The Staycation Effect: 5 reasons to vacation now

Here’s your reward for taking a staycation this summer.

The price of a real vacation is now a bargain. A steal, actually.

Why? A lot of Americans skipped their summer getaway, forcing nervous rental companies, hotels and restaurants to slash prices. We had our reasons for staying home, of course. Record high gas prices, a soft economy and air travel woes made us miss the expensive out-of-town vacation.

So between now and the holidays — the traditional off-season for a lot of vacation hotspots — here’s your chance to make up for lost time. The deals will be good. Really good.

Call it the staycation effect.

Consider that Florida is in a deep recession, weighed down by declining real estate values and rising unemployment. In Orlando, hotel rates are expected to go into freefall as properties get desperate to fill rooms.

Ditto for Las Vegas, which is seeing its lowest hotel rates in five years, according to a recent survey. Among the bargains: $60 a night at the Monte Carlo, $103 a night at Loews Lake Las Vegas and $199 a night at the Wynn.

But there are other reasons why you should book a vacation now, in the waning days of summer. Reasons that go beyond the bargain you’ll probably find.

1. It’s a “magical” time of the year.
When it comes to tourism, Orlando turns into a ghost town in September, which may be why many of the city’s top restaurants throw a fire sale. It’s called Orlando Magical Dining Month. The event is billed as a showcase of the globally influenced plates being served in Orlando’s “celebrity-chef studded eateries, one-of-a kind resort kitchens and award-winning neighborhood establishments.” Participating restaurants feature three-course, prix fixe dinners for $19 or $29 all month long. These aren’t B-list places, either. Among the participating restaurants are Le Coq Au Vin and Emeril’s.

2. Entire islands are on sale.
Few destinations have been as hard-hit by the staycation trend as Hawaii. The overall number of visitors fell about five percent during the first half of the year, which prompted the Hawaii Convention & Visitors Bureau to pump about $3 million into a campaign to bring people back to the islands. The result (PDF) is a comprehensive initiative offering deeply discounted airfare, free hotel room nights, free meals, free rental cars and free food and beverage dining credits. You’ll save “at least” $200 on your next trip to Hawaii, it promises. This kind of sweeping discount on meals, cars and other activities comes along once in a generation. It’s enough to make me want to say Aloha to the Aloha State.

3. Some vacations are free.
Ever wanted to visit Lancaster County, Pa.? The Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau is giving away two nights at the Lancaster Arts Hotel this fall. Lancaster County is one of my favorite places to visit during the fall. It’s quiet and the fall foliage is spectacular. If you’re looking for something faster-paced, Las Vegas is offering a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to experience Sin City with three chances to win everything from a tattoo at Vince Neil Ink to a Zero-Gravity plane ride. If you’re reading this before the end of September, there’s still time to enter the contest. If not, ask yourself: if more people take staycations, imagine what next year’s giveaway will look like.

4. Good things come in packages.
Not only are the package deals offered by the likes of online travel agencies like Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity getting more and more affordable, hotels are getting into the act, too. For example, at the Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, Ill., guests can take advantage of one of its deeply-discounted fall packages. Among its deals are a fall bonfire special, which includes a campfire sing-a-long with a direct descendent of Buffalo Bill or a horse-drawn hay wagon ride around the resort, plus a $25 breakfast voucher and, of course, accommodations. It’s available from Sept. 5 to Nov. 23, and rates start at $119 a night. (The cheapest rate I could find on its site during August is $139.)

5. Yes, even Europe is discounted.
Worried about the sinking dollar? Just wait a few weeks for your European vacation, and you could save big bucks. I’ve been giving this advice for years, but this year the deals are particularly attractive. Here’s an example. Auto Europe’s combination airfare/car rental rates, valid on departures from Sept. 1 through Oct. 31, include roundtrip airfare (along with the fuel surcharge) and three days of rental. Boston to Venice, Italy, is $797. With the money you save, you could get a room at the San Clemente Palace Hotel & Resort.

But my favorite reason for planning a fall getaway goes beyond these sales and specials. It has to do with the fact that almost no one else vacations in September, October and November.

One of my most memorable off-season vacations happened last year at the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club & Spa in Marco Island, Fla. The summer crowds had vanished, leaving a near-empty beach and a staff eager to lavish personal attention on the guests who remained. We never had to wait for a table at Quinn’s on the Beach, a restaurant that served tasty tropical drinks and Caribbean-themed appetizers. And the highlight of our visit was a waverunner tour through the nearby mangrove forests, looking for dolphin and manatees.

I can’t imagine vacationing at any other time of the year, not just because of the reasonable prices, but because it’s the only reasonable time of year to travel.

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