How to Survive a Family Vacation as an HSP (Without Needing Another Vacation)

A child looking stressed and unhappy on a family vacation

Summer vacations with the family can be full on for highly sensitive people. Here’s how to cope — and skip the overwhelm. 

Two years ago, I met a wonderful guy and fell in love. He has two fantastic children, now aged 7 and 9 and we’ve formed an incredibly strong bond. This year we decided to take our first vacation abroad and booked a week in an all-inclusive resort on Egypt’s Red Sea coast. On paper, it was perfect: sunshine, beach, snorkeling, swimming. What’s not to like?

Well… just one snag. I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP), and that changes a few things about vacations for me.

Being a Highly Sensitive Person Makes “Normal” Things Hard 

Being an HSP, I knew the vacation was going to be full-on, overwhelming and often intense, as these sorts of things always are for me. I didn’t want to miss out on a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I knew I had to plan and mentally prepare for the trip in advance to give me the maximum control possible and a feeling of “readiness.” This is vital for a vacation, because HSPs get overstimulated easily, not only by noise or sound but by new places, new routines, and change. Vacations — especially family vacations — push all our overstimulation buttons. (The joke, “I need a vacation from my vacation” rings a little too true for most HSPs.) 

Luckily I’m super organized — this is a strength of HSPs — and I sprang into “perfect planning” mode. I started the packing list weeks beforehand. I printed all the travel documentation and read the small print. I meticulously planned the journeys to and from the airport. I read travel blogs so I could prepare for what this area of Egypt is really like and attempted to absorb others travelers’ past experiences, picking up some useful hints and tips about currency and tipping. I also earmarked a couple of non-negotiable buffer days in my calendar for immediately after the vacation, so I knew I could decompress (and get on top of the laundry!).

It seemed to work. When the big day came, I felt ready! As the taxi pulled away from our house, I was super proud that I had been cool, calm and collected on the run up to the trip. Bring on the sunshine — this trip will be great!

But the best-laid plans…

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What Do You Do When a Trip Goes Wrong?

I’ll admit: The sunshine and warmth were amazing after a long British winter. Swimming pools ran through the center of our resort and the kids loved the heated one. (My partner loved that it had a swim-up bar!) The hotel seemed relatively quiet, definitely not at full capacity and the mealtimes were so spread out that it was never busy at the all-you-can-eat buffet — with plenty of choice to suit every taste.

But there was one major hitch:


At 10 a.m. the first day, dance music started blaring from two massive speakers right next to the pool. It was so loud that you had to cover your ears as you walked past it. And remember: the pools run right through the resort. Our room overlooked them, and the sliding balcony door was, let’s just say, less than soundproofed. As a bonus, the music went on all day, every day, until 10:30 p.m.

That’s twelve and a half hours of nonstop stimulation.

I found the constant music exhausting. Noise is one of the hardest things for HSPs to screen out, and it was impossible to get away from. It filled my head. I couldn’t sleep — or concentrate, or relax — until the music had stopped and silence had finally taken hold. At this point, it became a bit of a downward spiral: a lack of sleep can be bad for HSPs and makes us even more susceptible to overstimulation. I knew after the first couple of days that something needed to change. And as the resort was not shutting off the sound system, that something was going to have to be me. I needed to find a way to cope.

Accessing My Pre-prepared ‘HSP Toolkit’

As a highly sensitive person, my planning for the trip had included packing my “HSP toolkit”; a set of items that I use in my everyday life that help keep me balanced. These consist of:

  • Noise-canceling headphones — possibly one of the best (but quite expensive) purchases of my life!
  • The Calm app on my phone, which contains meditations and sleep stories.
  • Tried and tested audiobooks that help me get to sleep and quiet my racing mind at night. 
  • Books to read. One was a trashy crime novel I could zip through, and one was a deeper story that I could sink into if I needed escapism.
  • A couple of downloaded TV shows which can help hold my attention on something relaxing and “turn off” my brain. 

These items were a comfort blanket for me. I knew that at any time I could go up to the room and put on my noise-canceling headphones, dulling the sound immediately. (I even found that I could sleep in them, which was very unexpected as they’re so large and bulky, and I’m such a light sleeper!)

But my “toolkit” includes more than just physical items. It includes practices and habits, too, which can help an HSP manage an overwhelming situation and minimize overstimulation. For example…

How I Turned My Vacation Around

As the week went on and I had no choice but to put up with the pounding music, I adopted some strategies to help me cope in the alien space. Perhaps these will help you, too, if you find yourself in a situation that is uncomfortable and out of your control:

1. Be honest with those you are with. 

When I knew that I needed some time out, I told them I was going to stay in the room on my own for a bit and catch up with them shortly. The kids were disappointed, and I had to try to eliminate the feelings of guilt this stirred up in me. In reality though, a quick ten minutes lying on the bed and calming my mind was all I needed to be up and ready to go again.

2. Ensure you speak up and your needs are taken into consideration by others. 

One of the day trips we had the option to take was a full day out on an island, and I knew it would be too much for me, so I spoke up. Instead we compromised on two shorter day trips, and everyone was happy. The kids even got to see dolphins!

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

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3. Use a daily schedule to bring back an element of control.

This is actually quite easy at some resorts where there are set mealtimes, and these really did give us a backbone to each day. But you can set your own schedule as well, building in set times for a morning routine or a midday rest as well as meals. In my case, I made sure that I stayed out of the heat of the midday sun, and I took time to chill out every evening, so that when it was time to sleep, I was already as calm and relaxed as I could be.

4. Focus on the positives. 

Whenever I did feel overwhelmed, I reminded myself that we were only there for a week and might never go back. The weather was beautiful, my skin was starting to tan, everyone was having a fantastic time and the water slides at the pool took me happily back to my childhood. Not every situation will have so many positives, but most vacations involve somewhere special — even if overstimulating — and the chance to make memories. 

5. Learn and adapt for next time. 

The trip would have been so much better without the music. Perhaps for future vacations, I’ll research resorts differently — and maybe even contact them to ask about music and their noise policy. (I’ll also know that my noise-canceling headphones are indispensable, and perhaps expand my toolkit for more noise-reduction options — like earplugs for naptime.) 

Sometimes as HSPs, we have to do things that are not suited to us and this can be really difficult, potentially having a lasting effect on our wellbeing. I hope this article shows you how much control you really do have, and that there are tools you can use to help. And I’m curious: Have you had a similar experience? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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