Photo: William Perugini/Shutterstock

There Are Two Types of Travelers When It Comes to Taking PTO. Which One Are You?

by Eben Diskin Nickolaus Hines May 6, 2021

First thing’s first: we want you to take your paid time off (PTO). Not just some of it. Not just when work is slow. All of it. Every year. Balancing work with leisure time — whatever form that might take — is essential to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. So however you take your PTO, for God’s sake, take it.

Alright, now down to business. PTO is a valuable commodity. If there’s ever going to be a currency that replaces money as legal US tender, it won’t be Bitcoin — it’ll be PTO days. While two weeks might be the standard, it’s increasingly common for employers to offer three or four weeks, or even have an unlimited time-off policy in the interest of promoting employee happiness. Evolving attitudes toward more flexible PTO beg the question — what do people do with all that PTO? There are generally two schools of thought: save up your PTO and take an epic two-week vacation to Bali, or use it in smaller spurts, for individual mental health days and occasional long weekends.

There is no right or wrong way to take time off — unless you don’t take it at all — but that hardly stops people from fiercely defending their preference. Two members of our Matador team approach PTO in completely opposite ways: senior staff writer Eben Diskin prefers to take off time in large chunks, while food and drink editor Nickolaus Hines opts for smaller microcations. Attempting to keep it as civilized as possible, here’s a glimpse into how two people who work for the same company — and who both value travel immensely — have wildly different views on paid time off.

Eben: More time = more freedom

I tend to view PTO like winning the lottery. You can take the lump sum or the smaller payouts. The lump sum allows you to enjoy the full effect of your winnings, and invest in memorable experiences right away. The smaller payouts are safer, don’t require quite as much immediate planning, and ensure you’ll have a little left over in case of emergency. Unlike the lottery, however, taking PTO in one lump sum doesn’t have diminishing returns.

Taking your PTO all at once — or in one or two-week increments — gives you the most freedom to actually plan a fun vacation. Whether it’s a Caribbean cruise, cross-country road trip, or flying out to spend time with distant family, taking a full week off gives you immense flexibility. Taking five days at once — with two weekends on either end — means you could have around nine days of total freedom that you can mold however you wish. Even if your ideal vacation consists of waking up at 11:00 AM, ordering pizza, and sitting poolside with a mimosa, giving yourself a full week to decompress can go a long way toward helping you recharge.

Nickolaus: Last minute microcations are accessible and don’t break the bank

People camping

Photo: Vera Petrunina/Shutterstock

On February 21, 2020, I optimistically wrote about how “we’re living in a golden age of travel” and that the 20s would “be the decade of microcations.” It was clear less than a month later that things weren’t off to a great start for that first prediction, but the second has never been more true.

International travel was effectively canceled for most of 2020, and people found a renewed love for road trips, though the experience was a bit different. People were forced into these shorter trips to places close to home. It was a proof of concept of sorts that there are still many wonders to be seen in a smaller radius from your home, as cross-country photography trips showed. These trips are accessible to more people since they can use their own car or rent one with a group for cheaper than it would cost for each person to book travel to a destination farther out. They’re also cheaper because of the fact that you can camp or stay in inexpensive (but still appealing) digs along your journey. Then there’s the fact that you’re less reliant on transportation apps like Uber or Lyft when you arrive like you would be if you flew.

So no, this isn’t shaping up to be the golden age of travel that I was expecting. It is, however, the golden age of realizing how much there is to see on a quick vacation close to home — and how you don’t have to spend weeks or months planning the perfect long distance trip to have a good time.

Eben: Give yourself something to look forward to

Nothing breaks up the monotonous 9-5 grind like having something exciting to look forward to. We’re all familiar with that sinking feeling when the holidays end, and the winter months are staring us down. It’s a long, long road to Memorial Day Weekend and July 4, and sometimes it seems like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. Luckily, there’s a pretty easy antidote. Pick a week in the middle of no man’s land and plan a trip. Between the excitement of figuring out the details and anticipation of the trip’s arrival, you’ll find your mood quickly lifted out of the doldrums.

Nickolaus: It’s easier to take off smaller blocks of time

It’s impossible to deny that the majority of Americans work too much and don’t take advantage of the (very limited) vacation days allotted to them. That’s been the case for years, and it only got worse in 2020 — Expedia’s annual “Vacation Deprivation” study found that US employees took an average of only eight days of vacation in 2020 out of the 13 average days offered, and more than half of the respondents said they skipped a vacation because they’re too busy working.

There needs to be a cultural shift to make Americans appreciate the mental health benefits of vacation and travel. One solution is to disrupt your overbearing workload as little as possible by strategically choosing your days off. Taking two weeks may feel like it sets you back a full month in terms of work tasks, but taking two days for an extended weekend — a Monday and Tuesday, for example — is more than manageable. Plus, in many jobs it’s much easier to take off a couple days here and there than it is to escape for weeks on end. Best of all: You can do this multiple times throughout the year to give yourself as many breaks as it takes to avoid burnout.

Eben: The pitfalls of clinging to PTO days

Person in front of a computer

Photo: FS Stock/Shutterstock

There is, of course, something to be said for spreading out your vacation time. It allows you to take the occasional long weekend, and can serve as a cushion if you’ve used up all your sick days. While you might consider saving one or two days a year for these reasons, spreading out much of your PTO just isn’t an effective way of maximizing your leisure time. Mental health days are great (and necessary), but it might take a full day just to shake off the stresses of work and get your mind into relaxation mode. By the time you feel like your “time off” has begun, the day is over and it’s time to go back to work.

Spreading out your days could result in a series of much-needed long weekends, or it could result in leaving PTO days on the table. According to research by the US Travel Association in 2019, Americans had 789 million unused PTO days in 2018. When you keep PTO in your back pocket, saving up for that perfect weekend or for when work “slows down,”, you run a higher risk of forgetting about and forfeiting them altogether. And that’s the greatest tragedy of all.

Nickolaus: The environmental case for microcations

Sustainability in travel was a major focus as industry leaders worked on ways they could build back better after 2020. Still, the same things that give people access to more parts of the world than ever before are also destroying the planet. Someone’s choice to go to a sustainability minded hotel in the Costa Rican rainforest for two weeks still has to acknowledge that the flight to get there led to more emissions than any destination could reasonably be expected to offset. According to The New York Times, every seat on a flight from New York to Los Angeles — including those not sold — is responsible for the equivalent of a month of normal human-generated emissions.

Admittedly, no form of travel is perfect. Restricting your vacation to a shorter number of days, however, usually leads to choosing destinations closer to home. A road trip to somewhere within a half day’s drive is perfect for a microcation, while a train ride is both more sustainable and allows you to relax on the journey. So rather than jet off for the week (or weeks), choose a closer destination and make the travel part of the experience for a more sustainable quick trip. This also has the added benefit of showing that viewing certain places as “fly over country” means missing out on a lot of quirky culture that makes a country special.

Discover Matador