By Paula Pant, WiserAdvisor contributor
Who says you need to go to a fancy resort to have a great vacation?
Staycations are as popular as ever, with many people opting to enjoy their time off at home and skip the hassle (and cost) of a traditional vacation. And staycations can be every bit as relaxing and fun.
If you're interested in managing expenses while still enjoying your time away from the office, start planning a staycation. This is a budget-friendly alternative to a pricey flight, hotel and all the other costs of taking a vacation.
Here are 15 great ways you can make the most of your staycation while still saving money:
1. Sightsee in your own town. It's easy to neglect the top attractions in your hometown when you've lived there for a while -- you figure you'll get around to them sometime, right? Well, now is that time! Pretend you're a tourist in town for only a few days and visit all the great attractions in your own backyard.
2. Enjoy a fancy picnic. Get a cute basket and a checkered blanket, pack up some scrumptious finger foods (cheeses, fruits, and don't forget the wine) and find a lovely spot at your local park or waterfront. Bonus points for bringing along a book of poetry you can recite to each other to up the fancy factor.
3. Unplug. Make your staycation a device-free zone by vowing to only check your smartphone during short, pre-set times (or not at all, if you're really daring!). Try a week without the TV. It may feel a little uncomfortable at first, but you'll be amazed by how quickly you adapt (and start to enjoy it).
4. Check out free local events. Lots of towns host free community events over the summer, from evening movie showings to concerts to free admission days at the local museum. Do a search for what your city has to offer, then check out everything you can.
5. Go geocaching. Fun for kids and adults alike, geocaching is a real-world treasure hunting game that requires little more than a GPS-enabled device, a little gas in your tank, and a sense of adventure. Download an app or hop on one of the many geocaching sites to receive instructions on where "buried treasure" is located in your area, and have fun tracking down as many items as you can.
6. Have a spa day. Turn your bathroom into a luxurious spa with the help of bubble bath, bath oils, homemade facial treatments and a soothing eye pillow. Just add candles and a relaxing soundtrack and let the worries of everyday life fall away.
7. Perfect the art of the nap. Whether it's on a hammock under the trees or on your screened-in porch, revisit the indulgent, forget-the-world experience of taking a long, relaxing nap in the middle of the day.
8. Take a (food) tour of the world. Each night, try a restaurant from a different area of the world -- Korean, Caribbean, Indian, you name it. Do a search for the best place in your area for each cuisine, and then try it for yourself, whether it's a well-known local fixture or a "best kept secret" hole-in-the-wall.
9. Take a scenic bike ride. Hop on a local bike trail or bring your bike to a nearby waterfront or park. The combination of fresh air, nature and exercise will be invigorating and relaxing at the same time.
10. Take a class. Try something new and expand your horizons, whether it's a dance class, a pottery class or a cooking class. Your city may even offer free classes at local community centers.
11. Check out festivals and fairs. Most towns have some sort of summer festival (or festivals) on offer -- art festivals, cultural festivals, music festivals, not to mention local and community fairs. For free, or the cost of a small admission fee, you can spend the day walking around and taking in the sights.
12. Go camping in your own backyard. Sleeping under the stars is still fun for all ages. Get the full camping experience by cooking over a fire (or portable barbecue), sleeping in a tent and only visiting the house for restroom breaks.
13. Have a movie night. Visit the drive-in, set up a projection screen in your backyard or have a Netflix marathon from the comfort of your own couch. Try something different for a change, like a cheesy horror flick or one of those all-time classics you've still never seen. Don't forget the popcorn and candy!
14. Create your own tournament. Challenge your loved ones to a vacation-long tournament made up of several smaller events, like mini golf, fishing and tennis. Winner each day gets to choose that night's dinner/movie/etc. Winner of the whole tournament? That's up to you!
15. Catch up on your reading. Whether you love historical biographies or fluffy beach reads, stock up on some hot titles and set aside plenty of time to get lost in them. Take yourself somewhere you won't be distracted by technology (like that hammock in your backyard or a local beach or coffee shop) and let yourself be carried away.
The bottom line? At the end of the day, you'll enjoy your time off from work even more if you know that your experience is aligned with your budget. Your vacation shouldn't ruin your retirement plans, cause you to fall behind on your bills, or otherwise set you back. Instead, take a "staycation" so that you can enjoy the best of both words: relaxed time, coupled with manageable expenses.
Restaurant.com sells $25 gift certificates for $10 or $50 gift certificates for $20. The site also has sales throughout the year, and I've snagged $25 gift certificates for $5. I keep a stack of these things in my wallet at all times. Most places have a minimum purchase requirement (from $35 and up) but you can generally use the gift certificates any time. But there are drawbacks: They're for dine-in only, they're nonrefundable, and they can only be redeemed once per month per restaurant. Still, the site has become so popular that you can double dip - buying Restaurant.com certificates through an airline's shopping portal in order to earn frequent flier miles, for instance.
If you're not already using Groupon and LivingSocial, start now. Both sites post daily deals that will give you 50 to 90 percent off at different restaurants. You'll have to act quickly, but you'll save a bunch. I just got a dozen cake pops (regularly $17) for $8 through Groupon. If you don't want to spend hours sifting through all the offers, Money Talks News deals diva Karla Bowsher has culled the very best on our deals page.
