Kids camping in backyard
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The average cost of a summer vacation for Americans is almost $2,000, which means a traditional vacation may not be financially feasible for many. A recent Bankrate survey found that millions of Americans aren’t planning on using all of their vacation days, in large part due to financial pressure, even though experts agree that taking time off is imperative to your mental health. A proper staycation can be the best of both worlds — a relaxing vacation that doesn’t break your budget.

Furthermore, a staycation is great for those looking for quick breaks to help them recharge because they are saving up for a longer trip or don’t have the financial freedom to take off for longer periods of time. Over half of Americans in 2018 used a shorter trip to help eliminate burnout and vacation deprivation between larger vacations, according to an Expedia study. Additionally, 79 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds preferred shorter trips to longer vacations.

Getting the most out of your staycation

If you do decide to take your vacation local, make sure you’re still getting a break from your daily stressors. Oftentimes, days off at home can turn into taking care of errands or home projects that keep you from unplugging and relaxing. Taking that time out of the office and away from your daily schedule is important for your mental health and overall work-life balance.

It might seem counterproductive to your career growth to be out of the office, but taking those PTO days actually have professional benefits. Expedia’s Vacation Deprivation survey found that 82 percent of Americans come back from PTO with more patience for clients and colleagues. Time away helps you come back refreshed — with a better attitude and increased productivity.

For that reason, it’s important to completely unplug from work. A new study from Randstad U.S. found that more than one-fifth of Americans often respond to work-related messages and emails when they are on vacation.

For those staying close to home, it’s that much more important to set those boundaries so you can enjoy your time off. Leave someone else in charge of your major responsibilities for a few days, turn off access to your work email on your phone and make sure your boss and colleagues are aware that you’ll be out of pocket.

Here are a few ideas to help you take advantage of your PTO this summer without going far from home.

Play tourist in your own town

Spend a few days exploring where you live. Whether you’ve lived there your entire life or just recently moved, there are most likely some hidden gems you’ve yet to experience. A quick Google search can help you uncover must-dos in your town, or you can check out a site like worldtravelguide.net that offers comprehensive guides on major cities.

Explore your city’s culture

Museums, art galleries, historical sites and parks are usually free or budget-friendly. Every city — no matter how small — has a unique history and culture worth learning more about. Use your time off to look into the backstory of your city.

A haunted tour could be a fun way to learn more about the overall history or a few notable past residents. Museums and art galleries are great opportunities to learn more about history or meet local artists. Some cities have cultural sites that offer unique insight into how people used to live.

Prices for these types of excursions are typically low, and many offer discounted days throughout the week.

Get outdoors

If the outdoors is more your style, use your time off to get some fresh air. If your city is near a lake or river, rent a kayak for the day. For those who prefer staying dry, go for a nice hike with incredible views. Even if you aren’t a fan of nature, you can enjoy a picnic at a local park or an afternoon lazing in a hammock in your backyard.

Try something new

Is there a new restaurant in town you’ve been dying to try? Maybe you’ve never taken the trolley around downtown or the ferry. Taking a vacation is all about stepping outside of your typical day-to-day, and trying something you’ve never done before is a perfect way to do just that. Even something as simple as strolling through a new area of town or taking a drive down backroads can be a fun and easy way to get out of your daily routine.

Get out of the city

Sometimes a change of scenery is all it takes to unwind, whether it’s in another country or just 10 miles outside the city limits. You can save hundreds by taking day trips to nearby towns and attractions without sacrificing the benefits of getting away.

Go camping or backpacking

For outdoors enthusiasts, camping is one way to unplug and relax. A few nights at a campsite costs pennies compared to a hotel or Airbnb. There are also some excellent multi-day hiking trips you can take if you’re looking to go off the grid for a few days.

The U.S. is also home to some of the most beautiful National Parks and State Parks in the world. If you live within driving distance, it’s well worth it to try and take a few days to explore. While some parks charge a small entry fee per vehicle, many are free to enjoy. National Parks also offer fee-free days throughout the year and discounts for families with fourth-grade students.

Enjoy a local winery, vineyard or farm

When you think “vineyard,” your head might pop to Napa Valley in California, but they are much more common than you might think. As of 2016, there were over 8,000 vineyards spread across the U.S. — many also have attached wineries. They often offer affordable tours or wine tastings, and many let visitors explore or bring their own picnic for free — you’ll just pay for the wine you buy onsite.

If wine isn’t your cup of tea (or if you have small kids), try a local farm that allows visitors instead. Farms open to the public are perfect places for a family picnic, and you can even take home some fresh fruits and vegetables to fix with dinner.

Take a day trip to a nearby town

Visiting a city or town nearby can give the feeling of being on a vacation far away without you having to fly or take a long road trip. Every city is different in its own way, and you’ll get to explore a place you aren’t as familiar with as your hometown. Even if you live in a suburb of a larger city, going into town for an afternoon is another idea for a mini getaway. There you can try a new restaurant, window shop or just explore.

Relax at home

You can even experience the benefits of a vacation without ever leaving your driveway. Sometimes a few days at home without having an errand or to-do list a mile long is all it takes to relax and recharge — no vacation fund necessary.

Have a DIY spa day

Cheap face masks, a bath bomb and slippers from Walmart is all it takes for an at-home spa day. If you have a nice tub, set up scented candles and a soothing playlist before spending the afternoon soaking in a bath. Cut up some cucumber to place on your eyes while you use a face mask, and make some homemade fruit-infused water like they have available at the spa.

You can even use things you already have around the house for DIY spa treatments. Sugar, essential oil and coconut oil can make a homemade exfoliating scrub. There are hundreds of face mask recipes out there that use everyday ingredients like honey, yogurt or oatmeal. You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to enjoy the benefits of a spa day.

Binge your favorite shows or movies

Takeout, a Netflix or Hulu subscription and a new show (Great British Baking Show, anyone?) is a perfect combination for a low-stress, low-budget long weekend. Are you a season behind on one of your favorite shows? Take the time to get caught up. You can also take a few days to watch your favorite movie or TV series all the way through.

There are plenty of credit cards out there that offer rewards on takeout and streaming services, so you can even earn some extra cash back while rewatching The Office for the millionth time.

Camp out in your backyard (or living room)

Families can set up camp out in the backyard, complete with a campfire and smores. Download an app that helps you spot constellations, or try to catch some fireflies once it’s dusk (just make sure to release them before the night is over).

If the weather makes that impossible, you can even bring it indoors and camp out in the living room. No tent? Use blankets, pillows and chairs to build a fort.

Taking advantage of rewards opportunities

While you’ll be saving hundreds on your staycation just by eliminating flight and hotel costs, there are still opportunities for you to save even more with rewards credit cards. If you have a rewards card in your wallet, make sure you’re using them on your staycation expenses.

Cash back cards like the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express offer rewards on multiple categories, including U.S. gas stations and transit to help you save on day trips into or out of the city. More cards have recently added streaming services as a bonus category, including the Amex Blue Cash Preferred and the Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card. A flat-rate card like the Chase Freedom Unlimited will earn you 3% cash back (on up to $20,000 in the first year; 1.5% thereafter) on everything — from your spa day materials to your entry fee for any museum or national park.

By using your rewards card on this year’s staycation, you can actually start building rewards to redeem for a more traditional vacation next year.

The bottom line

A staycation is an excellent low-cost option for those who need some time away this summer. There are so many proven benefits to taking advantage of your time off, and everyone — no matter your budget — deserves to relax and recharge.