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When Christie Petrone and her brother were growing up outside Washington, D.C., family vacations went like this: Pile into the car with Mom and Dad to camp or ski nearby or brave 12 hours on I-95 South to Disney World, still America’s top travel destination. For Petrone’s much younger sister, who came along in flusher times, vacations meant flying to Hawaii or taking an Alaskan cruise.
Today, as a busy communications manager, mother and wife in New York, Petrone, 35, avoids taking her toddler on long car rides or to faraway locales. Yet she and her husband still prioritize expertly budgeted family vacations. “It’s important for us to take vacations, for bonding and decompressing from work,” Petrone said. Their next, with 2-year-old Claire, will be a short ski trip to West Virginia — the airfare covered by frequent-flyer miles.
The family vacation, whether a humble hike in the woods or a costly African safari, is a treasured feature of American middle-class life. According to a 2012 survey by the U.S. Travel Association, 3 in 4 parents said they believe that family vacations create priceless new memories that their children will remember years down the road, echoing their own childhood experiences.
The U.S. Department of Commerce, in a 2010 report, included the ability to take family vacations as a key index of being middle class. Despite the income markers commonly used to define it, the middle class is an attitudinal category, said Geoffrey Godbey, who has written extensively on leisure. “Part of that attitude is being away from work for predictable periods of time” and documenting one’s travels by taking photographs (and now posting them on Facebook) — “a visible sign that your life is not just ending work,” he said.
If the ability to rest and experience leisure is a necessary feature of being middle class, then what are the social consequences of economic insecurity? The median household income in the U.S. has dropped to about $51,000 a year — in real dollars, the same as it was in 1989. A historically low number of Americans, just 44 percent, now identify as middle class; a nearly equal number see themselves as lower-middle class.
The majority of full-time workers have some paid vacation, but it’s a statistical luxury for part-time workers, many of whom juggle multiple jobs. And employees lacking sick days or family leave may use vacation time instead. Compared with other industrialized nations, the U.S. is uniquely stingy when it comes to paid days off: None are required by law. (California — San Francisco in particular — has done better, leading growing calls for paid sick and family leave.)
Despite the challenges of securing adequate time and money, however, the hallowed family vacation persists. Even during the worst of the recession, households spent an average of more than $1,200 per year traveling for pleasure. In those lean years, travelers changed their habits to meet tighter budgets, cooking and buying food at grocery stores instead of eating at restaurants. By 2011, travel spending had recovered to an average of $1,372 per household. (Those reporting specific travel data to BLS spent considerably more: over $4,500 on average in 2011.)
Travel experts recommend other cost-cutting strategies. “We are big fans of the vacation rental, as opposed to the hotel, especially if you have five or more people. And when you rent a home, you can cook,” Budget Travel executive editor Robert Firpo-Cappiello said. His readers spend an average of $3,000 a year on vacations — more than twice the national average — but nevertheless seek out deals and smart travel opportunities.
“There are options at every price point, from campgrounds to luxury,” said Lissa Poirot, executive editor of FamilyVacationCritic.com. She noted that families of means may still opt for the car, wanting to re-create that middle-class “notion of what the ’50s and ’60s were like — the great American road trip, the national parks and going to the beach.”
For Christie Petrone, family travel is crucial yet not quite a necessity. Right now, she and her husband, both employed full-time, are squarely in the middle class. But in a time of hardship or unemployment, “you look at what’s nonessential, and as much as I’d like to think vacations are essential to my mental well-being,” she said, “they would have to be sacrificed.”