Cultural_History_Staycation

The ‘Staycation’ Has Always Been a Lie

Even if staying at home, broke, on your limited days off was really a ‘choice,’ it’s still one that’s out of reach for most working-class families

If you Google “how to staycation,” the first result is a four-minute blog post from famed how-to-save-your-money-guy Dave Ramsey, titled, How to Plan a Staycation. The post, which was published July 3, 2017, begins like this: “Who doesn’t love taking a vacation? Sleeping in, eating delicious food and the freedom to do absolutely nothing or absolutely anything with your day. Ah, living the dream! But sometimes a traditional vacation isn’t what you need or just isn’t in the budget. A staycation is a great alternative that can give you the rest you deserve, without breaking the bank.”

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This is precisely the lie that’s been peddled to the masses since before the end of World War II: That not going to the beaches of Rio in favor of drinking Bud Lime in your living room is somehow a choice, and not the result of a system that condemns paid time off, so even if you did make enough money to travel, you couldn’t (and most people certainly don’t have enough money: The median income remains well below $32,000 a year, while an average vacation costs roughly $1,000 per person). According to a 2019 CBS News report, one in four Americans don’t receive a single day of paid time off, and even for those who do, many are confined to an average of ten days for the whole year, despite that being the minimum amount of time experts believe is required to be taken at one time to adequately relax. In short, the idea that anyone “chooses” a staycation is a farce — it’s a move of pure desperation, through and through.

Going by the archives available at Newspapers.com, the lie of the staycation was born on July 18, 1944, in an advertisement in the Cincinnati Enquirer, which reads: “Take a Stay-cation instead of a Va-cation, this year. Trains and buses are crowded. Gasoline and tires must still be conserved.” It clearly didn’t catch on, though, as it wouldn’t be until August 2001, per Google search term results, that the word started being used more frequently online, with a handful of travel-related headlines referencing this unique opportunity to spend your scant vacation days sitting inside your own home. 

It wasn’t, though, until 2005 that the term finally exploded. 

It’s been oft-reported that the term was coined on Canadian TV comedy show Corner Gas, in an episode that aired in October 2005, but Brent Butt, the writer and creator of Corner Gas, tells me that although he did come up with the word himself, he wasn’t the first one to do so. “I’d never heard it anywhere,” he says. “It’s just a little linguistic device called the portmanteau where, if there are two words together that share a similar sound, you weave the two words together where that sound is similar. Somebody said that I created the word and I started looking into it. From what I could tell, I didn’t create it — it had been used in a newspaper or a magazine article or something beforehand, but I’d never seen that.”

Butt goes on to tell me that in the episode, his character planned to go on vacation, but didn’t have the money to go anywhere, so he would just sit out front of the gas station in the field and send verbal postcards to his friends. “He would tell them where he was,” Butt says. “He would say he was in Aruba or he was in Mexico or whatever. It was just a little imaginary thing that the whole town understood that Brent was on vacation, but in the course of writing this episode, the dialogue came out.”

“He’s a lazy, imaginative guy with very little money, and the result is he doesn’t need to go on vacation to have a vacation,” Butt tells me of his character’s motivation. “In some ways, [the idea for the storyline is] a bit of a two-way street, because in one regard, people aren’t getting paid enough and corporate America is leveraging their PR skills to make union labor seem like a bad thing,” he says. “But on the other side of the coin, we never went on a vacation. My father ran a boiler room. He probably made 180 bucks a month or whatever and raising seven kids, there was never any thought of a vacation.”       

Butt says that he and his family would pile into the car and drive 45 minutes to a lake where they’d eat hot dogs and beans. “It was a hell of a good time,” he says. “We’d go swimming, and we’d come home at the end of the day. Sometimes we’d go for two days on the weekend because it was a 40-, 45-minute drive. Somehow people didn’t need to go to Aruba in the old days, it seems like.”

Shortly after the episode aired, Butt remembers starting to hear the term being used more regularly. “It was just at a time when we had a big enough audience that it could have made a bit of a cultural impact, and people started using that term because it was used liberally throughout that episode,” he says. “It really became what the episode is about, and it wasn’t long after that I started hearing other people use the phrase and I started hearing it in ads. I was kind of thinking, that’s weird.”

