Transitioning back to reality after vacation

Returning home and back to work after a vacation usually feels like a punishment for temporarily ignoring your responsibilities. There is a mound of laundry to do, a heap of emails and regular mail to process, and a small crisis that must immediately be attended to and which could have been completely avoided had you not left town. If you’re lucky, you’re still riding the high of the vacation and can bear the mountain of tasks without too much frustration. If you’re not lucky, your vacation was a bust and you consider never going on one again.

To help ease your way back into non-vacation life, try some or all of these tricks:

  • Clean before you go. Have your desk at work and your home as shiny as possible before leaving on your vacation. Even change the sheets on your bed so things will be fresh when you return. Doing this means that you will only have to deal with vacation messes when you get back. Ants won’t have attacked your kitchen because there were dirty dishes on the counter and your office mates might actually use your inbox instead of plopping more work down on top of an existing pile.
  • Walk in the door and straight to your laundry room. The first thing you should do when you get home is start a load of laundry of your vacation clothes. Once the washer is going, then you can reset your thermostat to a normal temperature and check to make sure a tree didn’t fall in your backyard (or whatever it is that people do when they first come home from vacation).
  • Take an extra day before heading back to work. I like to think of this spare day as the vacation from my vacation. It’s the day to get reacquainted with your routines. We typically return from trips on Saturdays so we have all day Sunday to recuperate.
  • Arrive an hour early to work. You’ll want to get a solid footing on your day before you’re bombarded by co-workers asking about your trip and giving you more things to do. Scan your physical inbox and your email to search for any you-must-do-this-first-thing-when-you-get-back items. Quickly sort your mail and throw out or shred all junk mail. Review your calendar for the day and create an action list of the most important things you have to do. When other people arrive, you’ll be able to handle whatever they throw your way.
  • Give yourself a free day the following weekend. Playing catch-up with your life can be exhausting, so take a weekend day to sleep in, leisurely drink a cup of coffee, catch up on items around the house, or do nothing at all. If you have kids, this applies to them, too.

What additional tips would you add to this list? Share your suggestions in the comments.

40 Comments for “Transitioning back to reality after vacation”

  1. posted by Kim B on

    I completely agree about needing an extra day between returning from vacation and going back to work. The one I never understand (and I have family members who do this all the time) is taking the red-eye home and going immediately back to work. How do people do this? Really, I don’t understand. Coming home is exhausting for me, and the time off is more important to me than sneaking a few extra hours in someplace else.

  2. posted by Rayna on

    I do all of these things, except the laundry suggestion (only because we live in an apartment building so getting to the laundry room isn’t always realistic).

    It makes life SO much easier, I can’t even tell you! Especially the cleaning before you go. Luggage always explodes into laundry and souvenirs and such, so not having to compete with an already messy home is wonderful.

  3. posted by Nikol on

    This suggestion might add to your work but it is a really good idea to take a moment to go over your packing list if you might take this trip or a similar one again. If you realize that you never used your collapsible mug or that you really wish you would have taken a light sweater you can put that in your packing list for next time. I do this after any trip I might take again so that each time my packing is better and better.

  4. posted by Kari on

    We unpack our suitcases in our laundry room. I also like to make sure we have something that can be prepped for a meal in the pantry or freezer, so the first grocery trip can wait until the next day. And yes, plan on a day back before going back to the regular schedule–it lets you get caught up with all the little stuff before re-entering “real life.”

  5. posted by Maciej, Poland on

    Very interesting article! I completely agree with all issues mentioned by you, Erin, except one: taking an additional day off before you return to work. In my opinion it’s a waste of holidays time, whereas holidays in the US are very, very short. In my opinion you should rather go to work just the next day upon arrival and rest at work. Usually the first days after holidays you’re not expected too be fully efficient, unless you work at assembly line. It’s enough to go to bed early.

  6. posted by Laura in ATL on

    “Walk in the door and straight to your laundry room. The first thing you should do when you get home is start a load of laundry of your vacation clothes.”

    I disagree. The first thing you should do is pet your kitty on the head and apologize for being gone so long.

    Once you gotten a proper snuggle out of the way . . . then yes, proceed with with cleaning the dirty undies.


