May 26, 2023

The art and science of the perfect vacation length

It’s a big vacation week in America. Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer, and millions of Americans are on the road right now, myself included.

America doesn’t do vacationing great. Even with the recent addition of Juneteenth, we only have 11 federal holidays. Slovakia has 15. Argentina has 19. Nepal has 35.

It gets worse when we look at mandatory paid vacation days legislated by our industrialized peers. On top of holidays, the tiny city-state of Andorra requires 31 days of leave. But bigger nations are up there, too: Algeria, Peru, and the UAE all require 30. India and France, 25. Indeed, the United States is the only large nation with no mandatory leave – joined only by Micronesia, Kiribati, and a couple of other small island nations at the bottom of the list.

We should have more holidays and more (or at least any) paid leave. That being said, I’d argue that we could use what we do have better. Both science and my personal opinion say that we should prioritize two types of trips:

  • 3-4 night trips
  • 8-9 night trips

Short trips

Vacations of 3-4 nights are the most accessible form of holiday, possible to do over a long weekend with minimal lifestyle disruption. And thus, this is the most popular length of American trip, accounting for 27% of all vacations.

Lifestyle disruption is both a feature and a bug of vacations. In a way, that’s the whole point of travel: to do, see, eat, and drink something new. But too much disruption can quickly negate the positive effects of a break.

Researchers Jessica de Bloom, Sabine A. E. Geurts, and Michiel A.J. Kompier investigated the health and well-being effects (”H&W” as they abbreviated it) of short trips and found that these trips positively influenced both. Here are some of the notable takeaways:

  • The more time vacationers spend talking with their partner, the better the H&W effects. More importantly, the additional time led to higher quality conversations, which gave the biggest, longest-lasting positive H&W effect from travel.
  • Negative incidents dinged H&W while the vacation was happening but turned out to have no effect later just ten days after returning.
  • Physical activity, social activities, and passive activities (reading a book, watching TV) were all enjoyed during the vacation but didn’t have significant long-lasting effects on H&W.
  • The most significant and most enduring negative influence on H&W: work. If you spend your time working during vacation, you may as well have not gone on one.

Interestingly, across all of this, the results of their study indicated that “changes across time did not depend on the duration of vacation.” It would be better for our H&W to take shorter but more frequent trips than to save our paltry vacation days for one big blowout.

My personal argument dovetails with this: if you can swing it, it’s more fun to take a bunch of short trips than to put all your happiness eggs in one basket. One night isn’t a trip; it’s crashing. Two nights give you one real day. But three or four nights gives you two or three full days, enough time to get a firm sense of a new city or to finish reading a couple of novels on the beach.

And you can do all of that without blowing up your day-to-day life, which brings us to the second perfect trip length.

Long trips

It’s hard to justify the carbon or the cash to fly across an ocean for a weekend trip. Instead, I’d argue that the perfect longer vacation lasts eight or nine nights – a weekend, a week, and another weekend.

My European friends, who frequently travel for two, three, or more weeks at a time, think that calling this a “long” trip is blasphemy. But this slightly-shorter length gives us the best balance between immersion and disruption.

With nine days, you can fly to a new country, stop in two or three places, and return to daily life without feeling like you woke up from a coma. Dealing with one week of piled-up emails is manageable. Coping with a month’s backlog might as well be starting a new job.

The same researchers who ran the study above published another paper where they found that H&W peaked on the eighth day of vacation. An eight or nine-night trip allows you to leave on a high note and maybe even get back home with time to unpack before confronting the work-week reality.

This happiness trend fits in nicely with what’s known as the “peak-end rule,” which describes how we tend to remember experiences: at their most intense moments, and at the end. For example, thinking back on high school, we might remember a big football game and then graduation. Remembering a movie, we recall the big action scene in act two, and then the twist ending in the final moments. On our trips, we’re predisposed to remember the bungee jumping on day four, and then the big meal we had on our last night.

If we wrap our trip while we’re feeling great, we’ll remember it fondly. And on that note, I’ll also wrap this article on a high note. Go explore.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, has a book coming out this fall, and works with some cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my book, it's coming out this fall.

Read Next

Got it. You're on the list. 🍻
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Ben Guttmann
Copyright Ben Guttmann
Privacy Policy