What’s the Difference Between Vacation and Holiday?

Do you want to “take a vacation” or “go on holiday”? The difference in meaning between these related words are not always obvious. It depends on where you live and work and how you use the phrase. In the US and most of Canada the term ‘vacation’ means taking earned time off from work to take a trip. In the UK, Australia, and most other English-speaking countries, people say ‘holiday’ to describe a going away from home for a period of leisure. Then there’s the notion of an official holiday referring to a public or company holiday. This article will explain the differences in definition between the words vacation and holiday so you know when to use which in a sentence.

Difference in meaning between vacation and holiday

Quick Answer: Vacation and Holiday mean the same thing when it refers to taking paid time off from work to travel, for leisure and/or to relax.
Further Reading: Are you missing vacation from your definition of work-life balance?

I’m on Vacation

If you are an American taking time off and traveling, regardless of the destination, you will most likely say that you are on vacation. A vacation happens when you take time off from work for recreation and/or relaxation. Leaving behind the responsibilities of work and home life is an essential part of taking a vacation.

Definition of Vacation

A vacation is a period of time during which you relax and enjoy yourself away from home.

a period of rest and freedom from work, study, etc.; time of recreation, usually a specific interval in a year

Collins English Dictionary – https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/vacation

While most people think of vacation time as paid time off from work, a vacation break can span long weekends, company holidays (like official federal, state, or work holidays) and even unpaid time off like a summer school break. You can even be on vacation for just a weekend (Friday night or Saturday to Sunday) without actually using any paid vacation days. However you probably agree that most people think of a vacation as taking at least one paid day off from work, either a vacation day (including personal days or floating holidays) or a company-designated holiday when the office is closed.

I’m On Holiday

Even if you are American you likely have heard the expression that someone was going on holiday. A holiday sounds like an old-fashioned way of describing a vacation. The word does have a luxury or fancy ring to it. You may come off as posh if you tell your office mates in the U.S. that you will be away on holiday, but give it a try (do it with a British accent) and test the reaction. Now if you say that today IS a holiday or there is a holiday coming up on the calendar, that has an entirely different meaning. Jump down to the section on holiday definitions to get the full picture.

Video: Real World English – Macmillan Dictionary

For those living and working in the UK and Ireland along with several other countries (see the list below), going on holiday is actually a normal way of saying they are taking time off work for leisure travel. It’s the same as going on vacation for Americans but in British-English speak. If you are an American on an expat assignment in London or Dublin, you’d be better off sticking to the local lingo and saying holiday or holidays. 

A holiday is a period of time during which you relax and enjoy yourself away from home.

If you are holidaying in a place away from home, you are on holiday there.

Collins English Dictionary – https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/holiday

What about leave? That’s one more term you can use instead of or in addition to the word holiday. For example taking your annual leave, use your annual holiday leave, or even the phrase “leave entitlement” which sounds odd to my ears. The UK government has a statutory annual leave entitlement to guarantee paid time off for most workers who work a 5-day week.

As you can see the terms holiday and vacation are mostly interchangeable. Be aware of these rules so you know how to talk about taking time off to get away from work (and home) to travel. Your choice is based on where you currently live and work and probably where you grew up as well. 

Vacation versus Travel

I don’t want to cause further debate, but there is a perceived difference between being on vacation (or holiday) and traveling. For many people, a vacation is only for relaxation and entertainment like spending a week on the beach, at an amusement park such as Disney or Universal, or departing on a cruise like for example to the Caribbean Islands. Those people call it travel when the goal of the trip is to visit one or more destinations to explore the culture, history, food, art, nature, and attractions.  

Is there a difference between vacation and travel

The Travel Channel on TV is an apt example. It’s not called The Vacation Channel for a very good reason. Many of the shows on The Travel Channel (though in my opinion far fewer than there should be) are about places and destinations around the world. It’s about showcasing the experience of visiting a country, city, or park and offering travel inspiration and advice. You can make time for relaxing by the pool like at a resort, but that is often not the primary goal of what’s considered travel.

While the definition of vacation versus travel is a bit more clear, real-world language usage is never absolute. Most of the time my wife and I take time off to travel, I still say we’re going on vacation to our friends and family. I’m not the type of person who takes a lot of beach vacations (or sun holidays as they are called by people who prefer holiday over vacation) or goes away to relax. However I still personally prefer the word vacation as I’m enjoying my time while traveling and that’s what I want out of a vacation.

