Slashing your annual vacation travel budget is an easy way to save money, and families can choose a much less expensive "staycation" to achieve that goal. But staying at home or close to home can look, sound, taste and feel like a vacation.
"Vacation sounds a little more exotic, but with a staycation, it's all about that creativity. You can take something ordinary and make it extraordinary," says Paul Tocknell, who founded the Staycation Ideas website with his wife, Holly. "It's not necessarily about the destination; it's about the journey."
Tocknell's secret is to think like a tourist. Look at your own area as an outsider might, and staycation destination ideas will present themselves.
Here are five tips for making a staycation feel like a vacation.
Schedule at least a few specific activities in advance, or you might find yourself at the end of a "nothing special" week off and wonder where the time went. A themed staycation might be the way to go.
From beach living to space adventure, almost any idea can inspire activities, meals and day trips. Michelle Baker and her husband, of State College, Pa., did just that last year for their one-year anniversary, when a recent house purchase made heading to Key West, Fla., for the fourth straight year impossible. Instead, they were able to save money by staying at home and eating Cuban food, making tropical drinks and conch fritters, lounging by the pool, and hitting up some downtown bars for live music.
"We enjoyed each other's company, took a complete break from real life and celebrated Key West here at home," Baker says.
Explore the unknown
Your local convention and visitor's bureau is a good source for new-to-you places, upcoming festivals and performances for a staycation.
"Exploring what's happening one county over can open up a world of new experiences," says Donna Bailey-Taylor, executive director of the Smithfield/Johnston County Visitors Bureau in Smithfield, N.C. Local online forums can be other sources.
Seek new ways to explore your city or a nearby one and save money, whether it's walking, biking or even renting a personal transporter -- many major cities offer Segway tours. Even taking public transportation, whether it's a train, subway or trolley, instead of your car to get to a destination can make things interesting.
Sites such as Zozi.com, which offers activities for exploring 62 cities in new ways, can provide specific ideas or inspiration. For example, there's a day in San Francisco for "diving for abalone and learning to cook your catch," the "Oregon Brewery Trail Bike Tour" in Portland, or the "urban hike photography lesson" in Washington, D.C.
Be on the look out for deals
It could be easy to overdo a staycation and wind up spending as much as you would on a travel vacation, especially if it involves "eats and sleeps." These expenses can add up, Tocknell says.
But being local makes it easier to take advantage of last-minute deals and save money.
Bailey-Taylor advises people to become Facebook fans of area museums for event information and to learn of Facebook-exclusive specials.
Locals can save money on admission tickets, dining and spa visits through Groupon.com, a site featuring a daily deal in more than 500 markets. Various other daily deal websites watch for last-minute discounts on activities and nearby places to stay. For example, CakeDeals.com aggregates multiple daily deal sites, so you don't have to bookmark and visit them individually.
Candi Sparks, a financial literacy expert and creator of the "Can I Have Some Money?" children's book series and workshops, recommends off-peak and seasonal discounts. Sarah Welch, co-founder of the Buttoned Up website that offers tips on organizing and planning, says to look for free outdoor movie nights and museum tickets.
Make at-home vacation worthy
Staycations can literally involve staying put. Terra Wellington, author of "The Mom's Guide to Growing Your Family Green," suggests doing things that carry you away from daily life, whether it's reading a hot fiction book or having a marathon viewing session of an entire TV show.
If you're feeling creative, use your time to get caught up on craft projects or cook something you see that day on the Food Network, Wellington says.
Laundry, house cleaning, bank runs, soccer practice and medical appointments don't make the cut. Encourage family interaction by putting blankets over TVs and getting out board games or cards.
Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Freedom Debt Relief in Phoenix, says any project around the house can become a family affair while you save money. Get the kids involved in painting their rooms or gardening.
Whether staying home or near to home, Wellington says, there are "free things you can do that carry you away from your daily life."
Whether you're staying home, day-tripping, or stealing a night away, staycation success may well mean going off the grid to save money.
Wellington advises an "out of office" auto-reply and alerting friends, family and colleagues you'll be out of touch. Even call it a vacation.
"If you are asked where you are going, give a vague answer -- like 'not too far away this year' or 'a road trip to wherever my heart takes me,'" she says. "Don't feel obligated to make excuses for or backpedal about it being a staycation."
Since this is time for yourself and family, the computer and iPhone should stay off. Sparks says those actions will help "make yourself and everyone else aware that you have gone fishing for the week."