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July 30, 2003
Vacations Getting Shorter, Less Restful

The great American vacation is vanishing, according to USA Today.

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Every year, the average length of a leisure trip shrinks by a few more hours, the newspaper reports. For evidence, it notes that more than half of all vacationers in a recent Gallup Poll admitted to coming home feeling tired. That suggests that a majority of leisure trips aren't having their intended effect.

The Travel Industry Association (TIA) reports that four days is about average for a vacation nowadays - almost a day shorter than an average leisure trip 15 years ago. At the same time, Americans are taking more trips now (767 million projected trips last year, compared with 680.3 million in 1994). In other words, Americans are traveling more, but getting less of a vacation experience.

USA Today points to the state of the economy as one obvious reason for the change; it doesn't make sense to leave the office for a protracted getaway if there's a possibility your job won't be there when you return. Indeed, the length of the average leisure trip plummeted to just four days in 1992, during the last economic downturn.

In addition, recent war worries, terrorism concerns, and health threats like SARS could explain the current shrinkage.

But those are just short-term causes; they don't account for the fact that vacation times have been contracting over a much longer period (in 1985, the average pleasure trip lasted 5.4 nights; 25 years ago, it lasted more than a week) or that the numbers remained low even in the boom times of the late 1990s.

In fact, the big culprit behind the shrinking vacation is the travel industry, according to USA Today. By using seductive marketing and shrewd discounting to push people to consume vacations as if they were fast-food meals, the travel business has managed to raise its revenues by roughly $53 billion during the past nine years, according to TIA. That industry strategy is deliberate: Quick trips are more expensive than extended ones in the long run, because travelers must book additional plane tickets and aren't able to qualify for price breaks on other extras, such as weekly rates on rental cars.

But the main reason mini-vacations are more profitable, according to the newspaper, is that they don't feel like vacations, so travelers end up booking another one sooner.

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