Fantasizing about how to spend our vacation days is a part-time gig for most of us with full-time jobs. Even in our fantasies, though, the idea of taking two weeks off at once can be stressful.
Research shows that Americans are increasingly wary of cashing in their paid time off, forfeiting 768 million vacation days in 2018 alone, up from 705 million in 2017. According to one survey, four percent of the working population anticipates using a not-so-grand total of zero vacation days this year whatsoever.
A quick Google search on the subject might explain why. Headlines waffle between calling the two-week vacation a “career-killer” and investigating why the United States has become the “no-vacation nation.” Articles that do advise time off tend to focus on how to spend your holiday guilt-free by expecting “pre-vacation madness” and preparing for “push-back.”
Concerns over vacation costs are a primary reason Americans cite for skimping on their paid time off, but worries about becoming less valuable to an employer also rank highly. In some circles, the normalization of excessive hours is almost pathological. Where leisure pursuits used to be flaunted as badges of success like Rolexes, long days seem to have replaced long vacations as a status symbol among American professionals.
This isn’t the case everywhere. Europeans average three to five weeks off in a year. In Norway, working professionals even get summer vacation, a public holiday known as fellesferie during which all employees of a company are offered two to three weeks leave in July.
Working ourselves to death in an attempt to be model employees is a fallacy more and more research is disproving. Studies show that both time off and travel benefit not only our mental and physical health but also our productivity and overall workplace performance. Travel has been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease in both men and women. Being exposed to new bacteria abroad can strengthen the immune system. Some trips even cater specifically to health and wellness, like sauna-hopping in Helsinki or cycling through Sicily.
Travel also lets us unwind and unplug, decreasing stress and helping us avoid burnout. With deadlines looming, it’s easy to prioritize work over our own happiness, yet employees consistently report being more energized, clear-headed, and better-equipped to tackle their workloads after a well-earned vacation.
What’s more, going abroad is a learning opportunity that exposes us to new languages, customs, arts, and histories. It encourages engagement with current affairs, from different political and economic systems to new social norms. Travel indulges our curiosity, hones our communication and problem-solving, and educates us about the world, all of which are skills that translate to the workplace.
On shorter trips, there’s simply not enough time to make a meaningful impact, yet the question remains: How much time should we actually take off?
According to a study conducted by the University of Tampere in Finland, later published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, eight days is ideal. Think of traveling like climbing a mountain, whether or not your perfect holiday involves hiking boots: It takes time to acclimatize. One week just doesn’t cut it when it comes to cutting loose, yet the study posits that trips longer than eight days subject us to consequences like homesickness and boredom.
In the Digital Age, though, homesickness is easy to remedy with a decent Wi-Fi connection or basic data plan. Though it’s important not to be glued to our technology while traveling, there’s no reason to hold back on a lengthy vacation in fear of missing friends and family.
A two-week trip also budgets time for vacations within vacations, so keeping busy should be a breeze. Rent a car in the Baltics or Balkans, for example, and it’s possible to see three different countries in a single day. With more time, we can not only do the tourist circuit but also dedicate entire afternoons to day trips without missing out on the must-sees.
Between travel days, getting settled, and jet lag if you travel internationally, an eight-day vacation can easily mean just five or six full days, a mere workweek of proper vacation time.
If you’re going to shell out your hard-earned dollars for a flight, you might as well get your money’s worth. And, in the long run, a two-week trip might even be more cost-effective. Airbnbs, for example, often offer discounts on longer stays. Rentals allow you to prepare your own meals rather than eat out every day, better for your body and your wallet, as well as pack lighter if you’re able to do laundry, perhaps letting you save on baggage fees.
Travel during the off-season, when prices drop considerably, and a two-week trip might just run you roughly the same as a one-week vacation during the holiday season.
Aside from the cost, some dismiss spending Thanksgiving or Christmas abroad because of the inevitable guilt trip from the rest of the family. Or maybe they can’t imagine November without grandma’s stuffing or December without their favorite tree ornaments. Tradition is important, of course, but there’s value in making new traditions, as well.
Try cooking Thanksgiving dinner in the kitchen of a Tokyo vacation rental, swapping out candied yams for Japanese sweet potatoes, and inviting others to share in your customs. Or learn how the rest of the world celebrates Christmas in, say, San Fernando, Philippines, whose Giant Lantern Festival easily rivals the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center.
There are any number of reasons not to take a long trip, but in reality, none of them are very compelling. In the interest of your rights as a worker, and your sanity, seriously consider taking two weeks off at once next time you’re daydreaming about the trip of a lifetime from behind your desk — where, let’s be honest, you’re probably not being that productive anyway.