By Alison Fox
November 10, 2019

A few years ago, while the news cycle was abuzz with one political story after another, Dr. Rebecca Gilbert went on a cruise.

Somewhat cut off from the outside world, her work, and the constant parade of news — she felt nervous. But rather than let guilt creep in, as it often does for so many Americans on vacation, Gilbert made a conscious effort to embrace it.

“I was concerned about it, but it was so nice to not have any means of contacting anybody. The responsibility of checking in was taken away from me,” said Gilbert to Travel + Leisure. “I needed that permission to be able to let go of that. If I had had the capacity, I would have been on my computer at night checking in on what was going on in the world.”

Gilbert, a health educator at Indiana University who specializes in therapeutic recreation, was uniquely qualified to force herself to take a step back. But many Americans can’t shake that feeling of guilt when it comes to using their paid time off. In fact, a majority of Americans — or 55 percent of workers — reported that they did not use all their allotted time off in 2018, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Americans Feel Guilty for Taking Vacation
Credit: Getty Images

David Huether, senior vice president of research at the U.S. Travel Association, told Travel + Leisure that while cost is travel’s biggest barrier, the No. 2 reason why people don’t travel is because people think it’s too hard to get away from work.

“It is true that Americans are hard workers, but it’s also true that there are benefits of taking vacations,” said Huether. “It’s also probably important to show travelers that there is a wide variety of options that they have, a wider array of travel options now than they've ever had … There is a travel destination for every budget.”

Huether added that more than 3/4 of leisure travel in the U.S. is done by car, which should make going on a trip easier. But for many, taking any time off — even for a staycation — inspires an unshakable feeling of guilt.

“The idea that people have to work really, really hard to get where they got, we embrace those kinds of stories ... we certainly preach that,” Edward Hirt, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, specializing in social psychology, told Travel + Leisure. “What you instill in people, that belief system, is the idea [that] if you take a break or you don’t work as hard, other people will work harder than you and will surpass you.”

Dr. Matthew Grawitch, a professor who holds a Ph.D. in psychology at Saint Louis University's School for Professional Studies, told Travel + Leisure that that’s a troubling notion, which sometimes comes from the top-down.

“The reality is, people need time to disconnect, they need time to recharge, they need time to pursue other interests — they can’t just work all the time,” said Grawitch.

“Part of the problem we run into is a lot of people don’t understand how important it is to disconnect,” said Grawitch. “American culture was largely built on the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps ... and that ends up becoming embedded into people's personalities.”

That’s why it was so important for Gilbert to give herself permission to take a break. She noted that if you don’t, the buildup of stress can have physical consequences.

“We need to address the core — that your career is not going to be adversely affected if you leave for a week. People are afraid for their jobs, they don't want to be seen as anything other than indispensable,” said Gilbert. “A less stressed workforce is more productive.”

In addition to stress relief, Gilbert said there are added personal benefits to leaving your everyday life behind and trying something new — something vacations are exceptionally good at facilitating. “We try different lifestyles. We step outside of our ordinary day-to-day life and let ourselves be the person that we choose to be.”

And while you’re away — whether that’s galavanting around European cities, eating your way through chef-approved locations like Tuscany and Kyoto, or taking a moment to unwind on a beach — experts say you have the chance to not only recharge, but to grow.

“You develop a better sense of self. You learn a lot about yourself,” said Gilbert.

And that alone, if you ask us, is reason enough to stop thinking about booking a trip and start getting excited about where you’ll go next.