Through the Gadling Lens: planning a staycation? Here’s how to do it, and shoot it right

Well, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we’re fast approaching Memorial Day weekend here in the United States, or what is otherwise known as the Unofficial Start of Vacation Season. For some of us, this means that we’re ever closer to that fabulous trip we’ve been planning for months (or maybe even years). We’re finally going to be jetting off to some faraway, exotic place for a few fun-filled days of rest and relaxation. Yes, for some of us, this is What We’ve Been Waiting For.


For the rest of us, given the economy being what it is, that trip might have to be postponed or canceled altogether. It’s a pity that we won’t be able to really travel, and the kicker? We’ve already booked off time from work — so, now what are we going to do with these free days?

Enter the staycation.
Now before you groan, lamenting that a “staycation” will hardly feel as great as a real vacation, allow me to present another possible perspective: learning your local town through the eyes of a tourist (and, by the way, through the lens of a camera) may actually feel exactly as good as a real vacation — and by the end of your “trip,” you might end up with a photo album that sheds a new beautiful light on the place you call home. Besides, if you’re like me, you very rarely ever explore what your city has to offer a visitor (but you can probably name every gas station that sells cheap petrol within a 5 mile radius).

To help you plan your staycation (and to prove my point about the pretty photo album), I thought I’d share my tips on how to plan a staycation, with images from the city where I currently live, Houston, Texas. Let’s be honest: while Houston is a fine place to live, Houston is hardly a hot-spot holiday destination. You rarely hear anyone say he’s been saving all his life to visit Houston. People tend to come to Houston on vacation just because they have family here. So if I can use images from a staycation in Houston to make it look like a city you’d want to visit (or at least, stay home in), then trust me, you can in your hometown, too.

And so, on with the show.

1. The trick to a good staycation is planning. Just because you’re staying in town doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan your staycation: pick up a local newspaper and see what’s happening in your town (particularly during weekdays, when no one else is likely to be there). Get on the internet and search for websites that talk about how great your town is, and all the amazing things there are to do, either in town, or a 30 minute drive out of town. Trust me, they’re out there. You might just have never thought to do them before.

Also? Don’t forget to prepare your house for your staycation. In the days before you start your staycation (say the weekend before, perhaps), straighten up your house. It doesn’t have to be spotless, if you’re not so inclined, but at least pick up all the clutter. Buy a new air freshener, to give your house a different vibe. Go to your grocery store or local florist and pick up some fresh flowers or a flowering plant (because all the best spas and resorts have fresh flowers or flowing plants, don’t you know). Don’t forget your outside spaces too — even if you just have a fire escape, take a few old throw cushions or blankets outside to make it a bit of a fresh-air retreat — you know, where you’re going to catch up on all that reading you’ve been meaning to do. And do enough grocery shopping for the time off — because, really, you’re not going to want to do anything as mundane as grocery shopping on your vacation. Bonus points for making it to a party supply store to purchase some of those tiny little paper umbrellas for your drinks.

Then, once your house is all spiffy, and your staycation has begun? Take a few shots. You know, so you can show people afterwards where you stayed.

(Incidentally, when you’re taking those shots, don’t forget to take the shots in the most flattering light possible. For example, in the shot above? The other red adirondack next to the one in the image above is falling apart, so obviously, it didn’t make the picture. Nor did the peeling paint on the outside of our house, or the uneven pavers of the patio. It’s all about composition, baby.)

