I was first introduced to the staycation as an at-home writing residency. No applications. No fees. Just a week off work and the comfort of a familiar space where I could refine my craft free of awkward social interactions and the pressure of having paid money I couldn’t afford.
And then, at 30, I divorced my abusive husband and moved into a rented room. No one talks about it, but it costs money to leave an abuser. Sometimes a lot of money. For years, staycations were the only vacations I could afford.
And now that I have my masters and a good job and a loving partner I adore, who also earns plenty? I still take staycations. And I love them. Staycations allow us to save for a down payment as well as a Disneyland trip next year, while not compromising on the number and length of our vacations (at least three or four a year, lasting a week each). And staycations are not only financially savvy; they are also ecologically responsible, easier on my chronic illness, more relaxing, and better for our older cat who requires some extra TLC.
So whether you take staycations because you have to, or you prefer them because you hate packing and waiting in lines, here are my favorite strategies for the perfect staycation:
1. Buy something nice to make your home feel like a boutique hotel
This depends entirely on what makes or breaks a hotel stay for you. Is it the chocolate on the pillow every night? A silk pillowcase you’ve been lusting after? Is it the freshly ironed 800-thread count sheets?
For me, it’s flowers. Even when I was flat broke in my early thirties, I bought the cheapest $7 bouquet of Gerbera daisies I could find. They brought so much color and cheerfulness to my rented room that I couldn’t help but feel more hopeful about the future, which is part of what a good vacation is for. And to this day, though I’m earning a lot more, I still pick up a bouquet of daisies before every staycation.
2. Head to the grocery store and stock up
Just as if I were renting a cabin, I get off work and head to the grocery store to pick up what I’ll need for the week along with some extra treats (doughnuts!). Neither my husband nor I enjoy cooking, so we pick up a few frozen dinners and salad kits. To avoid dish cleanup, we also pick up compostable plates, bowls, and plastic silverware. That way, we only have to run the dishwasher once or twice. One rule on our staycations is never do more cleanup than you would at a hotel or a rental cabin. Which brings us to my next tip…
3. Handle chores before your staycation starts
One potential drawback of a staycation is the temptation to do the chores you haven’t had time to do the rest of the year. I guarantee this will ruin your staycation before it ever gets started, so you have to find a way to cut this off at the pass. If something is going to be an eyesore for the entire week, deal with it after your grocery run. My husband and I take this very seriously. We’ve been known to stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning, scrubbing and dusting and wiping so that the bathtub gleams, the corners above our bookshelves are cobweb-free, and the carpet is clean enough to bury your nose in. We even grind up all the coffee we will use for the week ahead. Literally everything is ready to go, so when we wake up the next morning, we truly have a fresh start to the week.
4. Order a care package and open it up Staycation Eve
When I was broke, this meant picking up some cookies I didn’t normally splurge on and ordering books from the library that I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into. Or it meant buying a special candle at a discount store. Last winter, this meant imported Scottish soaps, lotions, biscuits, and teas on our Scotland-themed staycation. This summer, it meant a new video game, books for me, and new DVDs for him. Figure out what you can afford, and then buy something that invites you into the luxury of a true vacation.
5. Let everyone know you’re unavailable and set your auto replies before you leave the office
It’s critical that your friends, family, and coworkers know that your staycation is a vacation. It is not an extended weekend. You are not available to them any more than you would be if you were in the Bahamas or hiking in the backcountry without a cellphone signal. Decide how much social media engagement you’ll do ahead of time, and stick to it. Because I work for a Chinese company where most of my colleagues find the idea of a staycation puzzling, I simply tell them I’ll be out of town. Do what you have to do to ensure that everyone else takes your staycation as seriously as you do.
6. Set a budget for treats
As with any vacation, there will be unexpected expenses. You’ll walk by a bakery and absolutely crave a blueberry muffin. You’ll wander into a small-town bookstore and discover that they have the latest book by your favorite author. Buying something on a vacation can make it extra special because it becomes a memento. On our day trip last weekend, I wandered into The Kingfisher Bookstore in Coupeville on Whidbey Island. I was impressed by the range of their stock as well as their choice to highlight local authors. So when I saw the book I’d been longing for all year, I had to buy it. This meant my discretionary spending was gone. No more surprise treats for me. But I had no regrets. Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was everything I wanted.
