How to Plan a Cheap Staycation (That Feels Expensive)

Have you ever been in the situation of needing to take your vacation days, but can’t actually travel? Perhaps it’s because of finances? Then you need a staycation. Keep reading to learn how to plan a cheap staycation that feels expensive

Key takeaways

  • Use your home as a base for free or low-cost activities nearby.
  • Embrace a vacation mindset by setting rules, such as no chores or work emails, to make your staycation feel like a real break.
  • Plan and budget your staycation like you would for a regular vacation to avoid overspending and to make room for special activities or dining experiences.
  • Explore local attractions like free museums, national parks, or festivals, and consider backyard camping or a movie marathon for at-home entertainment.
Couple having picnic in the park on a sunny day
When figuring out how to plan a cheap staycation, get creative and have fun.

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How can I get a cheap staycation? 

The cheapest staycation will be one where you stay at your own home and either center your activities around what you can do at home or nearby for free or with very little money. 

But if you do have some money to spend, don’t rule out the possibility of a hotel staycation entirely. I find it much easier to really get a break from everyday life when I’m staying at a hotel.

You could check out budget hotel options in your area. Or if it’s low season in your hometown you may be able to score a good last-minute deal at a local inn.

Using a booking aggregator like will help you compare prices quickly across many inns, independent hotels, and brands. 

You can make your staycation feel like a vacation 

The key to making your budget staycation feel like a vacation will be adopting a vacation mindset. If you do this well, you don’t even have to leave your home to have a great break. 

Here are the staycation “rules” I try to follow to make sure my staycation feels like a vacation: 

  • No regular household chores or errands. Take care of these before your staycation just like you would if you were traveling a great distance from home for your vacation. 
  • Do not even hint to your boss or colleagues that you will be checking your work emails. You’re on vacation, remember? If you’re self-employed, make sure you’re prepared to take a total break from your business. 
  • Staycation in the same style you like to vacation. If you like to plan all your activities ahead of time, do that. If you like to fly by the seat of your pants, then embrace your spontaneous side. 
  • Have fun. Staycations can be awesome and sometimes far more relaxing than worrying about itineraries and flights, and running around all day sightseeing.  

Plan your budget staycation 

Even if you prefer a more spontaneous staycation style, I encourage you to at least do a little planning to help you stay on budget.  

In fact, I would recommend that you set a staycation budget just like you would for any other “trip.” This will give you a realistic picture of how much you can splurge on special activities or meals out. If you’re like me, rather than finding trip budgets constraining you’ll find them somewhat liberating.  

When I know exactly how much I have to spend and I’m tracking my expenses throughout the trip, I know exactly when I can afford that special restaurant meal or pricey excursion/activity I’ve been thinking about…otherwise, I’ll convince myself I can’t afford it. 

To help you jumpstart your cheap staycation, I’ve compiled a list of great low-cost staycation ideas. Pick and choose from this list or use it as a starting place to help you plan your terrific cheap staycation. 

Fun and low-budget staycation activities (with a splash of elegance) 

Try these low-budget staycation ideas when planning your staycation. Some of these ideas are totally free, and others are pretty low-cost. 

You might also enjoy doing some brainstorming with your spouse and/or children to see how many amazing but free (or cheap) ideas you can come up with to make your staycation awesome. 

Prepare all your meals yourself but prepare them ahead of time 

Eating all of your meals at home can save you a lot of money on your staycation, but probably the last thing you want to do on your break is cook every day.

I know that’s not my idea of a good time. 

So, what you can do is get some meals in the freezer ahead of time. Then all you have to do is pull them out, defrost, and heat them. You can minimize the extra work by making extra of what you’re already making for dinners before your staycation.

To make this world well, I’ll try to plan at least a few weeks ahead. 

To make your staycation feel more special or high-end, brainstorm some options that are your favorites but maybe you only pull out for special occasions.

I’m talking about things like your favorite eggplant or chicken parmesan or your favorite sage stuffing you only make for Thanksgiving. 

Find some affordable prepared food options 

If you really just don’t want to do any cooking yourself, I totally get that. You can always go out to eat or order food in. 

But to find budget alternatives to restaurant-prepared food, check out the freezer section in your grocery store or the prepared foods section at your local Trader Joe’s or Costco for some great (affordable) options. 

Use all of those things you keep around for special occasions 

You know what I’m talking about…your fine china, tablecloths, cloth napkins, crystal stemware, candlesticks. etc. 

You can recreate the atmosphere of a fine dining experience right in your own home with items you already have on hand. 

I especially like this idea if you’re planning a romantic staycation with just your spouse. 

Eat a picnic lunch or dinner 

If you’re staycationing during agreeable weather, pack up a picnic lunch or dinner and head to your local public park, state park, lake, or beach. 

There are a lot of great ways to “fancy up” your picnic meal without a lot of expense: 

  • Pick up some antipasti at a local store’s salad bar or prepared foods section 
  • Bring a bottle of sparkling cider 
  • Pick up a special dessert (that can withstand warm temperatures) 
  • Create a simple artisanal cheese or charcuterie platter 
  • Stop at a local bakery for some fresh crusty bread 

And if you have a true blue picnic basket, then, by all means, get it out of storage and fill ‘er up. 

Plan a lake or beach day 

If you’re staycationing during the warmer months, then pack up your beach gear and head to your local lake or beach with public access. 

