The Vacation Situation

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the American vacation has once again been thrown into harsh relief.

The Vacation Situation

Taking a vacation has myriad mental and physical benefits.

Photo by Dan Thornberg/Shutterstock

The idea of vacation has existed since the time of Ancient Rome, when citizens took advantage of periods of peace and traveled not for mere weeks, but months and years, following guidebooks like the 10-volume Pausanias’s Description of Greece. In the time of the Tudors, monarchs took vacation and it was deemed “royal progress,” and in the 19th century, the industrial revolution freed up the well-to-do to travel, by steamship, to London or New York. Much has changed in those centuries, yes, but there is this constant: Vacation has typically been reserved for societies—and people—with the means to take leave from their everyday responsibilities. History, as we know, repeats itself.

The COVID-19 pandemic has again brought the notion of time off—leisure time, vacation, paid leave—to the fore. With unemployment rates at their highest since the Depression, “taking leave” seems a trivial pursuit when fiscal and physical survival is at stake for so many. And for those fortunate enough to have a job but feeling that old vacation itch, the places to go—even if you want to go—have winnowed: Europe has barred American travelers and Asia remains shuttered to most of the rest of the world.

The pandemic has also flicked on a flashlight over another uncomfortable truth: Americans were never good at vacationing in the first place. According to a 2018 survey from the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), more than half of U.S. employees used less than half of their allotted vacation days in 2017, amounting to 768 million paid vacation days thrown away. It’s worth noting, too, that these numbers were representing an increase: Although vacation usage had steadily declined from a high in 1978 (20.3 days) to 2014 (a low of 16 days), Americans began taking more time off with each subsequent year, averaging 17.2 days in 2017.

Unsurprisingly, workplace optics play a huge role. Sixty-one percent of USTA survey respondents reported a fear of “looking replaceable” as their main barrier to using all of their vacation days. Cost is also a primary consideration to vacation, though the USTA found that “respondents who agreed that cost was a barrier take about the same amount of vacation time as average.”

With 11.1 percent of the U.S. population unemployed right now—a total of 17.8 million people across the country—both cost and a fear of looking replaceable are, understandably, even more of a concern than ever before. (Though 11.1 percent is an improvement from April, when nearly 20 percent of the population was unemployed, this rate is still higher than any in modern history.) But if something has changed with respect to vacation in the past few years, it’s this: We know so much more about how taking time off can color every part of our lives.

According to the USTA, 61 percent of travelers report happiness with their health and well-being, compared to 39 percent of nontravelers. Extended time off is also proven to increase creativity and job productivity, limit stress, lead to better sleep, and decrease the risk of heart disease. Put more simply: Taking time off from work makes you a better worker. Read that sentence, and then read it again.

Still, knowing is one thing, and acting on that knowledge another. How to motivate friends and family to take time off? How to motivate ourselves?

For those working from home during the pandemic, the idea of vacation can smack of indulgence. Why do I need a break when I no longer have the strain of a commute and can wear my pajamas all day? Isn’t working from home supposed to be easier? Not necessarily, according to several studies, which have found that the risk of burnout can actually be higher due to the sudden shift to remote work and other stress factors, including the loss of childcare and the economic crash.

It’s worth remembering that for all the talk about getting the economy “back on track,” vacationing—safely—is one way to help do that. Consider: From 2016 to 2017 alone, the increase in vacation usage from 16.8 to 17.2 days delivered a $30.7 billion impact to the U.S. economy, generating 217,200 direct and indirect jobs.

But is it really a “vacation” if it’s not to somewhere that requires a plane, train, or automobile, say naysayers? After all, there has to be a reason we associate vacations with places more far-flung—with Brussels instead of our backyard. “Vacation” has no prerequisites for distance, though—that’s implied, somehow. Been a truth reinforced over time. Just look at vacation’s Latin root word, vacare, which simply means to “be empty, be free from, be unoccupied, be idle, be vacant.” Can you not be as empty and free from responsibility if proximity is a problem? For some, perhaps not, but that is a mental designation, and not a physical one.

Today, 86 percent of Americans say they haven’t seen enough of their own country, and a quarter say they have never visited a national park—incentive, maybe, to explore somewhere a little closer to home. To be idle in those places. And while taking a vacation will inevitably require a lot more preparation and planning than it once did, it will no doubt pay dividends in ways we least expect, long after we’ve returned home.

>> Next: Why I Did a Vacation Redo

Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at AFAR focused on features and essays.
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