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Ambergris Caye, Belize

It's the sad, hard reality of American working life: the standard two-week vacation.

Whether you're just starting your career or switching jobs a few years into the game, it's likely that you're only eligible for a measly two weeks of vacation per year. On average, 77% of American employees get eight days of paid vacation, according to a report by the consumer research firm Mintel. That's barely enough time to recover from jet lag.

Making the most of the little time you have requires smart planning. With just two weeks, you're pretty much locked into taking one week off at a time or scheduling a series of long weekends throughout the year. Your other option, of course: take time off around company-paid holidays like Labor Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day or the Forth of July.

So how do you pack in the maximum amount of rest and relaxation into a few precious days? "If you can get out of seeing your family and squandering all your time seeing relatives, you can go to places like the Caribbean, Mexico and Latin America," says Pauline Frommer, author of the forthcoming Pauline Frommer's Guides and daughter of travel guide expert Arthur Frommer. "Take six long weekends in [the] course of a year."

Frommer's main advice for short trips is to avoid going anywhere that requires you to take more than one plane. If you've got just two weeks, here are five ways to make the most of your time:

Stick within your time zone. Try not to waste time recuperating from jet lag. This applies to older travelers and those who require at least eight hours of sleep. South America is an ideal option, says Frommer. It's within the same time zones as the United States, and the dollar goes farther than it would in Europe. She recommends Ambergris Caye, Belize's largest island. The tropical setting was made infamous several years ago when the reality series Temptation Island was filmed there. There are plenty of direct flights from the northern and southeastern parts of the U.S. that also fly to Costa Rica, Brazil and Argentina.

Avoid hurricanes. So you want to go to the tropics, but you don't want to be put in harm's way? Try some of the islands on the outer region of Hurricane Alley, such as Aruba, Curaçao, or Trinidad and Tobago. "They haven't had a hurricane in over 150 years," says Frommer. Curaçao, in particular, is quiet, with picturesque views of beaches and postcard-perfect sunsets. If you're into snorkeling and other water sports, these islands are all great options.

Go for the classics. Las Vegas remains one of the most popular domestic travel destinations. There are plenty of direct flights there from virtually everywhere in the country. Sin City blends lots of options, too. For those who want to relax by the pool, take your pick. There are top-quality restaurants, shops galore and gambling, gambling, gambling. "It's uncanny how popular that destination is," says Brooke Ferencsik, a spokesperson for Tripadvisor.com. "It appeals to lots of demographics."

Also, consider our neighbors to the north: Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto. They're less than a day's drive away from many points in the Northeast and a quick flight from other parts of the country.

Although it's not in our time zone, London is a direct flight from many U.S. cities. If you're traveling there from the East Coast, in particular, it's only a six-hour flight--very doable for a four-day weekend. That gives you the perfect amount of time to catch some plays, eat Indian food and see the major sites. If you're lucky enough to spend more than a long weekend there, London is also a great home-base for traveling to Edinburgh, Scotland, and Paris.

Try a theme park. If you've done Orlando with the kids one too many times, try incorporating a bit of history into the vacation with Colonial Williamsburg, Va. It recently received a multimillion-dollar face-lift that upgraded the park and the surrounding area. There are now spas, upscale restaurants and golf. With schools starting earlier and earlier, the last two weeks of August tend to be quieter than the rest of the summer.

Do it all at once. If you're willing to blow the two weeks all at once, Ferencsik recommends combining Rome, Italy, with the Amalfi coast. "You're blending the beach and the city," he says. What more could you ask for?

© 2012 Forbes.com

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