The ‘no-vacation nation’

U.S. passports

U.S. passports. Photo: J. Aaron Farr / Flickr

The academic schedule is like a shell game.  For all of our school years, we get used to having summers off.  Then once we start working, those glorious three months get cut down to two weeks. For those of us who live in the United States, that is.

Every once in a while, the media will tackle this question.  The latest entry was this CNN report: Why is America the ‘no vacation nation’? Despite what Americans might believe, having only two weeks off is not the norm in other developed countries.  For example, the famously hardworking Japanese typically get four weeks off.  Europeans are known get anywhere from four to six weeks of paid vacation.

While the article says that the lack of regulation is the problem, I think the issue goes deeper than that.  Would more Americans actually go abroad if employers were required to give them more time off?

In my time overseas, the Americans I’ve met have been far outnumbered by the British, Australian, Canadian, and European vagabonders on the road.  Some make the argument that America is geographically isolated, so people are less inclined to travel.  Australia seems to demolish that idea, since it’s even more isolated than the United States.

Some say it’s rooted in the Protestant work ethic of America’s founders.  Hard work is a virtue, while leisure is branded as a sin.  Does America’s status as a superpower lead to arrogance in a portion of its citizens? As in, “other countries learn from us, not the other way around.”

The media plays a role as well.  I can’t remember the last time I watched a TV news report that encouraged people to go abroad. Seems like 99 percent of coverage advises against it. Governments also seem to discourage venturing out.  Easy to see why, as people inevitably make comparisons of the countries they visit with their home nations.  For example, nearly every American I know who’s been to Japan wishes that the United States had high-speed rail too. Travel would lead to more citizens returning home and complaining, “Why don’t we have bullet trains, universal health care, subsidized college tuition?!”

America has less of a social safety net, compared to other rich nations. Education, housing, health care and other necessities consume more of our paychecks.  This leaves less discretionary income for travel. Many would-be travelers in my age group are shackled by student loans they took out to go to university.  These usually require you to start paying them back within a few months of graduating. In contrast, I’ve heard that in Great Britain, graduates only have to start repaying their loans after their salaries exceed a certain threshold. Like if they start making more than 15,000 pounds a year.  Such awesome flexibility.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Posted by | Comments (13)  | May 27, 2011
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

13 Responses to “The ‘no-vacation nation’”

  1. Vinny Says:

    Hi Marcus,

    I agree with you when you state that “the issue goes deeper than that” but instead of pointing to the protestant work ethic. I see what you mean when you mention that “hard work is a virtue, while leisure is branded as a sin” but this would contradict the incredible amount of media and material consumption that the US engages in year after year.

    Instead, I would point to the idea of independence that is so intertwined into the American culture. The idea of individual independence is reinforced throughout the media growing up in the US and this individual independence, I believe, is transfered into a national independence as we get older. In other words, could it be that many Americans see no need or have no desire to travel abroad?

  2. Alexis Grant Says:

    To add a few ideas: I think another reason why Americans don’t tend to go overseas is because there’s so much to see here at home. And while I love to travel and hate that we’re a no-vacation nation, I think travelers make the mistake of talking about this in an arrogant way, as though people who travel abroad are somehow better than people who don’t. It’s okay to be an evangelist for overseas travel, but that’s not the only way to spend weeks off. Having more vacation would also be beneficial for Americans to spend more time with family, working on creative projects, and unwinding from work. Thanks for bringing up an important topic!

  3. Pier-Olivier Says:

    First of all, I really enjoyed your book and would like to thank you for it. (hearf about it on a book suggestion list by tim ferris) I was exploring the idea of getting my act together and think about traveling for real as I am finishing my study soon.

  4. Pier-Olivier Says:

    woops (hit enter before paragraph 2 XD)

    to answer you, I think visiting our own country is seen as less of an adventure (I’m from Qc and I barely visited my own province, but have been to the us and another province) than going oversee and its less exciting to talk about to our friends.

    Travling in-land is also very expensive here. The train rates are high and it’s slow. We barely have in-land flight and the price are simply too expensive. If I’m not mistaking US-to-US flights are kinda chaep (like they are in europe) but paying 500 to 1k for an international flight when you have 1 week off is kind of a huge expense compare to in-land flights imho and getting longer vacation might not be seen as somethign that can be done if you’re very career oriented like most americans tend to be I think. After all, they earn more $ per year because they, in general, work more hours per week and more weeks per years than most other country.

