10 Tips for How to Travel More with Limited Vacation Time

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Here's a pretty staggering statistic for you: In 2018, Americans left 768 million vacation days unused. That's 768 MILLION days that Americans could have used to have an adventure or just take a break… wasted.

More than half of American workers with paid vacation time (52%, to be exact) said they left vacation days unused in a 2023 survey. In fact, in 2022 it's estimated that 55% of paid time off (PTO) went unused.

This is just SAD, folks. And it's got to change.

Anse Source D'Argent on La Digue
We all need more trips to places like this.

Why don't people take their vacation time?

I've written previously about why vacations are good for you. Time off can help reduce stress and boost productivity (it's been scientifically proven!). But I know that simply knowing this information isn't always enough.

So why do so many people (and Americans especially) leave so many vacations days unused each year?

The reason is two-fold: 1. We are a very work- and results-focused society; and 2. We are a culture that loves to make excuses.

Some of the top excuses I've heard from Americans about why they don't travel more?

  • “I'm too busy at work.”
  • “I don't have the time to plan a trip.”
  • “I don't have the money.”
  • “I don't have enough vacation days to go where I want.”
  • “If I take time off, I might not get a promotion/get fired.” (This one might seem ridiculous, but it's one of the sentiments I hear the most often.)
  • “I'll go on vacation next year.”

Now, some of these are valid arguments – travel does cost money and does require time. And since many Americans working full-time jobs only get 10 days of paid time off (PTO) per year, it can indeed seem like a challenge.

But there ARE ways to still take time off to travel even when you have limited funds and little time off.

Goblin Valley State Park in Utah

10 ways to travel more with limited vacation time

Wondering how you can maximize those handful of vacation days you get every year? Here are all my best hacks for how to travel more with limited time off.

(And what do I know about traveling with limited vacation time? Well, it's true that these days I'm a full-time blogger with a very flexible schedule. But I worked for years at jobs with only 5-10 days of vacation time, and my husband still works a corporate job that we plan travel around!)

1. Prioritize your bucket list

It's true that you won't be able to travel around the world with just 10 vacation days. But limited vacation time does not automatically mean that you need to put your travel bucket list on the back burner. You can absolutely travel to Europe or South Africa or Australia in two weeks or less, as long as you prioritize the items on your must-do list.

Amanda and Dad in South Africa
My Dad and I in South Africa

Maybe you can't do a monthlong trip by train through Western Europe, but you can definitely do a weeklong trip to Ireland, or visit London and Paris in one go. Maybe you don't have enough time to road trip around all of Australia, but you certainly can visit Sydney and dive the Great Barrier Reef with the time you have.

The key is to decide which destinations and activities are most important to you, and then begin to plan around those.

2. Plan your days off in advance

Did you know there's a National Plan for Vacation Day each year in the US? The whole point of the day (which falls on the last Tuesday in January) is to encourage Americans to plan their time off far in advance. Because, according to Project: Time Off: “Individuals who plan are more likely to use all of their time off, take more vacation days at once, and report greater levels of happiness in every category measured.”

Planning your trips in advance also usually means that you'll have a better chance of getting your time-off requests approved by your boss.

My husband, Elliot, and I do this each year in regards to his vacation time. We usually take one “big trip” per year (1 week or longer), and usually know months in advance when that trip will be so he can get his vacation request in before too many other people start asking for time off.

Amanda and Elliot in Iceland
Elliot and I on our “big trip” to Iceland in 2015, which we planned almost 6 months in advance.

Plus, planning your time off in advance means you have that trip to look forward to! Sometimes the planning and anticipating can be just as exciting and uplifting as taking the trip itself.

RELATED: You Don't Have to Ditch the 9-to-5 in Order to Travel

3. Travel closer to home

“Traveling” doesn't have to mean crossing oceans or going thousands of miles away. Remember that you can travel closer to home, too. No matter where you live, I guarantee that there is somewhere interesting within driving distance.

In the past couple of years, Elliot and I have done a handful of trips within Ohio, including overnights at the Lake Erie Islands, Hocking Hills State Park, and even Cincinnati. They're all within a couple hours' drive from where we live near Cleveland – and being able to drive meant we saved a LOT of money on these short trips.

Amanda in Cleveland
We spend time just exploring nearby Cleveland, too!

4. Perfect the long weekend trip

When you have limited vacation time, you'll want to learn to perfect the art of the long weekend trip. When you pair one or two PTO days with a weekend, that gives you a 3-4 day trip. And, believe it or not, you can see and do a lot in a long weekend.

Places within driving distance are great for long weekends, but don't discount a destination for a long weekend trip just because you might not be able to drive there.

