Tips for the best 'staycation' ever

Consumer Reports News: May 21, 2009 05:24 PM

With unemployment a reality for so many Americans, and the fear of job loss a weighing heavily on the minds of many more, the idea of a pricey vacation is out of the question a lot of us.

If that wasn’t painful enough, have you noticed how the price of gas has been creeping up lately. The average retail price for a gallon of regular has risen by a quarter, to $2.31, in the past month, and experts predict it’ll go even higher over the next two or three. Surprise, surprise. Do I smell sticky pricing?

So what’s a struggling family to do for fun this summer? How about a staycation? A staycation is an economical alternative to a conventional vacation. Instead of jetting down to Disneyworld or some exotic locale, a staycation might consist of barbecuing around the backyard pool, visiting a nearby museum, or a relaxing day trip to a local park. But because you’re spending time close to home, you’ve got to fight the urge to call the office, make yourself available to the boss, or check e-mail and phone messages, activities that can turn your respite into an extension of work.

If you’re thinking that a staycation might be just what the doctored ordered, I’ve gathered some great tips, strategies, and ideas from  a bona fide expert on the subject. I recently interviewed Matt Wixon, a writer and columnist for the Dallas Morning News and author of the book The Great American Staycation. Here’s what Matt had to say:

Tightwad: When did you discover the term “staycation”? 
Wixon: I think I first heard the term last spring, about the same time most people heard about it. My wife and I have three sons, ages 6, 3 and 1, so we’ve been taking vacations in our hometown and nearby for several years. Part of the reason we stayed close to home was financial, another part was that traveling with young kids can be pretty stressful. Any time I get on a plane with my sons, I can feel the other passengers trying to telepathically direct us toward seats far from theirs. (I don’t blame them.) But my wife and I never used the word “staycation.” We weren’t hip, trendy or creative enough, I guess.

Tightwad: How would you define staycation? 
Wixon: A vacation in which the vacationer stays at home, or near home, while creating the environment of a traditional vacation. “Creating the environment of a traditional vacation” is the important part. It means getting out of the rut of your daily life. It means not planning a stay-at-home vacation that combines leisure time with cleaning out the garage, building bookshelves and a trip to get the car repaired. In my own experiences, and from the staycationers I talked to for the book, I learned that the best staycations come from people who treat a staycation like a real vacation by planning it ahead of time, taking care of as many household projects and chores before the staycation begins, and knowing how to feel like your splurging even when you’re saving money.

Tightwad: If you had a top five or top 10 list of staycation activities, what would be on that list?
Wixon: For families, my list would include:

Behind-the-scenes tours
Formal ones are available at company museums and factories, as well as at fire stations and police stations. But if parents ask nicely, they can also get their kids a tour of a movie theater projection room, the pinsetters at a bowling alley, or other places kids are curious about. Television stations, radio stations, and newspaper production facilities also offer tours.

Museums, observatories, planetariums
Art, science, children’s, aviation, history … there are lots to choose from, and most have areas dedicated to kids. My kids spent nearly two hours at just one exhibit involving golf balls rolling up and down hills to show the science of roller coasters. A new trend is the museum sleepover, a program aimed at preteens and teenagers.

Scenic train rides
Ranging from about 30 minutes long to day trips, they can be a romantic idea for adults but they also often cater to kids. Some have pretend “train robberies” and other shows.

Water parks
They’re easier to find now than they used to be, because many cities have built them as part of their recreation centers and natatoriums. Community swimming pools are another option.

Zoos and aquariums
Young kids love the zoo, of course, and there are some very good aquariums around the country. Many zoos also offer behind-the-scenes “VIP” tours and have special camp programs for kids.

The next five:
• Sporting events (as well as stadium tours)
• Camping (as well as hiking, biking, wilderness viewing areas, state parks)
• Regional amusement parks
• City festivals
• Family fun centers (with bowling, miniature golf, go karts, laser tag, that sort of thing).

Especially for adults
• Sunset cruises on lakes (usually with dinner)
• Wine-tasting and winery tours
• Community theater and touring Broadway productions
• Historic home tours
• Concerts
• Ski-lift rides in offseason
• Staying at a local resort for a few days
• In-town Bed and Breakfasts

Tightwad: Are staycation activities pretty much the same today as they were in previous recessions or are there new wrinkles?
Wixon: Camping, for example, is a classic low-cost vacation idea that has always been popular. I think the difference now is that we have a lot more options. We also are so much more connected with the Internet. It’s easier to research the possibilities in your city that you don’t know about, as well as the attractions and destinations within about 100 to150 miles. (Yes, you can travel some with a staycation.)

Tightwad: Would you say that the staycation is a bona fide trend or more of a fad? 
Wixon: I’m sure the idea will fade some when the economy rebounds and people begin taking more traditional vacations. After all, nothing will ever replace the traditional vacation. But I think people who are afraid to try a staycation, maybe because they think they’ll be bored or unhappy, will try it out of necessity and have a great time. Then it will become a viable option in the future to save money for a big trip or just to avoid the stress of travel.

Tightwad: What’s the upside to staycations (for example, maybe families spend less money, get to spend more time together, support local tourism, and the local economy)?
Wixon: The question nails most of it. A staycation allows a family to save money while spending more quality time together and helping a local economy. Avoiding the hassle of travel is another big benefit. You’ll be in control of the itinerary instead of an airline that is rarely on time. You won’t worry about what luggage you need to check and whether it will make it to your destination with you. There will be no waiting in lines at the airport, no questions such as “have you had control of your bag since you packed it?” and no chance you’ll be randomly selected for a baggage inspection or body search. We’ve all heard someone say, “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation.” The hassle of travel is the reason.

Tightwad: How about a downside? 
Wixon: It’s so important to treat the staycation as much like a traditional vacation as possible. It’s a good idea to give the staycation a start and end date and devote as much of the time in between to relaxing, having fun, and breaking out of a rut. For any vacation, staycation or traditional, you have to unplug. Unplug from work, from your chores, from the daily compulsion to get things done.

Tightwad: Finally, what are your personal favorite staycation things to do?
Wixon: I love sporting events, museums, comedy clubs, concerts, even just driving to a nearby town and exploring a little. But with young kids, some of the simplest things create the best staycation memories. Riding the commuter train downtown is a huge thrill for my kids, and when the destination is the aquarium or a museum, it becomes a staycation day they talk about for weeks. During our last family staycation, I took my kids to the indoor aquatic center in our city so they could try out the slides, spray water on me and show me their swimming moves. Afterward, we stopped at a store to get some cookies. We sat down to eat them, and between bites of cookie, Ryan asked me this:

“Dad, don’t you think this is the best special day ever?”

That’s all it took for the best special day ever. Swimming and cookies. That was a reminder to me of how great a staycation can be. It might not be the vacation of a lifetime, but it’s the right vacation for this time in my life.

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