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USTA: 429 million vacation days go unused - Bad for workers, employers, economy

Trip of a lifetime: Seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bike on the Danube Bike Trail with adult sons
Trip of a lifetime: Seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bike on the Danube Bike Trail with adult sons
© 2014 Karen Rubin/

When my Dad was 72 and by then had been working for the same company for 60 years, since he was 12, he would joke that he didn’t want to retire because he enjoyed his vacations too much.

Sure enough he delighted in planning it out almost as much as he enjoyed taking his trips to Europe, South America, Asia, chalking off a bucket list.

My parents were among the vanguard of jetsetters in the 1960s, taking advantage of an onslaught of jumbo aircraft and affordable air fares that put such trips within reach of the middle class. For my father, who grew up poor, being able to travel was the sign of having "arrived" in the middle class.

Back then, a trip to Europe was still considered a “trip of a lifetime” but for most of the burgeoning middle class, a vacation trip was considered an annual ritual, a sacred rite, whether it was the proverbial road trip or camping trip or a stay in a Catskills resort.

People would rank vacation travel as the #1 discretionary purchase they would make after all the necessaries were paid.

In those early days, air travel was an event – sophisticated, glamorous.

People today may well take travel for granted – if you don’t travel this year, there is always another opportunity.

The travel industry, through its advocacy organization, the US Travel Association (the US is the only country without an actual government tourism promotion office), last year introduced a series of studies documenting The Travel Effect – to remind people that travel is an experience that cannot be put on a shelf and taken down at some later time. You will only be a single, 20-something once; a fancy free young couple once, your kids will be 8 and 10 years old only once, and the opportunity for grandchildren to travel with their grandparents is fleeting.

And all of these experiences forge lasting bonds and relationships, lifelong memories, forge relationships, lay foundation for learning and even promote worker productivity. (See: Study shows health, wellness, relationship benefits of 'Travel Effect')

"Some of people's most vivid childhood memories are of family vacations that happened when they were as young as five," said Regina Corso of Harris Interactive, who conducted the poll of more than 2,500 adults and 1,100 youth for the U.S. Travel Association. "They take these away for a lifetime. Travel creates a sense of togetherness that you just don’t get during the normal times of the year."

Travel has a positive effect on learning, notes Jeff Wagner of The Learning Group. "Educational travel opens the mind, engaging, inspiring, transforming lives." When children get to visit a Living History Museum like Old Sturbridge Village, and see how a community lived, the inventions that led to the Industrial Revolution, they are more engaged and involved when it comes up as a subject at school.

Travel also promotes flexibility and adaptability and a wider world view.

And travel may well be the actual Fountain of Youth that Ponce de Leon sought: because one of the effects of travel is that it impacts the brain, helping to fend off the onset of illness, says Paul Nussbaum.

"Travel may well be the fountain of youth," says Mike Hoden of Global Coalition on Aging, who makes the connection between healthy, active aging to travel. "As we age, we are more likely remain healthy if we do things fun, interesting, imaginative, exciting."

Travel has an impact on productivity at work, because vacation time helps a person get recharged.

One in Four Americans Leave Unused Vacation Time

But too many people feel that if they take their vacation time, they will be perceived as slackers - and some employers may have that same idea.

As a result, one in four Americans does not take advantage of all their vacation time.

The USTA is mounting a campaign this year to show why this trend is counter-productive for workers, for their employers, and for the economy as a whole.

"New research from Oxford Economics shows that American workers failed to use more than 400 million days of earned leave last year. This underutilization of paid time off has a substantial impact on the U.S. economy and is taking a heavy toll on workplace productivity, personal well-being and family relationships," the US Travel Association reported.

In 2013, American workers left 429 million days of paid time off (PTO) on the table, an average of 3.2 days per employee.

The U.S. economy loses $160 billion in total business sales each year, sales that would support 1.2 million jobs if more earned leave were used.

