Have kids, will travel - or so we thought.
Despite plans to visit the Smoky Mountains this summer on our continuing "Kapolnek National Park Tour," soaring gas prices and an uncertain economy had us square in the middle of our own "staycation," emphasis on the "stay."
We bought a pool pass (a bargain at $160) and let the kids loose in (gasp!) the backyard. What a concept! Left to their own devices, and with the help of other staycationing friends on the block, my four children (OK, maybe not the 15-year-old) are making their own fun this summer - at home.
Think backyard baseball and driveway tennis, sleepovers, marshmallow roasts, riding bikes, catching frogs by day, lightning bugs by night. Heck, we moms even sprung for the Country Time one day when the mood struck for a lemonade stand. For added excitement, we break out the hoses and let the kids wash the cars in their bathing suits.
On this staycation, Julie McCoy need not apply. The kids are the cruise directors, and fun is limited only by their imaginations. Why didn't we think of this sooner?
Indeed, with rising gas and airline ticket prices, more than 50 percent of Americans are changing summer travel plans, according to a survey by TripAdvisor, making the staycation a viable lower-cost alternative.
"We started seeing this trend even before some of these escalating issues like the mortgage crisis and gas prices," said Lois Backon, vice president of the Families and Work Institute. "But now it's kind of exploded with so many people canceling big vacations and staying closer to home."
The trend goes beyond just gas prices to sheer dollars and cents. "People are asking themselves, 'Is this what I want to do? Is this how I want to spend this money?'" Backon said.
Jeff and Valerie Tokars of Long Grove know the feeling. Reluctant to pay $3,000 to fly their family of four to California to celebrate Valerie's 40th birthday, they canceled the trip and drove to Galena instead.
"We'd rather have that three grand in the bank in case something happens with the economy," Jeff Tokars said.
Likewise, Kim and Tom Brey of Lake in the Hills scrapped their plans for a driving trip to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. With gas prices surging past $4 per gallon - and the prospect of packing the miles on their two newer cars - "we thought, this just isn't going to work," said Kim.
Switching gears, the Breys set their sights on Ohio's Cedar Point Amusement Park. But again, "it was just too far," Kim said. Instead, the Breys are staying put, taking day trips to, among other places, Lake Geneva, Great America and downtown Chicago.
"We all loaded in the car and went to Lincoln Park one day," Kim said. "We brought a football and went to a festival for dinner, and the zoo because the zoo's free."
Before the summer's over, the Breys will head to Wisconsin for a family camping trip. And, in a creative spin on family movie night, they're planning to host their first "driveway drive-in," showing movies on their garage door for friends and neighbors.
"We're going to rent a popcorn machine and a slushie machine and invite the neighbors over," Kim said.
Besides the obvious financial advantages, experts say a staycation can help people reconnect with their own hometowns.
"People are really getting familiar with their town, city or area," Backon said. "They're surprised by how much there is to do in their own backyard - literally."
Woodfield Chicago Northwest Convention Bureau President Fran Bolson cheers staycations for giving the bureau a chance to showcase what Chicago's suburbs have to offer. The recent grand opening of Legoland Discovery Center at Streets of Woodfield couldn't have come at a better time, she says. "It really rounds out our family attractions," Bolson said.
Locally, community pools and water parks, such as Stingray Bay Family Aquatic Center in Huntley, are seeing attendance numbers climb. Attendance at Stingray Bay is up 25 percent over last year, according to Huntley Park District Recreation Director Debbie Kraus. Even more telling, she said, is people are still buying season passes.
"We're still selling season passes, which is unusual this time of year," Kraus said.
A family of four can get a season pass to Stingray Bay for as little as $149 if they live in the Huntley Park District. That's less than the price of one night in most hotels in the Wisconsin Dells.
Hoping to tap into the staycationer market, the Chicago Office of Tourism earlier this summer launched its Urban Adventures series giving visitors and residents day trip ideas for exploring, or rediscovering, the city. Many suggested events and destinations are kid-friendly and free. Visit www.summerinchicago.com.
Chicago Kimpton hotels and Metra also joined forces, offering summer escape packages to encourage suburban residents to staycation in Chicago. To qualify for the package, guests must ride Metra into Chicago and present their Metra ticket at check-in. Packages start at $179 per night and are good through Sept. 1.
"With gas prices soaring and airline fees on the rise, travelers are looking to save by exploring what their own city has to offer instead of leaving town," said Glenn Innes, director of sales and marketing for Chicago Kimpton hotels. "We want to encourage them to do this in an eco-friendly fashion, using public transportation."
Whether your staycation takes you to downtown Chicago this summer, or only as far as your own backyard, experts offer some tips for making sure it doesn't disappoint.
First, have an itinerary. "Be intentional in your planning," Backon said. "Plan out what you're going to do each day just like you would do if you were going to Disney."
Second, unplug. Backon suggests limiting, or even eliminating, computer access time, including e-mail, as well as TV, video games, and yes, your Blackberry. "When you go on vacation, you tend to leave those toys behind," Backon said. "If you're looking at a staycation as family bonding time, then you have to leave those things behind."
Experts also recommend taking pictures and video just as you would do if you were going away on vacation.
Looking back, the Brey family doesn't regret its decision to stay home.
"We're thinking about going to Hawaii next year so, by holding back this year, we're able to save some money," Kim Brey said. "Plus, we're getting a boatload of stuff done around the house."
Too broke to take a long-distance vacation? Here are some closer-to-home alternatives.
Where you wanted to go: To another country
Instead try: Hitting one of the 180 diverse neighborhoods in Chicago to soak up some ethnic ambience. Try Little Saigon, Andersonville, Chinatown, Greek Town or Ukranian Village to slip off to another land just for a day. See chicagoneighborhoods.cc
Where you wanted to go: On safari in Africa
Instead try: One of our great local zoos. OK - so maybe it's not quite the same as watching lions hunt or a herd of hippos floating in the Zambezi River, but there are some pluses. You can see animals from a variety of continents in one stop. For more info, see lpzoo.com or brookfieldzoo.org.
Where you wanted to go: The ocean
Instead try: Hitting one of Chicago's beaches. Technically, if you can't see land on the other side, it's kind of like being at the ocean. Right? Try North Avenue beach for a more hip scene, South Shore beach for that resort feel, Oak Street beach to people watch or Osterman beach if you want to be left alone.
Where you wanted to go: Vegas
Instead try: One of our local riverboat casinos. I know, it's not the same, but you can still get your blackjack and buffet fix in. Check out illinoiscasinos.net
Where you wanted to go: The desert
Instead try: The dunes in Indiana. Yeah, it's on a lake, but it's the biggest chunk of sand in our area. Mount Baldy dune is 126 feet high! Hike around and camp or hop on an ATV and hit the Badlands. For more information, see nps.gov/indu
Where you wanted to go: The mountains
Instead try: Hiking in Starved Rock State Park or Mississippi Palisades State Park. That's about as hilly as it gets for us flatlanders. There are more than 270 trails in Illinois. Visit dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/programs/hiking/.