Image: Bike ride
Eddy Risch  /  AP file
On your home vacation, consider taking a leisurely bike ride through your home town.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/29/2008 11:21:52 AM ET 2008-05-29T15:21:52

Imagine the perfect summer vacation: Swimming in clear blue water, tennis and a little bicycling, barbecued meals, a concert under the stars, a ballgame with fireworks, maybe even a museum or two …. and all for free.

Well, okay, not for free – but for a fraction of what other people will pay.

How? By vacationing at home.

Depending, of course, on where you live, the home-based vacation — also known as a "staycation" — can be a great alternative to an expensive two- or three-week trip, assuming you plan it well and really treat it as a true vacation. My family and I have done it a couple of times, and we had a ball.

This could be the year for it, with gas prices topping $4 a gallon and air travel costing more and becoming more of a hassle. The dollar has fallen sharply over the past year, making foreign travel awfully pricey for most Americans.

In its annual summer vacation survey, the American Automobile Association said the average North American vacation will cost $244 per day for two people for lodging and meals. The priciest destination will be Honolulu, where room and food for two adults will average $673 a day. Add some kids and airfare, and a 10-day vacation could top $10,000, easy. Wow!

This is just an average, and you could save money by staying in discount hotels and keepingo away from full-service restaurants. Still, it makes you think. Imagine if you spent all that and it rained!

Obviously the big savings from a home-based vacation are transportation costs and lodging, but there are others. Even if you want to eat out every day, you can limit that to dinner. Eating breakfast at a fancy resort isn’t worth it.

In fact, on a winter vacation in Puerto Rico a few years ago, my wife and son and I found our isolated resort was charging a small fortune for breakfast. Since we’re not big breakfast eaters anyway, we resorted to boiling eggs in the little coffee pot in our room. It was nice not to have to get dressed for the dining room. We ate in bathing suits by the pool.

Fourth of July fireworks
Jimmy May  /  AP
Fireworks are seen above in Town Park in Bloomsburg, Pa., on July 4 last year. With a little planning, you can spend your vacation closer to home without busting your bank account.

The point is, a little sensible cost saving doesn’t ruin a vacation. The home-based vacation just expands on the smart management decisions you’d make when traveling.

On our home vacations we ride our bikes to the town pool when it opens at noon, spend an hour or two before it gets crowded, then go back in the evening when the mob scene is winding down. In fact, we found the pool pretty nice all day during August, with so many people away.

Our little suburban town has lots of free tennis courts and bike trails. There are lovely state and county parks nearby for kayaking, canoeing, sailing and fishing. We can get to the New Jersey beaches in about 45 minutes.

Philadelphia is just half an hour away and offers all the historical sites, fine dining and culture a vacationer could want. Lots of people spend small fortunes traveling here for the things that are on our doorstep.

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Granted, not every community offers all these vacation-style activities. But many people live within easy drive of attractions they never find time to visit. Well, this is your chance.

In my view, the two biggest pleasures of vacationing are getting a break from work and hanging out with my family. Those work just fine at home. And when you vacation at home you don’t find yourself peeling off a twenty-dollar bill every 15 minutes.

The real obstacle is psychological. Americans have been conditioned to think a vacation means travel. Expensive vacations help us keep up with the Joneses.

Hey, don’t let other people set your agenda!

But, as I said earlier, there are some tricks to this.

First, treat the home vacation as a real vacation, not just a poor alternative. That means preparing. Pay the bills ahead of time, just as you would before traveling. Mow the lawn and do the other chores you’d finish before leaving on a trip, so they don’t hang over you on your vacation.

Get hold of some local travel guides — the ones out-of-towners would get. Around home, we all fall into patterns, and there may be all sorts of local attractions you’ve forgotten or never knew about.

Plan a list of activities just as you would if you went to Rome or Athens, else you fritter the days away.

Set a budget — something less than you’d spend traveling but more than you’d spend in your regular routine at home. Don’t get too frugal. If you’re saving a bundle on airfares and hotels, you can splurge on meals and entertainment.

Get everyone to pitch in. There may be practical reasons that Mom or Dad is the chief cook and bottle washer the rest of the time, but that’s no excuse for saddling the same person with the chores now.

In fact, all but the most essential chores should be avoided. One of the biggest threats to a home vacation is the feeling that, “Well, I’m home and have some time… Maybe I can finally get to tidying up the garage…”

Absolutely not – this is a vacation!

Don’t get me wrong: I like to travel as much as anyone. And, sure, I want my son to see new things and have experiences he won’t have around home. But those European cathedrals will still be there next year, and so will Old Faithful.

And if you finish this summer without a pile of vacation debt, you’ll have a head start on great trip — next year.

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