7. Kick off the staycation with a day trip
It’s still necessary to feel like you’re getting away from it all. Because you are. I like to pack a picnic, pour my coffee into a thermos, and hit the road. Back when I had no money to spare, this meant hopping a commuter bus that would take me all the way north to Everett where I’d splurge on a chai latte, watch the trains pull in and out of Everett Station, and browse the downtown library. Since grad school, a career, and marriage, the day trip has turned into a more lavish affair with distillery tastings, ice cream, art galleries, and a nice dinner out. But truth be told, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you get out of Dodge. Throw on some of your favorite tunes (or podcasts). And go visit a different corner of your region. By the time you come back home long after dark, you will be grateful to fall into your own bed.
8. Learn something new or pick up an old hobby
A staycation is the time to do what you’ve always wanted to but haven’t had time to. For me this week, it meant picking up watercolor again after 20 years away from it. For Josh, this meant experimenting with new cocktails. We both indulged plenty in video games, which was a childhood pastime we associate with summer vacations. Take a class if you want to. Go do a tasting. Sit at home and write poems next to the fire while you sip tea. If it feels a bit frivolous, then you know you’re doing it right.
9. Savor time with your pets
Even if you’re a dog lover, there are some trips that your dog just won’t be joining you on. When it comes to our cats, any type of vacation with them is a no-go. Except a staycation. It saves on drop-in fees for the cat-sitter we hire when we do leave town. It saves on worry because we know their baseline and will spot problems faster than a stranger. And above all, we just love the little buggers. With our oldest cat nearing her 15th birthday, we want to get in as many cuddles and special moments as we can. And what could be better than heading back to our “hotel” after a movie, a massage, and a dinner out only to be greeted by our favorite little furballs?
10. Embrace laziness as a virtue
Our culture is all about getting ahead. Making a quick buck. Showing up the competition. Our Puritanical heritage celebrates work as the panacea for, well, just about everything. But what this kind of mindset does, if applied consistently, is steer you straight toward burnout.
It’s just not worth it.
Many of us book vacations with the best of intentions. We will relax. We will return to work refreshed and revitalized and ready to do our best. We’ll have adventures. We’ll become the people we want to be, clear-headed and compassionate and flexible. It will be wonderful.
But in reality, those travel vacations often become a checklist with the same breakneck pace of our workdays. From our gate at the airport to our Lyft to our hotel to where-should-we-grab-dinner to let’s-go-out-but-where, from can-we-afford-this-place-for-breakfast and back to where-should-we-go-and-how-should-we-get-there, the average vacation becomes a laundry list of strategic decisions. And because we spend so much money on our vacations—around $1,100 per person per vacation, spending roughly 10% to 15% of our annual income on vacations each year
—the race is on. As Americans, we love to tell ourselves we are getting a bargain. There are entire shelves at your local library dedicated to books on bargain trips to Disneyland, Disneyworld, the Caribbean, Florida, Mexico, South America, Europe. You name it, we want a bargain on it. So we can tell ourselves we aren’t spending too much.
But here’s the truth: Any trip that involves air travel and a hotel stay is not a bargain. Maybe you can shave off a few dollars here and there, but it will never be cheap. And that is totally fine. But only if we’re honest about that.
Most of us are spending more than we can afford on vacations. And with a recession headed our way, we are all going to be in a world of hurt if we insist on spending thousands on vacations every year. All we do by spending thousands on a vacation we can’t actually afford is put pressure on ourselves. And to justify the expense to our guilty conscience, we pack in as much as possible.
It isn’t relaxing. It’s exhausting.
But a staycation, even at its most luxurious with spa dates and dinners out, need only cost a few hundred. So if you sleep in, if you stay in for days, if you have breakfast in bed, there is zero guilt. No meter is ticking with the cost of flights, meals, hotel stays. You really will feel refreshed when your staycation comes to an end because this is the one time that laziness is a virtue. Savor it.
And when it’s time to go back to work and return to your daily life, thank your home and your family for going on this journey with you. A good staycation can do everything for you that a good vacation can, including the luxury. Plus, it can help you on the road to financial freedom.
What’s more carefree than that?