Spring break is just around the corner, but not everyone can drop a ton of cash on a spendy vacation on the beach. The good news is that it's easy to plan a cheap "staycation" with the family that doesn't involve expensive plane tickets or pricey hotels. Here are 13 staycation concepts that will entertain and relax -- no airports needed.
Instead of traveling hundreds of miles and booking a touristy (and costly) hotel for the week, stay at an inexpensive hotel right in town for one or two nights. Use the Hotel Tonight app, Priceline, or another online booking system to look for last-minute hotel deals (but check with favored hotels directly, too; these days, hotels sometimes try to beat online price aggregators). Once the rooms are booked, bring along favorite snacks and entertainment and pretend you're someplace far away. Many hotels have a pool, and while that's definitely not a beach in a sunny locale, it can be an excellent break from the winter doldrums.
Explore a new area without spending a fortune on airfare. Choose a nearby locale (within an hour or so) for a fun day trip. To make it more like a vacation, choose somewhere no one in the family has been (at least not often or recently). Explore attractions and eat at a local spot instead of a chain restaurant. Check out small stores and try to get a feel for the town. You never know what treasured memories might be uncorked by exploring a new-to-you but nearby city.
Instead of hunkering down at home to watch on-demand movies and marathon TV shows, screen some great movies organized around a theme. Learn all about Hitchcock, spaghetti westerns, silent films, or horror movies. Pick a director, a time period, a country, an actor, or a genre and see all the most notable works. There are plenty of "best of" lists to consult online. For contemporary films, use the internet to pick the best movies from recent film festivals around the world.
Teach the kids what it means to give back to the community. As a family, choose a local organization -- or a few -- and offer time and energy over spring break. To get started, contact a local food bank or nursing home or search for opportunities on a website such as VolunteerMatch. The site DoSomething.org can inspire older kids to contribute to nationwide campaigns. Volunteering costs very little money, if any, and the pride, satisfaction, and feeling of making a difference are priceless.
Museums are an easy choice for families looking for things to do during spring break. They're (usually) indoors, making cold weather less of an issue, and many museums have free admission days, which are usually during school and work hours. Take advantage of time off and visit nearby museums gratis. Look at local universities to see if they have anything on campus -- for example, the University of Kansas has a highly rated natural history museum that doesn't require an admission fee (donations only). Do a little investigating before going; if it's a standard, hands-off museum, tell the kids what to expect and establish rules before heading out.
If there's a state or national park close by, spring break may be the time to plan a visit before the summer crowds descend. National park entrance is free April 21 for the kickoff of National Park Week, and many parks have low or no entrance fees. In Southern states where winter weather is less often an issue, a state or national park can offer tons for families to do on spring break, from hiking to picnicking to junior ranger programs. If it's warm enough, outdoorsy families can take advantage of lower campground fees and likely don't need an advance reservation. In the colder parts of the country, there is still plenty to do at national park visitors centers, which feature exhibits and activities.
Of course, checking out books and movies is a relaxing way to spend spring break, but local libraries put on valuable kid-friendly programs year-round. Many put event calendars on their websites, or provide information to visitors who ask at the front desk. Modern libraries offer more than just story time, even during winter -- there are often movie screenings, crafts, author readings, and other educational programs, all for free.
Instead of dining out, plan to make a day of exploring the cuisine of another culture. Choose a new recipe online or during that library visit, then head out as a family to get the ingredients. Depending on the choice of cuisine, it may be necessary to shop at an ethnic grocery store in a rarely visited part of town -- many communities have fascinating enclaves that feel like visiting another country. The whole family can work together to craft a tasty meal while breaking out of the dinner-at-home rut.
Don't live near the beach? Use kinetic or "magic" sand ($10.69 at Target) to build sand castles and sculptures. It feels like wet sand but doesn't dry out or make a mess. If it's warm enough, activate the sprinklers and let kids enjoy a week of outdoor play. For food, channel the boardwalk by making hot dogs, candied apples, and grilled fish tacos. Enjoy a cold beer or look up recipes for fruity cocktails.
Is there somewhere nearby that creates favorite drinks or food, such as chocolate? Book a tour for a behind-the-scenes look at how it's put together (check the website or call ahead to see if drop-ins are okay, or if visits need to be scheduled). It can be fascinating for children, who might think food just appears on grocery store shelves. Often tours are followed by free samples, so there might be a snack included in the deal.
If you live in an urban or suburban area, spend part of the break somewhere with a slower pace. Staying overnight on a nearby farm or ranch is often an inexpensive option, and what could be more fun for kids than farm animals and better for parents than a couple of days away from chaos? Visit Farm Stay U.S. to find accommodations in your state. For nighttime entertainment, try one of the many mobile apps that locate stars and constellations invisible in the city.
If you're snowed in, or it's too cold to camp for real, pitch a tent in the living room. Make it as "real" as possible, with traditional camping food such as hot dogs and s'mores (Food Network offers a technique for making them without a campfire). Banish all electronics, turn out the lights, and tell stories around the fireplace or a lantern "campfire." Use this camping staycation as an opportunity to reconnect with the kids without the distractions of everyday life.
There's undoubtedly a monument or historic courthouse in town that everyone passes without a second thought, and dropping by the local visitor center can bring up plenty of similar opportunities for hometown tourism. Take time to explore the community's history in depth. Becoming a resident tourist not only can be fun; it can open your eyes to the history and beauty right outside the front door and make you a better host the next time someone comes to visit.
Olivia Lin contributed to this story.