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

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  1. Great tips! I also have the same excuses whenever i am in the mood to travel anywhere around the world. Though i like to travel around my backyard most of the times and through this piece i really gets my cells active and believe that short traveling is possible in any case!

    Thanks for the tips!

    I live in Germany, so I take all my holidays. Most people have legal holidays that ranges from 35 – 52 days per year! In fact, it’s the law that people MUST have their holidays, and be allowed to take them. Not only that, if you become ill while on your official holiday, the law states that (with a signed medical certificate), you can get that period of time back!

    I used to work for a British / American company in Berlin, and every year they would have to force our American colleagues to take their holidays, ‘cos they weren’t used to the fact that you could, and should use them.

    When travelling to more exotic destinations, I would also ask for some unpaid time off during the summer, as being Europe, most people leave town anyway! And if you have children, in order to encourage the social responsibilities of having a family (I have a son), my husband and I are actually given priority to choose holiday time, before everyone else!

    It really does sadden me that our American cousins are losing out, when it’s a scientific fact that an employee who is well rested, eventually works harder, and with greater motivation, than one that isn’t.

      Wow, yeah, we’re totally doing it backwards here in the US!

    I love your tips! I would argue with the concept that people should use ALL their vacation time to travel, though. Those of us who have (or have close family members with) chronic illnesses need to bank as many vacation days as possible. I get 10 personal days each year, and this year when I had a ton of health issues, I was so glad I had saved personal days from the previous years, because I had to take off so much work due to my health.

    Of course I’m sure some companies have separate policies for sick vs. vacation days, but I know a lot of people who have similar situations to mine. And I know other people do have vacation time that expires rather than being banked, so I would definitely agree with you that those vacation days should be used before they run out!

      It’s definitely smart to make sure you set aside a few days for those personal emergencies – and if you work for a company that allows you to roll over time off, then that’s awesome! But many companies have a “use it or lose it” policy, and in that case I definitely advocate for using it all before the end of the year!

    It’s been 10 years today(!) since I had a full-time office job, and even then I negotiated a generous bit of (unpaid) time off, which I used every second of. I get that I don’t have kids and it’s very different if you’re providing for a family of 4, 5, 6..etc. (/trying to travel with a sizable clan) but I can’t imagine NOT taking that time, particularly if you’re getting paid to take it. I think people don’t realize the number of trips you can take that are very low cost (like camping in a nearby state park) and that travel doesn’t have to mean hopping a plane and blowing thousands of dollars.

    Great post, great sentiment!

      Yes! It definitely gets more complicated when you’ve got kids (both when it comes to cost of traveling and cost of, you know, just living), but it’s true that there are plenty of affordable getaways you can take closer to home that won’t break the bank. I think my next post should be about long weekend trips!

    Love this post, Amanda!! It seriously baffles me how bad our work life balance is in America. Even now, my husband and I live in China, but he still works for an American company and he’s had to negotiate for an extra week of unpaid vacation so that we can actually take advantage of living overseas and traveling in Asia. But even so, his bosses, who get way more vacation time than him hardly even use it. The only trips they take are to go back to the US to visit family. Which is understandable, but I’m seriously dumbfounded how they can live in China and not want to explore Asia at all! Especially since it’s so cheap to travel here and popular travel destinations like Thailand and Vietnam are so close! My husband and I are over here like “we want to see it all!” :).

      I totally get it, and it would baffle me, too, that others in your position wouldn’t want to do a bit of traveling over there!

    Great tips and gorgeous pictures! We definitely maximize all our days off and take as many long weekend vacations as possible. There are so many places to explore, even close to home 🙂

      So true! The long weekends are key – you can surprisingly do a lot if you plan them right!

    Nobody on their death bed ever said, “Gee, if only I spent more time at the office”.

    You Americans definitely have the work/life balance all messed up. In Australia the mentality is more “work to live” than “live to work”. And we are grateful for our 4 weeks annual vacation time.

    But that’s just CRAZY that 42% people went the entire year without taking a single day of vacation.

