Why I keep my vacation day balance at zero and you should too!
When I was pregnant with my second child, I had been working for the same firm for nearly four years. When I was reviewing the maternity leave policies and figuring out my schedule, I realized that I had almost 150 hours of PTO/vacation time saved up. This was not planned. Time had slipped by so fast that I didn’t realize we had not taken a family vacation (other than weddings and family reunions) in more than four years. With baby number two on the way, I knew that daily life was going to become exponentially hectic and we would need both a family vacation and a couples getaway at least once per year. In fact, it was something that I demanded and made my husband agree to it. Since then we have done it each year.
Even if you don’t have any kids, your daily life is hectic with high-pressure deadlines and possible night and weekend work. You need time to rejuvenate yourself and the relationships with those who are close to you.
Everyone should take some time off to get away. No matter what your budget or personal obligations are, just getting away from the daily grind and changing your physical setting not only relieves stress but also enables you to re-connect with those you are close to.
At the beginning of each year is when I start planning my vacation plans for the summer and holidays. Some of you might be thinking that I am way too organized, but I do this for multiple reasons:
- I only get a certain number of vacation days from my employer so I need to make sure that I have enough for any planned time off and any sick/unplanned time (I have two kids).
- Just planning for my vacation later in the year makes me almost excited as the trip itself.
- I have to coordinate around work and family obligations.
- I have to make sure I budget enough funds for whatever we are thinking about doing.
- If it is on my calendar in advance, it gets done! This is the same with all of my obligations!
This year we are planning to go away for a couple of long weekends, one long family vacation, and one longer trip with just my husband. We just returned from a weeklong trip to New Orleans. This was to celebrate New Year’s (which is also our wedding anniversary) and the Sugar Bowl (although our team didn’t win). . After that trip, it left both of our vacation time at zero. This is just another reason why I try to plan out our vacation time at the beginning of the year.
How do you I maximize my time off, while still meeting work and home obligations? Below are my strategies. Some are obvious that you might already be doing:
- Add onto company holidays. I try to take the Friday before Memorial Day and/or Labor Day off (depending on deadlines). This gives me a four-day weekend with only using one day of vacation. Since we usually go away these weekends, I do all of our weekend chores and pack while the kids are at school so we can stay the entire weekend and come back ready to work instead of running around the night before returning to work. If I can’t get the entire day off, I try to at least take a half day to get ahead start. In 2013, 4th of July is on a Thursday so this is ideal to take either just Friday or Friday and Wednesday to get a four/five-day vacation with using only one/two days of vacation.
- Plan your time off when the kids are off. This works for us because we have kids. My son’s school is closed the entire week of Thanksgiving and my daughter’s school is closed the first and last weeks of summer. I am going to plan our vacations around this time to save some money on camps and/or extra daycare. This year we are most likely going up to North Carolina for Thanksgiving to stay with my cousin. Since my husband and I both get Thanksgiving and the day after as company holidays, we will only need three vacation days to get a seven-day vacation!
- Add on to your commitments. Are you going to be a bridesmaid? Have to go to that family reunion? Are you attending an annual conference? If you already have personal and/professional commitments planned for the year, add an extra day or two onto that. If it is a wedding on a Saturday, stay in that city until the next Tuesday. We stayed an extra three days after a wedding in Cozumel and it was like a mini vacation on top of the wedding. If you are attending a conference for work, it will most likely end Thursday of Friday. Why not stay the weekend or until the following Monday? You can explore a new city that probably wasn’t on your bucket list which could actually turn into an adventure.
Now you might be thinking, after my mortgage, student loans, and bridesmaids dresses, I have absolutely no money left to do anything. I hear ya. We live on a modest income and have lots of bills just like you. This is why it is so important to plan ahead for whatever budget you can work within. Here are some of my strategies to stretch our vacation dollars:
- Choose your home away from home wisely. Since we often travel with two kids, the type of place where we stay is important. It needs to be big enough for us and have proper amenities. I look for at least one separate bedroom (for some privacy) and some kind of kitchen area. For longer vacations (more than a weekend) I insist on a full kitchen. I also look for what kind of amenities (free preferably) there are. Basically, this is to keep the kids busy on the days we don’t have a costly activity planned. If we can’t afford the luxury resort, I try to find a mid-range one close to the luxury resorts. If you do research ahead of time, some of the luxury resorts have day passes to their pools and have restaurants open to the public. A good example of this is the Animal Kingdom Lodge at Disney World. The grounds are like a zoo and you don’t have to be a guest to roam around to visit the animals or the nighttime campfires.
