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The average American gets two to three weeks of vacation per year and it never seems like enough to see and do everything we want.
If vacation means travel for you and your family, here are seven tips for using your vacation days wisely so you can see more of the world and maybe even save some money along the way.
How to maximize your annual vacation days
Many Americans will start a new job earning two weeks of vacation time each year –10 workdays or 80 work hours you can take off. Careful planning will be the key to some amazing experiences.
If you are lucky enough to get four or more weeks of vacation, you are in the minority of American workers and have an opportunity to travel in ways that shorter vacations don’t allow.
Tips for those with two weeks of vacation time
Planning is half the fun
Studies show that people gain more happiness from planning a vacation trip and anticipating it than they do actually taking it. Spread the fun throughout the year.
If you take two vacations a year, you will always be less than six months away from a trip and you’ll always be planning the next one.
Spread your vacation time across several trips
I have taken trips that lasted as little as a day or two and others that lasted a month. It is true that you might be able to see more of one destination if you visit for a month but I find that when I reminisce, I often remember the three-day vacations and the three-week vacations similarly.
You remember the places and not necessarily the length of time you spent there. Most folks like to visit two or three destinations a year for up to seven days each trip, rather than a single destination for 14 days. Spreading your vacation time across multiple smaller trips will give you several distinct memories to fall back on.
Book nonstop flights
While you are basking in the joy of planning your next vacation, put extra effort into booking nonstop flights, if possible. When you have limited vacation time, you don’t want to spend it in an airport.
Nonstop flights are often more expensive, but the additional time you get at your vacation spot can be worth the extra cost.
When you book your flight, it is a great time to use points and a top airline credit card. And often when you redeem points, a nonstop flight will cost the same number of points as one with a long layover. Flexible point systems like Chase Ultimate Rewards can be used with many different airlines and offer the abilty to search for the best flights across many airlines.
Pick hotels in prime locations
Another way to maximize your time at your destination is to book a hotel in a prime or convenient location. This will cut down on time commuting to what you actually want to see and do. Even better, use one of the best hotel credit cards to book a stay at a great location.
A few years ago I traveled to Rome and in an effort to save money, I booked a hotel on the outskirts of town. I saved a lot of money, but it cost me something much more valuable … my time. It often took us 45 minutes to get into town and 45 minutes to get back to the hotel. We were less likely to return to the hotel to shower and change before dinner and it forced us to wake up early and return late.
When we returned to Rome last year, we booked a hotel across the street from Termini, the central train and metro station for all of Rome. We were less than five minutes from the Roman Colosseum, Roman Forum, restaurant district, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and more.
Although staying in the center of town is slightly more expensive, I would never travel to Rome any other way. The same goes for New York, San Francisco, Paris, London … almost everywhere.
Travel during non-peak times
Another secret to maximizing travel time is by traveling during off-peak times to popular destinations like Disney World or cities like Paris or Rome. Otherwise, your time can be wasted in long lines and slower transportation.
During non-peak times, you can frequently skip the lines, catch the first bus and avoid delays. This means more time to explore enjoy your vacation destination.
Use holidays to squeeze out longer trips
Two weeks of vacation usually translates to 10 workdays off. But creative travelers have found ways to get the most out of those 10 days.
One trick is to use vacation days around holidays. For example, my mom recently got a full week of vacation by using only three vacation days because she stacked them with holidays. She already had Saturday and Sunday off, Monday was a holiday, Tuesday through Thursday were normal days that required vacation days, and Friday was another holiday (it technically fell on Sunday and she was awarded it on the Friday before). She also got the next Saturday and Sunday off, of course. With just three vacation days, she got more than a week on a family vacation.
Since many people get Saturday and Sunday off, you can also use those for travel days to get a little extra for your vacation. Between the first weekend and the second weekend and five vacation days, you can get nine days of travel. If a holiday falls during that week, you can squeeze nine days of travel from just four days of time off.
Tips for those with 4+ weeks of vacation time
Plan one trip per quarter
Spread a four-week vacation throughout the year in one-week chunks.
A week is the perfect amount of time to visit most destinations. It provides ample time to see the major sights, get a sense of the culture, enjoy some great food and still have time to relax so you return to work refreshed.
Also, if you take four different one-week vacations, you’re never more than a few months away from your next adventure.
Popular destinations that make great one-week vacations include London, Paris, New York City, San Francisco, Hawaii and more. They’re easy to get to and have lots of activities. All the major airlines fly to these places and all major hotel chains have properties in them — which makes them perfet for earning or using airline miles and hotel points.
