Why Are Americans So Bad at Taking Vacation?

The vast majority of Americans view regular vacations as a basic right and essential to our overall health and well-being, and yet we continue to leave a good chunk of PTO on the table. What’s the issue?

Lounge chairs on a beach in Cancun, Mexico, with a few swimmers in turquoise blue water in the background

According to Expedia.com’s annual Vacation Deprivation study, U.S. workers only took an average of 11 vacation days this past year.

Courtesy of David Vives/Unsplash

When it comes to taking vacation time, U.S. workers don’t stack up well against their international counterparts. And that’s despite the fact that they appear to be keenly aware of the many benefits of taking time off and want to take more of it.

Several new studies indicate that not only are U.S. workers given relatively few vacation days when compared to other countries (we rank almost last), but they also leave a good chunk of what they are given on the table. The research is a good reminder, particularly on January 30, which is National Plan for Vacation Day, of the inherent need and value in planning and taking time off.

According to a Pew Research Center survey released last year, nearly half of the 5,902 U.S. workers surveyed in February 2023 with paid time off said they take less time off than their employers gave them. Why is that? Well, about half of those who don’t use all their PTO said they don’t feel they need to take more time off (52 percent) or said they’re worried they will fall behind at work when they’re gone (49 percent). Others (43 percent) feel bad that coworkers have to take on their work for them when they’re out of the office, while 19 percent said that if they take too much time off it might prevent them from rising in the ranks; even worse, 16 percent were worried they would lose their job if they took more time off. Another 12 percent said their managers discouraged them from clocking out.

Yet the Pew study found that U.S. workers actually appreciate having paid time off. About 62 percent of respondents said it’s extremely important to them to have a job that offers paid vacation time or sick days. That was a higher share than those who said it was most important to have employer-paid health insurance (51 percent), retirement benefits (44 percent), or paid parental or family care leave (43 percent).

Only adding to our taking PTO problem: We don’t have much of it. According to a report published by career resource website Resume.io based on data collected in August 2022, the United States is the second-worst country in the world for paid vacation days, with 10 statutory paid vacation days, compared to the whopping 53 in Iran, the country with the most statutory annual vacation days. (Only Micronesia ranks lower than the United States with 9 statutory paid vacation days.) Countries in Europe have between 26 and 46, Australia and New Zealand have 27 and 31, respectively, and Canada has 19. For the Resume.io study, vacation days refers to the combined total of paid leave days provided and paid public holidays. (The United States has 11 federally recognized public holidays, not including the once-every-four-years Inauguration Day, although it’s not mandatory for private companies to provide paid time off during these holidays, except in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where it’s written into law.)

Travel booking site Expedia’s most recent Vacation Deprivation study, which was released in April 2023, found that U.S. workers took the fewest average number of vacation days in 2022 of the countries surveyed, alongside Mexico and Singapore.

The Expedia survey, which was conducted between February and March last year by Northstar Research Partners, questioned 14,527 employed adults from 11 countries about work-life balance. Respondents from the United States, Mexico, and Singapore reported the lowest vacation usage—an average of 11, 12.5, and 14.5 vacation days used in the past year, respectively. Countries where citizens reported taking the highest average number of vacation days were Japan (26 days), Hong Kong (25.5 days), Germany (24.5 days), France (23 days), and the United Kingdom (22 days).

In 2023, 62 percent of global workers said they felt vacation deprived, compared to 58 percent in 2022 and 2021.

What are some of the factors at play? Age appears to be one—73 percent of Gen Z workers feel vacation deprived, compared to just 66 percent of Millennials, 58 percent of Gen Xers, and 43 percent of Boomers. The economy isn’t helping either. More than half (56 percent) of global respondents cited the fact that their workplace is facing staffing shortages as one of the barriers to taking more time off, the Expedia report found.

The good news is that attitudes toward vacation time in the United States appear to be changing—for the better. Ninety percent of Americans said they view regular vacations as a basic right, and 81 percent of U.S. workers would want to have a four-day work week, in part so that they could travel more.

Globally, workers appear to be very tuned in to the restorative benefits of taking time off. Eighty-five percent of global workers reported that vacations make them feel more positive and optimistic, and 87 percent reported that regular vacations are important for overall health and well-being.

And employers should take note—respondents to the Expedia-backed survey reported that after taking a vacation they tended to have a more positive attitude and outlook, and 81 percent said that after a vacation they were more motivated. So, clearly, vacations aren’t just good for the soul, they’re good for business, too. That’s our takeaway at least, and we’re sticking with it.

This story was originally published in October 2018, and has been updated to include current information.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at Afar where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined Afar in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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