2. Treat yourself to a meal at a swanky restaurant. No matter how large or small your town is, chances are there’s a restaurant nearby you’ve been meaning to go visit, but you haven’t had the time/didn’t think you could afford it. Now’s the time to make it happen — after all, you’ve been saving on airfare and hotel, right? Also, one trick that I’ve learned about having a fabulous meal at a fabulous restaurant: go at lunchtime, instead of at night. Prices tend to be a lot cheaper, there’s less pressure to drink alcohol, and therefore it’s much more affordable. Plus, the cool thing is that the swankiest restaurants tend to still love intimate lighting even during the daytime, so your shots will still capture the ambiance of the restaurant. For example, notice that even with the dim lighting in the image below, the light through the windows is the telltale sign that I took this at noon this week:

And, of course, don’t forget to shoot your meal:

3. Do something fun outdoors
. Find a public park or hike-and-bike trail (or maybe even your normal route when you walk or run), and in addition to using it for exercise, keep your camera on you. Take the time to explore the area. And, of course, take great shots.

(The shot above was taken under an overpass. Shh. No one needs to know.)

(A large patch of wildflowers were in bloom along the hike-and-bike trail where I normally go for my morning run. Getting down close to them and shooting them this way makes it look like they were blooming for acres and acres. In reality, not so much.)

(And dude, I can’t even begin to tell you what kind of flower this is — it looks like a passion fruit flower, but seriously? In Houston? It was growing in a patch of weeds. But it’s so exotic-looking, there was no way I wasn’t going to take a shot of this one.)

4. Take a day trip to the iconic spot your town is known for. No matter where you live, there’s likely a place that’s the pride of the town. For exa
mple, if you live in Paris, it’s probably the Eiffel Tower. If you live in Gaylord, Michigan, it might be the Bottle Cap Museum. Find out which is your town’s, and take some time to stroll around the place, if only for a photo opportunity. Besides, what other time are you going to get to see it during a weekday, without the hoards of tourists?

In Houston, of course, the iconic spot is NASA — full of great photo ops:

5. Go to the best hotel in town. I’m not suggesting, of course, that you book a couple of nights there (although if you want to, more power to you — I have a friend who routinely checks himself into a lovely little hotel in town every New Year’s Eve. And why not, I say!). But if there’s a great hotel nearby that you know you’ll likely never get to stay in, just go there to have breakfast one morning. Or a cappuccino. Or splurge on a spa treatment, if they provide that service. Or call a couple of friends (or a friend who is staycationing with you) and just enjoy happy hour in the hotel bar. In other words, enjoy the feeling of being at the hotel, and without actually spending the exorbitant prices for tiny shampoo bottles or turn-down service.

And of course, don’t forget your camera.

(The above photograph was shot earlier this week at the bar in the Alden Hotel, one evening. I’ll probably never have the opportunity (or money) to stay there, but their martinis are lovely.)

6. Go shopping. Now, I’m not suggesting that you completely blow your budget on an extravagant shopping trip or anything — that sort of defeats the purpose. But the truth is that on most vacations, at some point you’re going to find yourself in a store, if only to pick up a souvenir refrigerator magnet. Just because you’re staying home is no reason that your fridge should be punished, so find your way to the most picturesque shopping district in your town, take a few shots and purchase at least a small souvenir from your staycation. And while you’re at it, you might want to also pick up a t-shirt for your nephew.

And finally (and this is the most important part):

7. On your last day of your staycation, make 4×6 prints of all your photographs
. Buy one of those little photo albums, and stick them all in there, and then put the album in the bag you take to work.

The next day, when you return to work, and people ask you, “Did you go anywhere on vacation?” Answer, without hesitation, “Yeah! I went to <insert name of your town here>!” Under no circumstances should you respond with “I stayed home,” or “Nah, didn’t go anywhere special.” Then, as they look at you quizzically, whip out that album. I’ll bet your next paycheck that your coworkers will ooh and ahh just like they would if you’d left town (“Seriously? There’s a Bottle Cap Museum here? Who knew?” or “There are flowers like that in Terry Hershey Park?”). The bonus: you’ll realize that you’re probably more relaxed than if you had traveled (no nightmare travel stories), you have renewed appreciation for where you live, and the best part, the next time you do travel, you’ll have this handy little album to sell the people you meet in those faraway lands on your home town. Can’t beat that.

As always, if you have any questions, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.