BACKGROUND The development of malignant melanoma has been associated with intense episodic sun exposure, as it typically occurs during holidays in high UV-index countries. OBJECTIVES To investigate sun protective behaviour and sunburn experience of vacationers spending holidays in the tropics or subtropics. METHODS Using standardized face-to-face interviews, we conducted cross-sectional surveys among air passengers waiting in the departure or the baggage claim area at the Airport Basel-Mulhouse (Switzerland/France), and among vacationers waiting for pre-travel health advice at a travel clinic in Basel (Switzerland). RESULTS We completed 533, 324, and 308 interviews with departing air passengers, returning air passengers, and vacationers at the travel clinic, respectively. The interviews revealed widespread misconceptions about how to prepare the skin for the sun before holidays (e.g. pre-tanning in the solarium). At the holiday destination, almost all respondents used sunscreen, whereas wearing protective clothing and seeking shade were less practiced. Among the returning air passengers, 44% had got sunburnt during their holiday stay. CONCLUSIONS The sunburn rate among returning vacationers was alarmingly high. Skin cancer prevention campaigns and pre-travel health advice should tackle misconceptions regarding the preparation of the skin for the sun, and emphasize the significance of covering up and seeking shade. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.