Visitors explore Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah. All current troops get a free annual pass to the national parks, so it may be worth a longer drive to a spectacular spot. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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The end of summer draws near — sigh — but it’s not over yet!
If you’re like most in the military, at the very least you have a four-day pass coming this Labor Day weekend.
But you don’t need to go far to squeeze the last few drops of fun out of this summer. In fact, for most, there’s so much to do, so close to home, you easily could make this weekend a full-on staycation.
Here are 10 staycation — or better yet “base-cation” — ideas to make your Labor Day weekend the best yet (without a bunch of bank-busting travel expenses).
1. Hit a national park
With more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including national parks, Forest Service land and other federally managed lands, chances are there’s one near you.
Even better, all current service members, including National Guard and reserve troops, get a free annual pass into all of it. It’s good for you, your vehicle and up to three passengers.
If you want to go camping but don’t have the gear, check in with your local Outdoor Recreation office. Chances are they’ll have plenty of rental equipment.
2. Get some culture
You probably drive by it every day and keep telling yourself you should go check it out. While some are certainly better than others, your local on-base military museum might just surprise you.
But, of course, there’s a whole world of fascinating repositories of history, science and culture outside the wire as well.
And whether on base or off, many will be offering special programs over Labor Day weekend. San Diego’s Maritime Museum, for example, is hosting the Festival of Sail, the largest gathering of tall ships on the West Coast.
In New York, the American Airpower Museum and the Museum of American Armor are joining forces for the long weekend with displays of heavy metal thunder and airborne lightning, including an armored column parade and flights aboard a squadron of historic aircraft ranging from a B-17 Flying Fortress and a B-24 Liberator bomber to a C-47 D-Day transport.
If you haven’t taken advantage of the Blue Star Museums program, you still have time, but it ends on Labor Day. In partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the program gives currently serving military troops — and up to five family members — free access to much of the nation’s greatest treasures.
From the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Flight in Seattle, the program includes more than 2,000 museums across the country.
3. Go to a concert
If you’re a fan of Train and you’re stationed in the Virginia Beach area, you probably already know the “Hey, Soul Sister” band is playing at the 21st Annual American Music Festival. They’re just one of the acts in the fest’s three-day lineup and just one of scores of live Labor Day weekend jams planned across the country.
And many are offering troops killer deals on tickets.
For those stationed in the Pacific Northwest, the three-day Bumbershoot Festival, surrounding the Space Needle with Seattle’s biggest music event of the year, offers day passes for all current and former service members for $45 (normally $70).
Of course, free is good, too. For those in the Washington, D.C., area, the free DC Blues Festival is set for Aug. 30, while the National Symphony Orchestra performs its annual free Labor Day show on the West Lawn of the Capitol building Aug. 31.
4. Ride a roller coaster
Nothing says summer like a trip to a theme park.
Check with your local MWR Information, Tours and Tickets office for often deep discounts on local amusement parks, including Kings Island parks, Cedar Point, and Colonial Williamsburg.
The ITT office at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, for example, can get you into the local Wild Waves water park for $25 per ticket, a savings of nearly 50 percent off regular rates.
If you’re stationed near a SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Adventure Island, Water Country USA, Sesame Place or an Aquatica SeaWorld Waterpark, the “Wave of Honor” program provides one free pass per year to all currently serving troops.
Of course, all Disney properties offer a variety of excellent military discounts as well.
5. Expand your comfort zone
You often don’t need to shell out big bucks for an overnight stay at a fancy hotel or resort to take advantage of spas and other high-end amenities.
Not far from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for example, the swanky Pinehurst, known as the “cradle of American golf,” offers a 20 percent military discount for tee times on its legendary links as well as extensive spa services ranging from full-day massage and salon makeovers to just-for-men full-body rubdowns and “Sportsman Soaks.” The discount also applies to the resort’s 26th annual Labor Day Food & Wine Festival, says a resort official.
For those stationed near a Great Wolf Lodge, while the waterpark is available only to overnight guests, anyone can book some pampering at the resorts’ spas.
6. Get a room
If you’re stuck in barracks, berthing or dorms this Labor Day weekend — or just want to ditch the house — you can get out for a night or two for less than you likely think.
First, check with your local on-base hotel. A standard room at the Navy Gateway Inns & Suites at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, for example, will cost you only $57 per night over the Labor Day weekend. Go to dodlodging.net for availability and rates throughout your area.
Off-base hotels, however, might feel more like a mini-vacation.
The Hilton Garden Inn in Clarksville, Tennessee, for example, could be just the retreat someone at nearby Fort Campbell needs.
Consistently rated one of the best hotels in the area, its special military price — $139 per night over Labor Day weekend for a standard king or two-queen room — includes a pool, hot tub, fitness center and a full all-you-can eat, cook-to-order breakfast. The complimentary shuttle can even come pick you up on post — or anywhere in the area — and drive you around town throughout your stay. Maybe even to the local winery.
7. Get free drinks
Louisa Cooke, co-owner of the Beachaven Winery, also in Clarksville, has a special scavenger hunt planned at her sprawling vineyards, where you can enjoy free tours and tastings on all two dozen reds, whites and blushes produced there.
“We’re going to be having barrels of fun for Labor Day staycationers,” says Cooke, who encourages visitors to bring a picnic — and maybe buy a bottle or two wine to go with it — and make a day of it there.
Speaking of barrels, be on the lookout for Claus “Dutch” Mann, the 90-year-old World War II veteran who is carving his latest landscape masterpiece into his 64th barrel head. “His goal is to get to 100 carvings before he turns 100 years old,” Cook says.
That’s just one of countless Labor Day parties planned at wineries, breweries and distilleries across the country, most of which offer free tasting and tours.
In the Texas Hill Country alone, sandwiched neatly between the military hubs in San Antonio and Fort Hood, there are more than 40 wineries open to the public.
8. Go look for stuff
If you haven’t tried geocaching yet, this Labor Day weekend could be your chance. All you need is your GPS-enabled phone, and you could be on the hunt for one of 2.5 million active geocaches — usually little boxes — secretly stashed around the globe, with several almost certainly near you.
Geocaching.com is the best place to get started.
If you’re stationed in North Carolina, for example, you could try to track down the dozens of caches stashed by regular user ABNdaddy, including one unique cache recently hidden by tossing it from a Blackhawk helicopter.
9. Be a tourist in your own town, literally
Do it — take a tour. Whether you’re brand new to your latest duty station or have been homesteading there for years, you can always learn and see something new about the place you call home these days.
Indeed, even lifelong locals often are surprised at how much they can learn by taking a guided tour of their town.
Whether it’s duck boat drive-and-float tours of the entire city or walk-and-talks around specific attractions, many offer military discounts.
Another Side of San Diego, for example, gives a 10 percent military discount for its sightseeing and Segway tours.
“Segways, especially, are great for people who are staycationing, because it’s an entirely different experience, even if you know the area well,” says manager Ryan Faith.
The company offers all kinds of unique ways to see the city, with everything from foodie-focused forays to on-the-beach horseback-riding tours and off-the-coast whale-watching excursions.
10. Learn something new
Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer but also the start of the new school year. Take a page from the kids and use this Labor Day weekend to begin your own new learning adventure. That could mean signing up for an online college class or finally getting started on that scuba certification.
Most bases offer all kinds of enrichment programs — from language courses to cooking classes — but be sure to check out the offerings in town as well. Local park-and-rec departments, libraries, churches and colleges often offer a wide variety of inexpensive classes.