If you have a smartphone, some social networking apps will get you free stuff and discounts. Last weekend, I got free guacamole and a free flan for checking into the restaurant on Yelp. Here are a few apps that score you deals: Yelp Check-ins - After you check in, mention Yelp to your server to get the goods. Foursquare - Many places offer discounts and buy-one-get-one offers to people who check in. SCVNGR - Every time you check in, you accumulate points. You can redeem your points for a discount on your bill or a free item depending on the restaurant.
Every restaurant in town knows when my birthday is. Last year, I got three half-price meals, six free desserts, two free entrees, and about a dozen free cocktails - and all I had to do was sign up for a birthday mailing list and turn a year older. Many restaurants have a birthday or anniversary club. Signing up is free and they'll send you a coupon around the date. Ask your server how to sign up - and even if they don't have a mailing list, he'll tell you what you can get for free or cheap on your special occasion. There's even a site devoted to listing restaurants where you can eat free on your birthday: eatfreeonyourbirthday.com
Social media-savvy restaurants post special deals on Twitter. Some even post code words. If you tell your server the code word, you'll get a discount or a freebie. Last month, I got a free dessert for saying "Free Sean Payton" to my server. (I live in New Orleans, and the code words referred to our NFL coach who has been suspended by the league.) To find a restaurant's Twitter info, visit its website and look for the "Follow Us" links. One should be for Twitter. Another should be for Facebook. Speaking of which...
Here at Money Talks News, we take surveys, hold contests, and give out freebies on our Facebook page as a way to keep in touch with you. Many restaurants do the same thing. By "liking" the restaurant page, you'll get access to special deals not mentioned anywhere else.
I've made it a habit to open a few apps before I walk into a restaurant. There are several free apps that post deals to local and chain restaurants. Most places will apply the discount to your bill if you show them the app - no need to print the coupon. Here are a few apps worth downloading: Dining Deals LocalEats The Valpak App
Many restaurants in my area extend their lunch hours until late afternoon. By eating dinner early, I get the lunch prices, which are often 25 to 50 percent cheaper than the dinner prices for the same entrees. Before you try somewhere new, visit the restaurant's website and see if they have a lunch or early bird special.
It's uncommon, but some restaurants let you bring your own beer or wine, which is usually cheaper than the cost of paying per glass. Before you go, call ahead and ask if the establishment is BYOB. If they're not, skip the cocktail and have one somewhere else. Some places will charge a "corkage fee" if you bring your own wine, but even at $10 per bottle, it's still often cheaper than buying the same bottle in the restaurant. Most restaurants in my area overcharge for alcohol. For example, my local bar charges $3 for a mixed drink, but the restaurant next door charges $6. I save 50 percent stopping by the bar for my after-dinner drink.
Restaurant meals are over-proportioned, so split your meal in two. You'll eat dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow for one price. It may seem like obvious advice, but it's harder in practice. If you're not careful, you'll end up eating everything on the plate. To beat the extra calories and save money, I divide my plate in half before I start eating. I only eat from my "now" half of the plate and ask for a to-go box for the rest.
Knowing the different steak cuts and how they're prepared will save you money. For example, my friend always goes for the filet mignon because it's well known and tender. It's also one of the most expensive cuts you can order. Meanwhile, I ask if the hanger or flank steak was marinated. If it was, I order that. It's the cheapest steak on the menu, but it's also flavorful and tender - if marinated. MSN says sirloin, flank, skirt, and hanger steaks are really underrated. Give them a chance.
If I've learned one thing being a local in a tourist town like New Orleans, it's this: Tourist traps are alive and well. Many of the famous restaurants tourists want to visit are overpriced and not the best dining experience. If you want an authentic experience and a better price, check out a review site like Yelp or Urban Spoon before you visit a vacation spot. Pick a few places the locals rated highly and check their websites for menu prices. You can save a ton by planning ahead and skipping the hot spots.
I'm fortunate to have very cheap friends. "I don't care where we go as long as it's cheap," is a common refrain on a Friday night. But I also have some less-than-frugal friends who visit from out of town. Since I know they'll want to try that expensive five-star restaurant they heard about on the Food Network, I jump the gun and suggest a similar but cheaper place. If you're dining out with a group, suggest reasonably priced places ahead of time. It will keep you from having to choose between a $25 salad or a $30 piece of chicken.
Around here they call it lagniappe - the little something extra you get for being a great customer. Like the free cup of gumbo I've gotten every time I visit a diner in my neighborhood. I get that little something extra because I'm a regular. Trying new places is great, but you can get a discount (or a lagniappe) by building a relationship with the servers or owners of local restaurants.
With iDine, you can earn 5 to 15 percent back any time you eat out. Just sign up on their website. Within 30 days of your meal, sign on and complete a quick survey. For every survey you take, you'll earn cash back. When you reach $20, iDine will mail you an American Express gift card. It takes some effort, but it's free money. See? Dining out doesn't have to mean going all in - or staying in.
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