The ideal vacation length for peak relaxation, according to experts

And tips for making the most of your time away

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Somewhere between a 48-hour Las Vegas bender and a nine-month world cruise lies an optimal number of vacation days.

In a 2012 study making the rounds again, researchers concluded that a traveler’s health and well-being peaks on the eighth day of a holiday. So for the greatest returns on your trip, should you hard-stop after a week?

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Unlike the time we devote to exercise and screens, we do not have much guidance on how much vacation time we need to fully decompress and detach from our daily labours. While our annual vacation allotment and travel budget are key determinants, there is no algorithm yet to help us calculate the number of days necessary for a reset. So much depends on our personal travel preferences and our individual ability to switch from work to vacation mode and back.

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“Overall, my conclusions are that the optimal vacation duration is (almost) impossible to investigate because you cannot assign people randomly to vacation durations,” Jessica de Bloom, one of the study’s researchers, told The Washington Post. “And even if you could, more factors would vary, such as vacation location, weather, social context, etc.”

In the 2012 study, which was published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, de Bloom and her colleagues determined that participants’ wellness levels rose early but crested after a week away. They also concluded that vacation length (for the study, the average duration was a very European 23 days) and most vacation activities (except “passive” ones) were only “weakly associated” with health improvements during and after their trips.

“We could see a peak on the eighth day,” said de Bloom, a professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, “but that does not imply that this would be the optimal vacation length.”

When asked about the golden number of days off, Ondrej Mitas, a researcher and senior lecturer at Breda University of Applied Sciences, also demurred. “It’s tremendously difficult to measure,” he said by phone from the Netherlands. However, he did set some parameters in the otherwise open field: Avoid vacations that are too short or too long.

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So much depends on our individual ability to switch from work to vacation mode and back. Photo by Getty Images

On too-brief vacations, he said travellers might not be able to disengage from work, physically recover from life’s daily stresses or truly reconnect with loved ones. On lengthier trips, the vacationer might fall into a routine as the novelty of travel starts to wane. (Many people embrace familiarity, returning to the same destination year after year, or stay put long enough to become part of the community.)

One piece of advice that is especially pertinent at the top of a new year of vacation planning: We should take several shorter vacations throughout the year instead of blowing all of our leave on one epic trip. According to such experts as Mitas and de Bloom, the multi-vacation plan can keep your spirits up.

“We see relationships between frequency of vacation and happiness or well-being,” Mitas said. “So all else being equal, you should take more vacations.”

The case for a week-long vacation

While a traditional or baker’s week – seven days, plus one – might not be a magic number for everyone, it could be for workers accustomed to punching the clock Monday through Friday.

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Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, explained that most people are conditioned to operate in seven-day increments. For those of us who faithfully work weekdays, a week-long vacation feels appropriate and acceptable.

“We think in units, and a week is one of those units,” she said. “When you pick an eight-day vacation, you have replaced one unit of work with one unit of relaxation, plus a day to get there.”

Susan Whitbourne, a professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said taking three or four days off could feel too rushed and stressful, especially if you are trying to pack a lot into a limited amount of time. Then, just when you fall into the rhythm of the trip, you have to head home.

Seven days, however, seems just right.

“Ideally, you want time to unwind and then rewind when it’s time to go,” she said. “There’s something about seven days that feels logical.”

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To make the most of your time away, tie up any loose ends before you depart. Photo by Getty Images

Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time-management coach and author, said cultural norms can shape our perception of how much vacation we can reasonably take.

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“In American culture, if you take more than a week off of work, you can start to feel quite a bit of pressure that you’re going to come back to emails, projects and other things like that,” Saunders said. “Depending on where you’re at in your career, people might also wonder if you are really serious about your career.” (By comparison, France grants 30 days of annual leave, plus nearly a dozen public holidays.)

The five-day rule

When assembling trips for her clients, Denise Ambrusko-Maida, a travel adviser and founder of Brilliant Travel in Buffalo, focuses on the number five. She will recommend at least five days on the ground for trips that require no more than a day of travel on both ends. For long-haul trips, she suggests 10 days, plus travel days.

“If truly feeling like you’ve been on a vacation is important, then the five-day rule of not transiting is right,” she said. “And, depending on the trip, that can stretch out to more days if you’re moving from location to location.”

Ambrusko-Maida said the type of getaway – “trip” or “vacation” – can also determine the length of time. She defines a vacation as complete relaxation with no pressure to make any decisions, plus total relinquishment of “all of the things that we have to do every day.” A trip is more like a scavenger hunt, with no rest allowed till you’ve crossed off every attraction and activity on your list. Her whirlwind weekend to Disney World falls into the latter category.

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“It was fast and furious, but it was still a great time,” she said. “But we never felt relaxed.”

Ambrusko-Maida said she will often plan hybrid vacation-trips that might require additional days. In Costa Rica, she may send clients to the Arenal volcano or Monteverde cloud forest, where they can hike, raft and zip-line. Then, as a coda, she will book them three days in Tamarindo or Guanacaste, so they can unwind at the beach. In Italy, she will combine the frenzied cities of, say, Florence and Rome with a slower final leg in Sardinia or Sicily.

“They can decompress by the water after they have completed all of their checklists and sightseeing,” she said. “They can have a few days to relax, reflect and sleep in before they head home.”

Making the most of your time away

Einstein might have believed time is relative, but your HR department does not. Vacation time is real and finite, but you can learn to stretch it, mentally speaking.

To make the most of your time away, tie up any loose ends before you depart. Immordino-Yang recommends a strategy often used to ensure restful sleep. She said to write down all of the projects and errands you need to complete before you leave.

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“Manage your mind so that you really can use the time you have to refresh and not worry about the stuff you left behind and the stuff that’s coming next that isn’t relevant to the right here, right now,” she said.

Throughout your trip, practice mindfulness. Focus on your surroundings, experiences and travel companions. Don’t let your mind run amok with thoughts of future meetings, home repairs and doctors appointments. Mitas said meditation experts can reel their minds back to the present, a skill that vacationers can use to enrich their trips.

“That’s what vacationing does, because it’s new and different from our daily lives,” said Mitas, who hosts a YouTube and podcast series called “The Science of Traveling Well.” “You can manipulate your brain’s automatic response to anything that’s new by paying attention to it.”

Though you will want to squeeze every last minute out of your vacation time, Saunders recommends building in a free day before you have to return to work. With the extra time, you can catch up on laundry, grocery shopping and your inbox.

“It helps to get back to centre and come forward from a kind of place of strength versus if you hit the ground running the first day,” she said. “You can feel perpetually behind, sometimes for weeks.”

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In the 2012 study, the researchers determined that improvements to the subjects’ health and well-being vanished within the first week of their return to work. To preserve your vacation high, Saunders recommends integrating your favourite vacation pastimes into your everyday routine. If you typically spend your holidays by the water, squeeze in a post-work dip in a nearby lake. Introduce the flavours you tasted while traveling into your meal plan. Read a book by a fireplace with a snifter of bourbon, if that’s what you enjoy.

“Find something unique and fresh and make it a little adventure,” Saunders said. “That can help you add some of the things you loved or appreciated most about being on vacation to your daily life.”

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