I mean, there isn’t really a lot more vacation-y than lying back under a beach umbrella with a great book. Oh, and maybe an icy drink. And maybe take a nap. 

And unless you have zero beach gear, this shouldn’t cost you a thing unless your nearest beach or lake charges a per-vehicle fee for parking.

But then maybe you could do a quick Google search to find out if there’s any free parking available elsewhere so you can save that money. 

Roasting marshmallows over a fire in a sand pit
Spending a day at a beach makes a great low-budget staycation activity.

Visit a nearby city’s downtown area 

Does your hometown (or a nearby city) have a great downtown area? Then head over there and do some exploring. Find some free or cheap parking and wander in and out of shops.

Check out the local art galleries, independent bookstores, and green spaces. Try the local coffee shop for a coffee drink or a snack. You’ll be supporting your local economy and a cup of regular coffee usually doesn’t cost too much. 

Take your coffee with you as you stroll around town or take a break and enjoy the coffee shop atmosphere. Maybe while you read a new book that you just picked up at an independent bookstore. 

Camp out in your backyard 

A backyard campout is a great way to change your routine during an at-home staycation.

You can even turn your backyard campout into a higher-end experience by creating your own version of glamping. 

Have you ever been glamping? It’s “glamorous camping.” I haven’t either, but it sure looks fun. 

Why not try creating your own glamping site in your own backyard? I’m not suggesting you drag your four-poster bed out to your backyard, but you could… 

  • String some lights or Japanese lanterns 
  • Build a fire (safety first!) 
  • Spread some old blankets or picnic blankets so you’re not sleeping directly on the ground 
  • Or pitch your camping tent if you have one 
  • Create a simple dining and living area with a few chairs, rugs, and a table 

Create your own film festival 

If you’re staycationing during the colder or wetter months a movie day or series of movie nights is a great option. 

Have you ever wanted to watch all three Lord of the Rings movies or all four Avengers movies in one glorious day or over a few consecutive nights? I say, collect your favorite snacks and go for it. 

If you don’t subscribe to any streaming services your local library is a great resource for free entertainment. You can visit your local branch and check out DVDs or, if your library uses hoopla, you can check out and stream movies for free through the app. 

Check out the free museums in your town 

Does your town have any free museums? Go check them out! 

Your city or county’s official website or local tourism websites are a good place to start your search. You may be surprised at what’s available very near your home. 

If the museum you choose to visit has free admission but accepts donations, consider making one even if it’s small.

Many of these museums depend upon the generosity of patrons so they can continue to operate. Your donations and gift shop purchases are very much appreciated. 

Take your bikes for a spin on the local rail trail 

Got bikes? Then plan a visit to your local (or local-ish) rail trail and take them for a spin. Rail trails are a fun and safe way to bike, walk or jog. 

Rail trails are basically just what they sound like, trails made from former railroad lines. Rail trails are usually paved (at least the ones I’ve been on) and relatively flat. 

Sometimes you can find interesting green spaces along the way to take a break or there might be even places to stop and get a cup of coffee, a scoop of ice cream, or a quick bite to eat.   

Visit to find a trail near you. 

Go looking for waterfalls 

If biking or jogging doesn’t appeal to you, what about looking for waterfalls? Check out your state or county’s parks and tourism websites for listings.

Or try a simple Google search for “waterfalls near me.” You might be surprised at what you find. As you’re exploring you might also find the perfect spot for another picnic! 

Visit that nearby national park you’ve always been meaning to explore 

It may not be the Grand Canyon or Zion National Park, but it’s pretty likely that there is at least one national park, national memorial, or historic site near where you live that you haven’t been to yet or are eager to see again. 

I’ve been to Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, Colonial National Historical Park, etc., etc. But I still have not seen all the national parks nearest my home…so maybe you’re like me and there are a lot of amazing sites close by just waiting for you to explore.  

See the full list of all 423 National Park Service units on the NPS website and find something (or multiple somethings) you can add to your budget staycation itinerary.

Fees for parks vary. Many are free. Some charge very small fees, and some fees are higher. 

Take in a minor league baseball game 

It’s no secret that the cost of taking a family to a professional sports game can really add up. If you have a minor league ballpark near your home, check out ticket prices.

They can be quite affordable for a fun evening out. Especially if you just purchase the tickets that you need and bring your own food (following your stadium’s guidelines).  

And you get all the same baseball fun you’d find at a major league park but in a more intimate setting. 

Find a local festival 

Local festivals can be a blast. Does your region have a love affair with garlic? Is your county known for its flowers? Is your city passionate about promoting local artists and musicians? 

You might be surprised at how many free and cheap festivals there are in your area. While you might find more in the spring and summer months, you can often find fall and winter festivals as well. 

Festivals can also be a great place to find some cheap, local food vendors, food trucks, and such. Check your city’s official website for a full listing of festivals and other fun, free, or cheap events in your area.  

Check out your local free concerts 

Especially during the summer months, your area might be full of options to take in free concerts.

Universities, small local orchestras and such often create summer concert series that are free to attend and offer wonderful programs from classical to jazz, from popular marches to Broadway and film music. 

Outdoor concerts make an elegant activity for a summer evening. Pack yourself a picnic dinner or some snacks, lawn chairs, or blankets, and enjoy! 

Final thoughts on how to staycation on a budget 

The bottom line is that there are a ton of ways to have fun on a staycation without depriving yourself. In fact, you can staycation on a budget and have just as relaxing and wonderful an experience as you would on any other vacation. 

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