How My Mom’s Postcard Shopping Taught Me to Be More Present on Vacation

When my mom and I arrived in Positano, an excursion early on our cruise itinerary, I beelined it past the shops, scurrying down to Italy’s Instagram-famous beach. Pastel buildings cascading down the craggy cliffs combined with the umbrella-studded beach are undoubtedly picturesque. I felt compelled to capture my own Amalfi Coast snapshot before the destination became too crowded for the day.

With my iPhone in hand, I took dozens of photos. Then dozens more until I was taunted with the “iPhone storage full” message. Disappointed my camera wasn’t capturing 1/100th of the beauty in front of me, I started slapping on filters to make the kaleidoscope of colors pop. Meanwhile, my mom was leisurely browsing the shops, enjoying the scent of the lemon groves that perfumed the air. Her phone was stashed away, and, instead, she clutched a brown paper envelope that contained a few painted postcards she bought. The postcards outperformed my phone showcasing the beauty of the Amalfi Coast and its color-saturated coastline.

Mom, indeed, knows best.

mother-daughter vacation: Trsteno Arboretum
A portrait of my mom that I snapped at the Trsteno Arboretum during a shore excursion while our Princess cruise ship was docked nearby in Dubrovnik, Croatia. I tried to strike a balance between snapping photos that would dial back great memories, yet not being tethered to my phone.

Together, my mom and I had embarked on a 12-day trip with Princess Cruises. I learned from her the art of unplugging — beginning with postcard shopping. Aboard the Crown Princess, our particular route was a highlight reel of the Western Mediterranean, and we customized it with a special focus on culinary excursions.

Here’s how I learned to disconnect and enjoy some quality one-on-one time with my mom, plus expert tips on how you can do the same on your next vacation.

The art of buying postcards

In each port that we stopped, my mom had a routine. Before departing, she selected a few postcards that she felt best depicted our destination. Lavender-carpeted hills in Aix en Provence. Cobblestone streets and ancient fortresses in Dubrovnik. Palm trees and sailboats exuding the laid-back coastal charm of Corsica.

My mom doesn’t have any social media accounts. So, instead of posting photos to Facebook, she brought back the postcards for her friends. She also kept some for herself and gifted me some. Her collection of postcards — so beautiful they could be framed and double as wall art — are of the abstract variety, which I think give the imagination free, creative reign to dial back vacation memories on a whim.

mother-daughter vacation: Amalfi Coast postcards
A collection of the painted postcards showcasing the beauty of the Amalfi Coast. At each port during our expeditions with Princess Cruises, my mom spent $5 or so on abstract postcards that she felt best depicted the region.

Back on the ship, my mom journaled each night. She cross-referenced the daily Captain’s notes that were left outside the door of each stateroom and that contained historical and geographical details about each location. Then, she made note about what we did in each port. While docked in Croatia, we slurped oysters aboard a floating bar in the Adriatic Sea. We ate pastries from a Sunday market in Ajaccio, France, before riding a Ferris wheel and swimming in the Mediterranean Sea during the golden hour leading up to the sunset. We learned about Greek mythology and enjoyed a cooking demonstration in Corfu. Plus, there were on-board highlights at night — outdoor movies projected under the stars and “Voice of the Ocean,” which was Princess’ rendition of a singing competition.

Gradually, throughout the trip, I made more of an effort to disconnect because I realized just how valuable this time with my mom was. My father died in 2010, and so often I get caught in a cycle, saying I wish I had one more driveway basketball game with him or one more barbecue or one more holiday celebration. But, here I was with my mom, and I had this opportunity to be truly present, and full of gratitude for the time we were spending with one another while exploring beautiful countries.

We know that taking vacations is good for mental health. A growing body of research backs this up, including a 2018 study published in the “Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging” that proved vacationing can prolong lives and reduce stress.

But, to truly enjoy the benefits that come with vacation, I think the first step is unplugging so that we can be present and engaged.

How to be more present on vacation, according to experts

So, how do we vacation with more intention? Admittedly, shopping for postcards relieved me of the made-up pressure I put on myself to capture perfect pictures. Also, the nature of a cruise ship (where it costs to connect to WiFi, but yoga and fitness classes are free!) helped.

But, to really get this right, I asked experts to share their best tips for unplugging during vacation.

Here are four great strategies.

  • Meditate: Start each vacation day with meditation, suggests Catherine Jackson, a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified neurotherapist in the Chicagoland area. Meditation, she says, helps you be present and set intentions for the day. When you’re mindful on vacation it allows you to appreciate the beauty of new scenery and linger on good conversations, she says.
  • Set limits on technology: Texts, calls, and e-mail messages can all disrupt us from the present moment. Jackson suggests setting limits on checking messages. If you’re on a week-long vacation, for example, she suggests checking your devices just a few times — and only in 20-minute increments. “Vacation may even be a great time to take a social media sabbatical,” Jackson says.
  • Delay your social media posts: Don’t post any vacation pictures to social media while you’re are still on vacation, suggests Nicole Graber, a licensed clinical social worker who also runs the travel blog The Disney Journey. Instead, enjoy your time and post your favorite photos when you return home. “The popularity of social media has led us all to feel that we need to share everything as soon as possible,” Graber says. “However, your family and friends will not mind if you wait a little while to share your wonderful vacation pictures.”
  • Designate “technology-free” activities: Identify certain activities, or even full days, as being “technology-free,” Graber suggests. “Consider leaving the phones locked in the safe of your hotel room to prevent giving in to temptation,” she says. “You might be amazed just how much this helps to enhance your experience of not only your surroundings but the people you are with.”

What are your strategies for being present on vacation?

Brittany Anas is a freelance writer who specializes in health, fitness, and travel writing. She also contributes to Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Trip Savvy, Simplemost, Orbitz, and Eat This, Not That! She spent a decade working at daily newspapers, including The Denver Post and the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and she is a former federal background investigator. In her free time, Brittany enjoys hiking with her gremlin-pot belly pig mix that the rescue described as a “Boston Terrier” and coaching youth basketball. She also works with domestic abuse survivors, helping them regain financial stability through career coaching. Follower her on Twitter and Instagram.

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