Last summer, when Covid forced the cancellation of our holiday, my husband and I had a staycation. We read books, played games, drank Pimm’s on our patio and invented ever more imaginative ways to avoid our DIY to-do list. Each morning brought the usual bills and junk mail to our door rather than a hotel breakfast tray, and there was no one else to do the washing up or freshen up the bathroom towels.
As of this week, apparently, millions of other people are doing the same thing. The Sunday Times heralded ‘the return of the staycation’ as ‘the great unlocking begins in earnest and we are allowed to stay away from home overnight’, while the Daily Mail declared ‘It’s staycation mania!’, reporting that ‘many campsites and holiday cottages are almost fully booked’. But wait a moment: campsites? Cottages? Nights away from home? These aren’t ‘staycations’. They’re holidays.
The Covid pandemic has led to countless words being redefined and reinterpreted (‘bubble’, anyone?), but the mutation of staycation seems to have been the most contagious of all. For the record: it doesn’t mean driving hundreds of miles to sit on a beach in Tenby, or getting the sleeper train to Penzance. It means staying in your own home and sleeping in your own bed.
The word can be traced back to 1944, when an ad for Felsenbrau Supreme beer in the Cincinnati Enquirer urged readers to help the war effort by tending to their victory gardens, writing to soldiers on the front and: ‘Take a Stay-cation instead of a Va-cation, this year. Trains and buses are crowded. Gasoline and tyres must still be conserved.’ But it was another six decades before the idea really took off. ‘They call it a “staycation” – a vacation where you stay at home and don't vacate to anywhere else,’ announced the Huntsville Times in Alabama in April 2005.
In 2008, as the credit crunch hit, the word began to drift across the Atlantic. Initially, we weren’t taken with this ugly Americanism. ‘It sounds like a cross between a games console and an embarrassing medical condition, but Britons are about to embrace it as their answer to saving money on summer holidays. Welcome to the "staycation", which experts expect to be the trend as families who cancel or cut back their holiday plans opt to stay at home during their summer break,’ declared the Times in July 2008. The following month, the Mail also tackled ‘this annoying word’, asking: ‘Has there EVER been a worse idea than the “staycation”?’ When the Independent proclaimed 2009 ‘the year of the staycation’, it was quick to clarify just what it meant: ‘Often misused, the term staycation refers to the trend of ditching foreign travel and using home as a base for day trips.’
Fast-forward a decade, though, and that meaning has been all but lost. After 12 months in which foreign travel has ranged from discouraged to downright impossible, ‘staycation’ has become a buzzword that’s slapped on any holiday that isn’t abroad. In August last year, as social media was swamped with #staycation posts and UK Google searches for the word hit an all-time high, Boris Johnson went camping on the Scottish coast. ‘In common with hundreds of other families this year, the Prime Minister and his partner Carrie Symonds have been enjoying a staycation,’ said the Sunday Telegraph. Where’s the logic in describing a journey of 650 miles from London to the Highlands, crossing a border, as a staycation? Paris is half the distance – would a trip across the Channel be a staycation too?
And this year’s second wave of staycation misuse is already shaping up to be even worse than the first. There are now ‘staycations at sea’ with Virgin Voyages, ‘staycation cruises’ from P&O (bafflingly catchlined ‘We’re staying at home so you don’t have to’) and ‘staycation flights’ with easyJet to destinations across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Jersey. If the beleaguered travel industry really does need a catchy portmanteau for all of this, wouldn’t ‘awaycation’ make more sense?
Of course, language evolves all the time, but this isn’t evolution – it’s a misnomer that is at best confusing, and at worst contradictory. And a backlash is building. In response to a BBC headline that read ‘Staycation boom: Bookings “coming in thick and fast”’, comedian Angela Barnes wrote on Twitter: ‘Look @bbc I’m a big fan of you – but this STAYCATION sh*t has to STOP... A holiday in Britain is a HOLIDAY.’ Her post attracted more than 14,000 likes. Last week, the Guardian saw fit to update its style guide to clarify that staycation refers ‘to people staying in their own home for their holidays and going out on day trips’, adding: ‘Its definition has expanded to sometimes include people going on holiday in their own countries but given this is how a significant proportion of any population take their holidays its use in this context can potentially cause confusion and offence.’
And that, I think, is why this is more than just a matter of linguistic pedantry. The misappropriation of staycation isn’t just sloppiness – it’s snobbery. It reflects a modern assumption that unless you go abroad, it’s not a real holiday; that the summer plans of those who don’t want to or can’t afford to travel overseas are somehow inferior. The foreign holiday may be a relatively recent phenomenon – it wasn’t until 1979 that Britons began spending more on overseas breaks than domestic ones – yet after two decades of budget airline price wars and ever easier travel, it seems to have become the only ‘holiday’ that counts.
But renting a cottage on the Yorkshire coast is a holiday. Checking into a hotel in Sussex is a holiday. Pitching a tent in the Lake District is a holiday. If you need a special word to mean ‘holiday in the UK’, it suggests you’ve only ever holidayed abroad and assume that everyone else has, too. You might spend more on a week in Cornwall than you would in Croatia, but it’s just a ‘staycation’, darling. You probably need a ‘real’ holiday to recover from it.
I grew up spending my summer holidays on a stretch of the north Norfolk coast that’s still my favourite place in the world. My husband and I will return there this year. Unlike last summer’s staycation, we will pack suitcases, sleep in strange beds, shiver our way into the sea, eat different food, breathe different air. We don’t need a special word for it – it’s a holiday, and I can’t wait.