Vacations can be a considerable investment of time and money. We spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on them, hours getting to our chosen getaway, and more hours planning what to do once we get there.
The returns, though, can be uncertain. Flight delays, unhappy children, and work emails, to name just a few, can easily negate the restorative effects of the time we spend off work.
So how do you get the most R&R bang out of your vacation buck?
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How much you can invest depends on how much you can save, and vacations aren’t really any different.
The easiest way to figure out how much you can afford to spend on a holiday is to see what’s left of your after-tax income after you’ve accounted for all your bills, debt payments, savings and routine spending.
“Usually what’s left is about five to 10 per cent of your income,” said Scott Hannah, president and CEO of the Vancouver-based Credit Counselling Society. That’s your vacation fund.
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Of course, if you’re a small spender and avid traveller, there’s nothing wrong with spending more than that. Travel and personal finance expert Barry Choi, for example, told Global News he spends around 15 per cent of his net income on vacations every year.
Once you know your overall holiday budget, the trick is to avoid overspending. If tracking receipts isn’t your idea of relaxation, Hannah suggests figuring out how much you can afford to spend every day. That makes it much easier to stay on budget without counting every penny.
Another simple strategy is to use your credit card for big expenses like travel and hotel and use cash for day-to-day expenditures. You’ll quickly notice if your money pile is being depleted too quickly a few days into your vacation.
Whatever you do, though, never use debt to bankroll a vacation, Hannah warned. For one, interest charges will only raise the true cost of your vacation. And for another, your credit card bill will likely raise your stress levels right back to pre-vacation levels as soon as it lands.
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The second half of the vacation equation is what you get out of it. If the goal is to relax, relieve stress and come back to work feeling recharged, studies suggest there is little correlation between how much you drop on your holiday and how much rest you’ll get from it.
“There’s a bunch of research by psychologists and organizational behaviour researchers about what makes a vacation restorative,” said Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. “And the counter-intuitive but powerful takeaway from it is that you don’t have to do it all.”
Ironically, the pressure to check everything off your bucket list tends to be greater the more you’ve spent on your getaway and the farther you’ve travelled to get there, he added. This can lead to one of the biggest vacation mistakes you can make.
Rushing from site to site isn’t much different than shuffling from home to the office to the kids’ practices. For both you and your children, if you have any, it isn’t a change of space but an echo of the busy lives you lead all year.
At the same time, though, a real break isn’t just about doing nothing. Trying out new, engrossing activities is one of the must-haves of a relaxing vacation, according to research by German sociologist Sabine Sonnentag.
During the Second World War, the codebreakers of England’s Bletchley Park used chess as a way to recover from what was, to use a euphemism, a high-pressure, mentally exacting job, Soojung-Kim Pang writes in his book.
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The trick, he told Global News, is to find the right balance between stimulation and relaxation. Often, this implies planning for activities as much as quiet time.
“When we’re on vacation, we plan to spend a few hours in before dinner just hanging out in our hotel room, or at a cafe,” he said. Downtime allows the brain to reflect on the experiences of the day, forming more lasting memories, he added.
Another surprising result of the science of vacation so far is that autonomy is another major trait of a relaxing vacation. Having control over one’s daily activities, along with other factors, “turned out to affect well-being changes more than the type of activity people engaged in during their trip,” writes researcher Jessica de Bloom.
In a series of studies, de Bloom and others monitored some 250 Dutch employees during periods of work and vacation and found that those who felt in charge during their break reported higher levels of well-being.
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Lack of control over one’s circumstances is a well-known contributor to stress, Soojung-Kim Pang said. Back in the U.K., a seminal study of civil servants found that ministers and others at the top of the pecking order exhibit lower stress and higher well-being than their subordinates despite jobs that carry far more responsibility, he added.
That’s another reason why he advises tempering your ambitions when it comes to vacation activities. Try to do too many things and you may be setting yourself up for failure, he reckons, especially when you’re operating outside your habitual environment. A misunderstanding when using a foreign language or a train that’s not on schedule can thwart your plans, which does not feel like being in charge.
Another tip about control: unplug from work, if you can, or at least decide when to make yourself available. “Getting in touch with the office at a time that suits you is much better than an unexpected call during family dinner,” writes de Bloom.
All this is good news for those without a budget for lavish gateways. After all, a carefully planned staycation that includes both fun new activities and evenings spent reading on the couch can be just as relaxing as the fanciest of Caribbean vacations
As long as you use your time wisely, you don’t have to spend a whack of cash to get all the rest you need.