Holidays, Vacations, and Rolling Vacations

kid on a beach on vacation

“Vacation’s all I ever wanted …. ” (Image by Boudewijn Berends)

Ah summer….when everyone takes a vacation! Right? Wrong.

Newcomers to the US are routinely surprised that the country doesn’t shut down in the summer. We certainly have some of the same wicked temperatures they do, often in old towns where air-conditioning isn’t a given. And yet, Americans suit up and go to work June through August. That isn’t because we don’t believe in vacation. Rather, it’s because the US does what’s called a “rolling vacation.” Yes, the summer is traditionally when people take a vacation. But not everyone at the same time. It’s a very very rare company or business where everyone has vacation at the same time and business is suspended. There is always a skeleton staff, during regular business hours. Even when business is slow. (Unsurprisingly, this catches Americans by surprise – routinely – when we go abroad. “Why is it so empty? What do you mean the store’s closed until Monday?” And of course, the answer is usually “vacation.” Or if you’re in the UK, “holiday.”)

But first perhaps we should also explain the difference between holiday and vacation.

In the US, holidays are typically tied to major religious events or national holidays – Christmas and Thanksgiving are the prime examples. The government, major institutions, banks, post offices etc are all closed on these days. It’s expected that most people, whether religiously observant or not, will probably take the day off. Some businesses stay open – grocery stores and gas stations, for example, but for very limited hours. And necessary services remain open – hospitals, emergency personnel etc. But they typically get paid overtime for working the holiday. Everything else? Closed. If you didn’t order it in time, pay extra to get it by Christmas Eve, or know someone who runs the store, you’re out of luck. There’s no point remaining open for business if most of the people aren’t going to be out.

Vacation on the other hand, is personal time you are entitled to take off at your leisure, provided it doesn’t disrupt the rest of your office’s schedule. Which is why not everyone takes off all at once. It’s why people in the US usually “put in for vacation” ahead of time. Meaning, they plan ahead, in some cases as far ahead as January. And in offices where seniority counts, you can expect that senior staff get to make their plans before everyone else. You can take vacation any time of the year, but it tends to coincide with the summer for two main reasons.

  • First, by summer most people need a break. It’s been a long time since the bonhomie of the holidays, it’s incredibly hot, it make sense to just stop for a bit.

  • Second, school’s out! Which means that for the vast majority of working parents, it’s a good time to spend some time together as a family, or perhaps they have no choice but to take vacation so that someone can be home with the kids, especially if childcare or camp is expensive.

The biggest difference between US vacation season and elsewhere though, is time. It is completely normal around the world, and in countries represented by Advanse’s students, for people to take off up to 6 weeks at a time. That doesn’t happen in the US. If your company can do without you for 6 weeks, they can probably replace you.

The downside is clear enough – there is always someone wishing she didn’t have to come back to work on Monday morning. So if you see people looking glum this summer, smile. They’re probably too depressed to begin counting down to the next mandated holiday. But also, smile because you, the customer, are the reason they’re there.

The upside of rolling vacation is equally clear – work doesn’t stop, things remain open, the economy doesn’t come to a standstill.