In Europe, there's always time for vacation

Many Europeans are finding ways to 'get away' despite the eurocrisis – but their tactics span the spectrum.

Jacques Brinon/AP
A women sunbathes in the Luxembourg gardens in Paris earlier this month. Europeans have had to change their vacation habits due to the Continent's debt crisis, but vacations remain 'sacred' to many, especially the French.

Across Europe, the summer vacation is sacred. Less than two weeks? Rarely (most, in fact, take off the entire month of July or August). Work on the road? Never.

But with record unemployment, slashed benefits, and no end in sight to the eurocrisis, many European citizens have had to forgo their cherished annual ritual.

This year, according to polling group Ipsos for the insurance group Europ Assistance, only 54 percent of those surveyed across France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Austria reported plans to go on summer vacation – a 12-point drop from 2011.

On one hand, the survey provides a map of who is hurting economically and who is not. But a deeper look also reveals the different cultural battles under way in Europe, the "ways of life" that are being discussed, dissed, and embraced as the eurozone crisis rages and divides.

Germany, for example, is doing the best in Europe economically. Unemployment is around 5 percent, compared with the European Union average of more than 12 percent. Germans like to say they're doing so well because they "did their homework." But Germans are also prudent and pragmatic – perhaps the reason that they sit below the European average for vacations this year, with only 52 percent saying they will be going away.

At the same time, Germans might look frustratingly at the figures for France, where 62 percent say they are going away this year. That does represent an eight-point drop from last year, but summer trips are still on the agendas of more French people than any of the other nationalities surveyed, despite a stubbornly high unemployment rate of more than 10 percent and few major economic reforms on the horizon. The Germans might, as they do in other aspects, bemoan an unwillingness of the French to "give up the good life."

By the "good life," they mostly refer to the generous pensions, early retirements, and short weeks that define French working culture. But Victor Roquin, a French consultant in sustainable development, counts vacations on the list of rights the French hold dear.

Across Europe, citizens average 25 to 30 days of vacation per year, according to an Expedia 2012 survey. But nowhere is a month off more ingrained than in France. There's even a verb to describe the act of returning home from summer holidays and back to school: rentrer. "Vacations are a part of our culture. We fought a lot to obtain paid vacation," says Mr. Roquin, who grew up going away each July or August to his family's summer home on the French coast.

It's a custom he has carried on in his adult life, and continues today, because he hasn't been touched by crisis, nor have the friends around him. At the start of August he will pack up his car and head south to a friend's family's summer home; then head to the coast of France; and then on to northern Spain before returning to Paris. "I only have two weeks off this year," he says, and then he laughs at the word "only" – he knows he's talking to an American.

But he doubts that even a looming economic crisis would keep travelers from the roads.

"Holidays, especially summer holidays, are sacred. You can't touch them," he says. "No matter what the economic situation is, people will keep on going on vacation."

Who spends the most on travel?

1 China ($102 billion)
2 Germany (83.8)
3 United States (83.7)
4 Britain (52.3)
5 Russia (42.8)
6 France (37.2)
7 Canada (35.2)
8 Japan (27.9)
9 Australia (27.6)
10 Italy (26.2)

Source: UN World Tourism Organization

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