AMELIA, OHIO — All through the months that the cold and wind and wet left this southeast suburb of Cincinnati shivering, Megan and Keith Licursi eagerly looked forward to their annual spring vacation: a road trip to see family and bask in the sunshine of Orlando, Fla.
But with gas prices forecast to climb as high as $4 a gallon and recessionary fears fueling consumer uncertainty, the couple decided to scrap their travel plans and stay home.
So have some of their neighbors. The tightknit group of friends in their 20s and 30s said they are spending less time on the road in their gas-guzzling SUVs and minivans -- which are big enough to haul kids, a weekend's worth of toys and diapers, and coolers filled with juice drinks and snacks.
On a recent Friday night, the Licursis and their friends gathered at Megan and Keith's house to map out ways they could still get the feeling of being on vacation, without spending much.
Monthly "BBQ trips" to visit each other's backyards? A rotating "spa day" to different girlfriends' houses? Carpooling to museums or outlet malls?
"It's not that we all don't want to go on vacation," said Megan Licursi, 30, who runs a small public relations firm. "We just have to be smarter about how we relax."
This suburban crew on the southern edge of Ohio is far from alone in taking such a belt-tightening approach to its downtime: Travel trend watchers said they are seeing a rise in the number of Americans opting for stay-at-home vacations, or "staycations," and people who are either canceling their travel plans, postponing them till later in the year or opting to take fewer, shorter trips.
When they do hit the road, vacationers tend to be far more frugal with their travel dollars, said Peter Yesawich, chairman and chief executive of Ypartnership, an Orlando-based travel marketing company.
"To Americans, vacations are still considered a birthright," said Yesawich. "People are trading down, not out."
For some families, it's a matter of figuring out which trips are necessary -- and which ones don't fit into the budget.
For others, financial concerns mean changing warm-weather traditions altogether.
For more than two decades, Barry Bash has spent two weeks of his summer vacation camping with friends in Pennsylvania.
He also regularly drives north to visit friends in Detroit -- a 2,000-mile-plus round trip from his home in Ocean Springs, Miss.
"My 1992 GMC Suburban gets nine miles to the gallon when fully loaded. It'd cost over $700 in gas, round-trip, to go to Detroit," said Bash, 46, who runs an online historical toy and collectibles shop. "The camping trip I can't miss. Detroit will have to wait."
Though overarching economic concerns are also affecting travel plans, the increased cost of gasoline is cited by many as a key reason for scaling back.
The travel price index of the Travel Industry Assn. showed that in February, gasoline prices jumped nearly 33% from a year earlier, while airfares increased 7.6% and lodging was up 3.4%.
As a result, consumers are increasingly choosing to substitute long weekends in their local area for extended trips to far-off locales.
Among them are the Licursis and their neighbors on Creekside Road, who gathered to brainstorm at-home vacation ideas. Amid cooing babies and giggling toddlers, the five couples munched on pizza and strategized.
All have made adjustments to their daily lives to deal with the new economic reality -- and the jolt the rising cost of gas has had on their routines.
Jennifer Lowry, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mom, used to spend less than $40 to fill up her Explorer. Now it takes $60 -- and that barely covers a week's worth of running errands.
Eric and Tara Brock own a Ford pickup with dual tanks. Last winter, it cost them $95 to fill it up. Now the price tag hovers around $150.
A couple years ago, the Licursis bought a boat for fishing and camping at local lakes. The Brocks, too, bought a 25-foot cruiser.
The boats became a primary source of outdoor fun for the group. The families would spend lazy summer days cruising along lakes and rivers, and starlit evenings grilling their catch at campgrounds near the water.
But as gas prices rose, the Licursis and Brocks realized that these outings were taking a bigger bite out of their budgets: One day on a boat can translate into hundreds of dollars in fuel.
"Gas at the marinas is typically 50 cents or $1 more . . . than it is on the streets and in the neighborhood," said Keith Licursi, 31, who works for a financial investment firm. "It adds up really fast."
To save money, the two couples started scaling back their lifestyles.
The Brocks decided late last year to sell their boat -- and the truck used to pull it.
The Licursis recently moved their boat to a new marina 15 minutes from their home, rather than an hour away.
The couples decided to fill portable gas cans in town instead of fueling the Licursis' boat at the marina.
And when they're actually on the water, they figure, they'll spend more time anchored near a marina than eating up gas exploring a lake or river.
"They'll be 'floating' cruises," said Eric Brock, 34, who is currently looking for work.
As the couples bundled up their sleepy kids, the Brocks offered to host the next monthly pizza get-together. The couple recently bought a new house in Mount Washington, another Cincinnati suburb. They now live about 10 miles from their friends.
"Man, that's gas money for the week," said Nick Cenci, 29, an account manager for a health insurance company. He was kidding -- kind of.
Eric Brock looked at his friend and replied: "It's right off of the bus line."