  7. posted by ann on

    AMEN to the laundry!! It makes such a difference to have that one step out of the way. ditto to having a full day off between getting home and going back to work.

  8. posted by Jessica on

    I agree with this advice, my husband used to think I was crazy for super-cleaning our home before we left for vacation, but now he’s on board with it. I always like to have a day between returning home and going back to work as well, and I disagree with the poster who says you can rest on the job. That depends on the job, but I work with the public and even if my coworkers cut me some slack, the public could care less. Likewise, my husband (software engineer) is usually bombarded with requests from his coworkers the minute he’s back. Thankfully they leave him alone when he’s out of the office! 🙂

  9. posted by Gillian on

    Another reason for laundry is this new issue of bedbugs. Even try to have your clothes in plastic and into the sink to sort. I’ve read about this and I think it is also recommended to sort in the garage or outdoors if there is any chance of contamination.

  10. posted by Anita on

    Cleaning before you go is the best advice ever. Coming back from a trip is tiring enough. Coming back from a trip to a pile of laundry or a heap of dishes or an unmade bed is depressing, especially if you’ve spent your vacation in a place where all those things were done for you. One thing I would add is, make sure you don’t leave any perishables on your counters or in the fridge, if you’re gone for more than the weekend. Coming back to rotting fruit and milk long gone bad would not be pleasant.

    Before I go on vacation, the very last thing I do is a quick walk-through the entire apartment to make sure everything’s in order, trash taken out, windows closed, lights and non-essential electronics off, I’m not forgetting anything important etc.

    My post-trip list is a bit different than yours, so here goes:
    1. Walk in, set bags down, and be thoroughly chewed out by the cats. Obligatory cuddling time, proportional to how long we’ve been away.
    2. Once the felines are appeased, do a walk-through to make sure the apartment is in the same state as I left it.
    3. Unpack and put everything away.
    4. Sort the laundry and take it down to the laundry room along with the luggage (ours lives in the basement when not in use).
    5. While the laundry’s going, get groceries for the next few days while you readjust (especially if you emptied your fridge before a long trip!).

    The buffer day between returning from vacation and going back to work is a must for me too. It helps my head return to normal, recover from jet lag etc.

  11. posted by Kris on

    I do all these things and it really helps. This was really timely, as I just returned from an 8-day vacation on Sat.!

  12. posted by bytheway on

    I do all these things, too! Yes, husband thought I was crazy for cleaning the house the night before a trip, too–until the first time he came home jetlagged to a spotless house. But for me, as Erin illustrates so well, it really is the psychology of it; even the greatest vacation memory can be tainted by coming home and immediately feeling overwhelmed. I write a packing list for all members (they help) and we take it with us on the trip. That way, everything we took comes home with us. Esp important when traveling as a family of four; it’s chaos! I’d hate to come home and find out the favorite new toy must be under the hotel bed. Also, I work ahead at work. If I have a meeting or presentation the week after vacation, I do as much as possible ahead of time. Keeps all that busy work that piles up on days off manageable IF I have the big important chunks of work handled already.

  13. posted by janet on

    totally agree. just arrived back from hawaii on saturday and did all this… with one twist. we had great laundry facilities at the condo and got most of the laundry done just before we left. so i got to put most of the clothing straight back into drawers and closets.

    great post. thanks, erin.

  14. posted by Leann on

    I like a day between vacation and reality and one chore I like to accomplish on that day is uploading vacation photos and doing a first edit to get rid of blurry, unflattering and redundant photos.

  15. posted by Katie Alender on

    Yes! Coming back to a clean (or even relatively clean) house is so nice after a hectic travel day!

    And I keep packing lists–during the trip, I write down what I wore, used, didn’t use, wished I had more of, etc.–and then when I get home I scan it and keep it in my packing lists folder in Dropbox for future reference. Great, especially for trips you make every year.

  16. posted by Debbie M on

    Heck, I did the first two things (clean before leaving, laundry upon returning) just for a big pool party.

  17. posted by Missy P on

    I love this post and would also recommend being sure to take out ALL garbage before you leave. Also be certain to run your dishwasher before you leave the house. Once we forgot to take out our trash (pew) and then when we opened the dishwasher we realized it had 7 day old dirty dishes inside (pew). Not the most pleasant homecoming.