Visit hard-to-reach locations
One of the biggest advantages of more vacation time is that you can visit destinations that require more than a week to explore because they are hard to reach. Here are some possibilities:
Rich with wildlife found nowhere else in the world, the Galapagos Islands can be reached by flying first to Ecuador and then taking a long ferry ride to the islands. Each of the 19+ islands has its own unique wildlife and geology, so you will want to spend time hopping between islands to see it all.
Easter Island is a small island in the Pacific Ocean that is home to the world-famous moai, statues of humans carved out of volcanic rock by an ancient culture to honor their ancestors. It is one of the most remote places on earth and usually requires two full days of travel to and from the U.S. Most people will never have the time to take in this one-of-a-kind destination.
Although it is possible to visit Australia in a week, two or more weeks are usually a good idea because it is a long flight and there is so much to do once you arrive. Australia is vast, roughly comparable in size to the Lower 48 of the United States. It takes a lot of time to move around.
Want to snorkel or scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef? Add a few more days for that.
Nearby New Zealand is another stunning country that many travelers miss because of the extra travel time from Australia.
Visiting Antarctica is surprisingly practical now, if you have at least two weeks. To see the southern end of the earth, you usually fly to Argentina and then take specially equipped charter ships.
Antarctica is a fragile ecosystem that shouldn’t be ruined by tourism, so hire a tour operator who is part of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) and follows strict rules to keep this area and its wildlife safe.
If Machu Picchu is on your must-see list and you have enough vacation time, this is a can-do destination. Although it is possible to fly into Peru, take a train to Machu Picchu, check it off your list and head home in about a week, it is preferable to spend around two weeks visiting this area. For the best experience, you can walk along the sacred way of the Incas and witness the sunrise over Machu Picchu. These hikes can be grueling and require camping but they offer the truest Incan experience.
Plan a grand tour
Too much time on vacation is often wasted getting to and from a destination. If you want to see more places and spend less time traveling, consider booking a grand tour.
This is a good option if there are several countries you want to visit but only have a few days to spend in each. You can hop between nearby countries while minimizing major travel days.
Here are a few ideas for grand tours, if you have two to four weeks for a trip:
Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore)
Although there is plenty to see in each of these countries, it is easy to visit more than one destination on the same trip because they are close to each other. All offer amazing food, temples, historical sights and unique culture.
Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the largest religious monument in the world, usually takes about three days to visit.
National parks in the U.S.
There are 58 national parks in the U.S. It would be impossible to visit them all in four weeks, but you could explore a bunch of national parks in one region on a single trip.
For example, Utah has five national parks that can be visited together if you have a car. California has nine national parks that could be visited as a group, including Yosemite.
Europe by train
One of the biggest benefits of Europe is how easily accessible it is by train. With one long-haul flight between the U.S. and a central European country, you can hop around Europe by affordable and comfortable train.
This is a fun way to see some of the hot spots, but you can add other countries that receive less traffic such as Belgium, Luxembourg or Monaco.
Don’t leave vacation days on the table
Regardless of how many vacation days you have, use them up.
According to a poll taken by Huffington Post, more than half of all Americans use fewer than seven of their vacation days every year. This is a missed opportunity.
Even worse, the same study found that 32% of all Americans took zero vacation days during the previous year.
In a culture that is obsessed with hard work, not taking vacation days can seem like a badge of honor. But you know what is even better? Being able to share with co-workers that epic restaurant you found in the South of France or the picture of you skydiving. Or maybe just relaxing in a hammock while you plow through your backlog of books.
Take your vacation, relax, explore the world and take a break from work. It will make you a better worker when you return.
Don’t be discouraged if you have only two weeks of vacation. When used strategically, you can maximize your two weeks so that you always have an exciting vacation to plan and look forward to.
If you’re looking to make the most of two vacation weeks, I suggest spreading out your vacation across multiple trips, booking nonstop flights (and using flexible rewards from many of the best credit cards for travel to make this easier), picking hotels in prime locations (and using a hotel credit card to offset the cost of your stay), and traveling during non-peak times.
If you have four or more weeks of annual leave, you’ve got even more options for your time off. You could visit a hard-to-reach location, like New Zealand or Antarctica, discover Europe by train or split up your time and take multiple shorter trips.
Again, the most important recommendation is to not let your vacation days go to waste. Take that time to recharge and enjoy your friends and loved ones.
What are your favorite tricks to get the most of your vacation time? Share them in the comments below.
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