Why is the trip back always shorter?

We all know it. The trip is over and we await a long trip back. And then – whoops – we’re home. How does that happen? Is there a scientific explanation for this phenomenon? I researched that for you – with interesting results.

long trip

When you’re embarking on an exciting vacation, the journey there always seems to take longer than traveling home. Of course that’s impossible, because the earth doesn’t just rearrange its roads to make our journey home seem shorter. For me, it’s like some evil plot, dragging out the process of driving to the airport, spending hours to get through security clearance, and waiting for the plane to depart. It’s not even just for summer trips, this phenomenon seems to happen for weekends away too.

Scientific explanations for trip length perception?

But traveling home seems a whole lot faster, or at least it did the past few times I’ve been on summer trips or weekends away. My trip is done, and I’m ready for home. Can there be some scientific reason why the trip home feels shorter? Yes, apparently it has something to do with how our heart arrives home before the plane, and not because someone picked us up in their time traveling spaceship.

space travel

There are scientific studies that aim to prove why there is that feeling of a shorter trip home after weekends away. This phenomenon was noted by astronaut Alan Bean, who visited the moon in 1969. He noted that returning home from the moon was a lot faster than getting there.

Admittedly, his trip back really took him shorter, even though the distance was the same, so his story doesn’t really count here. But for those of us on the ground, we can’t benefit from the intricacies of space travel. Or at least, not yet.

Theory #1 Is it recognition of landmarks?

One of the studies has been done in the Netherlands. According to Niels van de Ven, psychologist, one plausible explanation is that time is speeded up for us, because we recognize landmarks on the way back home. This naturally increases the feeling of speed in our minds.

why is the way back always shorter

This may work great for road, bus, and train trips, but doesn’t explain why this happens when we take summer trips on a plane. The blinds may be closed, or the traveler may not recognize landmarks high in the air.

Theory #2 It’s all about expectations for the journey

So other experiments had to be conducted, this time with bike riders. The bike riders were split into two: One group took the same route home, while the other took a different route. But it didn’t matter — both groups still felt the route home was shorter.

In this study it was believed that the pessimism of realizing that the trip took longer to reach the destination also has a negative impact on the trip home. But soon that turns into a positive experience of realizing it didn’t take that long at all. It’s all about expectation.

bike trip

Theory #3 No pressure when traveling back

Another theory explains that there is less pressure to return home, so the trip feels shorter. Your mind isn’t as focused on reaching a certain target on time.

the way back always shorter

Should we be over-examining this effect, since it is a good one after all? It’s often what psychologists have been telling us for years: It’s all in our minds.

About the author

Alex from tripsuit

Alex

Hi, I am Alex from tripsuit, travel enthusiast and into data and everything digital! I lead the travel lab, analyzing the travel world using data science to uncover the hidden logic behind travel.

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