    When we return home from a trip I always get straight to unpacking. If you plop down your bags and hit the couch, you will stay there. We also pick up a gallon of milk on the way home, since we have typically used up all of our milk before leaving.

  18. posted by Irulan on

    I did the dishwasher thing once, too, MissyP! Ick is right.

    I pay (or schedule online) all of my bills before I leave for a trip. I also bring a check register with me to log all of my trip receipts and type of payment. I file the register and the receipts together as soon as I get back so that I can check them against any surprises that may appear on statements in the subsequent weeks.

  19. posted by Nana on

    My out-of-office email says I’ll be back one day later than I really return to the office. That means I can go through the messages and whatever’s piled up on my desk. If I do return messages / e-mails the first day back, people are pleasantly surprised to have an ‘early’ reply, rather than being annoyed that I had dared to leave my desk for X days.

  20. posted by chacha1 on

    One thing I always try to do when we are going away for a week is to take along any unread catalogs or magazines from home. We cut out the address bar and just leave the stuff behind in the lounge – or in the recycle bin – wherever we’ve stayed.

    We also try to check our personal email the day before we travel home. That way we can address anything urgent and clear out the in-box so it isn’t all waiting for us; and both of us have trained “real” people not to call our landline, so any important calls automatically come to our cell phones.

  21. posted by Sabrina on

    I totally agree! I vacuum and dust, put dishes away, and unplug everything prior to leaving so that when I return everything will be fresh and clean. I know so many people who don’t do this and I just wonder how they feel when they return. I feel relieved when I come home to a space that is clean and everything is put away. =)
    I also like to check email the day before work in the evening. It helps me prepare for work the next day.

  22. posted by jodi on

    I often try to do laundry while on vacation…many hotels have a guest laundry, and anytime we visit friends or family I will do the same (with permission of course).I typically only wash one load, and that way I can leave the suitcases sit until the next day (we often travel by car at night and get home late). Unpacking isn’t as bad with clean laundry.

    If I know (or am not sure) I can’t wash before I return I will take an extra bag or combine two of my kids clean belongings and designate the other for dirty laundry. That also helps by making sure the four extra pairs of socks my teenager packed “just in case” go back to her dresser without making extra laundry after a trip home in the same suitcase with the dirty styff.

  23. posted by Jay on

    No matter how late it is or how tired I am, I bring all the luggage into the house, unpack, and put everything away. Dirty clothes go into the hamper. We generally do the laundry the next day.

  24. posted by John Fremont on

    My wife is fanatical about having a clean house to return to when we travel. Seeing as how it gets messed up when we return, a clean house makes it easier to start putting the travel clothes/stuff away.

    Right now we are three weeks into a one-year trip around the country in an RV. An ideas on how we unpack from this when we are done?

  25. posted by Maciej on

    There is another interesting idea: to set the e-mail autoresponder for the vacations, saying who is your deputy for the given period of time of your absence. Then, upon coming back to work, to delete all the e-mails that came during your vacation without reading. Normally someone should already have taken care after important or urgent messages, the rest of them isn’t really important. Maybe it’s kind of extreme idea, but should save time and energy for running through hundreds of e-mails just after coming back. I’m pretty sure many people do that successfully. Maybe, you should clean your mailbox also before leaving for vacation?

  26. posted by mixinItaly on

    Just wondering if any of you would have “packing lists” to share with others. I know Erin had mentioned she had some. I find that, as I usually have to work up until the last minute before I leave, I pack in a hurry and inevitably end up with too many or too little things.

    However, something particular that I do before I depart is wash all of my clothing so that I am sure that jacket or pant that I really need for the trip is clean and ironed. Makes choosing the clothing easier and you can take that one piece that coordinates with everything else.

  27. posted by snosie on

    I just got back from almost 4 weeks overseas.

    I disagree (as I don’t really work with customers as an electrical engineer), i get off the red eye and straight to work. Otherwise I’d sleep and make jet lag worse. No one at work cares, and I’m relatively functional. And, I was late on the first day – which also worked in my favour. Usually I’m one of the first in, and people say hi as they walk past. By being in late, I could dodge all the ‘how were your holidays’ til later when they realised I’d snuck in!

