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Posted June 8, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Summer fun: Whether home or travel, the season offers many options

Emma Ellis puts her suitcase inside her tent
Emma Ellis, 10, of Richmond, puts her suitcase inside her tent at the Shenandoah River/Raymond R. "Andy" Guest Jr. State Park near Bentonville in Warren County. The state park offers a great local getaway with campsites at $20 a night that features riverfront views. Rich Cooley/Daily

John Stewart Lansing strings up a tarp
John Stewart Lansing, 20, of Richmond, strings up a tarp over his campsite at the state park near Bentonville. Rich Cooley/Daily

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By Linwood Outlaw III -- loutlaw@nvdaily.com

Gas prices are soaring again. Budgets are getting tighter. And, bills are steadily piling.

In the midst of a weakened economy, many families will be cutting back on their traveling this summer and planning cheaper outings closer to home. Residents in Winchester and other communities in the Northern Shenandoah Valley won't have to look far to find convenient vacationing alternatives, said Natalie Wills, executive director of the Winchester-Frederick County Visitor Center.

"There's a wealth of things you can do within not only the backyard, but even a 50-mile radius," Wills said.

High fuel prices could keep many people from hitting the roads for extended getaways. Nationally, the average gas price has jumped to $2.52 per gallon, the first time prices have exceeded $2.50 since October, according to a petroleum report released this week by the Energy Information Administration. Gas prices in the valley have surpassed $2.40 a gallon in recent weeks.

The recession may also impact air travel. About 195 million passengers are expected to fly this summer on U.S. Airlines, down from 209 million last summer, according to the Air Transport Association of America. Typically, Wills says, people who stay local do things like visit museums, parks and theaters. "There's great deals on hotels right now. There's a lot of interest in camping, which could save you some money, too," Wills said.

Residents have also incorporated local festivities like Apple Blossom in Winchester, the Newtown Heritage Festival in Stephens City, and Fourth of July parades into their "staycation" plans. Summer fairs in Clarke, Warren, Frederick and Shenandoah counties also are a huge draw.

However, while it appears that most people would rather stay home than travel abroad, it's actually the best time to book your dream trip, said Martha Mitchell Meade, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. Vacation prices have reached "astonishingly low levels" due to the recession, Meade said. Cruise rates are still available for less than $100 a day per person, and some agencies offer free dining and hotel nights, she added.

"It's the best prices we've seen in 15 years. It's ridiculous," Meade said. "Other than just the standard [staycation alternatives] like beaches or the amusement parks, there's lots of ways to be creative ... Lots of people are also, when they're traveling, taking advantage of discounts that may be available to them through memberships and coupons."

Families who rent rooms during vacations, Meade said, may prefer units with an efficiency, and they can also benefit from taking advantage of "early bird dinner specials" at restaurants. Still, Meade says, there are families who feel more inclined to stay local no matter how tempting reduced prices may be.

People have been waiting longer to book trips this year compared to previous years due to persisting fears of losing their jobs. But, some companies are offering loss-of-job cancellation coverage for summer vacation packages, Meade said.

"All of the standard prices [involved with] day trips are still there, and sometimes they're overlooked," Meade said. "We want to fly to Disney World, but Williamsburg is awesome. There's lots of things close to home. The water parks are great. There's certainly lots of stuff to do. People just have to be a little bit more creative."

Families on tight budgets should bring packed lunches with them during trips to amusement parks, Meade said. When booking trips, people should ask about lowest price guarantees and reimbursement benefits, she said.

"I've been in the travel business 20 years. And, I've never seen deals like this," Meade said. "So, if you can afford to go, it's really the time."

Local residents can also enjoy their summer by camping at local sites like the Shenandoah River/Raymond R. "Andy" Guest Jr. State Park in Bentonville, or visiting the Shenandoah National Park, said Jeff Edwards, a spokesperson for the Front Royal-Warren County Visitor Center.

Often times, people do away with the usual vacation norms while planning a staycation. Families should schedule start and end dates for staycations just as they would a regular vacation. Daily activities that don't involve lying around the house are also suggested. Families should also avoid doing chores during staycations, experts say.

Traveling to other places is a great option if the money is there, but families may be surprised what they can do in their own communities, Wills said.

"There's a fabulous history here with some fabulous stories that a lot of people locally just don't know," Wills said. "We always say be a fan of tourism [and] visit locally what others drive thousands of miles to see. I mean, we have people coming from New York, Ohio, New Jersey, and Maryland. And, Pennsylvania is a big state for us. It's really a great time to discover what's in your own backyard."

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