- Stay with friends and family. We live about 30 minutes away from the Disney parks and I am surprised we haven’t gotten more family in Ohio and New York calling to stay. We also have a friend who lives steps away from Cocoa Beach. His place is too small for all of us to stay, but it is great for day trips. Not only will the cost be right (free most of the time), you can get local tips from someone who lives there. Make sure that your friends and family do not have to adjust their plans (work schedules, etc.) during your visit and be a good guest by helping with the dishes, cooking a dinner, etc.
- Be a picky eater. Like I mentioned above, we try to stay in a place with a kitchen. This is not just for convenience but it is to save money. I take our same grocery budget for that week and apply it to our vacation budget. I hit the grocery store as soon as I arrive to shop for our meals, our adult beverages (remember we are on vacation), and some fun snacks for the kiddos. Saving money on preparing 75% of our own food goes to our three to five meals at nicer restaurants and other fun activities during our vacation. I also try to plan to eat out at lunch for the nicer restaurants. It is often much cheaper and takes up a good part of the day. (The kids are generally better behaved too!)
- Use those coupon websites. Another very good reason to plan your vacations at the beginning of the year is to maximize those local deals websites. If you know where you’re going in May, you can start following that city now. For example, if you know that you will be in Denver, Colorado for a wedding in June. You can sign up to receive those local deals now. I have used these for restaurants and activities (such as walking tours). Most of them have travel deals too, but I just haven’t had any luck making any of them work. The ones I have found luck with are Groupon and TravelZoo Local Deals. I also follow LivingSocial and Google Local Deals, but just haven’t found too many that appeal to me. Recently, TravelZoo has been the most I have purchased for cities I am traveling to and fun activities for stay-at-home weekends.
- Travel with others. I am in the process of finding a place for either Memorial Day or Labor Day for us and three other families. We are looking for either one big house or several small condos on a beach. I am using the Vacation By Owner website for the first time, and although I haven’t booked anything yet, it seems very promising. In the past, we have another family we split rooms with at an expensive resort in Cocoa Beach several times. If you have friends or family that you can vacation with, you can save by splitting the costs of the location, food, activities, etc.
- Look at your neighboring hotels. I mentioned this above but look at your neighboring hotels and resorts for fun activities and restaurants. They might have fun kids’ activities or nightly entertainment that is not restricted to just guests. For example, we stayed a week at a small condo in Sebastian, Florida last August. I know that there is a Disney Resort in Vero Beach which is less than 20 minutes from where we were staying. I called them ahead of time and learned that Monday nights in the summer they host a pirate-themed BBQ dinner with Donald Duck and Goofy. The food was fantastic and the show entertaining. We also meandered around the hotel and beach after dinner. Needless to say, the kids loved it, and it was way less than a character dinner at the parks.
- Be loyal. I was never a fan of the loyalty programs until I started traveling for work. I wasn’t a road warrior by any means but was traveling around the Southeast U.S. two to three times a month. I found two loyalty programs that work for me—Marriott Rewards and Southwest Rapid Rewards. I just like Marriott hotels, especially the Courtyard brand and try to stay at them for both work and pleasure. I have earned many free nights that I have used for our romantic weekend getaways! Most of the loyalty programs are free and you should check with your firm’s travel policies before using them, but they can pay off!
- Consider an all-inclusive resort. I would have never vacationed at one of these if it wasn’t for our friends’ destination wedding in 2010. It was the best vacation I have ever had. It was in Mexico and although the initial sticker price of the room was shocking it was worth every penny. The trip was in October and we booked in May. We paid payments and had it paid in full before our plan took off. Once we got there, we were treated like royalty in a very luxurious hotel. We took $500 cash with us as spending money for our eight days that we were there. We took two excursions, endless spa treatments, and souvenirs (including my husband’s Costa Del Mar’s sunglasses). I think we came home with nearly $300 cash. When the resort said all inclusive, it meant it. The resort has a sister family oriented resort that I am planning to take the entire family in summer of 2014. Some people like cruises, but I think this is way better than a cruise. Just be sure to read the fine print on what’s included and what deals they are offering. We stayed seven nights to get $700 in spa and golf credits.
- Invest in your travels. When I committed to at least one week’s vacation every year, we invested in a timeshare at a very family friendly resort in Cocoa Beach. Even though we get discounted rates at our home resort, we have traded our deposit for several weeks at other resorts in Florida and North Carolina. A timeshare isn’t a decision or option for everyone. There are other investment options such as buying a vacation condo or house or buying into a vacation club. I am not an investment advisor. I can only speak about what our goals are and what we did to help us achieve them. Having the timeshare with the time that will expire creates a “use it or lose it” pressure, thus forcing us to take vacations! For me, it was perfect to not let another four years go by without a family vacation.
So now you don’t have any excuses not to plan for some time off this year. How are you going to spend your PTO?
Share your vacation plans in the comments below.