Let's take New York as an example. Here are sample flight times to several different destinations:

  • NYC to Orlando to visit Harry Potter world: 2 hours 15 minutes
  • NYC to Bermuda for some beach time: 2.5 hours
  • NYC to New Orleans for amazing food: 2 hours 45 minutes
  • NYC to Belize for jungles and Mayan ruins: 4 hours 10 minutes
  • NYC to Iceland for outdoor adventures: 5.5 hours
New Orleans French Quarter
New Orleans makes for an incredible long weekend trip!

With just two days of vacation time and a weekend, you could fly to any of these places and still tick a lot of things off that travel bucket list.

Elliot and I utilize long weekend trips like this a lot. Like I mentioned before, we usually plan one long trip per year, and then parse out his vacation days across several long weekends throughout the year.

In one recent year, we took a weeklong trip to Oregon, and then did long weekends in Cincinnati, Chicago, and the Finger Lakes region of New York. The year before, we did a 9-day trip (still only 1 week of vacation time!) to the Southwest to visit national parks, and then did long weekend trips to Seattle and Orlando.

Amanda in Seattle
At the gum wall in Seattle, which is another great city for a long weekend trip.

RELATED: 8 Tips for Planning the Perfect Long Weekend Trip

5. Learn to love the red eye

When you're trying to maximize your vacation time and eke out every last minute of it, you'll need to learn to love the red eye flight (or at least tolerate it). This is the overnight flight, often used when you're traveling from west to east in the US, or from the US to Europe. Overnight flights aren't always the most fun, but they DO save a lot of transit time.

More than once, Elliot and I have left for a trip after he finished work, or flew home overnight in order to avoid him having to use up an extra vacation day. It's never fun for him to go to work straight off a red eye flight (because yes, he's done it a few times!), but you'll do it if you're making the most of every last hour of vacation time that you accrue.

Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge
We took a red eye home after our trip to Oregon.

6. Travel over holidays

Traveling around the holidays is usually portrayed as a nightmare – and, well, sometimes it is. But if you're willing to fly ON a holiday, you can often find pretty good deals – AND it's basically like a free day you can pair up with vacation days or a weekend to really maximize the time off.

7. Save up holiday hours

Speaking of holidays, if you work in an industry that doesn't take federal holidays off, find out if you can work a holiday and use the hours later as vacation time.

For example, my first job out of university was at a newspaper; newspapers are generally published every day, meaning that, yes, people have to work on holidays in order to put the paper together. If you volunteered to work a federal holiday at this paper, you not only got paid a little extra, but you also got to use those holiday hours as a “floating holiday” later, meaning it essentially became another vacation day. I worked New Years, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving one year, giving me three “extra” vacation days to take whenever I wanted.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

This won't be possible with every job, but it doesn't hurt to ask if there are ways similar to this to build up some extra PTO hours. Elliot's employer, for example, donates a lot of money to charities and philanthropic projects. If an employee donates one day per year of his/her pay, they get two extra days of paid time off that year. Pretty good deal!

8. Extend business trips

Do you already travel for business with your job? If so, it's often not difficult to extend a business trip by a day or two, or to extend it into a weekend to give you time to explore the destination you're already in for business (or to maybe add in a stopover somewhere else before you head home).

Many airlines even allow you to add on a stopover at no extra cost. The most famous of these is Iceland Air, which allows a free stopover in Iceland when you're flying between the US and Europe. Airlines like Emirates and Turkish Airlines will even throw in a free hotel room if you have a stopover of a certain length in their hub cities of Istanbul and Dubai.

Grand Bazaar
Colorful lanterns in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

9. Ask about remote work or unpaid time off

Now that we're in the digital age, remote work is much more common than it used to be. If yours is a job that only really requires a computer and an internet connection, then technically it can be done remotely. It never hurts to ask about your company's policy on remote work. Some don't offer the option to work outside the office, but others do – even Elliot's company (a huge international corporation) let employees in certain departments work from home two days per week if they want to.

If you're planning a big trip that requires a couple days more than what your PTO allows, it can't hurt to ask about working remotely a day or two. If this isn't an option, then I would broach the subject of unpaid time off. You may not be able to afford to take an entire week off unpaid, but one or two days is probably do-able.

(Though, when I worked my newspaper job, I asked to take two full weeks off unpaid in order to take a trip I won to New Zealand. The HR department was fine with letting me take the unpaid time off, and I had my travel savings account to fall back on so that I could afford it. This isn't the norm, but since I was an hourly employee in an industry that was grasping at any opportunity to save some money, it worked out for me!)

Hooker Valley Track at Mount Cook
That trip to NZ was SO worth it!

And if remote work is a-okay for your job? Then you can also take advantage of the workation trend!

10. USE all of your days off!

My last tip isn't really a tip that will help you get more out of your limited vacation time, but it's still important: for goodness sake, please actually USE your vacation time!

It pains me to read statistics like the ones I shared at the beginning of this post. Taking time off from work has been scientifically proven to be good for you!

So if you were one of those people who left vacation days on the table last year for whatever reason, make a pledge to not do that again this year.

You'll never be able to make the most of your limited time off if you don't even use it all.

