Visit California recently reached out to me for my experience and expertise to help spread the word about National Plan for Vacation Day. They wanted my take and advice on helping people better use their unused vacation days. I love traveling with my kids – especially in southern California – and proposed a plan that they loved and agreed to sponsor for our blog. So this is my take on how to use those stowed away vacation days to improve your standard of living!

1 Man standing on a hill

Life is a lot like dining out. It all seems to operate in annual cycles that run like a three course meal (or, if you're really fancy, a six course meal). We start our year small – recovering from the previous year's holidays – and work our way into summer, fall, and then winter. A few hors d'oeuvres mixed with a spring salad, summer soup, and hopefully a main course in autumn with a minty-flavored desert trip. There might even be coffee or espresso somewhere in there. If we're lucky, we might just have a chance to visit relatives before we head back to the office or field to produce.

2 Children looking over city

Over and over again, I find myself staring at one of those motivational pictures that the secretary adorned our office walls with. Ironically, every bit of motivational advice is accompanied by a photograph of something that is distinctly somewhere else. My personal favorite is the “Teamwork” poster which benignly describes a positive attribute of “teamwork” in white wording overlaid on a photograph of the Great Wall of China. I can't help but laugh and wonder if the person who put that picture together ever paid much attention in world history class. I'm not sure they could even count the bodies of captured workers and peasants buried in the walls of this forced labor project now known as one of Wonders of the World.

But, yeah, it's visible from space, so…

3 Father and sons

And then, I think aloud. Is this photograph, pinned lovingly to the wall of our office by our elderly secretary really more of a warning? Is it a subversive message from the underlings reminding us that this might all be a trap we so desperately want to escape? Are we unknowingly drifting along to the day we become fodder for these very walls that hold us?

Should we cast our staplers and sticky notes out the window as we run, sprinting for the hills?

No! I have good benefits and a sweet retirement setup. However, there is an answer that we commonly forget.

11 Children sitting on ledge looking at mountain

It is estimated that Americans leave behind and do not take advantage of 662,000,000 collective vacation days. Based on the approximate number of people who are employed full time, that is one full week of vacation sandwiched in between weekends on either side. That's nine days off of work just sitting there per person! I mean, what are we all doing with our time? Surely not building a giant wall to keep out the advancing Mongolian horde.

12 Family looking at a mountain

Honestly, most people are just stuck in a ‘work only' mindset. We trick ourselves into believing that we're working towards something. Even though many people have tangible goals in mind that they can articulate, a lot of the time it's our own subconscious self-preservation creating a fluffy, undefined goal in the distance for us to work toward. Without a break, we quickly find ourselves longing to be free from the never-ending grind. We long for a break and breath of fresh air that's more substantial than the water cooler down the hall. We just need to know how to take that first step.

Adventure Truck and Family Travel

Here is what I learned that helped me take advantage of vacation days: start small. Not a lot of people want to embark on a nine-day vacation unless they have something HUGE planned out. This also leaves people feeling like they have to spend a lot of money to make the most of their time. They fear that they won't be able to maximize the utility of vacation time without going broke.

Well, if that's how you feel, you're probably doing it wrong!

Here's How I Vacation without Stressing Over It

7 Father and sons on lake

Vacation doesn't have to feel like forever

That's what retirement is for. Awhile back, I learned that in order to recharge my batteries at work, I did not need to be gone for half a month. That took a lot of planning and a fair amount of packing. Not that I don't enjoy that from time-to-time, but it's extremely labor intensive. Then I discovered the “mini-vacation.” Being from Southern California, I learned that there's a lot to see, taste, and even smell within a single days' drive. In order to get a head-start, I learned to take just a few days off right next to the weekend to maximize my away time without burning it all at once.