Where Does Vacation Come From

The origin of the word vacation is interesting to learn about. Wikipedia describes how rich people would “vacate” their mansions to get away for leisure time (what were they doing at home if they didn’t work for a living?). Smithsonian Magazine explains how the term vacation replaced holiday in the USA:

The scions of New York City took to declaring that they would “vacate” their city homes for their lakeside summer retreats, and the term “vacation” replaced the British “holiday” in common parlance.

Smithsonian Magazine – Where Was the Birthplace of the American Vacation?

It would take many years before the working class had the time and money to follow this trend. This tradition of taking a vacation began in earnest in the late 1800’s as the USA embraced the pursuit of leisure and the rewards of spending time outdoors. The creation of the National Parks Service (NPS) in 1916 sealed the deal that nature was worth protecting for the growing leisure class.

Eventually the word trickled down to the middle class when prosperity and workers rights began to increase. Though it wasn’t until the 1920’s through the 1940’s that paid time off become commonplace among the working class. Once that become the norm, millions of people now had the time and money to travel .

In the UK the word vacation is still used to refer to university breaks. Historically it was also used to describe a time period when the UK law courts were not in session during the summer months. So if for example you search for the Oxford University academic term dates page, it lists how the year is divided into three terms and three vacations. School vacations are common around the world though the word “break” is often the preferred term such as when going on Spring break.

What Does Travel Mean?

Defining words such as vacation and travel seem easy at first, but they their usage and meaning have evolved over the years. Travel means taking a journey or going someplace for a specific distance and time. The word can also be defined as movement as it relates to an object as opposed to a person. 

Finally, you have to consider spelling of the verb form of travel. In the USA the action word is spelled “traveling” while in Canada, the UK and countries that maintained British English standards, “travelling” or “traveller” contains two l’s. Make sure your spell-checker in your email or document editor is set to English-US or English-UK so your spelling is accurate.

Vacation Policies at Work

Vacation Days versus Paid Time Off

Jobs that pay a salary or hourly wage also offer some form of employee benefits. These may include health insurance, sick or personal days, a retirement plan, and paid vacation days. In exchange for working a full-time job (and sometimes part-time as well) you may earn a set number of vacation days each year. Though in the U.S. there is no legal requirement for any job to offer paid time off. It is completely up to your employer and contract of employment 🙁

A popular alternative to offering a set number of vacation days per year is to have a paid time off or PTO policy. Companies that offer PTO combine all of your vacation, sick and personal days into a bank of days off to be used for any purpose. You can use all of them for vacation, though if you get sick, you won’t have any time off left to rest and recover. Again the number of PTO hours or days earned per period of work such as weekly or monthly is up to your employer to decide. 

Of course at the same you can apply vacation days toward sick and personal reasons if you must. Like for example a scheduled doctors appointment or to deal with a family emergency. Regardless of how you slice and dice PTO, allocate a fixed minimum number of days off for vacation usage. That way you can plan ahead to use your accrued time off on vacation (or for holiday if you prefer).

Time Off Benefits Posts – VacationCounts.com

What about an unlimited vacation policy? 

A small percentage of employers are offering employees a “unlimited” number of vacation days each year. They are not accrued or tracked like when you have a fixed number of paid vacation days. You are encouraged to use a minimum number but technically there is no maximum. However without any guidelines you may feel uneasy or guilty about taking “too many” vacation days compared with your co-workers. Either way when you decide to take at least one of your so-called unlimited vacation days to travel, you are taking a vacation.

Whether you have PTO or unlimited time off may depend on whether you are exempt (from overtime pay and the minimum wage) or a non-exempt employee. Exempt employees are often in management roles that pay a salary and do not earn overtime while non-exempt workers (yes these are confusing terms) are subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This includes being paid overtime pay for working more than 40 hours in a week along with other legal protections. 

Read more about the downsides of unlimited vacation and why it isn’t necessarily a solution to the vacation deprivation problem in the USA.  

Different Types of Holidays

What’s the difference between Company Holidays, Public Holidays, and Bank Holidays?

Unlike vacation, the word holiday can refer to more than just a day of paid time off from work. Whether you are living in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or Ireland, you’ll be familiar with the list of public holidays on your calendar that are specific to your country. It doesn’t matter whether you work for a company, take care of your family, are self-employed or between jobs. An official or public holiday for your country includes statutory (legislated) days off for a defined set of employees. They may be referred to as Federal holidays or State holidays in the U.S. or called Bank Holidays in the UK and Ireland.

