Ahhh, vacation. It can be a time to catch up on sleep, rebuild mental and emotional reserves, and remind remind yourself that there's more to who you are than being a hard worker. It might feel frivolous, but it's anything but. “In order to be creative, think strategically and create balance in our lives we need to disconnect from our day to day activities," Penny Zenker, a life coach, told The New York Times.

But it's also really easy to get vacation wrong, especially if you grew up in a family that didn't take vacations, can't afford to take time off, or have worked for years in the gig economy where the idea of a vacation is a pipe dream.

But even for those who are provided with vacation time through their employment, a surprising number of vacation days aren't taken each year by American workers. According to Project: Time Off's report "State of American Vacations 2018," "A majority of Americans (52 percent) left vacation time unused in 2017 (down from 54 percent in 2016). Further, nearly a quarter (24 percent) of Americans have not taken a vacation in more than a year."

How can you keep from being that kind of statistic? These three key ideas will help you use your vacation time wisely.

Plan ahead

Family photos are just as important as wildlife photos while on a vacation. If you plan ahead for your vacation, you can make memories that will last a lifetime, and visit places you've only seen in pictures. (Photo: Alliance/Shutterstock)

It's easy to put off planning your time off, finding yourself with unused days at the end of the year. So, pick a day and time to coordinate with friends and family if you need to, and choose some dates throughout the year to use your time off. Bring them to your boss or supervisor and get them approved well in advance.

This kind of planning has a few advantages. First, it will allow you to find less-expensive flights, train tickets or car rentals if you want to travel during your vacation. It will also allow you to pay for your trip over time, which can mean the difference between taking a trip and staying home. Here's what I mean. If it's February and you plan a vacation for August, you can buy your transportation tickets now. Then in March or April, you can put a deposit down or pay for accommodations. Then you can use May and June to put money aside for the food and activities costs. By August, you will be able to take your time off with a minimal financial crunch since you spread the costs out over many months.

The other huge advantage of planning ahead is that your boss and coworkers will have plenty of time to plan around your absence. You can make it easier on yourself and those you work with by planning months in advance. And you won't return to such a huge pile of work when you come back from time away from your workplace.

Don't try to do everything

woman looking at a map while crossing a bridge on vacation Getting lost is part of traveling, and leaving plenty of time in your vacation days will enable you to figure out your own way back to the hotel without stressing about a schedule. (Photo: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

Once the major feature of a vacation is planned out — where and when you're going, transportation, accommodations, and picking up any special item you might need (new hiking boots or a bathing suit), sit back and take stock. It's easy to hyper-plan a trip, but part of the reason you're going away is to, well, get away from your regular life, which for most of us has all kinds of artificial stops and starts. We wake when we do to get to work on time, or eat lunch so we can catch up with a coworker.

Your time off might include some activities, but experts say stick to one a day. That gives you something to focus the day around, but will also leave you with empty hours to fill with whatever opportunities might be presented to you — trying a wine tasting at a winery you've stumbled across, a meal with a new friend, or just a long wander through a new city. Sitting at a cafe in Paris, writing postcards to friends at home describing where I was and what I was doing was one of the more memorable parts of exploring the City of Lights for me. People-watching in a new culture is an activity of sorts, and slowing down so you can take in a new place will build richer memories.

Overplanning and trying to see "everything" will result in long, stressful days. Keep it simple and allow yourself to live in the moment during your time off and it will help you reap the rewards you hope for from vacation.

The staycation is still a thing

Vancouver has set aside walking lanes in parks and in other areas around the city. Staying in your own city during a vacation means you get to experience it the way tourists do. (Photo: Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock)

If you don't want to use your time off to travel, don't. This is a reason many people don't take all their days off: They might take vacation days to travel but have another week off coming to them, and can't swing another trip financially. So they just don't take the days.

Whatever the reason, if you plan your time off in advance, don't forget that this is your time to do with as you would like. That might involve sleeping in, doing a home-improvement project, binge-watching movies on your couch, cooking elaborate meals or anything else your heart desires.

A staycation can feel more like a vacation if you treat your local area as a place to explore. Planning some days around interesting local activities or sights that you wouldn't normally have time for can be fun and give you a new perspective on where you live. Think about where you'd go if you were a tourist to your city or town, or where you might bring visitors — then go there yourself.

Getting away from work for a week or more might seem like a hassle, but if you plan ahead, you can spread the organizational tasks out over time — and it has undeniable rewards. According to Project: Time Off, "Americans taking all or most of their vacation days to travel—or mega-travelers—report dramatically higher rates of happiness than those using little to none of their time for travel."

"Dramatically higher rates of happiness" sounds like a great reason to prioritize using all your vacation days this year, don't you think?

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

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