    Is it a guilt thing or an intimidation thing from employers? Surely some time off to recharge, take a break and go on an adventure would be not only good for the individual but good for their productivity when they return to their job.

      You are so right about the “live to work” mentality. When I studied abroad in New Zealand (which also has a “work to live” mentality), the difference was so apparent to me.

      And yes, even though it’s been scientifically proven that taking a vacation can make employees more productive when they return, most US employers don’t really encourage people to take time off, and many do indeed make people feel guilty/threatened about not being at work. It’s really sad!

    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!

      YES! All of this! We focus so much about saving up money for retirement… but we need to save ourselves, too, so that we can actually enjoy it! And taking breaks is essential for mental health.

    I’m always surprised that people use so little vacation. I encourage my team members to use their time because they earned it. And I set a good example by using all my days! Great article!

      You setting an example by using all your days is a great start! I wish more employers actually encouraged people to take days off – many don’t, which is really sad.

    I love that first tip! I think most of us are guilty anyway of trying to squeeze too much into one trip. But it’s crazy, I’m an American who worked for over a year at my first job at a sandwich shop. 30ish hours, made about 800 bucks a month. Now I’m working in Germany; my contract literally states I’m not allowed to work more than 25 hours a week. And I get 20 paid vacation days, and I make twice as much money. The US really got the short straw compared to the other western nations when it comes to vacation time and working conditions in general 🙁

      Yeah, the US system is pretty backwards compared to other countries! (And not just when it comes to paid vacation time… haha!)

    Definitely love this post. I’ve almost always taken most of my days, but I’ve also been fortunate to go from 15 to 20 to 22 days off. Now my company offers unlimited time off, with managers approval. It’s a great motivator to work hard so that you can get your time off approved! We also have every other Friday off if we work 80 hours in 9 days (which I always do). I try to plan a few longer trips each year, like 9-10 days, and then some long weekends thrown in.

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

    Only 10 days off a year! No way could I survive with that. I can’t believe that people can’t even manage to take all of them when they have so few to start with. I already think that we don’t have enough days off in Europe and it’s at least double the number you get in the US.

      It baffles me, too! Unfortunately a lot of Americans are afraid to take time off. We’re often told that when we’re not at work, that’s when the boss realizes that they don’t really need you. (I like to think this isn’t really true of most companies, but sadly a lot of people in the US feel this way!)

    Some great tips, and it is very true (and a bit sad) that many Americans don’t use all of their vacation days. I love the companies that allow you to roll over the vacation time but many employers have the “use it or lose it” policy which sucks although it can be a good reason to make sure you plan ahead each year! Who knew there was a National Plan Your Vacation Day – haha 😉

      It’s a new national day, but I think a great one! And yes, jobs that allow you roll over vacation time are great! Elliot is utilizing that feature this year so he has some extra days for our trip to New Zealand in March. 🙂

    I have been constantly hearing from my co workers about how much vacation time they have left and will be “unused and lost” this year (one person had 6 weeks left. SIX WEEKS?!) and I’m sitting here struggling to find ways to stretch my vacation days for plans all the way into end of next year now. I keep mentioning I will happily take donations for vacation days but so far no luck 😛 I agree with utilizing red eye flights, as much as they are a pain, it saves on vaca time and you get to be in your destination sooner. It helps if you can sleep on a plane I guess. Anyway love this post! 🙂

      The idea of leaving 6 weeks of vacation time unused legit makes me want to cry!!

    Hi Amanda,
    It is really horrible that you only get 10 days off! In Germany, most people get 25-30 days of paid vacation time. Personally, I negotiated for 35 days and of course I use all of them 🙂 . Let’s hope things will change for you guys too! Great article and full of inspiration! Love your blog!

      Some Americans do get more days off (my husband currently gets I think about 18 per year), but some get even less. The first year I worked full-time, I only had 5 days off all year. And my husband used to work a job where he got NO paid time off! Unfortunately companies in the US aren’t required to give employees any. 🙁

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