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Use Your Damn Paid Time Off

Let me preface this article by saying that it is a huge privilege to have paid time off (PTO) at all. Many people work low-wage or hourly jobs where they don’t; that is terrible in its own right, but that’s a post for another day.

But for Americans who are lucky enough to have jobs that offer paid time off, many of them don’t take it. According to “An Assessment of Paid Time Off in the U.S.” a study commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association, and completed by Oxford Economics., as many as 40% of Americans who have PTO took zero – that’s right, zero – vacation days in 2013, leaving a total of 429 million unused days for U.S. workers.

For many people, it might be that they can’t afford a vacation. But let’s put aside the idea that time off work necessarily equals going on a “vacation” where one travels away from home. People can easily take a staycation, as I’ve written before, and utilize PTO to take a much needed break from work without upending their budgets. Or even take a random day off here and there because they just need a break, which I like to call “Mental Health Days.” But they still don’t.

We can speculate as to why this happens. Maybe it’s a fear of coming back to a mountain of work. Maybe it’s reluctance due to a corporate culture that looks down on taking vacation days (despite company proclamations that they “care” about work/life balance). The U.S. Travel Association study noted that nearly 34 percent of employees surveyed indicated that their employer neither encouraged nor discouraged leave, but 17 percent of managers considered employees who take all of their leave to be less dedicated employees.  Or perhaps Americans want to be martyrs who wear “busy” like a badge of honor, and taking time off is seen as lazy. For some, according to the study, their heavy workload simply prevents them from taking time off. I’m sure the reasons are varied.

But numerous studies have demonstrated that using PTO stimulates the economy, and is better for worker productivity and well-being. I won’t get into the economic benefits of taking PTO since I’m not an economics expert, though a simple google search will lead you to many studies showing that to be the case. Let’s focus on the two things that affect the worker as an individual: productivity and health.

As for productivity, we all tend to labor under the misapprehension that more hours working means more work accomplished. In fact, the evidence demonstrates the complete opposite: to be an effective worker, don’t work too much.

Back in the 1920’s, car manufacturer extraordinaire Henry Ford did something revolutionary for the time. He decreased his employees’ work weeks from 6 days to 5 days, decreasing their working hours from 48 to 40. Ford did this after realizing that employee productivity dropped significantly after 40 hours, and they could accomplish just as much in 5 days of work as they could in 6. Now, this might seem like a liberal policy approach, but this was motivated purely by profit.

That being said, Ford was onto something. Numerous studies show that weekly productivity diminishes past the 40 hour mark, and pretty much cliff-dives once you get past 50 hours. We aren’t meant to sustain a constant or extended output of mental energy; we can push hard for a certain period of time, but then need to recharge.   Take working overtime, for instance. While an overtime push usually creates a large output of work in the short term, it’s almost always followed by a “hangover” period for several days afterward, where productivity decreases significantly. And working more than 50 hours a week does not generally increase productivity, either. Any of us who have pulled all-nighters at the office or worked 60, 70, or 80 hour weeks can attest to this. It makes more sense to work reasonable hours week to week, which facilitates routinely high output, than to crank out overtime and suffer from peaks and valleys in productivity.

Not only does productivity increase with mental breaks, but the quality of the work is better. This study demonstrated that brief mental respites from work results in better quality of work with fewer mistakes. Trying to sustain a constant stream of attention without interruption causes a depletion of mental resources over time. To put it another way: burn out leads to crappy work product.

Taking this past the arguments for shorter work weeks and the occasional day of rest, what about prolonged absences, like week-long vacations? Wouldn’t that automatically result in less productivity since you’re away from work for extended periods of time? The short answer is no. The longer answer is nope.

Extended breaks may, in the short term, result in slightly decreased productivity for the time you are away, but they more than make up for it in better job performance overall. We tend to be more motivated and less likely to make mistakes when we take vacation time. So while our work output might decrease while we’re gone, we come back to work raring to go, producing more, performing work more accurately, and feeling better about it.

