How to Have a Free End-of-Summer 'Staycation'

staycationABC News

Summer is quickly winding down, but there's still time to take a last-minute getaway with the family. And we're not talking about a pricey overnight trip. It's the hot new trend for American families this summer: staycations.

"Good Morning America" special correspondent Cameron Mathison went out and found several free things to do with his wife and kids that made for a fun-filled staycation everyone seemed to enjoy.

Over the past year, Mathison says he's had a lot of fun finding new ways to enjoy the great American vacation at home with his family.

Last summer, they hit a water park and just last month, they pitched a tent and camped out in their backyard.

VIDEO: Family Fun for FreePlay

But this month, "GMA" gave him the ultimate challenge: to put together a fun-filled staycation adventure completely free of charge.

Step One: Getting There Is Half the Fun

After loading up his children Lucas, six, and Leyla, three, in the car, Mathison and wife Vanessa decided to drive into New York City -- and to make the most of that hour-long drive. Who says that car games are just for long road trips?

The Mathisons played "Guess That Animal" and "I Spy" to pass the time.

Step Two: Put Away the Gadgets

When they arrived at their first destination, Mathison's wife took away his cell phone and access to e-mail -- an important step parents sometimes forget about in planning an afternoon out with the kids.

The kids, Lucas and Leyla, couldn't have been happier.

Step Three: Explore Free Transportation

One great idea for staycations: take advantage of public transportation. Trains, buses, trolleys and ferries all offer the opportunity for adventure at low or even no cost. In New York City, the Staten Island Ferry is absolutely free. And you can't beat the view of the New York skyline.

The ferry shuttles a whopping 20 million people a year from Manhattan to the New York borough of Staten Island and back again, year-round, seven days a week.

But the residents of Staten Island aren't the only ones who can ride the ferry; so can anyone interested in spending some time out on the water and enjoying some breathtaking views. The ferry offered the Mathison family stunning views of the New York skyline, as well as up-close looks at historic Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

"There she is! This is the closest I've ever been to the Statue of Liberty!" Mathison exclaimed, as the ferry whizzed past the iconic statue. Although he's lived in the New York area for a dozen years, Mathison confessed he'd never before gotten such a close-up view.

The roundtrip journey took just over an hour and provided a great chance to enjoy a free adventure at sea.

Budget-Friendly Family Activities

Step Four: Create Your Own Tours

Who says family tours have to cost money? If your little one likes to bowl, ask the local bowling alley manager for a behind-the-scenes tour. If you have a young thespian or dancer in your midst, call your local performing arts center and inquire about a private tour.

In the case of the Mathisons, Lucas and Leyla Mathison love fire trucks, but had never seen one up close. After the ferry adventure, the Mathisons arranged for an afternoon tour of Engine Company #40 and Ladder Company #35, located in the heart of Manhattan.

Fire stations throughout the nation provide similar free tours. Just call in advance. The best part of the tour was getting to meet some real-life heroes up close.

During the visit, Lucas got to take his turn behind the wheel of a fire engine, Leila got to don an actual firehat, and the entire family discovered, much to their surprise, that firefighters still use firepoles.

The family also learned the difference between a fire engine and a fire truck (engines hold hoses and trucks hold ladders and rescue gear) and watched in awe as firefighters suited up with the 150 pounds' worth of gear they routinely wear while fighting fires.

Besides getting a chance to try fire hats on for size, the free tour also gave the Mathisons a chance to talk as a family about a very important day in American history: Sept. 11, 2001.

Engine Company #40 and Ladder Company #35 each lost six members during 9/11. Placards are prominently posted in the firehouse, honoring those who lost their lives in the line of duty.

CLICK HERE to visit the FDNY's Web site to learn more.

For the Mathisons, the best part of the tour was getting to meet and pose for pictures with some real-life heroes.

Step Five: Cheap Eats

After a big day of adventure, the last thing most parents want to do is cook, but eating out costs money ... or does it?

The Mathisons discovered that IHOP is among the national restaurant chains currently sponsoring a kids-eat-free promotion. Now through mid-September, kids eat free after 4 p.m.

Cameron and Vanessa still had to pay for their meals, but a stop at IHOP let Lucas and Leila to eat free of charge. The whole family to end their fun-filled day out on a high -- and economical -- note.

Other restaurant chains currently offering kids-eat-free incentives include Fazoli's, an Italian chain with 251 locations. It's expanded its kids-eat-free deal to include weekends through August 30. And El Torito, a West Coast Mexican chain, has been offering free kids' meals on Saturdays until 3 pm.

Experts warn there can be a danger involved in taking advantage of kids-eat-free promotions.

Studies indicate people tend to celebrate free meals by buying extra desserts or drinks – and sometimes spend more than if they had paid for the kids' meals outright.

But the promotions, when handled with care, can provide a fun means of getting the family out of the house to celebrate the end of summer or the start of a new school year.