Thursday, April 23, 2009

When was the last time you took a vacation? - Part 1

Here's a pot-kettle-black moment for you, because I'm the world's worst at never quite getting around to taking time off work, even though I know the break will refresh me mentally and emotionally and keep my stress at healthier levels. I do try to get away on weekends whenever I can, though, which is easier on the budget, and still rewards me with some much-needed stress relief.

With the economy floundering and so many people un- or under-employed, it's not realistic to suggest that somebody hop a flight to Europe and get away for a couple of weeks. Most of us are in no position at all to take a vacation like that, but if at all possible, we should still make an effort to take some kind of break, even if it's just for a weekend.

Why is it so important? Well, our very lives--and even our job security, believe it or not--may depend on it. A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health explored how much stress the American worker is under these days, and it probably won't surprise you to learn that the answer is that we're all pretty stressed out. Forty percent of workers say they're very stressed out by their jobs, and 26 percent say they often feel burned out at work. That has a negative effect on productivity, so even when you think you're working your hardest, you could be putting yourself into a situation where mistakes (or worse) are more likely. Here's an excerpt from the study that should get your attention:
Short-lived or infrequent episodes of stress pose little risk. But when stressful situations go unresolved, the body is kept in a constant state of activation, which increases the rate of wear and tear to biological systems. Ultimately, fatigue or damage results, and the ability of the body to repair and defend itself can become seriously compromised. As a result, the riskof injury or disease escalates.

In the past 20 years, many studies have looked at the relationship between job stress and a variety of ailments. Mood and sleep disturbances, upset stomach and headache, and disturbed relationships with family and friends are examples of stress-related problems that are quick to develop and are commonly seen in these studies. These early signs of job stress are usually easy to recognize. But the effects of job stress on chronic diseases are more difficult to see because chronic diseases take a long time to develop and can be influenced by many factors other than stress. Nonetheless, evidence is rapidly accumulating to suggest that stress plays an important role in several types of chronic health problems—especially cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and psychological disorders.
That's serious stuff. The great paradox is that we're all the most reluctant to take time off from work at the times we probably most need to. If you absolutely cannot take time off work, or you don't have the funds to take a "real" vacation--or both--then at least try to plan something to get away for a weekend, or even a long weekend, if you can spare just one day off from work.

I know how tough it is to plan a getaway, even a simple weekend affair, when you're already counting pennies at the grocery store. But if you can squirrel away just a little extra cash, there are some pretty good deals out there, and some strategies for getting the maximum bang for your mini-vacation buck. When I plan a weekend away, I usually do one of two things.

My quick-and-easy (and cheap) weekend away usually involves picking a destination a few hours from home, and then looking for budget motels in the area. Living in California, I'm fortunate to be surrounded by beautiful park land as well as interesting small towns to escape to, so it's never too hard to find someplace to go. But no matter where you live, there's bound to be something an hour or two down the road to explore and get your mind off all the stresses of work. Discounted motel rates are not that hard to come by, especially if you have a AAA membership (which offers discounts for more items than you may be aware of), or have a frequent-stayer membership at a hotel chain--those are free to join, and offer rewards ranging from points redeemable for gift cards, to free motel stays. And almost every hotel chain offers such a program, so check their websites for information on how to join and what the benefits are.

My favorite, and the one where I'm a frequent-stayer member (even though I don't stay that frequently!) is Best Western. Their inns are all independently owned, and there's been a big push in recent years to renovate the motels. As a result, there are some pretty nice Best Westerns out there, and their rates are still in the budget range. My points have been accumulating for a couple of years, and I'll have a free stay or two available to use after my next weekend away (most likely at the lovely Fireside Inn, pictured above, in Cambria, California). We'll probably only be able to get away for a single Saturday night, but we'll stretch the weekend out by leaving at daybreak on Saturday and enjoying a liesurely drive up the coast (so thank goodness gas prices are stable, and I drive a fuel-efficient car), and then taking our time coming back on Sunday. Most hotels offer a complimentary breakfast these days, so that's one meal we don't have to pay for, and a quick internet search will turn up other budget dining choices along the way. If you do just a little homework, you can find countless ways to save money on trips like this, and make them a semi-regular reality.

If that's even too much for your budget--and it often is for mine--when was the last time you went camping? That's probably the most inexpensive getaway you'll find, and there are few things as refreshing and soul-renewing as getting away from city (or even suburban) life and sleeping outdoors. It requires so little to make one of these trips--a tent and sleeping bags are the bare minimum--and you don't have to have top-of-the-line, super-expensive gear (sorry, REI). If you have a discount sporting goods store in your area, such as Big 5 Sporting Goods, watch their sale circulars, because you can often pick up the basics for camping at really deep discounts. eBay has some sellers who specialize in discounted camping gear, such as The Bargain Outfitters or Timberwolf Sports.

Even Target and KMart carry camping gear, and often close out last-season items at clearance prices. Still too much? Ask around. Chances are, you have a friend who's well-stocked for these weekend expeditions, and he or she would probably be happy to lend you their camping gear for a weekend. And always watch craigslist, because people sell (cheaply!) or even give away camping gear that's been cluttering up their garages.

Once you've got the gear covered, you're a couple of mouse clicks away from a wealth of information on where to camp in your area. No matter where you live, you'll have a state park or national forest or recreation area with a campground within easy driving distance, and the fees are generally in the $5-$15 per night range. Plan out a couple of easy and cheap meals (cold or heated on a camp stove) for just a few dollars, and you're ready to go. For under $100--and maybe for less than $50--you can go to sleep listening to crickets chirp, and wake up to birds singing, and hear nary a car horn or car alarm. Clear your mind, take a lot of deep breaths, and come back home better armed to fight another day.

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