Which brings me to the next benefit of taking PTO: your health. Studies show that taking extended breaks from work, whether you travel somewhere or simply stay home and relax, decreases stress.  Constant high stress levels can lead to higher blood pressure, an increase in harmful stress hormones, weight gain, and depression, all of which also cost money to treat. Taking vacation also increases your energy, and can even lead to a healthier heart and longer life. 

Although it’s inevitable that stress will return once you get back to “real life,” the health benefits of taking vacation are still considerable.  Europeans seem to have this figured out, as vacation time is codified into law.

So, take your PTO if you have it. Do it for both your work performance as well as your sanity. And if you’re not going to, give me some of those 429 million unused days, people, and I’ll find something to do with them.

 

 

 

 

 

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Travel Hack: Hidden City Ticketing

This is a somewhat lesser known travel hack that many travelers either aren’t aware of or have never used.  I’ve only done this once, a couple of years ago, and as I’ll explain later, it was because I had some miles to burn and I happened upon it by accident.

Hidden City Ticketing is best illustrated through example. Let’s say you need to book a last minute trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, but a one-way ticket is $350. But, you see there’s a one-way ticket to Washington DC with a layover in Charlotte that is only $225. You would book the ticket to DC, but ditch the second leg of your trip. You end up with a ticket that is $125 cheaper, which is a substantial savings.

That’s the gist. Obviously, there’s some “fine print” to keep in mind.

This hack does not work for round-trip tickets, because for all airlines, if you miss one leg of your trip, the rest of your reservation is automatically cancelled. So, understand that you’ll have to buy two one-ways or use miles to book the return leg if that’s what you need (which is what I did the only time I’ve ever done this.) You also cannot check a bag, since your checked bag will be sent through to the final destination, not where you’re skipping off. Also, there’s always the slim chance that your flight could get re-routed through a different destination, though in all my years of flying, such a thing has only ever happened to me once and it was a change from Chicago Midway to O’Hare, so it wouldn’t have made any difference if you were planning on ditching the second half of your flight.

I suppose you could try to do the same hidden city hack for your return trip, but airlines can absolutely catch onto this, and they really don’t like it. It violates most airlines’ ticketing policies. For that reason, don’t include your frequent flyer number when booking; I’ve read stories about airlines revoking passengers’ miles for abusing the practice. Legally, it’s a bit of a grey area. Airline ticketing rules don’t exactly have the force of law, so while the airline could ding you by revoking miles or possibly not allowing you to fly with them anymore, their penalties are pretty limited in scope. I read recently about British Airways cracking down on this, too. So this is a “Do at your own risk” kind of thing.

Finding these kinds of flights is not for those who are uncomfortable doing a lot of research and using advanced search methods on the internet. I happened across my hack by accident because I had seen something on Twitter advertising one-stop flights that happened to have a layover at my destination for a very cheap price.

But if you want to actually search a hidden-city ticket yourself, the best way to do it is by using this flight matrix. A quick how-to (here is a list of airport codes, which you’ll need for this hack):

  • Click on “One-way” then put in your originating airport.
  • Right under “Destination” click on “Advanced Routing Codes” which will open up another search space.
  • In the “Destination” space, put a few airports that might logically have layovers at your intended destination (you wouldn’t put SFO if you’re trying to go to New York from Texas, for example), and are otherwise major hubs (think LAX, ATL, SFO, and the like).
  • Then, in the “Enter outbound routing code” space, put x:[airport code of your actual destination].
  • Fill in your departure date and run the search; it will bring up all the flights to your listed destinations that have stops in your desired destination.

There is also a site called Skiplagged that can run these kinds of searches for you, though I’ve never used it myself so I’m not sure how easy or user friendly it is. United Airlines actually sued Skiplagged for this and lost, so round 1 goes to us cheapskate travelers!

I just did a search using the flight matrix and put in Charlotte as my actual destination, with flights to LaGuardia, Newark, JFK, Washington Reagan, and Philadelphia as my “intended destination”. It turned up a $117 one way ticket to Washington Reagan. A one way flight to Charlotte on Kayak was a $162 ticket, and a round trip ticket to Charlotte beginning on the same date and coming back a week later was $256.  Assuming you had miles for the return ticket or your return date had cheaper one way ticket prices than the ticket out there, it might be a worthwhile savings.   If you were to do something similar over  holiday weekend or during a busy flying time, you might get even larger savings.

