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What is it about Americans and vacation?

Over the past few months, the U.S. travel industry has been on a tear, trying to get us to please take the time off we’ve earned already. Travel Effect, a campaign of the U.S. Travel Industry, released an “Overwhelmed America” report showing 40 percent of us don’t use all our earned vacation days, and called us “work martyrs.”

Hotels.com launched the “Vacation Equality Project,” and published maps online comparing paid vacation policies around the world, with scorecards like Ecuador: 15, Tanzania: 21, France: 30 vs US: 0. Yet when they asked 100,000 people to sign a petition to send to the White House calling for a national paid vacation policy, like every other advanced economy has, only 17,000 people actually did.

A new Mastercard commercial features kids spouting off details like, 400 million paid vacation days go unused every year in America. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” one angelic blonde-haired boy chirps.

And to pile one, Expedia, the travel booking site, just released its annual Vacation Deprivation survey of 8,000 adults working full time in 24 countries and reports – no surprise – that Americans are really crummy at vacation.

“We’re in extremely poor shape. We typically leave two to three vacation days unused, and we don’t get that much to begin with,” said Sarah Gavin, Expedia senior director of marketing. “We typically take one week off and a day or two here and there over the year. That’s not enough for anyone to function.”

Workers in some countries in Europe and the United Arab Emirates get as much as 30 days of paid vacation a year, not counting a host of national holidays, and they take 100 percent of them. American workers, in contrast, had, on average 15 days of paid vacation in the past year, and took 14 of them. Which at least puts Americans ahead of South Korean workers, who had 15 paid vacation days, but only took seven.

But while Expedia rates South Koreans as the most vacation deprived, when they asked workers how they felt, 73 percent of those in the United Arab Emirates, by far the largest majority of workers, complained they didn’t get enough vacation. Last year, French workers, with 30 days of paid vacation, said they were the most vacation deprived.

In contrast, 54 percent of Americans felt they didn’t have enough time off.

The No. 1 reason Americans – and workers around the globe – didn’t take vacation last year was work, the survey found.

Expedia asked if bosses were getting in the way. Nearly three-fourths of French workers said yes. But they still took 100 percent of their allotted time off. U.S. workers, in contrast, reported that only 28 percent of their bosses frowned on vacation time. And still, they didn’t take vacation.

“We found people who said, ‘My boss is supportive of me taking vacation,’ and they’re still too nervous to leave,” Gavin said. The recent recession made that anxiety worse, she said, but the trend of worrying about missing work or being seen as expendable has been consistent for the 14 years they’ve taken the survey.

Tethered to work even when they do get away, more Americans reported that they checked their work e-mails at least once a day, compared to more than 60 percent of Germans who said they completely unplugged on vacation.

The second biggest reason for not vacationing in the past year, Expedia found, was that workers hoped to save up for a really big trip.

“We found that there’s still this American dream of taking a big trip to Europe for five weeks,” Gavin said. “When in reality, banking those days may feel good, but you’re going to burnout before that trip comes, if it does, and then you’re going to be too stressed to enjoy it.”

The biggest news in this year’s report — that Americans have gone from leaving two or three days of vacation unused every year to one day — is hardly cause for celebration, Gavin said. “It’s a step in the right direction. But the consistent big news that we’re still not taking all our vacation.” Never mind that previous research has found that one quarter of all American workers get no paid vacation days at all.

A few years ago Greg Nickolson, a tech entrepreneur in Tuscon, was thinking about how he and his family and friends always talked about taking vacation and going on trips, but then never did. He started polling people about why and, not surprisingly, found that they felt they didn’t have the time or money or the mental bandwidth to plan a vacation.

He began to ponder, that’s how people felt about saving for retirement, until 401K savings plans came along. What if he could set up what he began to think of as 401Play accounts?


401Play by Outski

Nickolson launched the idea just a few months ago on Outski.com, and already has more than 6,000 members who’ve set up Vacation Savings Accounts, with automatic deductions coming out of people’s paychecks or bank accounts. Beyond setting and saving for vacation budgets, the site also enables groups to collaborate online, like Facebook, and plan, research and book trips together.

Now Nickolson is reaching out to companies to include 401Play accounts as part of their benefits packages. “We argue that this is a great way for the employer not only to say, but to demonstrate that they understand the effects of people not taking vacation and they want to give people the tools to do it,” he said.

He’s also working with the American Heart Association and their effort to reduce heart attacks by 20 percent by 2020, sharing previous research that found workers who take regular vacations are healthier. One long-term study found that men who don’t take vacations are 30 percent more likely to have heart attacks than those who do. For women, it’s 50 percent.

Karen Simpson, who directs health and wellness programs for the Pima Medical Institute in Arizona, just signed the organization up to participate in Outski’s 401Play program. Employees work hard, she said, and few take all their vacation. “They feel they’re too busy,” she said, a reflection of America’s all work and no play ethic.

“My job is to find ways to keep people healthy and happy, and there’s so much evidence that vacation time, break time from work, makes people happier, healthier and more productive,” she said.

Why 401Play accounts? Can’t workers just save on their own?

“Yes, but they won’t, and you know it,” she said. “America’s culture is just an all-work, no play culture, so it’s hard for people to spend money on vacations. They’ll pay for cable TV, or for bad food at a restaurant rather than getting out and experiencing the world. No wonder our stress and anxiety levels are so high.”

Simpson hopes the 401Play accounts will change that. She herself is signing up for one, with a direct deposit to come out of her paycheck. “Next year,” she said, “I’m going to Belize.”