Company, Public, Bank Holiday - what do you call it

Who gets these free days off from work? It varies based on country and the day of the week on which each holiday falls. Typically employees who work for the government or public sector as well as schools, the post office, and banks or financial institutions are guaranteed these non-working days. Why private banks are included is beyond me. Try and search for “what’s closed on [holiday name]” in Google to find a list of which public offices and private businesses are mostly closed on a common holiday or observance. 

What about the rest of us? Luckily, most employers give their employees an official holiday calendar. Your annual holiday calendar will list the dates when your office or workplace will be closed for the day. It will be a day off for all staff, but in some cases you may be required to use PTO if you want to be paid that day. Check your HR policy handbook for details. Depending upon the nature of the business, your organization might remain open with limited staffing. Or it might be a very busy day where you work. Employees in retail, restaurants, transit and public safety may find themselves forced to work on a holiday and offered another day off in lieu. Hopefully if you have to go to work on a popular holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas, you’ll earn overtime or bonus pay to make up for it. 

The History of USA Holidays

Like most democratic countries, the introduction of public holidays in the United States of America happened over many years. As the U.S. is made up of 50 states (fewer when the original federal holiday legislation was enacted), each state can pass laws to declare and commemorate public holidays as they wish. The federal government can pass legislation to declare national holidays which only apply to the area of Washington D.C. It is up to each state to decide whether to follow their lead to turn national holidays into state holidays. That is why there is no official list of public holidays that applies to all 50 states today.

Back in 1870, Congress designated the first set of holidays in the USA for New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. These holidays were only applicable to federal employees and the District of Columbia. In the years that followed, six more holidays were added. They are Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, Inauguration Day, Columbus Day, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday. The names and dates of many of these holidays changed a bit over the decades, including fixing several on a Monday.

Source: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41990.pdf

For a list of the official public holidays (civic, religious, traditional) in the US, refer to the annual posts on VacationCounts. These federal holidays are observed in most U.S. states with the addition of important local holidays and observances that vary state by state. Since these are popular times to travel, plan ahead by taking vacation during these holidays dates.

Video: History of the Holidays – History Channel

The History of UK Bank Holidays

The origin of bank holidays in the United Kingdom makes for an interesting read. They evolved over time to celebrate local holidays, religious festivals and important dates in UK history. Officially it was the 1871 Bank Holiday Act followed by the Banking and Financial Dealings Act of 1971 that put into law the list of official bank holidays in each of the countries that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland). 

Source: http://libraryblog.lbrut.org.uk/wordpress/2016/12/origins-bank-holidays/

As the term “bank holiday” suggests, initially it was only meant as a day for banks and financial institutions to be allowed to close so staff could take a day off. Eventually other shops and businesses followed suit in addition to government employees along with schools and universities. However the annual list of UK bank holidays is not a legal requirement applied fairly to all workers. This is why it is up to the employer to grant this holiday as a paid day off from work. Like everywhere around the world, some companies are more generous than others when it comes to offering national and bank holidays as part of time-off benefits. 

Religious Observances

You might be wondering about religious holidays and how they fit into the picture. There are numerous annual holidays for religious observances, both major and minor. The observed dates for these may vary based on the standard 12-month calendar. The official list of holidays in your country probably includes at least a few religious holidays based on the predominant religion in your country or region. For example in the USA, Christmas Day is a public holiday across all 50 states and applies to all employees regardless of religion. Celebrated as a religious as well as cultural holiday in the US, Christmas continues to become more secular over the years according to research

In Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, Good Friday is a bank holiday while in Australia and New Zealand, Easter Monday (as per common policy to push holidays which fall on a Sunday to Monday) is a national holiday. 

The majority of religious holidays are not an official public or national holiday in these English-speaking countries, but still worth noting. You may choose to take a vacation day or floating holiday (see below) to observe a religious occasion, practice, or festival. The Holidays and Observances around the world page on timeanddate.com is an excellent reference. Select your country then use the dropdown list to filter for some, many, or all religious observances. Also be aware that school holidays differ from national or state holidays. For example the NYC public school system closes for two major Jewish holidays in the Fall. 

Track Your Floating Holidays along with Vacation and Time Off Benefits with VacationCounts Web App

Floating Holidays

Don’t forget about floating holidays which are designed to give employees a flexible day off. The intended purpose is to celebrate a religious or cultural holiday of your choosing. This is a smart policy decision since not everyone wants to celebrate Good Friday or Easter Monday during the Easter weekend for example. The Jewish holiday calendar has numerous high holy days that would only be of importance to a small group of employees. The same is true for workers that are of the Muslim or Hindu faith. 

