American Exceptionalism – The Vacations We Take


When I was in Moab in October, 2012, to ride the White Rim, I drove up to Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park. At the Visitor Center I saw this incredible off-road RV. I’d never seen anything like it before and was really impressed at the Germans who were using it to explore the great American back-country.

IMG_1492I forgot about those Germans and their off-road RV until August, 2014, when Tanya and I were in Bryce Canyon with my sister and her family. We met a German couple, Ilka and Günther, who were traveling the world in their RV, which, although not quite as rugged as the RV I saw in Canyonlands, was still remarkable. They had shipped it from Germany to Canada, driven across Canada and up to Alaska, back down, and around the continental US. If you expand the photo, you can see their route on the map. Their plans were to drive down through Mexico, Central America, and South America, then ship the RV from Chile over to Africa for more exploring.

While we were in Bryce Canyon, we talked with a cashier at the General Store. He told us that the vast majority of visitors were from Germany and France and that Americans were a distinct minority. Which reminded me of all the articles I’ve read about the exceptionally short and exceptionally non-existent paid time off that Americans get.


People in the US take very little vacation compared to much of the world, which is amazing when one considers that this is the wealthiest nation in the world. American exceptionalism –  the only rich country that doesn’t require companies to give paid time off. This despite countless studies which have shown that people are more productive if they have time to rest and de-stress. (Ok, so we have an obsession with and mythology around the virtues of free-market capitalism, red in tooth and claw. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Our culture stresses the idea of making lots of money and buying lots of things, yet studies show that experiences are a far better generator of happiness than possessions. And while the Declaration of Independence states that the pursuit of happiness is an inherent and inalienable right, we have no national paid leave policy to allow people to more easily pursue that happiness.

VacationDaysEven when people do get vacation time, many don’t use it all. Last year, we left 169,000,000 paid vacation days on the table. We were apparently too busy to use them. I suspect that “too busy” is partly a euphemism for “too scared”, because many Americans are afraid that taking vacations means they will be seen as unnecessary, and will thus lose their jobs. A survey by Glassdoor found that “Some 28% of workers told Glassdoor they fear getting behind while they’re sitting on a beach, another 17% actually say they fear losing their job, 19% don’t take all of their days in the hopes that it will give them an edge for a promotion, while 13% are competitive and wanting to outperform colleagues.

crazyOther nations don’t seem to suffer from the same problem as we do. Not only do they get mandatory vacation time, but a lot of cultures provide an environment where there is not the same fear that many American’s live with. As Ann Jones puts it in her article, Is this Country Crazy?, “In Norway, where I live, all citizens also have an equal right to education (state subsidized preschool from age one, and free schools from age six through specialty training or university education and beyond), unemployment benefits, job-placement and paid retraining services, paid parental leave, old age pensions, and more.  These benefits are not merely an emergency ‘safety net’; that is, charitable payments grudgingly bestowed upon the needy.  They are universal: equally available to all citizens as human rights encouraging social harmony.

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 2.04.54 PMAll this is a very long and circuitous way round to saying that I quit my job a year ago precisely so Tanya and I could travel more and see more of the world, although not as intrepidly as those Germans in their big off-road RVs. We’ll be spending a few months in New Zealand, then heading to Europe to spend time in Spain, France, and Italy – and who knows where else. I’ll be blogging about the trip and what we learn on our journey, and will be posting photos on Facebook while we are traveling.

I’m very interested in hearing about other people’s travel experiences and lessons, so if you have any suggestions or ideas for us, please add them as comments to the articles in this blog. In the meantime, stay tuned.

Links and Other Clicks

The American Way over the Nordic Model? Are we crazy? (shorter version) or Is this Country Crazy? (longer version)

Nearly half of Americans didn’t take a vacation day in 2014

Americans get the least paid vacation time in the world

List of statutory minimum employment leave by country

Ilka and Günther on Tour

Buy Experiences, Not Things

Can Money buy You Happiness?

A critique of capitalism, red in tooth and claw

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