5 ways to maximize your vacation days

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Americans aren’t good at taking vacation.

About 62% of workers say having a job with paid time off — for vacations or illness — is “extremely important” to them, more so than benefits like health insurance, a 401(k) plan or paid parental leave, according to a Pew Research Center report from 2023. However, 46% don’t use all the time off made available to them, Pew found.

“If you never take vacation or have time off, you’re not honoring how humans were created and what we need to stay refreshed,” said Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time management coach. “We’re biological human beings. We’re not machines.”

The number of vacation days workers typically get depends on a variety of factors, like company tenure, income and industry.

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For example, on average, private sector employers offer 11 vacation days after one year of service; 15 days after five years; 18 days after 10 years; and 20 days after 20 years, according to 2023 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, 32% of employees say their unused vacation days don’t roll over to the next year, while 28% don’t get paid for unused days, according to a 2022 poll by Qualtrics.

What’s more, the U.S. is the only developed nation that doesn’t require that workers get paid vacation, according to a 2019 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

About 21% of Americans who work in the private sector don’t get paid vacation, and 20% do not get paid holidays, according to the BLS.

Those who work in service jobs, earn lower wages, have part-time or non-union roles or work at smaller companies are much less likely to get them, agency data shows.

Here’s how you can maximize your vacation time, whether paid or unpaid — both for efficiency and overall quality, according to experts.

‘Play a little Tetris’

Grouping vacation days with other guaranteed time off helps extend your time away without sacrificing additional paid time off, experts said.

In other words: Take advantage of weekends and paid holidays.

For example, July 4 this year falls on a Thursday. Taking off just one day (Friday, July 5) would give you a four-day weekend.

“Play a little Tetris” with your calendar, Saunders said.

There’s often a trade-off with this approach, however.

For example, traveling around holidays or flying on weekend days like Friday and Sunday are generally busier and more expensive, said Sally French, a travel expert at NerdWallet.

Leverage business travel, remote work

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Pace PTO in a ‘measured’ way

Pacing vacation days throughout the year in a “measured” way helps prevent burnout, Saunders said.

She recommends taking at least one day off every month — or at least every couple months — even if it’s just a staycation.

People who don’t take a vacation until “feeling really burnt out” get to a point where they don’t enjoy work and need two or three days of vacation just to feel “normal” again, she said.

Workers who don’t get many days off (perhaps 10 total, for example) may want to consider taking one longer trip that requires four or five PTO days and bundling their remaining days with paid holidays, Saunders said.

Boost that ‘refreshed’ feeling

People may feel more “refreshed” by PTO if they take days off strategically during different periods of busy-ness at work, Saunders said.  

Taking time off during busy periods feels more “refreshing” than doing so when things are more chill, for example, she said.

Of course, people may not be able to get away during crunch time or may not have people to whom they can delegate work while they’re away; for such people, taking time off during chiller periods may be more beneficial to avoid work stress while on vacation.

Likewise, it may help to give yourself an extra day before returning to work — by returning Saturday instead of Sunday, let’s say — to take care of errands like laundry, French said.

That buffer may give some additional peace of mind, she said.

Give yourself an ‘acceptable minimum’

Many people may avoid taking time off due to feelings of guilt.

For example, 43% of Americans don’t use all their PTO because they feel badly about co-workers taking on extra work, according to Pew Research Center.  

Additionally, some studies have shown that workers who get “unlimited” PTO tend to take off less time relative to those with a set limit.

Workers who struggle to take time off should set a personal “acceptable minimum” — for example, ensuring you take off at least 15 days in any given year, Saunders said.  

And try to fully unplug while on vacation, experts advise.

Put up your “out of office” message, turn off e-mail notifications and don’t take work calls; if you absolutely must, try to limit work to just one hour a day, Saunders said.

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