Summer is underway and the roads and skies are packed with families heading out on vacation. Not everyone is going away, however. Nearly two-thirds of Americans are planning to stick around home this year and take a staycation, according to WalletHub. Google data shows that it’s a popular search term, with a 58% increase in search frequency since 2010 and a 10% year-over-year increase in 2015.

Considering that the average cost of a vacation for a family of four is $4,580, according to American Express, and when you add to that the cost of summer camps, childcare, fees for public swimming pools and the like, summertime can easily put a financial strain on families.

“Staycations aren’t just trendy. They are smart,” says Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations with Freedom Financial Network. “All too often, people end up charging an expensive trip on a credit card and then find themselves paying for it months or even years later.” If you don’t want to go into debt to go away, here is how to make sure your time off is relaxing and fun – that is, a real vacation.

Set Your Boundaries – and a Budget

Approach your staycation as you would a regular holiday and create an activity plan and a corresponding budget. For a week’s vacation, a good general budget is $500, says David Bakke, a travel expert for Money Crashers. “It’s obviously variable, but this is a good rule of thumb.”

You’ll need to establish some boundaries to keep “real life” from intruding while your family is on its staycation. Decide on limits for cell phone use and set up an out-of-office email message for the duration of your time “away.” You might consider putting a stop on your mail with the post office, and let friends and family know that you are on vacation. However you handle your time off, it’s important to treat the time as special so you don’t spend it as a working holiday.

Next, decide how far you want to travel to any nearby destinations and set a mileage limit – maybe 20, 30 or 50 miles. If public transportation is available, consider whether using it is better for your budget than gassing up your car.

Think Like a Tourist

Hold a family meeting and let everyone pick a venue or activity each day.  For families with younger children, it might be worth investigating local farms as summer is filled with opportunities to “pick your own” fruits and vegetables. And metropolitan areas are filled with museums, galleries, zoos and other fun spots to visit.

“Research the tourism website for your state. It's typically a gold mine for finding fun and interesting stuff to do that is normally just a short car ride away,” says Bakke, who has enjoyed staycations with his own family. “That can make for a few good day trips.” Perhaps there’s a nearby Lego museum, for example, or a great water park.

You could decide to splurge on one or two nights at a local hotel or bed and breakfast for a change of scenery and free swimming pool and other amenities. Many hotels have mid-week deals that could save you money and allow for a longer stay.

Check out local minor league or town team games in your area, too – remember, summer is baseball season. And don’t forget that state and county fairs typically happen in the late summer and early fall. “Use a deal-of-the-day website such as Groupon,” suggests Bakke. “It can offer discounted vouchers for 50% off – or more – for restaurants and other entertainment venues, which will save you money.”

Mix It Up at Home

If you decide to stay closer to home, create an environment that is out of the ordinary. Maybe that means setting up a backyard campsite. Pitch a tent, bring out the grill and enjoy hot dogs and s’mores before you stargaze. Plan special meals, take picnics to local parks and stock up on treats that are not usually found in your kitchen. Team up with family friends and enjoy a BBQ, or hire a babysitter one day or evening so you and your partner can have some time alone.

You might even tackle a family project. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘all work and no play,’ but if you’ve been wanting time to finish a cross-stitch project or some landscaping, go for it. Involve the kids in painting their rooms or growing something in the garden,” suggests Gallegos. Other ideas? Set up a spa in your bathroom with scented candles and give yourself (and your kids) a manicure and pedicure. Or you could enjoy a family “cook-off” in the kitchen one night.

Look for Free Entertainment

Bakke suggests checking regional community calendars for both your town and the next one or two over. “There might be a local festival or a free movie night or a museum that offers free admission on certain days of the week,” he says. Call around to local gyms or music centers and see if you can try out a class or two for free.

If you have young children, don’t neglect your local library. “Many of them offer story times for younger children. The one near me has a day where comfort dogs come in for a ‘show and tell’ presentation. My son loved that when we attended one,” says Bakke. 

Don’t feel you have to fill every single minute with fun, but don’t let inertia overtake your time. The nice thing about a staycation is that if it rains one day, you aren't stuck in a hotel room. You can call it pajama day and spend the time reading and watching movies with the kids, with no-guilt screen time.

The Bottom Line

By using your imagination and ingenuity to create a game plan, a staycation can make a fun break in your summer routine without paying for that time well into the fall – or beyond.

“Remember that at one time in the not-too-distant past, relatively few people traveled anywhere on vacation,” says Gallegos. “Going away was the exception, not the rule.” The point of a staycation is to take a break from your regular routine and reconnect with your family and spouse.

You may also be interested in Vacation Saving Tips, 10 Tips for a Cheaper, Better Vacation and 7 Ways to Save on Summer Getaways.

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