The Holiday Time/Vacation/Cost Puzzle

Making the most of it.

Image: andresv

My office closes for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I get five paid days of bonus vacation, plus Monday January 2 for “New Year’s Day — Observed.” It’s a great perk, but I’ve been struggling to take advantage of it.

By using some extra vacation time after the Christmas-New Year’s week, I could travel farther and take a full two-week trip somewhere new. Spending twenty-four hours on a plane to Sydney doesn’t make sense if I only have four days to visit. With a fourteen-day stretch, it works.

Of course, the end of December is a popular travel time. As I browsed through possible destinations, I found that flights consistently cost twice as much as they did in November or even later in January. If I wanted to fly from Detroit to Cartagena for a week in mid-November, flights cost roughly $350. At the end of December, they were closer to $800. A trip to Bangkok cost less than $1,000 in November, but $1400 over New Year’s. As I’ve charted my spreadsheets and adjusted my flight searches, I’ve found myself frustrated by the limits on my time and resources.

I recognize that complaining about free vacation days is a bit like getting a free slice of apple pie and grousing that I’d prefer pumpkin. I am very fortunate to have paid vacation time at all. Still, I haven’t found a good way to balance these inflexible days and my accrued vacation time against the costs. When do I decide that it’s worth it to spend an extra $400 on a flight? When is it okay to pay double because this is the time I have available?

My spreadsheet of options, color-coding system TBD

I try to use my vacation sparingly since it takes time to accrue. In the past year, I’ve taken a few long weekends to visit friends or to travel to weddings. If I decide to save money and take a vacation in January or February, I’ll have five days available. I could take a nine-day trip including weekends, but would still need to consider how far I can go in order to minimize time in transit vs. time at the location.

With these extra days, I feel like I have one piece of the time/cost/vacation puzzle solved and I don’t want to waste it. Even with time and vacation set, I don’t know that I can justify spending nearly twice what I should on flights. I should be more frugal and deny myself until… when? Until everything is just right? Until I’ve earned enough credit card points? Until I have the time and the flights are rock-bottom and no one will miss me at work and my family wouldn’t expect me to visit and on and on?

The alternative to traveling over the break is still good: extra time out of the office reading a pile of library books, cooking meals that simmer on the stove all afternoon, maybe taking a short road trip somewhere close for New Year’s Eve. I’m lucky to have that option.

Part of what holds me back is that paying more for these flights means deciding that I can spend the extra money because I want to. “I want it” has struck me as questionable reasoning since Veruca Salt wanted the whole world in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But after basic necessities, aren’t most of my purchases because I want them? I only need maybe two of the many pairs of shoes I own. Calling them “work shoes” doesn’t make them essential even if it helps me justify buying them.

The same holds true for this vacation. By delaying until flights are cheaper I’m trying to convince myself that it’s okay to spend money on a luxury. I can tell myself that I’m being thoughtful, not frivolous. I would be valuing my image as a careful consumer over my time and desire to take a big trip.

There are always going to be more reasons to delay until conditions are perfect. I’m starting to realize that my time matters to me more than knowingly overpaying for a flight to Athens. It’s okay to want to take a vacation. This is what I saved that time and money for, right?

Laura Chanoux works in higher education administration and packs extra books every time she travels, just in case.

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