Again, this is a lot of research and it doesn’t always yield flights that are cheaper enough to warrant doing it. So use other flight search methods before going this route. I think this method probably only comes in handy if you are extremely strapped for cash, where a $50 or so difference really matters, or if you are booking a very last-minute flight to a major hub city, since ticket prices to these destinations do fluctuate regularly and a last minute ticket could be extremely expensive. Ticket prices to smaller airports tend to have less fluctuation in ticket price, so the savings might not be as great if you’re trying to go to one of these smaller airports.

 

 

*Shout out to my BFF Melanie Donahue, who is the pinchiest of the penny pinchers, and inspires me to attempt budget hacks on the regular.

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How to Survive a Long Flight

People are always surprised when I tell them that I hate flying. HATE. Despise. Loathe. Detest. I travel all the time, so people tend to assume it doesn’t bother me. But I have really bad anxiety, and being stuck on an airplane, even for just a few hours, tends to exacerbate it. Turbulence scares the ever-loving shit out of me, and I can usually be found clutching the armrest, white-knuckled, praying for the smooth air to return. I’m not above popping a Valium and/or drinking a whiskey on the rocks  to settle my nerves on a long flight.

Obviously my first tip for surviving long flights is to be rich and fly first class. If that’s not possible, as is the case for me, I’ve figured out some decent ways to quell anxiety and make international flights slightly more comfortable.

Dress Comfortably. Sorry but I don’t believe in dressing “nice” for a long flight. Seriously, who wants to be smooshed into a plane with hundreds of other people wearing uncomfortable clothes? Yoga pants and Northface Fleece or bust. I also always bring a pashmina, since it’s easy to throw around your neck and can double as a blanket to accommodate the sub-zero temperatures on flights.

Drink.   As in, have a drink at the airport. I always have a pre-flight beer or glass of wine. It calms the nerves and makes dealing with the people who line up at the gate 20 minutes before boarding begins much more bearable. I typically also get a drink when the first beverage service comes around, as it takes the edge off. Pro-tip: it’s easier to get drunk on planes because of the slightly lower oxygen levels so be careful and don’t overdo it, or you’ll wake up hungover on the plane, which is the second worst place to wake up hungover (the NYC subway is number one).

Bring snacks. Do not make yourself hangry on top of being stuck in a tin can hurtling through the atmosphere. Also the last thing you want is your blood sugar crashing because you haven’t eaten enough. You can bring food through security so long as it isn’t liquid, so take advantage, since snacks at the airport and on the plane are offensively expensive. I typically bring almonds, dried fruit, beef jerky, and Lara Bars (bonus: I usually have stuff left over for the first couple days of my trip). Try to stick with healthy stuff that won’t upset your stomach. Make sure you’re eating an appropriate amount; sometimes I have to force myself because my anxiety diminishes my appetite, but you really don’t want low blood sugar on a flight.

Hydrate. And not just on the flight. The couple days leading up to your trip, drink extra water so you’re going in fully hydrated. If you bring your own water bottle (make sure it’s empty when you go through security), the flight attendants will fill it up for you no problem- it’s easier than having to constantly bring you water. I typically bring a large one and refill it once every 2 hours, because flights more than a few hours can leave you very dehydrated due to the pressurized air being pumped into the cabin. Dehydration can lead to headache, fatigue, and a general feeling of shittiness, so drink more than you think you should. That is actually why I always get aisle seats, even on long flights; I pee constantly due to chugging extra water.

Eye Mask, Ear Plugs and Neck Pillow.  I didn’t used to travel with these when I was younger, but now that I’m past that “I can sleep anywhere!” phase, I need dark and quiet if I’m going to snooze, and god help my neck if I don’t have a proper neck pillow. Most people will have their overhead light off on overnight flights, but there’s always that one asshole who stays up reading the latest James Patterson novel, so best to bring the mask just in case. The ear plugs might not be necessary if you’re someone who can sleep through noise, but I always travel with them anyway in case the hotel is noisy, so I use them if I’m not listening to music. As for the pillow, invest in a really good one, because it’s so worth it. Here’s a great list. 

