Travel Trends

How to Maximize Vacation Time Off: The Ultimate Guide

You need a vacation. But when you have limited time off, there’s a lot of pressure to do it right—so much pressure that many Americans skip out on vacation altogether, leaving precious paid time off unused. But time off is good for you, good for those around you, and good for the company you work for. Whether you have one week or four, there’s a way to make your time off feel abundant. Here’s a customizable plan to maximizing your vacation time.

One Week Off

One week of vacation time per year may not seem like much, but if you dole it out carefully, you can make it feel like so much more. There are some who think going all in and using the whole week in one go is the way to do it. The chance to totally unwind for five workdays straight may be the right thing to do. But be warned: it’s going to make those other 51 weeks of the year feel pretty long. Which is why you should consider the piggyback technique, in which you use the days one or two at a time and tack them onto any paid holidays your company already offers.

Use the piggyback technique most effectively by pairing the weekday holiday with your paid vacation days in the same week. So for Memorial Day, instead of taking the previous Friday off, take the Tuesday after the long weekend off. That way, you’ll get the dual benefit of days off and a significantly shorter work week, which will make the following weekend come faster and feel more like an extension of your vacation.

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Two Weeks Off

Two weeks is, sadly, pretty standard for American workers. But, used strategically, it can give you both a long vacation and a series of shorter ones to keep you feeling refreshed and inspired.

If you’ve got two weeks, use a week of it all at once. You’ll get that feeling of freedom and relaxation that comes from nine days (two weekends and one work week) in a row away from your workplace. Use the other week to piggyback on paid holidays (see one week, above, for details).

And if you’re aching to really get away, create a plan to use both weeks at once every other year. After all, when you’re traveling far, you want to make the long flight worth it (and give yourself time to get over the jet lag). This year-on-year-off approach gives you bigger trips to look forward to while preserving the benefits of more shorter vacations.

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Three Weeks Off

With great power comes great responsibility. A surprising number of three-weekers come to see vacation time as a logistical challenge. Don’t be that person. Embrace vacation time as vital and start planning.

As a three-weeker, you can take two weeks off in a row, a move that maximizes that glorious vacation feeling. During the first week, you’ll slowly disengage from work stress and melt into the vacation mindset. By the second week, you’ll be in full vacation mode and able to reap the benefits of the time off. Two weeks all at once is also a great way to do a bigger trip. So go ahead: Plan big and look far. You can do it.

Then use the additional five days as vacation extenders for long weekends and company holidays. You’ll return refreshed and inspired.

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Four Weeks and Beyond

Congratulations—you’re living the dream. But you, like your three-week-off brethren, are at greater risk of losing out on vacation time if you feel like you don’t have time for that time off. But I’m going to let you in on a strangely-well-kept secret: You have time. And it’s worth making the extra effort to use it.

Take a two-week vacation at least every other year. You can then divide the rest of your time into shorter segments to give yourself the treat of regular smaller vacations. Four-day weekend? Why not. Extensions around holiday weekends? Go for it. But remember, vacation time is only vacation time if you actually use it.

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Christine Sarkis is a big fan of the rare-but-amazing two-week vacation. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.


By Christine Sarkis

There's a 95 percent chance Senior Editor Christine Sarkis is thinking about travel right now. Follow her on Instagram @postcartography and Twitter @ChristineSarkis.

Christine Sarkis is an SATW-award-winning journalist and executive editor at SmarterTravel. Her stories have also appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her advice has been featured in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine. She has also shared travel tips on television and radio shows including Good Morning America, Marketplace, and Here & Now. Her work has been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008. She is currently working on a travel memoir.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: The Trtl Pillow. It's easy to pack and comfortable, and makes it so I can actually sleep on flights.

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: Seeing the Aurora Borealis from the comfort of somewhere warm, like a glass igloo or hot spring.

Travel Motto: Curiosity is an amazing compass.

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: Aisle all the way.

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