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Plan Your Great American Staycation

Plan Your Great American Staycation

Chuck that cellphone. Load the family in the minivan. Hit the road. It's time to get going on that great American staycation.

What is a staycation? It's a vacation spent locally in the form of outings and day trips to nearby attractions. A staycation can be an afternoon at a local museum or a day at the beach or state park.

"A staycation doesn't have to be in your town," says Erica I. Peña-Vest, travel editor for GuidetoMilitaryTravel.com . "These days, it more implies somewhere you can affordably travel to. With declining fuel prices, and the fact that you can fit your whole family in a car, anywhere you can travel by car can be an ideal staycation."

Finding a local destination

Staycations allow families to discover or rediscover local travel spots. They can be mini-getaways to a spa in the next town ( www.spafinder.com ); visits to amusement parks, observatories, or planetariums; an outing to a PickYourOwn.org fruit and vegetable farm; a day at the ballgame; or a local Civil War reenactment ( www.reenactmenthq.com) .

"Being a family of six makes actual vacations really pricey," says military wife Catherine Lang, who runs the blog 5 Nuts in a Nutshell. "On a military salary, flying and hotels can really take up a chunk of cash for a family of six. So we are a minivan, day-trip loving family."

Lang, whose husband is stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., says the best staycations for her family have been those recommended by other military families. She advises attending unit family barbecues to swap ideas and to find out about military discounts.

"Because if there is one thing military wives like to talk about, it's where the fun and discounts are," says Lang. "Most places around military bases have military discounts."

Peña-Vest says the lowest rates and highest discounts are during the off-season, when kids are still in school. She says to watch for special events that honor servicemembers and veterans around holidays like the Fourth of July and Veterans Day.

Military families often travel across the U.S. by virtue of assignment, so why not act like a tourist and visit attractions in the new location? Checking the National Register of Historic Places is a great start for finding easily missed points of interest.

"My husband and I have been utilizing staycations from the very moment we PCS'd to the Washington, D.C., area and started a home together," says Rachel Tringali Marston, who runs The Professional Army Wife blog. "When we got here, we wrote out a list of local sites, museums, and parks all within minutes' drive from us."

This has included biking the Mount Vernon Trail from George Washington's estate and taking Metro into the city to walk around the National Mall and visit the Smithsonian Museum of American History. The couple's close proximity to several national parks also has been a plus, particularly because the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is free to all active duty servicemembers and their dependents.

Plenty of other resources are available for servicemembers. "The Morale, Welfare and Recreation program has been a great resource for us because they share with us the other local sites that we might not have otherwise known about, as well as giving military families discounted rates for visits," says Marston.

Another great resource is DoD's searchable military installations websitefor installations and state resources, including camping equipment rentals and water sports and recreational equipment rentals, available to military and family members.

Save some dough

Why a staycation? According to the 2014 American Express Spending & Saving Tracker, the average summer travel expense per person in the U.S. is $1,145, or $4,580 for a family of four. A staycation can allow families to save money, avoid travel hassles, spend more quality time together, and help the local economy.

"Staycations are a great option when you're on a budget," says Sasha Grabenstetter, Consumer Economics Educator at the University of Illinois Extension. "People often forget that a staycation, while cheaper than traveling to a beach (resort) or foreign land, is still a type of vacation, and they need to remember to budget for those extra expenses they normally wouldn't have."

WalletHub's 2014 Best and Worst Cities for Staycations selected Buffalo, N.Y., for its No. 1 spot. Rounding out the top five were Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Portland, Ore. WalletHub's criteria ranged from the number of public golf courses and swimming pools per capita to the cost of maid services. The worst city on the list? Chula Vista, Calif.

"Staycations don't have to be a sacrifice for couples or families," says Jill Gonzalez, WalletHub spokesperson.

Gonzalez suggests couples seek out one-night-only events that make time together more luxurious than just another date night. Families with kids, she says, should aim for day trips to nearby amusement parks or fun trails to forge strong, lasting memories.

"Just remember, leave the chores out of the equation or else it won't feel like a vacation," says Gonzalez.

TripAdvisor.com, mobile apps like Field Trip and Eventful, and daily deal sites such as Living Social and Groupon are great sources to plan staycations. DiscoverTheForest.com can help users find every hiking trail, campsite, and playground in the area. Grabenstetter says military families can save money if they plan their staycation right.

"Look for free or low-cost events happening right in your town or nearby towns," says Grabenstetter. "Visit the restaurants you've wanted to check out but never had the time to go. Make a day out of visiting your downtown, even if it's small."

With the weather getting warmer, staycations offer opportunities to enjoy concerts or movies in the park, scenic train rides, water parks, and city festivals ( www.fairsandfestivals.net ). Couples can enjoy sunset cruises, hot air balloon rides, or wine tasting and winery tours. For now, D.C.-based Marston says she plans to make the most of their stay in the nation's capitol.

"We don't know when we'll get a chance to come back due to my husband's military service," says Marston. "The good thing is once we do get orders to go to a completely new location, we'll do the same thing all over again!"