One of the best vacations my family ever had was the one we never took.
Two years ago we were saving for a down payment and had a brand-new baby, so a lavish beach holiday was not in the cards. But rather than lament our lack of a getaway, we doubled down on the idea of staying put and had ourselves a five-star staycation.
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We quickly learned that there are rules to follow if you want a fabulous staycation and not just a week spent vacuuming the living room. If done right, a staycation offers perks that can actually trump a week spent lounging on the beach. You can save money, splurge on local attractions and end the vacation more rested than you would if you’d traveled. And the best part: no unpacking!
First, consider the downsides of a far-flung holiday: According to a recent American Express Travel poll, the average family of four spends about $4,000 ($1,000 per person) on a family trip. Said trip is bookended by an exhausting day of travel. If you have small kids, you may not have babysitting available in Bora Bora, which means that you never get a date night on your week off. And, after shelling out lots on food and lodging, there may be little left over for other splurges to keep everyone entertained.
Which is why, with a savings goal like a down payment on a forever home in mind, we opted for our staycation. To do it right, we even made a rule book we stuck to.
Rule No. 1: Treat it like a real vacation
The biggest risk to a staycation is that you never take it seriously and don’t bother to put in for the vacation days at work or set aside a budget. If there are no airplane tickets to buy, it’s easy to treat it haphazardly. To avoid that, we picked a week midsummer and circled it in red.
My husband put in a vacation request, and I told my clients that I would be away for the week. We also made a budget. We wouldn’t need money for a hotel, travel, rental car or endless meals out. But we did want to treat ourselves. So, we budgeted $500 in gas for day trips, a few meals out and other incidentals.
Rule No. 2: Plan your itinerary
Next, we went to the bookstore and bought a guidebook for our area and a hiking trail guidebook for nature trail options. We live within commuting distance of Manhattan, but there are also plenty of places in New Jersey we had never been to and decided this was the time to discover them.
We found a lake that was a 45-minute drive from our house; a homespun amusement park that was an hour away; and a beach on the Jersey Shore that we could reach within the day. Even off-the-beaten-path areas often have books on hiking trails and where to take the kids. Cost: $20.
We brought our camera everywhere and took loads of great family pictures. It helped us all feel like we were enjoying something truly special.
Rule No. 3: Go off the grid
Even though we weren’t going anywhere, no one else knew that. We told our friends and family that we were going on vacation. We set vacation responses on our email and voicemail. We decided that computers and iPhones would be restricted to vacation-related activities. No checking of work emails was allowed.
Rule No. 4: Treat your home like a hotel
One of the best parts of staying in a hotel is that someone else cleans it. I did not want to spend my week cleaning my house. So, as part of the budget, we splurged on a cleaning service to come at the beginning of the week. This meant that we could start the week relaxed and not feel the urge to scrub the toilet. Although we didn’t own a home at the time, if we did, I would have splurged on a gardener too, so we wouldn’t have to mow. Cost: $150.
Rule No. 5: Get a sitter
Since we were going to be at home, we wanted to make sure we had time for a date night (or two.) So we lined up the kids’ favorite sitter to come not once during the week, but twice. We had her come one evening and once during the day so we could have a day out hiking at a grown-up speed. The kids were comfortable because they knew the sitter, and we didn’t have to scramble to find a stranger in a strange town. Cost: $80.
Rule No. 6: Splurge
Since this was our vacation, we splurged on a restaurant that was normally out of our budget. It was a great chance to try the newest eatery in town, and since we had planned for it, there was no guilt about spending too much. Rather than drive, we took a taxi so no one had to be the designated driver. Cost: $150.
RELATED: Why You Need to Splurge On Yourself
Rule No. 7: Go to the beach (or lake)
We took lots of day-trips, including midweek trips to nearby lakes to avoid the crowds and take advantage of midweek entry-fee discounts. Because we were traveling from home, it was easy to pack lunches and bring whatever accessories were needed for the day. At the end of the day, we got to come home to our own comfortable house. Cost for fees and gas: $100.
Rule No. 8: Take pictures
We brought our camera with us everywhere and took loads of great family pictures. It helped us all feel like we were enjoying something truly special. And we were. It was time together, which is priceless.
Total cost: $500
Ronda Kaysen, a freelance writer, contributes regularly to The New York Times. Her articles and essays have also appeared in The Chicago Tribune, MSNBC.com, Architectural Record, Habitat Magazine, Parenting magazine, The Washington Post, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Thomson Reuters and the Huffington Post. She lives in New Jersey with her family.