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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
Do you take all of your vacation time each year? If not, which of these tips could you use this year to travel more?
Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!