A Traveler in the Foreign Service: where paid time off is taken seriously

After a long weekend, have you ever thought- ‘if only every work week lasted only four days?’ Flex time and four 10-hour day work weeks are becoming more common, but most of us are still stuck working at least five days a week.

I wouldn’t advise joining the Foreign Service solely because you want more vacation time and travel opportunities, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that these are two of the biggest perks of this career choice. Consider the benefits.

I’m talking long weekends, baby

Most Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) serve between 50-75% of their careers at embassies and consulates overseas where both local and U.S. holidays are observed. This means double the long weekends, or more in some festive locales. There are 10 U.S. federal holidays this year and some countries have even more. For example, the U.S. embassies in Sarajevo, Port of Spain and Port Louis will be closed for a total of 22 holidays in 2012. Bangkok has 21, and in Athens, Lisbon, Colombo, Berlin, Rome and New Delhi there are 20.

The Christmas season is a joy to behold in Orthodox countries thanks to the fact that the Orthodox, bless them, celebrate Christmas in early January. During the five weekend stretch between Christmas and MLK day, embassy employees this year had 4 long weekends.

Obviously many other posts have fewer holidays and in some of the more holiday-crazy countries, the embassy doesn’t actually close for every holiday due to U.S. government restrictions, which are intended to ensure that FSO’s spent at least some time at work each year.

In some fun-loving countries, the government will declare holidays as a spur-of-the-moment treat to boost their popularity. The pretext can sometimes be flimsy- the national handball team placed third in an obscure competition, or perhaps the country’s second favorite poet just croaked and everyone needs an enjoyable long weekend at the beach to grieve. In some developing countries, there may be no pretext at all, just, ‘screw it, we’re not working on Monday.’ But only a truly skillful U.S. Ambassador will find a way to close the embassy for spontaneously declared holidays.Any way you slice it, the benefits are great, but before you rush off to sign up for the Foreign Service Exam, I should mention that congressional delegations (CODELS) are prone to killing FSOs’ long weekends. FSO’s that are posted to places tourists want to visit can count on at least a few CODELS each year during long holiday weekends.

Why? Well, it certainly isn’t because Representative Cletus Bumblescrew and his trophy wife want a junket in Paris during their long weekend. Oh no, it’s because their constituents want them to know much more about the French trade union leaders and opposition politicians they’ll meet in between shopping trips and visits to the Eiffel Tower.

But wait, there’s more

In addition to the holidays, FSO’s get annual leave as well. For those with 3 years government experience or less, it’s 13 workdays per year; employees with 3-15 years service get 20 days; and employees with more than 15 years get 26 workdays per year.

Another nice benefit for the travel addicted is home leave. After the conclusion of each overseas tour, FSO’s get home leave, which accrues at a rate of 15 workdays per year, giving (in theory) FSO’s a very nice 6 week break at the end of a two-year tour and a very sweet 9 week holiday at the conclusion of a 3 year tour. Home leave is actually mandated by Congress and the intention is to hopefully help Americans who might have gone native overseas to re-acquaint themselves with American culture, and spend time with family members.

The State Department pays to send FSO’s and their families back to the U.S., but in reality, there is no one making sure they spend their time eating apple pies, attending baseball games and watching Judge Judy stateside. So if they want to hit Copacabana Beach in Rio, they’re pretty much free to do so. And here’s the really fun part: you can set up your home leave address pretty much wherever you want in the 50 states. FSO’s are supposed to designate an address where they have the most ties, but I know people who simply used the addresses of friends or relatives in Hawaii, because that’s where they wanted to spend their home leave time.

Now Cletus and his wife can’t take away home leave, but an annoying boss can. Many FSO’s don’t end up getting anywhere near as much home leave as they’re entitled to because their next post always wants them to arrive yesterday. Like many things in the Foreign Service, it’s all about how much values their career prospects. An FSO that really values travel and spending time with their family can usually take all or most of their home leave. But if they want the big promotions, they think twice about maxing out on it.

A look at vacation time around the world

In my opinion, FSO’s deserve all the leave time they get. In fact, I find it very odd that even in an election year when politicians promise voters the sun, moon and stars, none seem to advocate more vacation time for Americans. The U.S. is the only industrialized country with no government mandated paid vacation and Americans tend to take fewer vacation days compared to the rest of the world. Here are the statutory minimum vacation requirements in a variety of countries, according to a CNBC report in 2009.

30 days- Finland, Brazil, France
28 days- Russia, Lithuania, United Kingdom
26 days- Poland
25 days- Greece, Denmark, Austria
20 days- Switzerland, New Zealand
19 days- S. Korea
15 days- Taiwan
14 days- Hong Kong, Singapore
12 days- India (thought they have a whopping 16 public holidays)
10 days- Canada, China

Those figures are what’s required by law, but according to a 2009 Expedia survey, some workers taken even more time off. The French average a staggering 38 days; the Brazilians 34; the Swedes 32, the Germans 27; the Australians 19. And the Americans? A paltry 13 days.