The rule for when you can take a floating holiday is up to your employer’s policy. Read your employee benefits guide or browse the HR system to look it up. In my experience, a floating holiday can be taken as a one-off day anytime during the year. It’s true purpose is to provide flexibility and promote diversity and inclusion across the workforce. Ask whether you can take your floating holiday on any date, the rules for accrual and approval, and whether you can combine a floating holiday with vacation days to take advantage of additional paid days off.

Which Countries Say Vacation

USA says Vacation

The current usage of the word vacation originated in America and the U.S. is still the main country that uses it today. As the history suggests it originated among the rich residents of NYC, but the USA has made it our own. It doesn’t matter which of the 50 states you call home (from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans…). We all say vacation. It’s the time to get away! 😉

Since American media including TV and movies are broadcast around the world, English-speakers should be well accustomed to seeing and hearing the word vacation. That is why it is surprising that practically no other native English speaking country prefers the word vacation to describe leisure time off. I think it’s a better word since it is less ambiguous. A holiday can mean multiple things, but a vacation only refers to taking time off from work to travel or leisure.

Planning a big vacation road-trip with your family? Hopefully it won’t turn into a disaster as it does in the string of Vacation movies. Though how many more National Lampoon Vacation films do we need before the rest of the world adopts vacation over holiday? 😉 

Video: Vacation Movie Trailer (2015)

Which Countries Say Holiday

United Kingdom says Holiday

People in the UK use the word holiday as opposed to vacation when talking about taking planned time off from their jobs. This is true in the nations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Phrases such as going on holiday, taking their holidays, travel for holidays, holidays abroad, and summer holiday are quite common. You might hear citizens described as “British holidaymakers” and “ Brits took holidays to…” in the travel press. It can even be abbreviated to hols such as asking your mate “Where are you going on your hols?”

Are you an American expat working in London or planning to take a summer vacation to the UK? Plan to call it a holiday when you arrive. Another term is leave. People in the UK would say they are going on leave in much the same way as going on holiday.

Ireland says Holiday

Ireland tends to follow the UK English standards for language usage and spelling including the word holiday. In the Republic of Ireland people might say they are on holidays just like people in the UK. The one critical difference is that the first official language of Ireland is Irish, not English. Surprised? While you might hear Irish spoken in the Gaeltacht region while visiting the west of Ireland on vacation (certainly not in Dublin), you’ll find that everyone speaks English fluently. However if you want to learn how to say the word holiday in Irish, a video tutorial makes for an excellent introduction to the language. 

Video: How to say ‘holiday’ in Irish Gaelic language

Australia and New Zealand say Holiday

Traveling to Australia or New Zealand on your next vacation? Better refer to it as a holiday instead. Both of these countries which were formerly part of the British Empire and now part of the Commonwealth use the term holiday just like in the UK. Now of course you’ll find other words and phrases that are unique to these two countries.

Before you travel on holidays or vacation to this part of the world, search for Australian and Kiwi slang online. It will be of tremendous help when talking to the locals and getting their take on how they spend their holidays. Whether you are just visiting or working in Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, or elsewhere around these incredible countries, call it a holiday.

Canada says Holiday and Vacation

Since the version of English spoken in Canada derives from British English (they are still a member of The Commonwealth), they default to calling a vacation a holiday. However it seems that many Canadians use the words holiday and vacation interchangeably. From what I read it can vary based upon which province you live and work in as customs vary. However since Canada borders, I’d call it a vacation when visiting popular places such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

What About Your Country?

If you live in another English speaking country or if you learned English as a second language and have a strong preference, let readers know in the comments. Do you say that you’re taking a vacation or going on holidays? Or do you combine the two and say that you are taking a vacation for the holidays? 🙂

Video: The Holiday Film Trailer (2006)

You Say Tomato…

As you can see the terms vacation and holiday are pretty much the same thing when you are talking about taking (paid) time off from work (and life) for the purpose of leisure or travel or relaxation. It gets more tricky when you use paid vacation days for other purposes or when you are referring to national public or bank or company (official) holidays.

At least the words vacation and holiday are pronounced the same in all countries. Unlike tomato which you say one way in North America and a slightly different way in most of the rest of the English-speaking world. There are so many differences between the spelling of common American English and British English words that are also worth reading about. 

Vacation or Holiday? Let’s call the whole thing off!
  • Rozi Khan says:

    Ah! both looks that they are having the same meaning. But thank you so much for making the differences between vacation and holiday. I have enjoyed vacation unlimited times and used both vacation and holiday as saying the same. But I was wrong. This article is very informative and useful for everyone who would misunderstand for treating both the words same.

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