The first time I ever had a panic attack I was in an airport, more than 3,600km from home.
Out of nowhere, nausea. Heart palpitations. Sweat. And confusion. It’s like my brain suddenly belonged to someone else — someone who was losing their cool, fast.
I had just landed in San Francisco from Toronto, to start a week-long tour reading my poetry aloud up and down the U.S. West Coast. It was supposed to be exciting. I had travelled many times before, often solo. So why couldn’t I get in the taxi? Why couldn’t I breathe?
Travel anxiety completed blindsided me. I didn’t even know what general panic attacks were, never mind how common it is to experience them while travelling. Like many mental health issues, so much is different for each person. For me, that first incident was sadly not the only time I would panic in an airport — or a foreign hotel room, or even just thinking about going away. My problem was making decisions: the weight of choosing would trigger anxiety. And since every trip requires so many decisions big and small, I couldn’t escape it.
Group travel was not something I’d thought much about before all this. I consider myself an independent traveller, one who revels in choosing my own adventure. For more than 10 years, I had a boyfriend who felt the same way, and we trekked around the world together. Anxiety was just an occasional nuisance. After we separated though, it worsened. My bucket list of destinations and types of trips I felt I could do grew smaller. Weekend festival getaways with girlfriends? Manageable. Adventure travel alone? Too scary.
I really missed being away for longer, in more far-flung places. But it’s hard to find a friend with the desire — and the budget — to do those trips, at the same time. I hated that my irrational, illogical, panics were holding me back from seeing the world.
We often talk about travel as a great way to take risks, face fears, or challenge yourself. And the image that goes along with that is usually wild physical feats like skydiving or mountain climbing, perhaps getting so off the beaten path you don’t even recognize what’s considered food!
But stepping outside of your comfort zone doesn’t always have to be so dramatic. For me, it was choosing to finally book a group tour, to travel with strangers, on someone else’s schedule.
For my first group experience, I picked Intrepid’s Budapest to Bucharest. I tried not to overthink it: I’d always wanted to visit Transylvania and the 10-day itinerary went right through its castles and mountains, bookended by two famous Eastern European cities.
I’m pretty thrilled to report it was one of my best decisions in years. Travelling in a small group with an experienced leader alleviated so much worry! I could finally truly relax away from home.
I can’t imagine all the reasons why anxiety keeps other people from travelling. But I can share a few of mine, and how joining an Intrepid tour helped me get back out there and enjoy travelling again.
When planning is overwhelming, let someone else plan
With my travel anxiety, infinite options are not helpful. Once upon a time, I did relish comparing hotel room square footage, making spreadsheets of museum hours, memorizing bus schedules. But these days, I find the information overload paralyzing.
One of the most annoying worries is simply that I’ll pick the wrong hotel and be unhappy once I get there. Sometimes that makes me not want to go at all.
Trusting Intrepid to figure out where I’d stay eliminated hours of agonizing over my own choices. Instead, in the days before departure I could think about more important things — like buying the best walking shoes.
As it turns out, letting someone who has actually been to a place pick your hotel is a really good idea. Our group stayed in some really pretty places, smack in the city centres. In the popular medieval heritage town of Sighisoara, watching most tourists traipse up and down the steep cobblestones to the citadel, I was so grateful our group could simply walk out our front door and be in it. And seeing the sites on foot saved time, money, and worry.
A good guide is an anxious person’s best friend
Before this trip, my impressions of tour guides were those people I’d see in crowded tourist attractions ferrying groups from one quick photo op to another with tiny flags and large bullhorns. It’s the main reason I never wanted to take one of these tours.
This does not describe our Intrepid experience, or our leader Mike. It didn’t take long to realize he was the right leader for someone whose mind can drift into worst-case scenarios in new places. We had other local guides along the way for insider knowledge but Mike was more like a chill mate who just happened to be super prepared and care that you had a memorable, and safe, time.
Not only did he know all the handy tour guide things — best restaurants for every budget, currency conversions in a snap, how to navigate public transport — he remained unflappable in the face of small changes, the things that inevitably happen but can trigger my panic attacks if I have to reorganize on the fly. (I’m looking at you, Hungarian train schedules.)
Having a good guide also made it so much easier on my brain where there were too many good activities choose from. (Which, in these beautiful cities, was often!)
In Budapest, there are at least four famous thermal baths, but I only really had time for one, and, as is my custom, had anxiety over deciding. After a morning walking tour of the city, Mike led us across a bridge over the Danube to his personal favourite, Rudas, an authentic 16th century Turkish spa with incredible octagonal stained glass ceiling. Unlike all the other baths, it had no line-ups. Floating there, the sunlight shining through tinted blue and red and green, without a care, was a highlight of my trip.
Strangers make for the best dinner parties
There are many things I enjoy doing alone. Eating in restaurants is not one of them. I’m not interested in making a sequel to my last solo trip to Paris, “Table for One.”
In comparison, this trip was like being invited to a week of dinner parties with well-travelled guests from different countries, walks of life, and ages. There was no obligation to eat together on our free nights, but more often than not some combination of our group found itself sharing dinner and drinks and stories.
We were a mix of travellers from New Zealand, Ireland, the U.S. and then me, a lone Canadian; we ranged in age from 30s to 70s. I got to hear about everything from visiting the Soviet Union in the 1970s to Iran under the Shah. One of us had visited more than 100 countries; another was on a year-long across-the-world sabbatical. Some nights it was hard to stop talking and get to bed!
Also, it only took about two days to find which one of my travel mates shared my “interest” in ice cream. For the next week, stopping to “review” a cone in each destination became a deliciously simple travel quest to share.
By the end of Day 10, I had seen the dramatic Carpathian Mountains, learned fascinating Eastern European history, met warm-hearted people, and stuffed myself with plum donuts. But the memory that mattered is the feeling of calm as each day unfolded, not being afraid of surprises, or worry about making the right choice.
I came home with the best souvenir: a reminder that the only choice you really need to make for a great trip, is to go.
Ready to take the plunge and embark on the adventure of a lifetime? Check out Intrepid’s range of top trips.