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The Wall Street Journal Sunday

The Vacation Dilemma: Short Or Long?

By Jeff D. Opdyke

June 29, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved. 

Is a three-day getaway really enough?

As I mentioned recently, Amy and I spent her birthday in Puerto Rico. The resort was spectacular and Amy loved what was essentially a private, crescent-shaped stretch of sand just steps outside our room. But just as we finally began to slip into vacation was over.

As everybody knows, three-day vacations end way too quickly. Little more than extended weekends, such getaways leave you short of relaxed, and you spend the entire trip home thinking about the junk piled up in the house and at the office.

Yet despite the grousing, we take these trips all the time without ever really thinking about them. Any chance to get away, even if just for a brief burst of time, is exciting when you're tired of living the same old 24 hours every day.

But when you do start thinking about it, you begin to wonder: Are three days away really worth all the unhappiness they can bring?


In the 11 years Amy and I have been married, we have never taken the quintessential vacation -- the full-blown, two-week affair with all the trappings. Our longest trip together was to London and Dublin a couple of years ago, and that lasted all of five days.

Instead, we've become masters of the mini-vacation. We've hit Miami, Boston and New York (before we lived here) for three days each. Montreal and San Diego each consumed two days. St. Lucia and San Francisco got four days apiece. Vancouver was worthy of four as well, then three days on a second occasion.

So why do we do it, if we know it barely makes a dent in our stress levels?

Part of it, for me at least, is the cost. Swallowing the price of a few days away is so much easier than the expense of two weeks on the road, considering hotels, meals, car rentals and -- one of the biggest killers -- kennels.

Partly I've also felt that I just can't get away from my job for more than a few days at a time, a worry Amy is always dismissing as nonsense. And, finally, both of us haven't wanted to be away from our young son for an extended stretch. Until now, he has been a bit too young to ferry around the world on long flights or to haul through museums or places we know he would grow bored with in short order.

So, for us, vacations have been Holiday Lite -- great place, less chilling.

Ron, a colleague, has the same philosophy. He figures that every trip, whatever the length, requires about a 16-hour day before you leave to tie up loose ends. Then, on your first day back, he calculates, you need about two hours to catch up for every day you were gone.

But the reality, he says, works against the short trip. The prep time is the same, he says, but "recovery time is worse for shorter trips, since you feel more compelled to plow through everything awaiting you upon return. Whereas, after a big trip, there's so much awaiting you, you often just throw your hands up and don't do any of it."

Ron's wife, Jodi, also finds there's less stress upon returning from a long vacation -- although for a different reason. She says that when she plans for a long vacation, "I set up some temporary infrastructure while gone" to make sure tasks don't back up. Yet when she steals away for a few days, she says, "I'm much more likely to improvise, and to drift back toward computers and cellphones while we're gone, because I haven't mentally left work long enough to think that I can't just makeit all up on the margins" when she returns.


Not everybody agrees that the short-hop holiday leaves you more stressed out. A friend at work says she and her husband almost never take long vacations because they cost so much, and they've never had that much money to spend at once. Moreover, she wants to save her vacation days so she can be home or visit family during the holidays.

But a confluence of events one year allowed them to spend a month in France, living with friends or in rental homes in the countryside for just $25 a night.

She had a good time -- up to a point. Planning an extended vacation, my friend says, "is always more expensive and complicated than you think." She put in several all-nighters to finish some work in advance, and had to arrange for a house-sitter and a pet-sitter, as well as for somebody to give her cat its daily medication. Making sure bills got paid was another worry. While they were gone, the house-sitter broke the key in the lock, so the pet-sitter couldn't get in.

"It's all very complicated to be gone for a long time," she says. So, for her, the best trips are measured in days, not weeks.

Another colleague takes a different approach to the long vacation/short vacation dilemma: He takes long vacations masquerading as short ones. He'll go someplace with his family for perhaps five days. But he makes sure that the trip getting to the vacation place lasts three or four days, never driving more than a few hours a day to avoid the "are we there yet" syndrome. The same is true on the way back.

In the end, he's gone for almost two weeks, but he thinks it has several advantages over the regular two-week vacation. First, psychologically it feels like it's cheaper, because there's no big one-shot expense for a two-week stay somewhere. Even if it isn't less expensive in the end, it's easier to swallow in the planning stage. Second, he says, "nobody gets bored being in the same place for two weeks. Every day, we find someplace new to go, something new to see."

And finally, he says, "it really does feel like we've gotten away because we've been so many places."


After listening to everybody, Amy and I have decided that the best approach to vacations is the one taken by my friend Alex: She combines short getaways and one blowout trip during the year.

The extended weekends, she says, "provide the va-va-va-voom to your life. It's not relaxing, but it's a nice change of scenery with the person you care about."

But you must take the two weeks, too, she says. "You really can relax then. You can rejuvenate. And the quality time together is quite restorative to your life with each other."

Now, if Amy and I can agree on whether we'll hit New Zealand or Italy first...

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