6 Child in small town

This leads me to my trip for Visit California and National Plan for Vacation Day. About three hours from my San Diego home – through the mystical lands of Orange County and shining city of Los Angeles – there lay a village in the mountains yonder. A cute little town that stands guard at the gate of blustering civilization and the natural grandeur of nature…Lake Arrowhead. Its cute little shops and village atmosphere eases you into the sharp cleanliness of the air and crystal clear water found at the lake's edge. The boys love the chance to be as good as possible when they see the little candy apple shops like Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. We spent the day walking around the town, feeding the ducks, and explaining to my sons what types of elves mine rock candy.

5 Lake Arrowhead

Take time for perspective on vacation

The best part about vacation is not only spending time with family, but taking time and distance to reflect. Reflection is the best way to see where we are physically, and also in life. It allows us to quiet the noise and find our own inner voice which in turn will help guide us down the path WE choose for ourselves. This is very important! Otherwise, you're merely relieving a stress pressure cooker that's going to be put back on the fire when you're done.

8 Children on mountain top

From Lake Arrowhead, we headed off to our next destination over the tops of the mountains. Named aptly for a beautiful creature found in the wilds of the area, Big Bear is southern California's snowy get away. It's here we start to smell the scent of pine around every corner and the chance to glimpse a bear is interrupted only by the pleasant chill of the winter air. The boys had been longing to see some snow, so we stopped by Big Bear's Snow Summit Ski Resort. The boys got their chill on before we headed off to a lodge for the night. There are plenty of those in Big Bear.

9 Children in Big Bear Ski park

Remember that all things are relative

We are both big and small in this world depending on who is doing the measuring. It's important to feel both ways about ourselves. When I find myself stuck in the mire or work, my personal life slowly starts to feel the same way. I love my children more than anything, but I have to remember from time-to-time to not bring the dark clouds home. To them, I am a giant. They literally and figuratively look up to me. Remembering this brings the life back to my mind as it's not only a joy, but an honor and privilege that I should never take for granted. Outwardly, I can also find myself feeling as though my own world is getting smaller and starting to feel cramped at work. This is when I need to remind myself just how small I am.

13 Father and sons in Sequoia National Park

Our third planned stop for this mini-vacation was just east of Bakersfield, in what we call Central California. At the bottom of the Sierra Mountain chain, there lay a series of valleys and mountain tops. Nestled in between these monumental peaks are some of the largest giants in the world. We pointed our adventuremobile north from Big Bear and set our sights on General Sherman…the largest tree in the world. Named after William Tecumseh Sherman (a general who led and fought in the civil war for President Abraham Lincoln), the tree is just and grand. It isn't known for being the tallest but the overall largest tree with regard to mass. It is over 2,200 years old and even has a single branch wider than I am tall. Watching the boys through the snow playing around ancient living wonders really put me in my place. With all the time that I think I have as a man and father, relatively speaking…it truly is nothing.

14 Children in front of General Sherman Tree Sequioa National Park

Detours are okay

After staying the previous night in a local inn, we headed off back down the map toward San Diego. The boys – reinvigorated by their visit into some of the greatest nature in the world – constantly reminded me they wanted to go camping more. In a straight shot, the trip would be a little over seven hours back home. Remembering another wonderful location I had taken them some months ago, I took a small detour to what would seem like a barren wasteland. Just beyond Ridgecrest and before you reach Death Valley, there's a small monument with great wonders. The Trona Pinnacles. Most would assume that this curious rock formation was near the Grand Canyon or Valley of the Gods but nope, this is all California.

Also, the camping in those parts is free. Just remember to bring thick blankets.

10 Child looking up at father

To all those that worry about never getting time away because it's too difficult, costs too much, or takes too much time…you're wrong. This trip only cost me fuel, two nights at local inns, a National Park entry fee, and any residual stress I had from work. All of which was easily fit into four days (or a weekend and two days off, that is).

What I took away was priceless.

16 Truck camping at Trona Pinnacles

If you ever plan to visit California, just know that there is SO much more to see than you could imagine. You might wind up deciding to take about a third of the year off to see ALL of it, but that's a different story. Go ahead and plan out your vacation days for this year to make sure that you actually see something instead of a cubicle. Check out the Visit California website for more great ideas and watch their “California 101” series┬áto get started.

How do you plan for vacation?