READ NEXT: 10 Tips to Help You Plan a Successful Workation

Do you take all of your vacation time each year? If not, which of these tips could you use this year to travel more?

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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55 Comments on “10 Tips for How to Travel More with Limited Vacation Time

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  1. When i first found you, you were still at that office desk. i’ve enjoyed you posts ever since. Thank you!

    Great tips and I love your refreshing perspective!

    This is surely going to be helpful in my future travels. It’s hard to travel when you are working full time, so these tips are really helpful. I really miss traveling a lot. Thank you for sharing this 🙂

    Hi Amanda,
    You are sharing very amazing information and images with us, I would love to travel the whole world but this covid situation is not allowing us to do so, by the way Thank You and keep traveling!

    Some great tips, and it is very true (and a bit sad) that many Americans don’t use all of their vacation days.

      I am Nisha Pandey from India.Great tips! It’s kind of like of paying yourself first to ensure that you save for retirement. In this case, it’s about taking care of your emotional and mental health first by setting up planned breaks. And it’s so easy, a weekend getaway can make all the difference in the world!

        This is true! Taking breaks and even planning a vacation can be great for your mental health!

          That’s awesome! We need more companies that understand the value of giving their employees time off!

    Here in India, many organisations offer a good amount of days for paid vacation but that’s only on the paper, the bossed won’t sanction those leaves. Most of these leaves go unused. My company offers 32 days, that is good but then it is impossible to convince the boss especially if you want to use them in one go. I am always looking for ways how can I make the most out of my situation. This post really helped. Will try to get those entire 32 days using these tips. 🙂

      Happy to be able to give you some ideas! Good luck using all your days this year!

    Nice tip,Amanda,but for me i think what most people do to eat their time is,they dont really know where to travel to, a lot of people have 2 or more places in their mind to travel to so they spend a lot of time contemplating on where to go,what kits to take and how many days do i need to travel and more so this article will go a great deal to propel people to manage their time well when preparing or planing to travel.

      It’s true – that “analysis paralysis” can definitely make planning a trip hard!

    You would think “USE all of your days off!” would go without saying, but as someone who’s written about work-life-vacation balance for years it certainly isn’t 🙂 Or should it be 🙁 I would hope that people reading your inspiring part-time travel blog would embrace the idea of taking their paid time off every year and use your tips to stretch those limited days even farther.

    While I don’t know if I’ll ever “love” a red-eye flight, they are travel necessities especially for Americans who want to go to Europe on vacation. I think maximizing local and weekend travel is your best tip for those who think they are too busy or don’t earn currently enough vacation time at work. Like you said there are so many travel opportunities near where we all live. A quick search for bus/train/driving distance ideas from bloggers or TripAdvisor or (my preference) Google Maps yields loads of memorable places to visit. Thanks for being an inspiration for people who work full-time and make vacation time a priority.

    -Scott, Travel Blogger and App Developer

      It still baffles me when I read about how much paid vacation time goes unused every year!

    Great tips and gorgeous pictures, and it is very true (and a bit sad) that many Americans don’t use all of their vacation days.

    Thank you for the amazing tips on vacationing. I didn’t know that if you decide what destinations and dates you wanted beforehand was more time efficient. My wife and I haven’t been on a vacation since our son was born and we are in dire need of some time away. Again, thank you for this amazing write up!

      When you’re working with limited vacation time, yes, it’s usually a good idea to know your destination and a rough idea of dates before you start planning, especially if you know you’ll have to ask for time off work!

    Thanks for the good advice! After 2 years travelling in South America, I took a job in a company in France. I’m gonna need it, thanks!

      That will be a big adjustment, for sure! But at least you get a decent amount of vacation time in France – use it well!

    awesome blog! thanks for sharing and keep it up!

    Got a new job about a month ago. While I do love my job, it doesn’t offer too much free time for me to go traveling. However, this should really come in handy. I was planning on going to Cuba but it was too expensive to go just a weekend (I got my contacts), so I might go to Miami instead, have a fun vacation time either way.

      Hey, Miami would still make a really fun weekend getaway!

    Thank you for the tips on vacationing. I didn’t know that if you decide what destinations and dates you wanted beforehand it was more time efficient. My husband and I haven’t been on a vacation since my daughter was born and we are in dire need of some time away. I think we are going to start looking at travel agencies to get some much needed alone time.

    I’m a freelancer so I have plenty of time to travel. The problem is I lack the money..haha…

      Ah a conundrum indeed! Unfortunately I don’t have any tips for how to make more money – you just gotta save what you can, or travel closer to home so it’s not so expensive!

        Thank you for the tips on vacationing. I didn’t know that if you decide what destinations and dates you wanted beforehand it was more time efficient. My husband and I haven’t been on a vacation since my daughter was born and we are in dire need of some time away. I think we are going to start looking at travel agencies to get some much needed alone time.

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