Melatonin. I find this is the best sleep aid for me. It’s gentle, natural, and doesn’t leave me waking up wondering who and where I am (like the unfortunate Ambien episode of 2007). I definitely recommend giving it a shot, but Tylenol PM or any other sleep aid that works for you should do the trick.

Entertainment. Many long flights, especially international ones, have some sort of entertainment for each seat. If I can’t sleep, I watch a shit ton of TV or movies. But bring your own entertainment just in case; on two flights I’ve been on, my entertainment console didn’t work and it was a full flight, so there was nothing they could do. Luckily I had 2 seasons of The Good Wife downloaded and a bunch of old Star Trek: TNG episodes, so I was set. Plan ahead and download some TV shows, movies, or books, so you have some options. It’ll make the time go by way faster.

Move Around. The worst thing you can do on a long flight is stay seated the whole time. I usually grab aisle seats precisely so I can get up anytime I want. I’ve been known to do yoga in my seat, or head to the back of the plane to do standing yoga sequences; I’ve even led a mini yoga session for a few flight attendants. Here is a link for a great plane yoga sequence that I highly recommend the next time you’re on a flight more than a few hours. If you don’t want to do plane yoga, at least walk around every couple of hours. It’ll keep the blood flowing and reduce swelling, as well as your risk of developing a blood clot. I also regularly spell the alphabet with my feet, as mine tend to get sore and swollen on long flights.

Chapstick, Lotion and Socks. Dry lips and hands make me so uncomfortable, as do cold feet, so I always bring these items. The air on planes dries everything out, so next to belly-flopping into a vat of vaseline, this is the next best thing. You don’t want to deal with dry, cracked lips heading into your vacation. Also don’t put your bare feet on the airplane floor, who knows what’s been there. I typically bring a pair of thick socks with those little rubber dots on the bottom, so I can walk around in them. I also always bring an extra pair of socks just in case.

Meditate. Partly due to my anxiety and partly because it’s just a great thing to do, I keep several short meditation podcasts on my phone. Whenever I’m getting antsy or anxious, I listen to one.  Meditation Oasis on iTunes has some great free ones, ranging from 7 minute relaxation sequences to 20 minute sleep meditations. I promise it works. These have kept me from having full-fledged anxiety attacks on flights before.

And finally…..just think about all the cool stuff you’re about to do. Sometimes, no matter what, you just want to get off the damn plane. When that feeling hits, start mentally ticking off all the fun things you want to do on your trip and revel in the excitement of travel. That’s why you’re putting yourself through the hell of flying in the first place.

 

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Tips for a Great Staycation

Sometimes it’s impossible to get away for a few days, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t escape your life for a little while. In my experience, we tend to overlook the great things our home cities have to offer as we maneuver regular and demanding responsibilities. If you’re in need of a break from the responsibilities of everyday life, a staycation might be your answer. One thing I’ve learned from being sidelined from travel for a while is that it’s not so much the destination that makes for an escape, but just getting away from your normal routine.

You can take a long weekend, or even just a regular weekend, and turn it into a mini-escape by availing yourself of all the cool stuff around you that maybe you’ve seen and wanted to check out, or that you’ve never even heard of.  When I lived in NYC, I tried to make as many weekends as possible a “staycation” and since moving back to Dallas, I’ve done the same thing. Here are a few tips I’ve come up with over the years:

1. Treat Yo Self.

A staycation shouldn’t break your bank (otherwise what’s the point), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t Treat Yo Self. Take your cue from Tom Haverford and Donna Meagle and commit to doing at least one thing that’s considered a splurge. Maybe it’s a nice dinner at a restaurant you’ve always wanted to try or a few hours at a spa, or maybe you spend one night at a B&B nearby. Just do something nice for yourself. It’s your vacation!

2. Forget your home and work responsibilities. 

If you were on vacation, you wouldn’t be doing laundry or scrubbing the bathtub, right? Follow the same rules on your staycation. Let the house get a little messy. There may be some things you can’t ignore (like pool maintenance, picking up after kids, taking care of pets, etc.), but try to at least forego some of the housework duties that can wait a few days.