The additional economic activity would generate $21 billion in taxes, including $11.4 billion in federal, $4.1 billion in state, and $5.5 billion in local taxes.

If workers took just one additional day of earned leave each year, the U.S. would gain $73 billion dollars in economic output.

But in some workplaces, employees don't feel comfortable taking the vacation time that is owed - which USTA Senior Vice President Gary Oster says is akin to leaving money on the table - and in some a significant number of managers consider employees who take all earned PTO as less dedicated (17%), generally less productive (14%) and less likely to get promoted (13%).

And yet, nearly half (48%) of managers believe that taking time off had a positive impact on productivity.

Both managers (67%) and their employees (55%) viewed taking all earned PTO as beneficial to physical health.

More than half (58%) of all employees claimed PTO improves their social life, and 67 percent believe it improves family life.

After taking time off, three-quarters of managers reported returning to work recharged and refreshed; 50 percent said they were more focused; and 41 percent felt a lower level of stress.

For their employees, 67 percent reported feeling refreshed upon return; 32 percent felt more focused; and 40 percent experienced reduced stress.

Regardless of how the economy is doing, the beauty of travel is that there is very literally something for everyone and every circumstance– when family budgets tighten, families can look for less expensive alternatives – shorter vacations, closer-to-home, traveling midweek or early/late in the season rather than at the peak (what is known as the shoulder season), taking advantage of vacation specials and deals and value-added features.

These kinds of approaches are one reason why Best Western - the world's largest hospitality organization - are looking to a strong year, with bookings already up 11% for summer.

All styles of travel have value – that’s the beauty of it – each travel experience is unique and memorable. This year might be the year your family goes camping or take a biking trip.

MultiGenerational Travel

A key reason why the travel industry is optimistic about continued growth is demographics - the aging of Baby Boomers, who cut their eye teeth on travel, backpacking and hosteling through Europe as college students. Travel is integral to their lifestyle, and now 10,000 are hitting retirement age each day.

Travel is important, but they aren't necessarily traveling alone - they are taking their kids and their grandkids along - the recovery of IRA and 401Ks because of the booming stock market has restored a sense of financial security and discretionary spending.

Book early, advises Bill Sutherland, Vice President of AAA. "A vacation is perceived as an investment - you want to be ahead of it, so book as early as you can to get right cabin on the right cruiseship to the right destination, the right road trip, booking the hotel you want.

Dorothy Dowling, Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Best Western, one of the largest hotel chains in the world, though, notes that in her business, "50% of hotel rooms are booked on the go –it's part of the adventure – summer season is looking like will be extremely strong this year – hotels at national parks or other popular destinations will book up, so we encourage you to plan and book early. But there are those adventure trips that are fun to do on the go, part of the experience."

Best Western makes it easier with mobile apps to help you find and book locations along the way.

What doesn't go out of style is travelers' quest for value - things like free wifi, parking, free breakfast, free parking "are important for families as they plan."

My parents are both gone now, but one the most endearing images I hold in my memory is that trip to DisneyWorld, when it was unusually cold in Orlando but my father had brought just one pair pants - which he kept spilling hot chocolate on. And that time we were headed out to canoe and our 8 year old hid himself in the hotel suite for an entire hour in fear of seeing alligators up close and personal - then, the guide took us right into the middle of dozens of them, which apparently cured him, and we had one of the most memorable days of our lives. And our older son will never forget his 16th birthday which he celebrated in Italy with his grandparents - how they laughed at seeing the "wind up" toy cars (the Smart cars) or how they posed as if holding up the Tower of Piza; and our younger son will never forget hiking up a mountain with his grandmother when he was 15, before she became too sick to walk.

They instilled in us the value of travel - they are both intrepid and open to new experiences and world views. And for myself, my "trip of a lifetime" was the trip along the Danube Bike Trail with my sons.

See also:

Study shows health, wellness, relationship benefits of 'Travel Effect'

Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner


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