A view through the window of an airport lounge

How to put yourself at ease when travelling

by Andrew Hill on December 29, 2011

I am sitting inside Honolulu International Airport gazing through dust-speckled windows. As I sip my coffee, I run through a mental check-list for another day of travel. Even after three days in Hawaii, my first visit to the USA is still keeping my working memory busy. The road rules, customs and currency of this place differ from that of my homeland and the unconscious, automatic actions I would normally apply to routine tasks no longer apply. It is necessary for me to give conscious deliberation to tasks I am accustomed to doing automatically. Extra care must be taken when crossing the road, I have to give more thought to simple financial transactions, and the airport layout and security screening here differ from those at Melbourne or Sydney. Despite the accumulation of small challenges like these, I am at ease. My travel affairs are in order and I have contingency plans for problems that might arise during my journey. Having a few minutes of down time, I sip on my coffee, gaze out the window and reflect upon my experiences on the island of Oahu. I see the morning sun shining brightly above the city; a stationary Boeing 747-400 is in the foreground; and in the distance, the peak of Diamond Head is clearly visible.

When I had first arrived in Honolulu from Australia, I secured a ride to my hotel on a shuttle bus. The driver directed me to the front passenger seat, which is located on the left hand side of vehicles in Australia but on the opposite side in the USA. Whilst I was consciously attending to the driver’s request, the state of my luggage and my surroundings, I automatically (that is, unconsciously) proceeded to the left side of the vehicle, where the drivers seat was located. When I opened the door, I realised my mistake and somewhat sheepishly walked around to the correct door on the right-hand side of the vehicle. The driver smiled and said to me, “I guess you must be from England?” “Australia actually”, I replied.

When travelling, we need to be more alert to our surroundings. Habits that are quite satisfactory at home may be inappropriate, unhelpful or downright dangerous in other cultures and settings. Habits are customised responses remembered in long-term memory. They include the ways we classify certain kinds of events and our physical and emotional responses to those events. When performing tasks in unfamiliar circumstances, we may have to over-ride or abandon some of our usual habits. This can place a greater load on short-term, or working memory. In Hawaii, I find that some simple activities impose a a higher cognitive load on me than similar tasks in Australia. We may attend to demanding situations by coordinating mind and body through a process known as embodied cognition, and our ability to coordinate our actions with our surroundings may be explained as process of distributed cognition.

In circumstances of extreme cognitive load, working memory is used to full capacity. This occurs as an affected person attempts to process multiple chunks of information, consciously in rapid succession. As attention is focused on a single chunk information, other chunks are held in working memory, to be called upon when needed. When a large number of unfamiliar sensory inputs are being received in a short period of time, working memory may be overwhelmed. Under those circumstances, it is not be possible to process all those pieces of information in the given moment. When that happens, we may find ourselves falling back on habits that are ill-matched to the present circumstances.

Our habitual responses usually employ mind and body unconsciously and must be overcome with deliberate, conscious effort. When I reach the roadside curb in Australia, I usually look for traffic coming from my right, then to my left, quickly check again to my right, then walk onto the road. I do this without consciously thinking about it. In the USA, that process must be reversed to avoid stepping into the path of oncoming traffic. Conscious, focused attention is needed to successfully over-ride established habits. As I approach the road-side curb, I quietly say to myself, “Stop, look, listen” and  carefully scan the road in all directions. I also coordinate myself with the surroundings by walking within crowds of people. That way, I do not have to pay so much attention to traffic and am free to focus on other sights and sounds.

Another way to deal with the extra cognitive demands of travel is to deliberately foster habits that reduce demands on working memory. When in an airport at departure or at customs on arrival, I have found it helpful to keep my passport in a specific pocket whenever I am not holding it in my hand. That way, I can call on long-term memory to retrieve it quickly and can keep working memory free for other matters. In my long-term memory, I have formed associations between the chosen pocket and the muscular movements involved with placing the passport there, or removing it. In keeping with distributed cognition, the pocket is an integral part of the memory and has effectively become part of me for the purposes of applying the memory. It is important to establish habits like this before commencing travel. Disruptions to sleep patterns and biorhythms, such as those brought about by jet-lag, can hinder the formation of long-term memories.

The long-term memories associated with actions extend beyond sentences like, “I must remove my shoes for screening through airport security”. It is much more effective to physically practise or to mentally rehearse the action. If I imagine myself removing my shoes and placing them in a tray for screening, I create associations between the purpose of the action and the muscular movements required to perform the action. For this reason, the memories we form when mentally rehearsing an action are very similar to the memories formed by actually doing it.

Other memories may be associated with external objects such as notebook entries, printed and electronic documents, and physical objects. If a printed travel itinerary is kept handy, then it is a simple matter to annotate it with the details of flight or accommodation changes as they occur. That reduces the amount of information that must be held in short-term memory. Whilst in Honolulu, I was not aware that some days later I would be faced with a flight cancellation at San Francisco International Airport due to bad weather.  This would require that a number of quick decisions be made. I would be faced with the need to secure a flight to Los Angeles to catch a previously scheduled flight to Melbourne. In situations like this one, it helps to keep working memory free to accommodate incoming information. This may be achieved by annotating an itinerary with updated information and by exchanging information with fellow travellers. Working memory should be free to weigh up the options and enable good decision-making to take place.

Travel can be a novel and exciting experience; one that offers a break from the normal routines of life and stimulates mind and senses. But it can also include experiences that are sometimes mundane, sometimes intense and stressful. It is important to be alert to changes in your surroundings but also relaxed and at ease so that you can enjoy the travel experience and make best use of your time.

Here are four things you can do to put yourself at ease when travelling:

  1. Mentally rehearse each stage of travel: This will help you to construct a check-list of items you need to carry or pack. It will also help you to create practically useful long-term memories.
  2. Carry important documents: Some documents, such as passport and visas are essential for international travel. Other documents provide a useful way to record changes to itinerary or contact details as they occur, freeing your short-term memory for other matters. Documents are also a useful aid to long-term memory especially when there are many details to remember. Some documents are best kept in hard-copy form for reliable access. If you keep your itinerary on your smart phone in electronic form, that becomes an unreliable form of document if the battery on the phone runs low and it is impractical to attempt recharging.
  3. Plan for contingencies: Some things are beyond your control, but you can prepare for some of the more likely disruptions to travel. For example, you can prepare for possible thefts, loss or accidents by leaving copies of your itinerary, contact details, passport, credit cards and travel insurance with a trustworthy person back at home. That may enable you to deal with those losses more quickly and minimise any consequential disruptions to your travel. If you are carrying electronic devices, backup plans are necessary in case those devices fail. For example, how would you deal with a failure of the hard drive on your notebook computer? Or, what would you do if your phone fails or is lost and you lose the address book it contains?
  4. Make the most of your surroundings: Pay attention to the official advice offered to travellers at your various destinations. Ask questions and observe what the locals do and exchange ideas and suggestions with other travellers.

Can you suggest any other things travellers can to do so that they are at ease and free to make the most of their surroundings?

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