Despite the well-documented benefits of vacation, it’s no secret that Americans aren’t great at taking their paid time off (PTO). A new study from travel booking website Priceline found that a quarter of Americans still have more than nine vacation days left on the table through the end of 2018. Only 39% of women say they use all their paid time off, compared to half of men.
And even when they do use their time, nearly 1 in 3 have regrets about how they did so in 2018. Fifty-nine percent plan to use more time off next year than they did this year. And 65% plan to take a vacation in 2019 based on a personal passion.
Those aspirations may be fueled, in part, by New Year’s resolution season, says Liz Dente, Priceline’s chief people officer. And while some people may take at least a portion of those leftover days during the holidays, the financial toll of this time of year makes some reluctant to do so. But shifting how we think of “vacation” and the “right” way to use PTO, along with some planning, can help Americans both take the time to which they’re entitled and meet their goals of planning passion-related trips.
“It’s paid time off. It’s not necessarily ‘vacation.’ You don’t necessarily need to book a trip to Italy,” Dente says. Instead, the time can be used in a variety of ways that fulfill and enrich you.
In 2017, Koesmanto Bong, currently an engineering manager at San Francisco-based Heroku, a cloud application platform, had lost his job and was unemployed and “getting rejected left and right” for more than seven months. He started meditating as a way to calm himself and, this year, took time off to go to This Epic Life’s retreat for three days in Encinitas, California. His wife, who had seen how much a daily meditation practice calmed and grounded him, encouraged him to go.
The retreat, part meditation, part personal development, helped him determine the five “non-negotiables” through which his decisions should be made, he says. Working remotely from his Portland, Oregon, home so he can spend more time with his family and integrating more artistic activities into his life are two non-negotiables that drive his decisions now. The retreat gave him more meditation and decision-making tools that he uses each day, he says.
“Americans do overwork. I think there’s this ‘work more and make more money’ [culture], and I think it’s time for us to realize that taking a break, slowing down, taking good care of ourselves is very, very important, for our health, so that we can show up better for other people,” he says.
But you don’t have to choose a spiritual or mindfulness experience. Personal enrichment comes in a variety of forms. For those interested in learning a new language, Concordia Language Villages are a program of Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. The villages are culturally authentic sites where visitors interact entirely in one of a variety of languages like Finnish, Japanese, German, French, or Spanish, choosing stays that may last a few days or a week. Meals reflect the cuisine of the culture represented in the village. The immersion experience fast-tracks learning.
Make the world better
For those who want to connect with a greater sense of meaning by helping others, volunteer trips might be the answer. Global Family Travels, based in Bellevue, Washington, partners with nonprofit organizations to organize trips, several of which support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, addressing issues like quality education, clean water access, gender equality promotion, and others. Travelers may work with underserved children, providing tutoring and mentoring in South Africa, help at a panda preserve in China, or teach rural Andean women to start and run their own businesses in Peru.
Once families or individuals travel on one of these excursions, they often bond with others in the travel group through the shared experience of doing something positive, says Global Family Travels founder Jennifer Spatz. “They’re becoming global citizens while they’re traveling, and coming back feeling somewhat transformed, in the way that you look at your own life,” she says.
Abby Ray was working as a journalist in Bermuda and volunteering with Kids on the Reef, a two-day classroom and immersion program sponsored by the Bermuda Zoological Society created to teach children about ocean ecology and the coral reef. As an expat new to the area, her volunteer work introduced her to friends and a sense of purpose. “Once empty days were now spent snorkeling around private islands, diving with kaleidoscopic parrot fish, stripy sergeant majors, flashes of baby squid, barracudas, and families of squid. To discover this underwater kingdom was breathtaking,” she says.
Through her volunteerism, she found out about the Bermuda Turtle Project, which promotes the conservation of marine turtles. She volunteered and received a rejection but was then asked to fill in at the last minute when a scientist’s visa was denied. She took two weeks off from her job to work with turtles just down the road from where she worked. Her firsthand experience working with marine life led Ray to cash in her life savings in order to earn a degree in marine biology. Her volunteer experience helped get her accepted to the University of Exeter in the U.K., she says.
“No more rat race, no more office work, just me, the ocean, a sense of peace, and hopefully helping to save the planet,” she says. And she’s hooked on volunteering while she’s vacationing. During an upcoming trip to the Red Sea over Christmas vacation, Ray has already lined up volunteer work with the local sea turtle project. “If you’re even thinking about a change of career, then volunteering is a fantastic way of finding out if the switch is for you, impressing future employers, and helping you find a higher purpose in life,” she says.
Tend to your own interests
But even if you’re not ready to head to a monastery or rural village for a couple of weeks, you can still use your PTO in ways that benefit you, Dente says. Take a day off to get your holiday shopping done without the crowds. Take a long weekend and carve out some time to do something you’ve been meaning to do to treat yourself. Read for half a day or go for a massage.
Or pursue your interests. Did you play on an adult sports team? Organize a trip to a tournament. Organizations like the U.S. Adult Soccer Association, USA Track & Field, and others host tournaments for various adult age brackets. Your vacation time is time you may use in ways that will fulfill you most, so make the most of the rest of it in 2018 and make a plan to use it well in 2019.