    Education is a big part of it too, many people prefer the joy of getting more things (eg, new videogame consoles and new games every few weeks or a drive a new car) to the new experience created by the challenge of putting yourself into the unknown by traveling / meeting new people (which can be frightening) Forcing people to put themself in uncomfortable sitaution at young age and show them the joy of travel/the unknown could help.

    I’d close by quoting our finance minister who recently stated “the finality is not to balance the budget, the finality is to be happy (…)”. I kinda laughed at him then, but I think as people happyness is really “our goal” and most people tend to forget that and close the doors to travel because of so many reason and put their attention on financial and material matter and forget about themself as a human being and the part about growing themself as individual instead of “how valuable I can be”.

  5. Mark E Tisdale Says:

    Read the comments on any news item about travel (whether it’s about a tourist that encountered issues in a foreign country, etc.) and you will find a large chorus of people questioning why anyone would EVER leave the US for a foreign destination, like it’s something dirty and downright unpatriotic! We’ve got a lot of issues here with vacation here, whether taking time off (my old job it took ten years to get to four weeks and hardly anyone used all their days whether two weeks or four weeks or more) or, gasp, going abroad!

  6. Magnus Says:

    Being from Europe (Denmark) I find it kind of funny that the blog post is mostly aimed at Americans (why are WE the … ). A lot of people over here seem rather obsessed with America as well, but it’s interesting anyway.

    I think that when the distances traveled within the United States are so much longer than in Europe (3000 miles brings me well into the Middle East or Norther Africa) we get more exposed to different people over here. If I travel for a couple of hours in any direction from Copenhagen I could be in another country, with another culture and language. The culture doesn’t differ much, but the narrative changes completely – think of the US-Mexican border or where the divide was between the north and the south in the civil war. We have those lines all over the place, yet we are used to crossing them, which lowers the barrier to more exotic travels.

    About your protestantism: we are protestants in Scandinavia as well, yet we get 6 weeks off here in Denmark.
    About your individualism: I find it funny how the narrative about the American Dream seems to be commonly accepted, even though it’s hard to believe that 300 million people would all share the same dream. Over here we are stuck with ‘my own, personal dream’ but that may be more tangible.

    However I must say that there are huge differences to the ways of travelling between the countries over here as well. When I did my working holiday in New Zealand I met really, really few other danes doing the same, yet I know plenty of danes going around the globe at any given oppertunity.

    I guess it might just be a matter of how things are being done. We are used to travelling and languages, you may not be. I guess Denmark have less of a mentality of winning all time and more of a mentality of finding our own space, whereas you may be the other way around. At least in Denmark people only seem to care about winning when they have an actual chance whereas it seems very ingrained in American culture. Then that’s when you say ‘giving it all up’ and we say ‘living while you are young’ over here.

  7. Roger Says:

    I appreciate Magnus’s comments. He’s saying that in Europe there are many different varieties of culture, and lines of cultural divide, and they are not affraid to cross them, and experience a little bit of them. They are more familiar with the nuances of difference. As Americans, we grow up in a single, large culture, and we are less comfortable with finding out more about the rest of the world, apart from a few well known cliches. We like to major in knowing our system, and, Lord help us, we must, to succeed. We pretty much consider anyone who is not sold out on the American dream to be a loser, and it’s little wonder that we don’t have the gumption to dare to be different, if being different means one actually believes there is something to be gained by understanding the world. This is how I would describe my age group, but I believe younger Americans are doing a little better. I did not get to travel abroad until I was 21, whereas, my daughter has been traveling abroad every summer except one since she was three.

  8. sage Says:

    Re: Protestant Work Ethic. Max Weber’s thesis, from where that praise was coined, was based on studies of Britain and Northern Europe. We work hard here, but we also consume way too much. Travel isn’t valued nearly enough.

    That said, Tuesday I begin a Sabbatical and will head to Jakarta on Saturday with plans to go overland to Europe and returning to the states in September.

  9. Paul Karl Lukacs Says:

    High-paid white-collar workers are often the least likely to take time off, not because something at the office might go wrong, but because everything might run smoothly in their absence — making people wonder if their big salaries are necessary.