But as Butt noted, the term already existed, having been published in an article in the Washington Post two months earlier by Janelle Diamond, managing editor of Baltimore Magazine. Diamond tells me that she started the Shopper column in the Style section of the Washington Post in 1998, where, “Each week we’d photograph products and I’d write up 150-ish words on whatever subject I’d chosen,” she says. “I guess in August of 2005, I decided to write about how the city empties out each August. I had moved to D.C. when I started my job and had witnessed this firsthand year after year. I wrote: ‘We love August because it seems like everyone is gone. The city empties out. The commute becomes bearable. It’s the perfect time for a ‘staycation,’ to dig in those heels and enjoy the comforts of home: 300-thread-count sheets, stainless outdoor fire pit, well-stocked fridge.’”

But for the life of her, she can’t remember where the word itself came from. “I quote two people in my article and would have credited them with that word if they’d said it,” she says. “In 2005, I was a poor journalist, a newlywed and a relatively new homeowner in Baltimore (where I still live). I was definitely more apt to stay-in and vacation than head to Martha’s Vineyard.”

It’s possible then, she says, that she came up with the term or heard it in passing. “I will say, writing a pithy 150 words is way harder than any full-length feature I’ve written in the decade-plus since,” she says. “I always took my time to make sure each word carried weight. Perhaps staycation is simply a word that slipped out of my brain, into my story and permanently into the English language.” 

As we know now, neither Diamond nor Butt technically invented the term staycation, but nonetheless, their contributions would ultimately help launch the term into the era of the Obama presidency, despite most people missing the point both Butt and Diamond were making: A staycation isn’t a lifestyle choice, it’s something you do because you’re broke. 

Unsurprisingly, the term gained serious momentum after the 2008 Financial Crisis, at which point the poor became so poor that our consumer-capitalist system required a fun, quippy way to sell them on the new and improved American dream vacation — one that, despite requiring little more than being underpaid and overworked, still apparently necessitated a bunch of service and think pieces on how to do it properly. “Experts advise treating it similarly to a regular vacation, and that includes making plans. ‘Decide up front what you want to have at the end of the vacation,’ said Diane Brennan, life coach and president of the International Coach Federation,” per a 2008 CNN report. “That means setting guidelines or boundaries for yourself; if you want to do nothing for a week, that’s okay, but it should be a choice, Brennan says.”

That same year, as many Americans realized that their life savings had been gambled away by Wall Street, Time ranked “staycation” as the sixth most popular buzzword of the year. “This term, which refers to a vacation taken at home or within a short drive, became popular during the 2008 summer travel season when rising fuel prices made plane tickets or long road trips prohibitively expensive for many people,” according to their report.

Even in these early days of the “staycation” being presented as a choice rather than a circumstance, though, some were already questioning its validity. In her 2008 essay for the Journal of Media Culture, Sarah Sharma, then an assistant professor of media and cultural studies at the University of North Carolina, pointed out that staying home to vacation was, at the time, not even necessarily a cheaper option. “USA Today reported brand new grills, grilling meats, patio furniture and other accoutrements were still going to cost six percent more than the previous year,” writes Sharma. “While it was suggested that the staycation was a cost-saving option, it is clear staycations were for the well-enough off and would likely cost more or as much as an actual vacation. To put this in context with U.S. vacation policies and practices, a recent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research called ‘No-Vacation Nation’ found that the U.S. is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation.”

Even the humble staycation is, then, for the many Americans unable to take time off, unattainable. “Subsequently, without government standards, 25 percent of Americans have neither paid vacation nor paid holidays,” Sharma continues. “The staycation was not for the working poor who were having difficulty even getting to work in the first place, nor were they for the unemployed, recently job-less or the foreclosed. No, the staycationers were middle-class suburbanites who had backyards and enough acreage for swimming pools and tents.” 

Although searches for “staycation ideas” began to decrease after 2012, the concept has made a resurgence of late, which isn’t surprising considering the country-wide stay-at-home orders — during the coronavirus pandemic, the staycation is pretty much the only way to “get away.” But even now, 12 years after Sharma’s paper, the same truths she highlighted are evident: For some, staycationing is an extension of their otherwise upper middle class, comfortably affluent life, while for many, the idea of taking a “staycation” amidst sheltering-in-place is impossible. Because it’s hard to relax at home when your entire livelihood has been stripped away by the current circumstance.