How to take a vacation in your hometown

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By Christopher Elliott

You can take a vacation in your hometown, and it can feel like a vacation, not a cop-out staycation. I know because I’ve been exploring my hometowns with my kids for most of my career.

You won’t believe what we’ve found.

This is the ideal time to talk about a nearby vacation because it’s that time of year. But also because staying close to home is practical and helps save your pennies. You even get to sleep in your own bed. Let us, for just a moment, talk about the latest AAA forecast, which predicted a “record-breaking” 46.9 million Americans would travel 50 miles or more away from home during Independence Day.

Forget, for the moment, that we don’t know if people actually did. No one ever follows up to find out what happened. Let’s focus instead on what lies somewhere around that arbitrary 50-mile mark. I’ve read this for years. Fifty miles seems to be the line between vacation and staycation.

It turns out, that’s plenty of distance. If you want to know how to take a vacation within a 50-mile radius of your hometown, I have a few secrets to share with you. They involve taking a few detours, adopting a loosey-goosey definition of “vacation” and, above all, being curious.

Iden Elliott flies a kite on Jekyll Island in 2015. When people visit Orlando, they don't think of this Georgia island. But it's close -- and affordable.
Iden Elliott flies a kite on Jekyll Island in 2015. When people visit Orlando, they don’t think of this Georgia island. But it’s close — and affordable.

Take the road less traveled when you take a vacation in your hometown

We lived in Central Florida for 12 years, which gave me plenty of time to explore every attraction repeatedly. We had annual passes to the Disney parks, Universal and SeaWorld. It was awesome. But as anyone who lives in the Orlando area will tell you, it wasn’t all there was to do in Orlando.

That brings me to the first secret of taking a vacation in your hometown: Get off the highway that takes you to the big tourist attractions and go somewhere — anywhere — else. (Related: Should you repeat your vacation? Let’s settle this argument once and for all.)

For us, that meant trekking north to Jekyll Island, Ga., a short drive from where we lived. It’s far away from the attractions and tourists, but close enough so that we could make it home for dinner. If you stay overnight, there are lots of great lodging options on Jekyll, including the historic Jekyll Island Club Resort, a former retreat for families that represented one-sixth of the world’s wealth.

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Even closer to home, we found things to do that weren’t theme-park related. Wekiwa Springs State Park, at the headwaters of the Wekiva River, was a favorite place to hike and swim, especially during the off-season. That was a cool day trip for the whole family. (Related: The most dangerous place to vacation might be here.)

My point is, get off the beaten path if you want a real vacation in your hometown. You’d be surprised how much there is to do if you’re open to it.

Iden, Erysse and Aren at the Google campus in 2017. Don't let anyone tell you what a tourist attraction is -- or isn't.
Iden, Erysse and Aren at the Google campus in 2017. Don’t let anyone tell you what a tourist attraction is — or isn’t.

How do you take a vacation in your hometown? Define “vacation”

You have to get creative when you take a vacation in your hometown. Traditionally, the travel industry defines a vacation as a long trip with an overnight stay. And they define tourism as seeing something everyone else sees, such as a museum or a monument.

I beg to differ.

Discard the notion that a vacation has to involve an overnight stay. It doesn’t. Then, question everything you think you know about an attraction. Take the Google campus near San Jose, Calif. You won’t find it in any guidebooks because, technically, it isn’t a tourist attraction.

But my kids were fascinated by it on a recent visit to California. They wanted to see Google, even though its main product was something that only exists online. But walking through the campus, you get a sense of this remarkable company’s corporate culture. My oldest son, Aren, watched the Googleplex employees as they did their innovation thing — or maybe they were just trading office gossip — while we were there. We looked for our cousin, who works for Google, but couldn’t find her. Oh well.

Even if that’s not your idea of fun, there are plenty of other things to do in Mountain View, where the search engine is based. We made a day out of it, and we’d do it again the next time we’re in Northern California.

I don’t think we would have tried our Google adventure if we’d stuck to a more traditional definition of “vacation.” Instead, I would have taken the kids to the Winchester Mystery House (which, by the way, is worth the visit) or California’s Great America (it’s not Orlando, but still fun). You can’t let anyone define what’s interesting, otherwise you’ll become a tourism automaton. Don’t let that happen to you.

Iden Elliott at the New York Public Library in 2012.
Iden Elliott at the New York Public Library in 2012.

Stay curious

Another place I’ve lived: New York City. Oh, don’t act so surprised. Every journalist has to live in New York City at least once. I’ve come back to Manhattan several times with my kids and have found that the best way to see your old hometown is to let their curiosity be the guide. (Here’s what you need to know about travel health and safety.)

Yes, that’s my middle son, Iden, in the New York Public library a few years ago. Why is he there, and not climbing the Statue of Liberty? He saw the movie “Ghostbusters.” The opening sequence takes place right here, and he just had to see it. And I got him to read a book, too. How about that.

My advice: Stay curious. That’s what we do now that we live in Prescott, Ariz. I don’t have to ask the kids where they want to go — they tell me. Lake Watson, with its world-famous granite dells, is a family favorite. Prescott also has several terrific museums and a downtown area that is perfect for hanging out and playing frisbee. I let them take the lead. That’s how to take a vacation in your hometown.

I’m a big believer in zigging when everyone else zags, at least when it comes to vacation advice. For staycations, my zigs involve country roads, creativity and curiosity. I’ll see you out there.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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