Strange Interludes Revealing the ugly truth that vacations can be more trouble than they're worth

August 13, 1993|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

Vacations don't always agree with Cliff and Kathy Hughes.

Take their trip to St. Maarten. They envisioned themselves sipping daiquiris and catching some sun on a whitewashed beach. Instead they wound up trapped in a hotel lobby playing cards while Hurricane Hugo battered the island.

Last spring, they gave the Caribbean another try, only to get caught in a political uprising.

Ah, vacations. They're supposed to be blissful retreats where your only dilemma is whether to slather on SPF-10 or SPF-15. Think again. Summer sojourns, like nearly everything in life, have a dark side. Packed alongside the camera, romance novel and beach towel is often a suitcaseful of misgivings, misadventure -- and apprehension.

When you consider what's involved in a vacation -- the planning, the expense, the unfamiliar surroundings -- it's understandable how getting away could produce as much angst as it alleviates.

Compounding that is the fact that Americans have less time -- and money -- for trips these days. The average length of a summer vacation this year is 4.8 nights, a figure that's declined for the last four years, according to the Travel Industry Association in Washington. Nearly 40 percent of vacations last year were only 2 or 3 nights long.

Since psychologists caution that it takes several days to get into a vacation frame of mind, these short trips can sometimes do little to rejuvenate the body and soul. (To get real benefits, vacationers are best to schedule 10 days to two weeks away, some say.)

"A wonderful thing like a vacation can definitely produce stress," says Janan Broadbent, a psychologist in Towson. "The perception is that vacations are great. The sun is always shining. The women are always made up, and the hotel is always beautiful. But the reality is that planes are late, it rains and things don't always work out."

Mr. and Ms. Hughes found that out after forking over $3,000 to go to St. Maarten in 1989.

Several days into the trip, word came that Hurricane Hugo was headed their way. After racing to the store for bread, cheese and water, they returned to learn they were being evacuated from their hotel room. They spent the next day sequestered in the lobby with other guests.

"Here I was looking forward to a relaxing time on the beach," says Mr. Hughes, 36, a restaurant manager who lives in Columbia. "And I found myself worrying about our survival."

After giving St. Maarten another try last spring, they've decided the island simply isn't for them. Toward the end of that vacation, there was a political uprising on the island, which left roads impassable and restaurants closed.

"We looked at each other and said we'll never come back here again," he says.

So instead they went to North Carolina with their sons, 7-year-old Casey and 4-year-old Kevin, last summer. But their sons were disappointed because there were few other children around. They salvaged the vacation by leaving two days early and heading to Virginia Beach.

"That was the real vacation from hell," says Mr. Hughes.

For many people, uninterrupted blocks of time spent with family or significant others can bring simmering conflicts to a head.

"We always say there's nothing like a cruise to kill a bad marriage," says John Lounsbury, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee who studies work and leisure.

Tim Tinker thought he and his girlfriend had a glitch-free relationship -- until they took a European vacation together.

Because he owns a travel business, he took care of accommodations, booking them in inns throughout England and Ireland without realizing his girlfriend preferred more privacy.

"On terra firma, everything was OK, but we didn't travel very well together. My partner wanted romance; I wanted a cultural experience," says Mr. Tinker, 43, owner of Uniglobe Custom Travel in Towson.

Workaholics, meanwhile, can have a near phobia about trips that take them away from meetings, fax machines and phones.

"They fear and dread the whole experience," says Seppo Iso-Ahola, a professor of social psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies leisure trends. "They feel like they're wasting their time. . . . And that makes the vacation a very difficult experience for the whole family."

For the more introspective traveler, having too much time to mull over life on a quiet beach or on a desolate mountaintop can lead to painful discoveries.

"If there's one thing that vacations appear to do, it's to give you a broader opportunity to see your life as a whole," says Dr. Lounsbury. "For some people, that can lead to dissatisfaction. You can find you're not where you want to be: Your relationships are not what you want, you don't like your boss. . . . The intention to quit one's job increases significantly after vacation."

Maybe that's why some 20 percent of the population never travels at all. In a recent study by the Travel Industry Association, these nontravelers cited a lack of time, money and interest as reasons for not journeying far from home.

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