    I grew up in a family that always cleaned before leaving, so that’s a given for me (I’d never considered an alternative!)

    I do agree with having a weekend to catch up – I made a mess on returning, and spent the weekend catching up on chores I’d created, and getting ahead on cooking.

    I also like to upload photos ASAP as someone suggested – people are BOUND to ask when they see you, so having them done is one less thing to think about (good thing to do when woken/kept awake by jet lag)

    Packing lists – I have been known to pin it up in the accommodation. And I cross off what I wear. I have to wear everything, or it’s not coming home! Really clarifies your needs! (this is particularly for a holiday I’ve done more than once, so I’m on target with weather/clothes appropriateness)

  28. posted by [email protected] on

    I’d add book a online grocery delivery for when you return. As a fanatical meal planner, I like to make sure I know my groceries will be turning up so there’s no emergency trips to the supermarket etc.. especially since I am always keen to get back to eating the ‘right’ things on return from hols and all the excess!

  29. posted by Matt on

    I disagree about getting to work an hour early. A better solution is to block the first half of the day on your calendar for your first day back.

  30. posted by Jackie Pettus on

    We rarely vacation in a place with no internet access, so I try to stay on top of email. I can usually find time to check/clean out email in between swimming laps at the pool, waiting for another family member before going out to dinner, etc.. Can’t stand the thought of coming back to hundreds of unread emails!

  31. posted by Lou on

    What I want waiting for me when I return from a trip: 2 days worth of clean clothes, clean sheets, empty fridge, a spotless bathroom and a clean laundry space. In winter, I want wine, and a casserole in the fridge that just needs 1/2 hour in the oven.

    The carryon bag I take on plane trips has a nebulizer (for asthma – which TSA always wants to examine), a shirt, nightie & set of undies, and I add the current medications bag. I recently started keeping all my medications in a travel case all the time, so that when I leave on a trip, I’m not taking expired meds. My bare bones small see-through toiletry pouch is similar to what the airlines give you for an unanticipated stay-over – dental basics, deodorant, shampoo, comb, brush, lipstick, Q-tip, bandaids & nail clip. This list is printed on an index card laminated with scotch tape & kept in the case

    I just got back from an unexpected shore vacation (a friend called to say her condo was free-did we want 5 days? Hello – Is the Pope Catholic?) On return, I took the notes I had dropped into my basic toiletries kit as I had reached for items that weren’t there & packed a separate, slightly larger case for longer trips, with the nice-to-haves: hairspray, bath oil, lotions, sunscreen, first aid cream, nail care, sponge, etc.

    Now I have nowhere to go, but am I ever ready for the chance!

  32. posted by Jenna @ NeatFreakWannabe on

    Great tips! I love the idea of giving yourself time off the next weekend. I always get sucked into “catch-up” mode the next weekend; I really should at least give myself half a day to relax!

    My mom always had us clean the house before we went on trips, and I picked up the habit. Don’t forget to take out the trash/recycling before you leave (including tossing any food in the fridge that will expire before you return). Nothing like an unpleasant smell to welcome you home!

    Speaking of food, it’s helpful if you can have a couple meals’ worth of food waiting for you, either frozen items or non-perishables, to get you through the first 24 hours until you can make it to the store. You might only need some milk, and you can just grab that from the nearest convenience store on your route home. If you’re arriving home around mealtime and you have the number of your favorite take-out place in your phone, you could even call in an order and pick that up on your way!

    As part of my pre-vacation “clean-up,” I also make sure I’m paid up on all bills before I leave. Even if they’re due the week you return, you might be more prone to overlooking them if you’re not back in your normal routine.

    Delegating as much of your work as you can to others while you are out helps immensely. Not only does it lighten your workload when you return, but it’s less to worry about while you’re trying to enjoy your vacation!