With the American economy still a mess, no serious politician is about to propose government mandated vacation time, but I’m not sure that more leisure would hurt the economy. Think about it- when do you spend the most? Certainly not while you’re at work. 70% of the U.S. G.D.P. is based upon consumer spending, so more time off certainly wouldn’t hurt on that score. It’s not likely to happen, so in the meantime, if you want to party like the rest of the world, think about joining the Foreign Service.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via cdedbdme on Flickr.

Americans leave an average of 11 vacation days on the table each year

We’ve spent the past two weekends trying to plan a last-minute pre-holiday getaway and keep coming to the same conclusion … it’s just too busy at the office to take time off right now. Turns out, we’re not alone – a recent Harris Interactive study conducted on behalf of JetBlue Airways found that 57% of working Americans will have unused vacation time at the end of the year, and most of them will leave an average of 11 days on the table – or nearly 70% of their allotted time off.

The survey also showed that while more than 60% of those with vacation days believe they deserve to take their time off, 39% report having reservations about asking their boss for a vacation.

It’s difficult, as numerous studies show that employees who don’t use vacation time have lower levels of productivity and satisfaction with their job, as well as higher rates of health problems.

To assist, JetBlue launched a “Getaways Granter,” a new custom Facebook application that serenades bosses with a custom video request for vacation approval.

“We were surprised to learn that almost a third of American workers feel guilty, nervous or stressed when asking for a day off of work,” said Grant McCarthy, director of JetBlue Getaways. “Whether outdoor wrangling, island hopping, or romantic retreating, JetBlue Getaways wants to help people make the most out of their unused vacation days. We believe people deserve their vacations, so much so that we will go out and ask their boss for them.”

With the new Getaways Granter, JetBlue will take the edge off of requesting vacation days by allowing fans to plug in their desired number of days off before choosing from four destination themes to suit their getaway needs. They can even upload a photo of their supervisor to be featured in the video, crooning bosses everywhere into letting employees take their much-needed getaway.

Hmm. We’re pretty sure that our boss would prefer a politely-worded email. The program, while creative and an interesting way to use social media to get the world out about Jet Blue, seems like a gimmicky promotion that won’t go over well in the workplace. Still, we hope you remember to take advantage of your vacation time.

Work for Netflix, travel when you want

Let me guess: you want to travel more, but you don’t get enough vacation time. You’d love to take that month-long trip through Asia or just sit on a beach for an extra week every year. Those of us who don’t really take a whole lot of vacation time would love to get a bit more of it, even if it means working from the road.

Well, if you want to satisfy your thirst for travel, freshen up your resume and get yourself a gig at Netflix. The company’s vacation policy will make you drool: there isn’t one. Let your boss know when you’re hitting the road, and make sure your work gets done. It’s pretty straightforward. Some employees will go several years without taking an vacation time … and then take six or seven weeks off at a stretch!

Which country loves to work? See who doesn’t take vacation time

A friend of mine asked me a few days ago when I last went on vacation – a real one. I struggled to remember the last time I went on a trip and didn’t write or, before that, keep up with what was going on at the office. After stopping and focusing, I remembered a four-day trip I took to Orlando back in late 2005. Even there, I’m not sure that I didn’t work, I just don’t remember spending time behind the laptop. Before that, my last vacation was probably four days in San Diego in 2002 (again, I don’t remember working but probably did) or the two weeks I took off when being reassigned from South Korea to Georgia in 1998.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Lots of people don’t take vacations, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos study. Ask any employee in the world if he uses his vacation time, and a there’s a 33 percent chance the answer will be a resounding “no.”

In a survey of 12,500 people from 24 countries, the French, unsurprisingly, are most likely to take advantage of the vacation days they are given, with 89 percent using all they are given. Argentina comes in next at 80 percent, followed by Hungary (78 percent) and Britain (77 percent). Think about it: in the top four, up to 25 percent of a country’s employees don’t blow through their vacation days.

Now, consider how grim the situation is at the other end of the spectrum. The workaholics in Japan are least likely to use all the vacation time they are given, with only 33 percent using it up. South Africa is next up from the bottom at 47 percent, followed by South Korea (53 percent). The United States is next, with a mere 57 percent of employees using up all their vacation time. That’s akin to leaving money on the table, when you think about it, since vacation time really is a part of your compensation.

Interestingly, income level makes little difference in whether one uses all available vacation time. It isn’t just hard-core investment bankers, work-addicted consultants and client-committed attorneys. According to Ipsos, two-thirds of high- and low-income workers took all available vacation time. Age makes some difference, with workers over 50 more likely to take all their vacation days. Unsurprisingly, business owners and senior executives are least likely to consume all their time.

So, why are the world’s workers so insanely dedicated to their jobs? Reuters says:

“There are lots of reasons why people don’t use up vacation days but most often it’s because they feel obligated to their work and put it over other more important things, including their own health and welfare,” said John Wright, senior vice president of global market and opinion research firm Ipsos.

