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William D. Chalmers Headshot

Do Americans Just Travel Wrong?

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Let me stipulate that there is no right way to travel, no matter who is offering the advice. And secondly, this is not another one of those inane traveler-versus-tourist debates.

That said, after researching my last book, America's Vacation Deficit Disorder, I was exposed to a whole host of data that made me wonder if indeed Americans didn't just go about taking their vacations wrong.

Despite America's great travel-related innovations over the years, from national parks to theme parks, from 747s to GPSs, and from staycations to roller bag suitcases, it just seems that we as a nation haven't figured out yet how to get the most out of our travels, and in essence, take a lot of junk vacations. Here are five things to consider:

1) We are addicted to mini-vacations. Fact is, sadly, that the average length of an American vacation nowadays has been reduced to but a few three-day weekend getaways a year -- actually 2.3 days, or 56 hours! And like the junk food that we so readily eat, these junk vacations do nothing to satiate our real leisure needs. Sure they are cheaper and easier to take, but they doing nothing to replenish us, recharge our batteries, or rejuvenate our restless souls.

Studies show that you need at least six consecutive days to get the full and lasting effects of even taking a vacation. In fact, these short weekends away may actually cause more stress and anxiety than they relieve, and also be more expensive in the long run than one single, longer, 10-day vacation. Ironic, isn't it? Like fast food -- a lot of calories but no nutrients.

2. We travel at the worst times. We always whine, moan and groan about the lines and hassles of travel, and yet like lemmings, we continue to travel at the same time as everyone else: July and August, Christmas and Easter breaks, and on those universal long weekends. We just feed into these holidays in hell by exasperating the long lines, full plane loads, traffic jams, overbooked hotels and beach resorts, and national park congestion. This high demand, needless to say, also leads to exorbitant prices too. So, why do we do it?

Sure, the kids are in school, we have scheduling difficulties, and we're just too crazy busy to let go at more convenient and cheaper travel times. The shoulder seasons (spring and autumn) and dead times (between Thanksgiving and Christmas and just after New Years) are the smartest and cheapest times to travel. My mantra as a parent of two school-aged kids is to never let school get in the way of a good education. Get them traveling and see the real world.

3. We take Groundhog Day vacations. We Americans are in a serious vacation rut, it is indeed deja vu all over again. Being creatures of habit and susceptible to the cultural Bandwagon Effect, we have a pattern of repeatedly visiting the same handful of places over and over, and over again. A 2013 Cheapflights.com survey revealed that 85 percent of Americans will "most likely return to places they have already visited for vacation instead of heading to new destinations." So, it's off to New York, Florida, California, Nevada and Hawaii (they account for 93 percent of all American travels). Yep, it's back to Vegas, Branson, Honolulu and Orlando, again and again. Followed, of course, by those exasperating long lines and exorbitant prices again and again. Same old, same old.

They say variety is the spice of life; so, let's mix it up folks, expand our horizons a tad.

4. We want Champagne vacations on beer prices. Face it, the middle class is being seriously squeezed every which way by the corporate powers that be and government policies that ensue; and we the people want vacation value! Some would say we are cheap, or that we have an entitlement mentality of deserving more than we are willing to pay. Whatever the reasons, we as nation obsess over cheap, budget travel. Wrongly, I might add.

Here's the rub of the problem: The travel business is the ultimate service industry that relies on the soft skills of customer service, friendlessness, being relaxed and providing quality experience. But when customers constantly desire/demand to do it on the cheap, cheap, cheap, you get what you pay for: long lines, crappy service and less than spectacular experiences. Americans will stay in a suburban hotel far from the city center attractions in order to save $25 -- never mind that it is a $35 cab ride or 45-minute commute to reach their desired attractions. Penny wise and pound foolish indeed. Clearly inexpensive does not equal quality experiences.

5. We vacation like we work with lists of things to do. Sure, only in America could we create the working vacation oxymoron; but we approach vacationing like we work -- by over-scheduling and over-planning our every waking hour with to do lists (aka must-see sites and bucket lists). This not only sets us up for disappointment when we fail to knock off all the items on our daily check lists, but it leads to increased stress levels because you have things you have to do -- which is the exact opposite of what taking a vacation is supposed to be all about.

Taking time off and taking a trip should be about relaxing, having fun, chilling out, having exciting experiences, and allowing for spontaneity and serendipity to enter the equation, not just having chores to complete.

Okay, 'nuff said then -- maybe we Americans do just travel wrong. There are, even more reasons that further prove my point that I will share soon, so please stand by...

Until then, what do you think, America: Are we doing it right, or wrong?