pto
Unlimited vacation time? Not so fast. | New Africa/Shutterstock
Unlimited vacation time? Not so fast. | New Africa/Shutterstock
Travel

The Pros and Cons of Your Vacation Policy, Explained

PTO is wonderful. We can agree on this, you and I. Whether you’re just entering the workforce or maybe changing careers later in life, there are a lot of buzzy vacation-related terms floating around the internet (and probably your office) these days.

Some vacation policies sound way more enticing than others: learning your job offers a weak 10 days of accrued vacation a year while your friend with a similar job at a different company has "unlimited" days can be extremely frustrating -- until you find out your friend's jealous of you because they've only taken one day off all year out of guilt. 

Point is, while the grass always seems greener, not all time-off policies are created equal, and each definitely has its own pros and cons. And just because nobody gets to choose the vacation policy that their company provides, you definitely want to know what you’re getting yourself into before you accept a job offer. Fear not -- none of this stuff is super complicated once you actually start looking at it. Allow us to break a few things down, from the basics to all the newfangled #Millennial-bait -- then you can get back to more fun things, such as planning your next vacation.

Accrued time off

Pros: You can’t blow all your vacation days right away
Cons: You can’t blow all your vacation days right away

So, say you're pretty new at a company that grants you 10 paid vacation days per year, based on how long you’ve been working there. Accrued time off means that rather than getting unrestricted access to all 10 days on January 1st, you gradually unlock access to all 10 days each pay period as the year progresses — so you can’t just take all 10 days and then bounce January 11th.

These policies can create some confusion, largely because some systems make it difficult to track your time-off balance. And when a company doesn’t offer rollover on vacation days from one year to the next (more on that in a minute), accrued time off can result in a frenzied exodus at the end of the year when employees realize they have use or lose vacation days they didn't realize they had. Often, this results in you taking random days off in December just to use them (which can result in a dip in output across the board). But hey, a series of three-day weekends in the dead of winter is better than throwing paid-for free time out the window. 

Frontloaded time off

Pros: You can get paid out for unused time when you leave
Cons: You might get excited and use your days up early, then be stuck for the rest of the year

Frontloaded time off is the opposite of what we just talked about. It's the vacation policy equivalent of getting a preloaded debit card that you can use whenever you want, but the funds can't be replenished. Though it might be less ideal for those of you with more tenous self-control, frontloaded time off has not only the benefit of allowing you to, yes, take your 10 days and quit January 11th, but also to quit January 2nd and get your unused days paid out to you. Companies might be less inclined to offer this, though, since it has the potential to put money in your pocket rather than theirs.

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Unlimited time off!

Pros: Unlimited … time … off …….
Cons: You're probably not going to take as much vacation as a person whose job offers finite vacation days; it might actually cost you money in the long run

Is it a scam? Kinda, yeah. Unlimited vacation policies are increasingly being adopted by hip #Millennial companies, and they do indeed mean you get unlimited vacation, so long as you’re still getting your work done -- but in addition to further blurring the concept of work/life balance (sometimes it’s nice to have a clear line between when you’re working and when you aren’t), it also means that your employer doesn’t have to pay out any unused PTO. If you leave before you’ve taken any of those promised unlimited days, you get nothing. If you aren’t able to take much -- or any -- vacation time by the end of the year because your job is always busy, you get nothing. And while we at Thrillist are big fans of vacation, this policy also means you don’t have the option of working rather than taking some of your PTO and pocketing the extra cash, which, y’know, sometimes you really need. But "unlimited" vacation is a very alluring thing to be able to offer to prospective new talent, and the policy saves companies a lot of money, so take comfort in the fact that your boss is getting richer while you're getting more and more haggard. 
MORE:How to take a last-minute trip without spending way too much money

Academic calendar model

Pros: You can theoretically have the whole summer off; potential bigger paychecks during the school year; Spring Break!
Cons: It's ... not actually paid time off 

Teachers do get to take vacation time during the academic year. But are you perhaps under the impression that teachers get paid in the summer? If so, you’re... not entirely wrong, but you’re definitely not right. Teachers are only paid for the days they work. But they often have the option of receiving all of their yearly salary during the academic year, or having it spread out across the full calendar year. Many choose the latter -- which means smaller paychecks each pay cycle. More to the point, though, teachers are not on summer (or winter) break the same way their students are -- they end up doing a lot of prep work during “vacation” days even though those aren’t technically days they’re working. And because teachers are so appallingly underpaid, many take up second jobs over the summer to supplement their income -- and those seasonal jobs probably aren't frontloaded with time off. Appreciate your teachers, folks.

Customizable scheduling

Pros: Make your schedule fit your life, not the other way around
Cons: None really -- your employer might just not let you do it

Lots of companies are designing some wild policies, such as this Australian company offering employees three months “life leave” each year to just go live your life, apparently. But often, customizable scheduling is a matter of a one-on-one discussion about your schedule with your boss. Customizable PTO is also something you can negotiate for when you get a job offer, or even during talks about promotions or performance (assuming your performance has not been terrible) at a job you’ve already been at for a while. If you have specific scheduling concerns -- a child or a parent to care for, a weekly therapy appointment to get to -- raise them with your employer and ask if you can tweak your hours a bit. Time off isn’t just about entire days.
MORE: How to negotiate for more vacation days

Vacation rollover

Pros: Save up for a BIG vacation; use your PTO when you want, not because it’ll expire
Cons: Your boss might just... not give you these days

Also referred to sometimes as “carryover,” companies with a rollover policy will allow you to take your unused PTO in the next calendar year, rather than having any unused hours expire December 31st. One caveat: Float holidays, of which your plan might include two or three per year. They work basically just like vacation days, except that they won’t rollover to the next calendar year if you don’t use them. So use them. Take every last one before December 31st. And make sure you know your rollover policy, too. There's nothing like starting the New Year by finding out the days you thought you banked have been thrown out the window. 

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Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.