As for work, if you were on vacation, you probably wouldn’t be answering emails or checking your voicemail. Follow that same rule on your staycation. Unless it’s a life or death situation, I promise that whatever needs your attention can wait. Set an out-of-office reply that says you will not have access to email or voicemail for the duration of your staycation, just as you would if you were leaving town.

3. Try new things.

It may be tempting to do stuff you always do, like swimming or your local park. But try to mix it up for your staycation.  Check the internet for fun, out of the ordinary things going on in your city; movie screenings or concerts at local parks, farmer’s markets, wine tastings, mini golf, museum exhibits….the list is endless! If it’s the holidays or Summer, there should be lots of things going on. You just have to commit to doing some digging a few weeks in advance.  Mashable has a great list of several apps you can use to find events near you. You can also visit Eventful, which lets you search for events by category and dates, or utilize local city guides or magazines. Also, tap into friends and family as a resource. They might have great suggestions!

4. Make plans.

When you go on vacation, you probably at least have a loose itinerary; do the same thing for your staycation. Decide ahead of time the activities you want to do, so that you don’t end up falling back on your “normal” routine. This doesn’t mean you need to plan out every second, but having a set idea of what you will do each day will make it more likely that you’ll branch out. Plus, it’s easier to keep track of your spending if you know how much cash you’ll be shelling out ahead of time; a staycation is supposed to be a cheaper alternative to a vacation, after all.

5.  Search for deals.

I’ve issued caution about Groupon Getaway deals in past posts, but for a staycation, Groupon or similar sites like LivingSocial have great activity deals that can both save you some money and give you ideas of activities you might not have thought to do. Go-karts, small museum tours, flying lessons, kayaking, brewery tours….the list is endless. Groupon has a “Things to Do” category specifically for this purpose.  This can save you money and give you ideas, so it’s a win-win.

 

My final tip: RELAX! It might be tempting to let the everyday stresses of life affect you since you’re still technically “at home,” but try to resist the urge. Give yourself a break – you deserve it.

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What is Ecotourism?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “ecotourism” thrown around before, or you may have heard it referred to as “sustainable travel.” These phrases are certainly catchy, but what do they really mean?

It can be hard to define ecotourism, but in general, ecotourism means a type of travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism will:

  • Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts.
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
  • Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
  • Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates.
  • Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.
  • Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.

That’s a tall order, no doubt, but in reality many travel experiences can easily promote most or all of these ideals.

In my research, however, I found that many companies promote their trips or tours as being “eco-friendly,” which may be true, but eco-friendly is not the same thing as ecotourism. Rafting down the Amazon is not ecotourism, unless doing so somehow benefits its conservation or local residents, or is focused on environmental awareness of the region.

The Pros of Ecotourism

Ecotourism, if done correctly and conscientiously, can do a lot for both the environment and local communities. It directs attention and money into conservation of important natural habitats that might otherwise be overlooked, or worse, overrun with big businesses looking to make a quick buck by exploitation of environments rich in resources or with the potential to generate high profits. It provides supplemental income to local populations as they get involved in ecotourism endeavors, and keeps that money local. And in the best of scenarios, interactions between visitors and local indigenous people can provide a better understanding of cultural ideas and differences.

The Cons of Ecotourism

Some environmentalists believe that certain parts of the world should be “No Visitor” zones, as tourism can and does upset the delicate ecosystems of the area (many environmentalists feel this way about tourism to Antarctica, which has seen a huge rise over the last several years). Ecotourism can, even when incredible care is taken, displace indigenous peoples from their land as those areas become preserved for ecotourism; this has been an issue in various African countries, as people are forced off their land as National Parks are created for the booming Safari industry.

The concerns about potential negative effects of ecotourism are legitimate, and there are mixed opinions about Ecotourism, understandably so. But personally I look at it this way: People are not going to stop traveling. It benefits everyone, and the environment, to promote a type of travel that protects the environment, minimizes our carbon footprints, benefits local communities, and promotes biodiversity.  But as a traveling community, we should carefully work together to make sure that the cons of ecotourism don’t overtake the pros, and be conscientious of whether our travels truly promote ecotourism ideals.