Below, you can see the full results of the survey:

  1. France: 89 percent
  2. Argentina: 80 percent
  3. Hungary: 78 percent
  4. Britain: 77 percent
  5. Spain: 77 percent
  6. Saudi Arabia: 76 percent
  7. Germany: 75 percent
  8. Belgium: 74 percent
  9. Turkey: 74 percent
  10. Indonesia: 70 percent
  11. Mexico: 67 percent
  12. Russia: 67 percent
  13. Italy: 66 percent
  14. Poland: 66 percent
  15. China: 65 percent
  16. Sweden: 63 percent
  17. Brazil: 59 percent
  18. India: 59 percent
  19. Canada: 58 percent
  20. United States: 57 percent
  21. South Korea: 53 percent
  22. Australia: 47 percent
  23. South Africa: 47 percent
  24. Japan: 33 percent

[photo by archie4oz via Flickr]

10 travel resolutions for 2010

As 2009 draws to a close and we look back on the last 365 days of travel, it’s time to make some resolutions for the coming year. Here are ten travel resolutions that will help you be a happier, more fulfilled traveler in 2010.

Pack lighter
Nearly every domestic carrier now charges for the first checked bag. The fees are increasing as airlines are relying on the fees to supplement revenue and they show no signs of stopping. If you haven’t yet mastered the art of packing for a domestic trip with just a carry-on, now is the time to do so. Limit yourself to one pair of shoes in your bag, bring clothes that mix and match, plan to wash and re-wear your clothes if they get dirty, and wear your bulkiest items on the plane. Resist the urge to pack for every contingency, learn the 3-1-1 rules, and know that any minor inconvenience you suffer from packing light may be worth the money saved. Plus, there’s no waiting around for your luggage to be unloaded and no danger of it getting lost en route.

Remember to unplug

Many people are afraid to truly take a vacation from work. They worry about how it will affect their career or stress about the amount of work they’ll come back to. If they do manage to make it out of the office, they often spend their whole trip checking email and fielding work calls and texts. Step away from the Blackberry! Sign out of Twitter, shut down Facebook, and put your “out of office” notification on your email. You’ve worked hard for this vacation so unplug and actually enjoy it.Explore your own backyard
Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest you plan a “staycation” this year. But I will point out that exploring a new place doesn’t have to mean jetting off to a destination halfway around the world. If finances are tight but you still want to take use some vacation time and broaden your horizons, spend your days discovering a place you haven’t been within the US, within your own state, or even within a few hours drive of your own home. In between trips, find ways to do some virtual traveling by learning about your dream destinations or celebrating other cultures.

Slow down
There’s so much to see in this great big world, and so little time to see it in, that it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to squeeze in as much as possible on each trip. But when you do that, you’re just ticking things off a list and experiencing nothing. Slow down and take your time exploring a few places rather than trying to skim the surface of many. You many not be able to say you’ve seen every country in the world, but you can say you’ve understood a few.

Think outside the box for destinations
Resolve to shake up your travel m.o. in 2010 If you always opt for a European getaway, head to Asia this year. If most of your trips are to big cities where you can wine, dine, shop and visit museums, try a trip to a quiet beach or a countryside setting instead. Consider what you want to get out of a trip and look for other destinations that fit the bill. Dive enthusiasts who’ve explored most of the Caribbean’s depths can try the waters of the Mediterranean. Traveling foodies who’ve eaten their way around Europe can sample the tastes of India or learn the traditions of Mexican cooking. Reconsider places you might have dismissed before, especially those that are emerging as new destinations so that you can beat the crowds.

Try an alternative form of lodging
Who says you always have to stay in a hotel? This year, try a different kind of lodging. Sleep in a bed and breakfast, rent an apartment, CouchSurf or sign up for a home-swap. You may find that it’s not for you, or you may find your new favorite way to stay. As a bonus, alternative forms of lodging are often cheaper than traditional hotels.

Travel green
Help protect the places you love so that future generations can enjoy them. Resolve to cut back on your carbon footprint and do what you can to travel green. Try to stay in eco-friendly accommodations, take public transportation when you can, reduce your energy use at home, and invest in carbon offsets to help mitigate the damage caused by air travel.

Try one new thing on every trip
Travel is about experiencing new things, so why bother going to a new destination if you are just going to do the same activities, eat the same food, and explore the same interests? This year, challenge yourself to try at least one new thing on every trip. Sample a food you’ve never eaten, sip a local drink, learn a native skill, and engage in an activity you’ve never done before. It’s easy to fall into the routine of seeking out the same experiences in different places so challenge yourself to try something new.

Get out of your comfort zone
We travel to discover, not only new people and places, but also new things about ourselves. Push yourself out of your comfort zone in 2010. Try not only new things that you’re eager to experience, but also new things that scare you just a little. Eat that slimy, still-squirming mystery dish in China or face your fear of heights climbing the Sydney Bridge. You’ll learn a little about the world around you, and maybe even more about yourself.

Remember that travel is a state of mind
It’s easy to approach exotic cultures with respect and curiosity. It’s a lot harder to look at different cultures in our country and accept that just because they do things differently, it doesn’t mean they are wrong. Bring the acceptance you learn on the road home with you. Don’t lose your sense of wonder and curiosity once you are back on familiar ground. Remember that travel is a state of mind and you may be just as surprised to discover the world around you as you are destinations farther away.