How to Maximize Your PTO

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Why you should care

Because the calendar is creeping closer to 2020. Have you used your vacation time?

The drill seems simple. Ask for your PTO, cross-reference travel deal sites, pick a destination and wheels up. But in reality, a vacation can bring up all sorts of issues: Going over budget. Missed flights. A mountain of email and undone work when you return. And the worst thing: Coming home feeling even more exhausted and drained than you were before you left. 

The hassle and expense of getting away, coupled with the daily demands of an always-on work culture, may be part of the reason people don’t get away — even when they have paid time off available to them.

A 2018 study found that more than half of Americans eligible for PTO leave time off on the table, equaling 768 million days.

While this percentage is gradually decreasing — 52 percent of eligible workers left vacation time on the table in 2018; in 2015, it was 55 percent — the number still represents the mental shift that needs to happen surrounding vacation. Turns out, time off may not only be crucial for your happiness — but also for your health. A 2019 study published in the journal Psychology and Health found that frequent vacationers may be able to reduce their risks of cardiovascular disease.

The key: Getting time on the calendar ASAP. “Evidence shows that Americans who plan for their vacations [in January] take more time off to travel and are healthier in many aspects of life,” says Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. Scheduling your PTO now, even when you don’t have a destination in mind, may make it more likely that your vacation will actually happen — and that you’ll be in the right frame of mind.

While you may not know exactly where you’re going, knowing what you’re going to do when you get there can help you feel more satisfied about your trip. The emerging field of “leisure crafting” has found that time away from work is optimal when it has a purpose: goal setting, human connection, learning or personal development. In other words, time spent bingeing on streaming services may be fun in the moment — but may not contribute to feeling wholly satisfied with your time off. Instead, an optimal trip has some structure (think: surf lessons or carving out time to read a book you’ve always meant to finish).

Some other ways to make sure you maximize your time off: Splurge up front. If your budget can swing it, splash out for the luxurious place that catches your eye — at least for one night. “The biggest boost in vacations can be anticipation,” explains Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D., a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies spending and happiness. Depending on your budget, Dunn says it may make more sense to choose a three-day getaway at an amazing hotel rather than a one-week trip at a meh location. “Research shows there’s a measurable mood boost in the days leading up to vacation, so it could be smart to choose a destination that sustains excitement.”

And it also may be smart to plan for a gentle re-entry. “In order to get back rested from a trip, I book an airport hotel on my last night. On that night, I nix anything fun and order a healthy salad and eat in the room while watching TV,” shares Anne Roderique-Jones, a travel writer and editor in New Orleans. “On one hand, it ‘steals’ a day of our vacation, but on the other, it can make me feel more ready to get back into my real life.”

Christine Moffatt, a wellness coach in New York City, finds that leaving her phone in the hotel — even if that means missing out on the convenience of mobile maps — is a way for her and her husband to relax and recharge on the go. “We choose places where we can navigate with a paper map, or we’ll bring our phone but put it in airplane mode until we need it, and use a ‘real’ camera for photos. We’ve been burned so many times by emails and social media stuff for work while on vacation that we need to proactively make plans to recharge.”

Finally, a key way to prep for vacation is to make sure everything is under control back home. Check that your home or renter’s insurance is up to date, gather all your travel documents, such as your passport, and ensure that all are accurate and not expired. Then make copies of key documents, such as credit card numbers, and save them in a secure folder. All of these can be smart moves. It’s also important to make sure all your other insurance policies are up to date and that you have the coverage you need. For example, if you’re going on a road trip, it’s a good idea to check if your car insurance covers emergency roadside assistance. It’s also important to see what your renter’s or homeowner’s insurance covers: Some policies may extend to protect you from fraudulent use of an ATM or credit card. Smart-home technology could also give you peace of mind on your PTO, allowing you to monitor what’s going on in your home from your mobile device. Bonus: Some insurance policies offer a discount if you have these types of tech products set up in your home.

Bottom line: By prepping beforehand, and getting the dates on the calendar ASAP, you can make your trip one to remember — and one that helps you relax even when it’s over.

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