Why American Vacations Are So Extravagant

I came across the results of an interesting survey on vacations. The survey asked respondents in the U.S. and Eu ropean countries how much they wouldspend per person on vacation in 2010. The categories ranged from “Nothing and staying at home” all the way up to “More than $2,472” per person.

In the lowest spending categories, the Europeans led the way. However, as the per person number ratcheted up, the U.S. moved on top. In other words, people in the U.S. spend more per person on vacation than do Europeans. At the highest spending level (“More than $2,472 per person”), eighteen percent of Americans said they would pay it while only six percent of Europeans overall said they would spend that much. So why do Americans spend so much more on vacations?

The study didn’t answer that question, but I have a couple of ideas. There are cultural differences in vacation preferences, differences in how “acceptable” it is to take vacation, differences in how vacations are marketed, and differences in how much “easy money” is available in the form of credit and home equity (at least until recently). But if you put these things aside, I find myself wondering if the issue isn’t one of time.

It’s well known that most Europeans get much more vacation time than Americans do. In some countries vacation time is even guaranteed, which is not the case in the USA. Europeans are also more likely to take the time they are given whereas in America taking a vacation is almost taboo. You’d think that with all this vacation time the Europeans would be spending a lot more on vacation. But they don’t. I think Europeans spend less precisely because they have so much vacation time.

Europeans know that they have a lot of time so there is no pressure to “go big” on any one vacation. They are more content to spend some time at home catching up on things, or to take several smaller vacations. Even if they do go on a long vacation it is more likely to be a stay with family or a more budget conscious trip that mixes fun with frugality. (Obviously there are Europeans who go all out for vacations, just as there are some Americans who camp or pursue other budget vacations. However, the survey was about general tendencies.)

Americans, on the other hand get very little, if any, vacation time. When they do go on vacation, the tendency is to go all out because it may not come again any time soon. Americans spend more to try to compensate for the lack of time. I see this all the time in people who make statements to the effect of, “We might as well go first class because we might not get to go again,” or, “The time we get to spend with our kids is so limited, we need to have this big vacation to make memories” and other similar statements. We Americans know we don’t have much time, so we try to make the most of it by spending extravagantly on vacation. The trouble is, not everyone can afford this sort of largesse. Vacation spending is a trouble area for many, with many Americans putting their travels on credit and paying it over time.

If Americans got more vacation time, perhaps spending would slow a bit. People wouldn’t feel pressured to do everything in a two week span and spend accordingly. People might be more content to spend a week at home or with family. People might be happy with more moderate vacations (and actually relax more instead of trying to cram everything in to a few days). There might even bee less pressure to take the same vacations as your friends and coworkers, since the vacation stakes might not be as high.

Since there isn’t likely to be a cultural reformation that results in guaranteed vacation time any time soon, you can try to get closer to the European model on your own. When negotiating benefits at a new job, offer to take a salary reduction in exchange for more vacation. When you come up for a performance review, ask if you can have extra vacation time instead of a raise (or just take a partial raise in exchange for more time). However much time you do get, take it. Don’t store it away or give in to the idea that you are so important you can’t go away. Don’t wait for the perfect time to take a vacation because there will never be one. Don’t be a martyr by refusing to take the time you’re owed. When you do take a vacation, try not to think of it as a once in a lifetime thing. That leads to overspending. Try to think of it as a fun time to be with your family and ask yourself if you need to spend a fortune to have that fun, or if you can have fun for less.

I don’t know all the reasons why Americans spend so much more on vacation than Europeans. However, I suspect at least some of it has to do with our need to compensate for a lack of vacation time by spending wads of money. In addition to the strategies above, you might want to call your lawmakers and ask them to work on a bill that would guarantee vacation time for everyone. They do it in Europe and manage to surpass us in productivity, so it is possible and even (gasp) healthy.

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2 Responses to Why American Vacations Are So Extravagant

  1. Justlev says:

    I think you’ve missed an important dynamic of Europeans vacationing v. Americans vacationing. European countries are much closer than American vacation destinations. For example, I vacationed in the Canary Islands in 2005. It cost me $3000 just to fly to their (Midwest to Spain to Canaries). My British counterparts only spent a few hundred. When you have nearby options, travel costs are much less. Notwtihstanding the additional costs, it was worth every penny.

  2. PrincessPerky says:

    If the lack of time is an issue, why are so many around me taking not just yearly trips to beaches, but bi annual trips to disney world and any other fancy pants cruise or spa?

    I think Americans are under a lot of false assumptions about time management.

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