How to maximize your vacation days during COVID-19

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COVID-19 cases are hitting new highs. Maybe you’re working from home, holding Zoom meetings in the guest bedroom for eight hours a day. Or maybe you’re trudging off to work each day masked up and worried that you’re exposing yourself to the virus daily. 

It’s little wonder that so many of us are craving a vacation. The problem? You might not feel comfortable traveling. And even if you’re ready to hit the road, traveling today is far different than it was before March: Hotel pools aren’t open. Restaurants might not offer indoor dining. Amusement parks are closed. And even national parks could be limiting the occupancy of their public buildings. 

This doesn’t mean, though, that taking a vacation isn’t important today. Mental health experts say that taking time off might be more important than ever. Vacations — even if you’re not leaving your home — offer a way to unplug from the demands of work and the stress of the pandemic. And while you might not be able to schedule that dream vacation this year, you can still maximize your time off from work and boost your mental health.

Taking a vacation is still incredibly important, even during the pandemic. (Image by pixdeluxe / Getty Images)

Taking your vacation days’ matters — especially now 

“A lot of my clients say they’re not going to take any time off. There is nowhere to go, they say, so why go anywhere? That is a big mistake,” said Tess Brigham, a therapist and life coach in San Francisco. “We are always on today. We are always seconds away from having to respond to that text. Vacations were our last-ditch effort to set limits. When you’d get that email from people saying they were on vacation, that was a definite line in the sand. We can’t afford to lose that.” 

That’s why Brigham recommends that her clients take a vacation even if they don’t plan on leaving their homes. The key is to take time off from work to think, read a book, take a slow walk or even stare at the walls. 

“Allowing your mind to take a break from work and look at things differently is important,” Brigham said. “A lot of people feel guilt when they think they’re not being productive. But doing nothing isn’t really doing nothing. You are allowing your brain to reset and recharge.”

How to maximize vacation days during a pandemic

You’ve committed to taking some form of a vacation, even if it means renting a cabin in a neighboring state or shutting off your work computer for a few days at home. But how do you make the most of these days? Paul Greene, a psychologist and director of the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, recommends that people plan their time off carefully, even if they aren’t planning a trip to an exotic or faraway locale. 

His advice? First, do something different, even if you’re not planning to travel during your vacation. If you spend all day working on your computer, make sure that you shut off your laptop during your vacation time. The key is to change your routine to include something you enjoy, Greene said. If you spend too much time cooped up in your home or apartment, schedule long walks, bike rides or trips to local restaurants to enjoy outdoor dining.

Greene says it’s important to make it clear to co-workers and bosses that you are on vacation. As Greene says, if you’re working from home, your empty desk at the office will no longer be a signal that you are on vacation.

If you truly want to take a break from work, set up an auto-reply email that will tell your co-workers that you’re taking a week off. Do the same for phone outgoing messages and for any other means of communication that you use for work. Update your status in other communication apps like Slack, many update their status and add a palm tree emoji to their name to indicate they’re “out of office”.

Finally, Greene recommends that you maintain as strict a separation from work as you can. Ideally? This means not checking your emails and not checking in with coworkers and bosses. And, of course, no Zoom meetings. 

Don’t feel guilty about taking any of these steps, Greene said. Everyone deserves time off from work, especially during a pandemic.

“Working from home often erodes or destroys natural boundaries between our personal life and our work life,” Greene said. “Taking time off from work is a great way to reassert those boundaries, whether or not you travel anywhere.” 

How to vacation during the pandemic 

Vacationing during the COVID-19 pandemic might require some creativity. You might not feel comfortable driving to a crowded tourist area. You might not want to fly. And restaurants or entertainment centers might not be open in your favorite destinations. 

This doesn’t mean that you can’t take a vacation. Here are some tips for getting away from it all during the pandemic even if you don’t plan to leave your home much to do it. 

  • Travel domestically: You might want to fly to Paris or finally make it to Berlin. But many countries aren’t allowing U.S. residents to visit today because of the pandemic. Instead, plan a domestic trip. There are plenty of places to visit in the United States, including many state and national parks that might not be as crowded as they usually are.
  • Consider camping: Taking a retreat in nature can be a good way to recharge your brain. As a bonus, it’s easy to social distance when you’re in the great outdoors.
  • A staycation can work, too: Staying at home for vacation might not sound great. But if you take the opportunity to unplug from work and instead spend time reading a book, taking long walks, visiting your local forest preserve or even binge-watching your favorite mindless TV show, a staycation can go a long way toward restoring your sanity during the long days of the pandemic.
  • Whatever you do, don’t wing it: Vacationing during a pandemic requires planning. If you’re traveling, you need to research what is open and what isn’t. Many restaurants might not be offering indoor dining. And many attractions are either closed or open on a limited basis. Even if you plan on staying home during your vacation, you need to plan something to fill your days. 

Tips to save money while vacationing during the pandemic

The good news? Traveling during a pandemic can be less of a financial burden than traditional travel. Why?

If you haven’t been eating out as much or spending money on going to the movies or traveling because of the pandemic, you might have a larger nest egg of savings to draw from for your trip. This means you won’t be as tempted to rack up big charges on your credit cards during your vacation.

You might also have a larger reserve of points and miles built up on your travel credit cards because you haven’t spent many of these rewards on travel during the pandemic. If so, you should have an easier time snagging a free hotel stays or, if you’re comfortable flying, using airline miles to reduce the cost of your travel.

You might find a good deal as cash prices for travel are lower than ever. Hotels have been hit hard by the pandemic. Many are offering bargain rates to entice reluctant travelers. The same can be said of airlines: Flights are less expensive today because fewer people are comfortable flying. If you are comfortable, you can take advantage of these lower fares. 

Bottom line 

COVID-19 might have changed your travel plans for 2020 and beyond. But this doesn’t mean that taking time off isn’t important for your mental health. Even if you can’t take the vacation you dreamt of this year, be sure to at least take some time off from work.

“Breaks are important,” said Dr. Julie Morison, owner and director of HPA/LiveWell, an outpatient medical health practice in Albany, New York. “This is why you see many larger companies expanding their vacation time or even offering unlimited vacation time. It’s not because they want to be nice. They recognize it is good business. People come back from breaks recharged, refreshed and ready for new challenges.”

Dan Rafter is a contributor to Million Mile Secrets, he covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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