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Lucy Mangan: "When did holidays become hard work?"

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Summertime – and the living’s not easy. A new survey suggests that most of us have already embarked on a 30-hour (on average) voyage of discovery spread over five weeks in order to put together our perfect holiday. That’s around four working days to consult websites, friends, magazines, shop for bits and pieces, research accommodation and attractions, and sort out flights and other travel arrangements.

The researchers for some reason didn’t see fit to include questions about how long is spent preparing our nether and other regions for display in exotic climes or how much time we spend paralysed with panic about everything beforehand.

Then there’s the time we stay late in the office trying to clear our desks so as not to be overwhelmed by the backlog of work when we return – or indeed, the time spent clearing said backlog, which will form no matter how much advance effort you put in. I reckon you could comfortably double that 30-hour investment if they had.

I reckon you could also bump up the figure by surveying proto-holidaymaking men and women separately. In my experience, the insistence on research – for an individual or couples’ holiday – is a female trait. Men seem to bash about on the keyboard for 10 minutes, find somewhere that looks sunny, promises a bar, whip their credit cards out and are done and dusted in the time it takes us to verify the true en-suiteness of a bathroom.

My husband made it a condition of marriage that I never be allowed to book another holiday because I end up surrounded by huge mounds of print-outs, crying. He uses one notebook, three websites, a gimlet eye and half an hour.

Why do we do it? It’s partly for positive reasons, I’m sure. A holiday is, after all, a big commitment. It’s expensive, it’s rare and it is supposed to undo all the stresses, strains and woes accumulated during the other 47 weeks of the year. It really doesn’t do to get to your destination to find out that the airport is four hours from the hotel, your hotel’s 20 miles instead of 20 metres from the beach, and your loo is 20 feet down a corridor instead of 20 seconds from your bed. Some investment in ensuring that basic expectations are met is surely wise.

Plus, of course, planning is a lot of fun. Half the pleasure of most things – from a gin and tonic to first-time sex – is in the anticipation rather than the realisation.

But – probably, I realise now, not even halfway through the 30-hour stint – it can become not a pleasure but a pain. Happy expectancy gives way to obsessive compulsion. Fear of missing out – on a bargain, on a bluer sea, a more golden beach, a posher pool, a greater thrill somewhere, somehow – overtake delicious daydreaming. Seeking the best is a natural human tendency, of course, but these days it can easily be aggravated beyond any useful degree by limitless access to other choices, other opinions, other possibilities offered by the internet.

That men don’t seem to suffer to the same degree from the compulsion to keep searching for the Platonic ideal of a holiday suggests to me that it also has something to do with self-confidence. It takes a fair amount of the stuff to call a halt to your searches and effectively say ‘That’s it. I’ve done enough. I’ve found something that will meet my needs and that will do.’

Applying the label ‘good enough’ seems to be something men find easier to do than women – be it to holidays, to work (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen male friends hand in dissertations, work reports or projects in a state that would have their female equivalents conscientiously beavering away for days before deeming them acceptable), parenting or relationships. I suspect this is because they are more used to setting the rules and the standards to which society generally cleaves.

Their way is not entirely right, of course, but neither is ours and I suspect we lose out more – in terms of wasted hours and energies – than they do. Something to think about when you open up your ninth or tenth website: is it still a pleasure? Or has it become a pain? Will you soon need a holiday to recover from your holiday? Or have you – if you’re honest, if you’re brave – found something that is good enough?"

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