Americans and Their Family Vacation Issues


Kim Brooks vacation-babblerecently wrote an essay — published right here on — arguing that Europeans know how to take family vacations, while Americans still don’t have a clue. Her piece focused on the fact that in most European countries, employers automatically give their employees four — sometimes as much as five — weeks of vacation, which explains why so many people in the U.K., France, Hungary and other non-U.S. countries take off the entire month of August to revel in the pleasures of ambling summer days spent with family.

I think Kim is absolutely right. The fact that many companies here in the U.S. view vacation time as a luxury — often parceling out a mere week’s worth of days off until an employee has years of seniority under his or her belt — is wrong. But I think that’s only one part of what makes it so hard for many people in this country to enjoy family vacation time. It’s not just that we don’t get the time. It’s that we don’t know how to spend it.

As anyone who has ever been issued a company Blackberry know, it has become increasingly difficult to detach  from office culture. Once upon a time, even if all you had was a week off, you knew that week would be spent far away from conference rooms, computer screens and cubicles, both physically and — more importantly — mentally.

These days, there is no such thing as unplugging. Only the most remote vacation spots lack WiFi. “Urgent” e-mails easily can be accessed via mobile devices. And with the unemployment rate still at dauntingly high levels, it may seem even more risky than ever to walk away from work entirely, even if it’s just for a long weekend.

Of course, corporate culture, the economic crisis and demanding bosses are hardly the only ones to blame for this situation. We all need to look squarely at ourselves and assess how much of our inability to relax and have a holiday is our own faults. Just because the vacation rental in Corolla, N.C., has free WiFi that doesn’t mean you have to use it.

It’s natural to want to check e-mail from time to time and make sure everything back at the office is running smoothly. But ultimately, the person who sets the agenda for vacation is you. So many of us are addicted to all these electronic devices that keep us in the loop — and, potentially, make us feel responsible for addressing work issues that easily could wait a few days without the world blowing up — that we don’t know how to go cold turkey.  I know whereof I speak. I am writing this blog post on a day when I am, technically, on vacation from my full-time job. (My laptop has not yet fused with my own skin and bones and become an additional appendage. But I fully expect that to happen any day now.)

In other words, this is a problem we all could stand to work on. It would help enormously if corporate culture — and American culture in general — valued the notion of slowing down and recharging one’s batteries on a much more regular basis. But until that happens, each of us can and should do our best to put aside the iPhones and Notebooks, take some deep breaths, hug our kids and spend at least a couple of days, or more, living our lives Ferris Bueller-style.  Summer is short. If we don’t stop and look around, we could miss it.