Vacation Time: What It Is and How Much is Normal

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AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger

Feel like you are well overdue for a vacation? Perhaps it's about time you take one. If your company offers you vacation time, after all, why not take advantage of it? Taking time off to recharge your batteries is key to keeping your from burning out.

Here's what you should know about what vacation time is, who gets it and how much is considered "normal" in today's working world.

What is vacation time?

Vacation time is the time — usually about a week or two — off from work when you're entitled to totally disconnect. According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers may be required by law to offer their employees leave for specific reasons, including medical leave. That said, there is currently no federal or state law that requires employers to provide paid or unpaid vacation time to their employees. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers do not have to pay their employees for time that they do not work on vacation — or while out on sick leave or during federal or other holidays, according to the United States Department of Labor.

Still, many employers that choose to offer vacation leave do choose to pay as part of competitive benefits packages to attract and retain talent. And those that do offer paid vacation time must comply with the applicable state laws.

It's important to note that vacation time may fall under the umbrella of Paid Time Off, along with other time off including sick days (which is typically less serious than medical leave), holiday time, personal days, etc. It's also important to note that, depending on each company's policy, employees may be required to take their vacation time in a "use it or lose it" manner. Or they may be allowed to carry unused vacation days over year after year. About half of all 50 states require companies to pay out employees' unused PTO days if they quit, are fired, or otherwise separate from the company.

Who gets vacation time?

Employers are not legally required to offer their employees paid vacation time — or any vacation time for that matter. It's important to check with your employer to find out what your company's vacation time policy is. If you're interviewing for a new job, it's worth asking about their vacation time policy — as well as their policies surrounding all types of paid time off.

What’s the difference between vacation time and PTO?

While vacation time and PTO both refer to time that you can take off to travel or have a staycation (or do just about anything else with your time besides, you know, they're not synonymous. Vacation time may be one factor in your PTO plan. Other factors may include sick days, holidays, personal time, etc. Also, your vacation time may not be paid, which means that it wouldn't fall under your PTO (which stands for paid time off). Rather, in this case, it would just be additional time off that you may take.

Your employer is not entitled to give you vacation time — or any PTO for that matter.

How much vacation time is normal?

There's not such thing as "normal" when it comes to vacation time. Some employer may offer unlimited PTO to their employees, while others may not offer any paid time off at all. So it's important to discuss the vacation time policy with your employer or the hiring manager at the company for which you are interviewing.

That said, the average number of PTO days for private sector employees who have completed at least on year of service is about 10 days, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). (This is rounded to the nearest whole number, since the number of days is actually 9.7.) This does not include sick days or paid holidays; rather, it is strictly for vacation days.

We can break this down even further, according to HR Solutions...

After one year of working with the same company:
  • Full-time employees: 11
  • Part-time employees: 8
  • Union employees: 10
  • Non-union employees: 10
After five years of working with the same company:
  • Full-time employees: 15
  • Part-time employees: 12
  • Union employees: 14
  • Non-union employees: 15
After a decade of working with the same company:
  • Full-time employees: 18
  • Part-time employees: 14
  • Union employees: 17
  • Non-union employees: 17
After two decades of working with the same company:
  • Full-time employees:20
  • Part-time employees: 16
  • Union employees: 22
  • Non-union employees: 19

You may be surprised, however, by the number of employers that are starting to offer unlimited time off to their employees. In fact, in a 2019 Buffer survey of nearly 2,500 remote workers, 32 percent reported getting unlimited vacation time at work. Though, while unlimited PTO may sound wonderful, critics argue that there are serious downsides. Many people worry that people will "take advantage" of the system — or at least other employees will accuse those who utilize their paid time off of taking advantage. This kind of policy can easily create resentment amongst coworkers if actually taking the paid time off to which employees are entitled is not actively encouraged.

How do you calculate vacation time?

If you are given 10 vacation days, this equates to 10 business days (i.e. If you work Mondays through Fridays, then weekends do not count.) If you are an hourly worker or work part-time hours, however, calculating your vacation time can get a bit trickier. Your employer may choose to use an accrual method for you, rather than a yearly lump sum of days.

If this is the case, you are allocated time off directly dependent upon the amount of hours that you work. So, for example, say you are an hourly worker but still work the average of 40 hours week. To calculate how much vacation time you have, you may multiply your 40 hours by 52 weeks in the year, and then subtract the 40 hours off. That equates to 2,040 hours. From there, you would subtract 40 hours (or five paid vacation days off) to get a total of 2,000 hours per year.  And then to get the accrual multiplier, you would divide the number of vacation hours allocated to you by the total number of hours per year, as calculated. In this case, that would be 40 hours (one work week) divided by 2,000 yearly hours worked to get .02 hours. So, there you have it. For every hour you work, you earn .02 hours of paid time off.

Chances are that your human resources department is logging this for you. So instead of doing the math, you can always just shoot them an email and ask! If you wait long enough, you'll probably have a decent amount of days saved up.


AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at by night.