  33. posted by Toobusy2 on

    Depending on the type of trip I take, if there is a washer/dryer unit in the condo, for example, I usually do my laundry before I return. As someone earlier posted, it’s so nice to just unpack your clothes.
    As for packing lists, I have a spreadsheet for each type of trip I take: rock climbing, road trip, water related trip, cruising, city, intl backpacking & long term travel. I just pull up the list I need for the type of trip I’m taking.
    In terms of toiletries, I only carry a large kit when I’m on a road trip. Otherwise, I use ziploc bags or mesh bags – grouping like items together. I have a toiletry lamented index card that sits with my travel stuff. as I use something up, I use a dry eraser to mark what needs replenishing.

  34. posted by shona~LALA dex press on

    Great post. I just got back from vacation + agree with all your suggestions.

  35. posted by Rachel on

    I definitely agree with taking an extra day off after vacation before returning to work. It’s helpful for getting some chores done (laundry, for example) and staving off post-vacation blues.

  36. posted by katrina on

    I agree with Matt about booking up your work calendar for the first morning you’re back at work. Coming back to a 9am 2 hour meeting arranged by a co-worker while you were on leave is a horrible experience.

    Although, I think the arriving an hour early is a good idea.

    Most email programs allow ‘rules’ which move emails to folders when the inbox is opened. When I go on leave, I find it useful to get Outlook to move all emails that I’m copied into to a ‘review’ folder. Then I can look through those emails after I’ve settled back into work.

    If the message was important enough for me to act on immediately, I would be in the ‘to’ list and not the ‘cc’ list.

  37. posted by Kate on

    @ Gillian: An excellent point about bedbugs, I’m glad you brought it up. I lived through an infestation which forced me to spend thousands of dollars to decontaminate all my belongings and move to a different city!

    For anyone who travels, a good way to deal with potential bedbugs coming home with you is to purchase a PackTite device. It’s essentially a big insulated box (like the kind you get a pizza delivered in) with a rack and a heater. You can put your entire suitcase in it and it will heat your belongings through for four hours to the correct temperature to kill bedbugs and their eggs. (I can’t recall the temp right now, I think it’s 130 degrees.) If one is especially concerned, run it through two cycles.

    I would never travel to a hotel without having the PackTite set up at home waiting for me to decontaminate my things.

    It can of course also be used for any used, thrift, or vintage purchases.

    And no, I’m not affiliated with the company!

  38. posted by Maciej on

    Jackie Pettus – sorry to say it, but I think your way to read/clean the e-mail account on the vacation is complete opposite to the unclutterer ideas. First – you do not enjoy nature, leisure etc. in your free time, you spend it on computers and working. Second – after reading you start thinking on the e-mail and the issues in it. You set your mind to the “work mode”. Third – you cannot separate your duties and your free time – and you cannot full relax. Therefore being on vacation, you stay the whole time at work, really. You’d rather not take vacation at all and stay at home, wouldn’t you? I try not to read any mail, neither private nor business on vacation. It’s great to be free from e-mail for the whole 3 weeks! When it’s really important, someone will call or SMS me.
    Katrina – great idea to set a “move-to-review-folder” rule for all the messages, where you’re not the main recipient. I think I will set such a rule not for vacation but for the whole time, therefore informative mails (CC, BCC) do not charge my inbox and my mind.

  39. posted by Marcie Lovett on

    I recommend setting an email autoreply that says you are due back the day after your actual return date. It cuts down on interruptions on your first day back at work and allows you to ease back into your routine.

  40. posted by Another Deb on

    I just flew in today after two long trips that involved everything from international travel to camping out of a pickup truck and visits with family. After 7 weeks away I am glad to be home and am getting ready to go back to work.

    I agree with the idea of having a clean house when you return.

    One of the first things I check as I return is that the ice cubes in the freezer are not all melted into a blob. This tells me that the electricity was never out long enough to spoil food in the freezer or the fridge. Just looking for flashing alarm clocks won’t tell me the length of a power outage.

    I also try to have a list of things I need to do when I get home after a long trip. This might help anyone on a long (a year in an RV? Wow!) trip who may have forgotten tasks or locations of things (where did we hide the credit cards?)
    For me, that list included re-starting my gym membership,picking up a framing job that was ready and buying a replacement of a phone that was on the fritz when we left. With my brain still in vacation-bliss, I have a hard time getting focused.

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