  10. Magnus Says:

    Those of you who say, that Americans consume too much, should remember that in Europe travel is also a form of consumption. So where you may judge eachother based on the car you drive or the office you occupy, here it is our travels and our experiences.

    I like consuming experiences over things, but it’s consumption nonetheless. This need not be bad however. I just read that one of the reasons Danes are so rich compared to other nations is our travels abroad. However the traveling they mentioned were hugely commercial group traveling, but people still took a lot of good things home.

    In short we do travel more, but not in the Vagabonding ‘lone man on the road, gotta find a new self’-sort of way but more in a casual “let’s drive to France and see what’s there”-way. If you want Americans to travel more you should get this into your culture!

  11. john Says:

    A huge percentage of young Australians spend at least a few months living overseas, usually between finishing school and starting a ‘real’ job (they might work for a year or two to save money for the trip). For decades this has been linked to an Australian ‘cultural cringe’, the idea that Australia is cultural inferior and that /real/ culture is to be found elsewhere. This explanation (if it’s true) fits in with the idea that maybe Americans don’t have the urge to travel because they are convinced things are better at home. But personally I think that the main reason so many Australians travel is that so many Australians travel — after hearing all your friends’ travel stories it’s almost inevitable you’ll want to have your own adventure.

    As for the distance theory, Australia is similar in size to the the US minus Alaska, but the population density is quite low, and so there are huge distances between towns and cities. But I think that this actually makes Australians /more/ inclined to travel overseas, because almost all of us have driven from Melbourne to Sydney, or from Sydney to Brisbane (about 1000 km for each trip). Right now one of my cousins is on the way back from Cairns (a round trip of about 5000 km) and another is on the way to Perth (a round trip of 8000 km if you take the direct route, except she and her boyfriend are going the long way around). So the idea of traveling several thousand kilometers to go to another country is not a big deal.
    Holidays? We generally get four weeks and take every single day allowed to us (unless we are planning to save up our annual leave to take an extra long trip next year). We do have our share of workaholics too, of course, but they are generally regarded as weirdos.

    Clarification on Japanese holidays. People get two weeks initially, which increases to four weeks after (I think) five years. But there is no culture of going on long trips, and so people rarely take more than two days off in a row. I know a couple of people who might take five days in a row to take advantage of the weekend on either side, but they all work for foreign companies and even there they are the exception rather than the rule. But despite their limited time off, many Japanese are avid travelers, so the ‘limited vacation time’ and ‘reluctant to travel overseas’ factors are actually independent variables, and you need to find a separate explanation for each factor.

  12. Magnus Says:


    I totally agree that the whole OE thing you have going down in Oz/Nz gets a lot of people out. I mean, just having a term coined for it that way is rather cool.

    However we are allways blown away with stories like yours about people traveling far by car. We don’t see a lot of that here in Europe and thus people in North America and Australia seem to be reallly awesome roadtrippers. Even though we might be able to do it here as well.

    Most people I know of here will only do a few 10+ hour roadtrips per year, but they might fly a lot more, so I don’t know how that fits into the model.

    I guess in the end most people will just go out and do what their friends do and if that involves traveling, then that’s what they will do.

  13. Liz | Two Weeks to Travel Says:

    Great topic, and as an American, I think there are a few reasons for this. The first is geography, we never have to interact with other cultures, like @Magnus said, in most of Europe you drive a few hours and you’re in another nation. And I think, as far as the Aussies go, they run on a bit more of a European mindset, so travel is expected, hence why you run into them everywhere! The second is cultural, we are taught that you go to school, then work, then after 40 years or so you are allowed to retire and THEN go on vacation, but only if first you get married and buy a house and have two kids and a dog. And I agree with @Odysseus, that for some reason foreign travel is shunned, the fact that here most people think Orlando is the greatest place to travel to rather than outside the USA is crazy to me.

    I wish we had the idea of the ‘gap year’ here like they do in many other parts of the world. Looking back I wish I did that, but it was so burned into me that if I didn’t have a job at graduation the sun would never come up, that I went right to work. Now I am working on a way to work less, travel more, and cut out the junk that I don’t really need. But I will say, the fact that I don’t care about buying a house, and using every vacation day I have to travel all over, makes me very unusual for my group of friends.