I took it back three days later when confronted with troublesome high-rise cobblestones between the tour bus and me, but later happily shared it with others as needed.

3. Pace yourself

If you wouldn’t schedule a two-hour walk, a four-hour walk and an evening concert in a single day at home, that schedule likely will be too much for a vacation day too. (If you would — well, go for it!) Also, ask the tour director or concierge what to expect in terms of exertion required for activities that interest you. That way, you can alternate vigorous days with lighter days, maintaining a sensible balance.

Patricia hanging on to a bridge halfway through a 90-minute walking tour in Salzburg, Austria, on a very hot day.
The writer hanging onto a bridge halfway through a 90-minute walking tour in Salzburg, Austria, on a very hot day.

Many of us on the cruise were in awe of the 82-year-old man who signed up to bike 12 miles between towns in the summer heat with passengers half his age. Even he admitted he wasn’t all that sure about the idea. The day of the ride, he told me, “I’m crazy. I haven’t been on a bike in 18 years.”

I shook his hand and told him I sincerely hoped I would see him at dinner. (I did.)

4. Do not give into guilt


Take that nap! Sit in a rocking chair and stare at the water! Skip a walking tour and enjoy talking on the top deck with a new friend! This is your vacation, and it’s permissible to alternate active leisure with passive leisure.

The only way to really know a new city is to move there, so don’t expect to see and do everything in a six-hour stop at a port of call. Besides, even a person eager to learn as much as possible at each destination eventually experiences brain overload. (I speak from personal experience.) And remember: There will not be a quiz.

5. Resist eating everything that looks good

In this instance, let guilt work in your favor. Keep in mind you must head home in the same pants you wore when you arrived, and it’s best if they still zip. On most cruises, dessert is available at every meal. After a vacation, most of us go home with some credit card debt. You get to decide whether you’re also going home with an extra 10 pounds.

6. See what you want

Customize your trip to suit your interests. Even set itineraries can be personalized. One woman on my cruise wanted only to buy bookmarks, one shopped everywhere for unusual yarn and I was on a self-styled tasting tour of signature German beers and sausage. It’s OK to skip a site — even one labeled as a highlight — if it really doesn’t interest you.

In one city, a historic palace was the big draw. I had already determined that after you’ve seen a few palaces, they start to look a lot alike. So, instead, I took a taxi with new friends to an art museum to see unique masterpieces. Ironically, the museum was in a former palace, so I got another dose of extravagant architecture and outlandish luxury anyway.

7. Recognize when you’re down and out

On Day 13, a woman in her late 80s noticed me grimacing as I rubbed my lower back. “You too?” she asked. I nodded. “I have loved every minute of this trip,” she said, ”but I admit I am completely exhausted and my body hurts.” Ironically, at the time, we were returning from yet another fascinating walking tour.

At that moment, something shifted for me. The next day, I wanted to see Budapest and wanted badly to join the Pokey People on the four-hour tour that included a bus ride, some walking and free time. But did Budapest want to see me in my deteriorating condition? I decided it did not.

Sitting on the top deck after waving goodbye to the others, I remembered the commercial for Viking River Cruises that aired week in and week out just before Downton Abbey on PBS's Masterpiece Theater — the spectacular scenery, the happy people. And then I remembered that many of them were seated.

If you go, take heed.

Photograph of Patricia Corrigan
Patricia Corrigan is a professional journalist, with decades of experience as a reporter and columnist at a metropolitan daily newspaper, and a book author. She now enjoys a lively freelance career, writing for numerous print and on-line publications. Read more from Patricia at Read More
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