Karen Ash is about to take a weeklong Japanese vacation. She'll buy postcards and souvenirs at a traditional Japanese market. She'll admire bonsai plants and view Japanese films. She'll eat ramen, ordering in Japanese.
And she'll never leave the Bronx.
Ash, a legal assistant who lives in that New York City borough, called off her plans to travel to Japan this summer. The ballooning cost of airfares, weak dollar-to-yen exchange rate and difficulty saving travel money while keeping pace with bills forced her to rethink her summer plans. So she's determined to have the ultimate "staycation," or vacation spent at home.
While more hard-pressed Americans are spending their vacation time at home lately, not everyone is happy about it. Barbecues and reruns don't match the thrill of travel. So some are going to great lengths to foster the illusion of a wayfaring vacation. They'll sample foreign tourism, wilderness camping, hotel living and beach-going without ever leaving their living rooms.
Some entrepreneurs have even developed new businesses to help faux-travelers with the ruse. Bob Porter, a literary editor from Pacific City, Ore., for one, has taken on the additional career of staycation planner.
Last spring, a friend of Porter complained that he was too broke to travel, so Porter, as a joke, furnished his apartment like a hotel. He plugged in a TV, hung "Do Not Disturb" signs and even placed fresh soaps and towels in the bathroom. Since the joke, word-of-mouth has spread. Porter has repeated the hotel stunt 11 times since April, sparking a small business. For two nights of the faux-hotel experience, he charges $50 to $60. (He buys the items from real hotels.)
He's expanded to include room service (delivery from a local restaurant), offering wake-up calls and maid service. "I really need to buy one of those maid carts like they really use at a hotel," he said. He'll plug in a stocked mini fridge and hang pastel-toned paintings of the ocean on the walls. The toilet seat bears the sealing strip of paper across the lid and seat, ensuring recent sanitization. A Gideon Bible rests in the nightstand drawer.
Most of Porter's clients are young couples "who see the humor in it" and are coping with the high cost of travel. Often, the hotel stunt is a surprise. One of his customers hired Porter to revamp their home while his wife was out. When she returned, he told her, "This is as close to vacation as we're gonna get."
The Bason family in Oakland, Calif., passed on their trip to Hawaii this year for a camp-out in their living room. Clem Bason and his wife, Francoise Barton, set up a tent in their living room (the yard was too small) so that their 3-year-old and 1-year-old sons wouldn't miss out on the adventure of travel. They cooked s'mores over a candle and ate hot dogs prepared in the kitchen. Camp stories were read in the tent. And Bason took a lamp from his older son's room and placed it in the living room to create the effect of moonlight on a summer's night.
"Every single night, my son asks me if we can camp out," Bason says. He anticipates that they'll repeat the camp-in once a month until the end of summer.
Stephanie Worrell's family has spent at least 10 days in California every summer for the past 15 years. This year the Boise, Idaho, family could only go for a weekend, to fulfill a promise to her daughter that she could celebrate her 10th birthday at Sea World. Since the normally long vacation was cut short, Worrell is revamping her backyard as a campsite and designing a light and water show for her front yard. She's still designing the spectacle but anticipates that it will involve lots of Christmas lights and sprinklers.
Worrell says she hopes that when she's done, her children and the neighbors will be reminded of Niagara Falls. "With gas prices and the general cost of living sky-high," she said, "it seems like I'll be showering at home versus the Hilton."
But staying at home doesn't stop some consumers from buying for the beach. Danna Pomeroy, owner of Fiji Time Swimwear, hosts faux beach parties at the homes of her customers in Fountain Hills, Ariz. Partygoers sip on tropical cocktails, sport seashell leis and listen to Fijian music. The attendees usually groups of girlfriends or mother-daughter parties often get so caught up in the beachy atmosphere that they end up buying bikinis, even though many of them won't go anywhere near the seashore this summer. "People want to relax now," Pomeroy said.
Ash, who is planning her Japanese staycation in the Bronx, won't deal with airlines or currency exchanges, but even after months of meticulous preparation for her July trip, she has some of the same anxieties she would if she was actually Japan-bound.
"Tokyo ramen is going to be completely different from Osaka ramen," she said. "God forbid I get confused and ask for the wrong one at the wrong restaurant."
The only thing American about Ash's trip, she insists, will be the U.S. dollar she uses to buy her miso soup. Her detailed itinerary includes participating in a tea ceremony at the Urasenke Chanoyu Center in the Upper East Side, a taiko drumming concert in the Upper West Side, reading Japanese newspapers and an evening of watching "trashy Japanese soap operas" on DVD. She'll stroll around the city with her fanny pack and camera, unafraid of conspicuously looking like a tourist.
While wandering through Manhattan a couple of weeks before her staycation, Ash saw some Japanese postcards and refused to buy them, because she wasn't technically on vacation yet. But seeing the images inspired trickery. In addition to sending postcards to her friends who know about her at-home vacation, she'll also send some to her friends who haven't realized that she's never leaving the area. "I'd love to try and trick a couple of people that I went somewhere," she said. "I hope the postmark doesn't give it away."