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Thursday, May 24, 2012

To Vacation or Not To Vacation...

Story first appeared in USA Today.

Gasoline prices are in retreat. Many hotels are offering a free night's stay. And as Memorial Day nears — kicking off the summer travel season — more Americans say they plan to take a vacation this year than last, but millions of us will simply stay at our desks.

It's not just higher airfares and escalating hotel fees that will cause some Americans to forgo a summer getaway. The nation's nose-to-the-grindstone culture — which only intensified during the Great Recession— has resulted in many Americans leaving vacation days on the table.

Americans are a hard-working lot, and they're ambitious and have a lot of priorities. A survey of more than 2,000 U.S. travelers found that nearly four in 10 didn't book a vacation within the past year. That number was much higher than in 2008, when just 28% didn't buy a vacation. Sometimes they forget to take care of their work-life balance.

Not taking all the vacation time that's available has become an American trait.

A poll conducted last September by Harris Interactive for JetBlue found that 57% of employed respondents said they would have unused vacation time at the end of the year. And a Radisson hotels study last year of more than 1,000 adults found that nearly two in three (65%) working Americans hadn't used all of their vacation time. Roughly a third said they stayed put because of their workload, and 19% noted that they didn't want to deal with a backlog of tasks upon their return.

A global survey taken of more than 12,500 workers by Ipsos Public Affairs and Reuters in 2010 found that only 57% of Americans used all their vacation time. That was in stark contrast to Europe, where 74% of workers on average took all their allotted days off. Europeans also tend to receive more vacation time than their American counterparts, management experts say.

Recognizing this opening, travel site Orbitz launched a "Take Vacation Back" ad campaign this month, complete with a tongue-in-cheek "vacation bill of rights" that has "no vacation day shall go un-traveled" listed at No. 1.

The president of Orbitz.com says the company saw an opportunity to talk to travelers about how much fun a getaway can be and remind them that they're not just entitled to them, but they actually need to take vacations. It's part of what makes them productive and happy.

Workplace fears

While the American inclination to bypass vacation predates the recent recession, experts say the sluggish economy hasn't helped.

Some employees might think that if you put in more time, you increase your chances for a promotion or reduce your chances for targeted layoffs. There's probably some signaling going on, for instance, that if you do take all your vacation time you're less committed to your job, to your company.

Culturally, Europeans have a greater commitment to leisure time, one that is supported by strong unions that give workers more bargaining power. And with American companies cutting staff and doubling the tasks given to those who remain working while on vacation — or not taking one at all — is a way to minimize the avalanche that would occur if you go away for a week or even a few days. Some employees are more stressed after a vacation than before, just because of the workload.

Despite a proclivity to stay in the office, plenty of Americans are planning to take some time off.

Auto and travel club AAA predicts that 34.8 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home over the Memorial Day weekend. That's up 1.2% from last year.

Some travel watchers say part of the uptick may be explained by a grim determination to take time away because the to-do lists at work are so long, and vacation time is so limited.

Regardless of outside influences — the economy, gas prices, weather — Americans really bristle at the idea of giving up their precious travel plans. And it's probably because most of us only get two to three weeks of vacation, so it's time we desperately need.

But be prepared to pay up

Getting away this year won't come cheap, however.

The lowest domestic summer airfares are up roughly 5% over last year, says Rick Seaney of Farecompare.com, which tracks ticket prices. Prices to fly internationally are about the same as last year, but average fuel surcharges and taxes can tack on another $600 round trip, he says.

Hotel rooms also are more expensive. The average daily rate is $106.64, up 3.9% from last summer, according to STR, a hotel research firm.
As a result, travel analysts say, many vacationers are looking to save a dollar wherever they can — whether it's spending a shorter time away from home, or taking a cruise to make sure they don't have to pay extra for meals and entertainment.

When Americans are traveling, they are economizing by selecting hotels that offer things like free breakfast and free Internet, or choosing vacation packages that are all-inclusive. They want to be able to take a vacation and spend dimes like they were dollars.

A TripAdvisor survey of more than 1,800 U.S. travelers taken this month found that 79% would take a spontaneous summer vacation if it was a bargain, while 21% said they would be willing to drive more than 10 hours if it meant significant savings compared with flying.

Since the economy is still very shaky, many Americans have made the decision to spend what vacation time we will take in the country, rather than looking at traveling overseas.

After spiking earlier in the year, fuel prices are dipping. But even if the price at the pump begins to rise again, many travelers say they won't be deterred.

A survey last month of 1,000 consumers commissioned by professional services firm Deloitte found that 54% said increasing pump prices wouldn't affect their plans to get away Memorial Day weekend. That's up from 41% last year. Travelers are probably getting used to gas costing more.

But some would-be vacationers also have cabin fever after staying close to home after the financial collapse of 2008.

Fares have been on the rise because there is less competition in the airline industry, jet fuel prices are up from last year and airlines are carefully matching the number of seats they offer to demand from passengers.

Those wanting to fly in June or July should be booking their trips now. And those wanting an August vacation should start setting it up in the next couple of weeks.

Vacations on the cheap
For those who manage to tear themselves away from work, there are vacation deals out there, from free hotel stays to cash rewards.

For instance, the Bermuda Tourism Board is offering a hotel credit of up to $600 depending on how long you stay.

Another deal offers vacationers staying at the Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn or other InterContinental Hotels Group establishments a $75 prepaid card if they stay for two consecutive weekend nights between May 14 and Sept. 3.

And Universal Orlando is offering a vacation package starting at $899 for a family of four that includes a hotel stay, tickets to the theme parks, breakfast and transportation.

Vacationers also may want to book trips for June rather than July, says Orbitz, which found that hotel rates tended to be cheaper in June in eight of their top 10 summer vacation destinations, such as Cancun and Los Angeles. For instance, the average daily hotel rate in Orlando, the third-most popular vacation spot among Orbitz users this summer, is roughly $106 in June and $112 in July, a difference of 6%.

A growing number of travelers also are checking out vacation rentals rather than hotels to conserve cash, travel analysts say.

Vacation rentals can save hundreds of dollars compared to a hotel.

People forget if you're looking to save and on a budget, you can do well with free attractions such as some museums and national parks. There are a lot of great things you can see and do that wouldn't cost your family anything to visit.

Whatever they need to do to make it happen, Americans should try to take their vacation.

Even if they just get in the car and visit one of our amazing national parks they'll arrive back at work refreshed.

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