If you’ve ever found yourself in a relationship rut, you’ve probably thought about shaking things up – perhaps by getting as far away from the daily grind as possible. But what’s good for your relationship isn’t always great for your wallet.
The average cost of a round-trip domestic airfare was $259 in the second quarter of 2020. International air travel is significantly more expensive. And getting there and back is only the beginning. You also have to pay for lodging, food, entertainment, sightseeing, and ground transportation.
Whatever short-term boost your relationship gets from a pricey escape, the good times may not last. In a 2012 study by researchers from Kansas State University and Texas Tech University, financial disagreement was the strongest predictor of divorce. A romantic vacation or weekend getaway you can’t afford can leave your relationship worse off than before.
There’s another option – one much less likely to do serious harm to your budget: a staycation. Your hometown and its environs abound with cheap or free activities perfect for a low-stress romantic break from the rat race.
Romantic Staycation Ideas on a Budget
Getting started is as simple as blocking off a day or two on your shared calendar and brainstorming couple-friendly staycation ideas you can both agree on. You can even string together several of these romantic local activities for a memorable multiday respite.
If you’re planning an intimate day, romantic weekend, or something in between, consider these budget-friendly date ideas. Some you can do in the comfort of your living room; others are better experienced out of the house, even if they don’t quite make the bucket list.
1. Picnic in the Park
What tourist-in-your-own-town adventure is complete without a romantic picnic in the park? Weather permitting, of course.
Just gather some supplies and head to your area’s most scenic park. Don’t forget to bring:
- A spare blanket
- A spacious cooler, preferably with wheels and an extendable handle
- A tasty spread – something more interesting than sandwiches and salad, like charcuterie meats, fancy cheese, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and crackers or a baguette
- A chilled bottle of wine or hard cider – or nonalcoholic alternatives if park regulations prohibit adult beverages, you prefer to abstain, or you’re giving up alcohol
Afterward, aid your digestion with a stroll around the park.
2. Take Advantage of Free Museum Hours
When was the last time you visited an art or history museum in your hometown or the nearest big city?
Now’s your chance. Most museums waive admission fees at least one day per month, often during the first week – “First Thursdays” and “First Saturdays” are common. Some waive admission more frequently – sometimes weekly, commonly on Thursdays.
3. Take a Historic Walking or Segway Tour of Your Hometown
Before your museum excursion, make like a tourist in your own town.
If you live in or near one of the cities served by Free Tours by Foot, try one of their tours. Most last less than three hours, and they really are free – though the tour guides do anticipate a tip at the tour’s conclusion.
No Free Tours by Foot near you? Local alternatives abound. In Minneapolis, Human on a Stick puts on immersive scenic tours that cover far more ground than a leisurely walk. And the Chicago Architecture Foundation‘s tours introduce locals and nonlocals alike to the Windy City’s hidden and not-so-hidden architectural gems.
Check out CityPASS to see if your city’s included. It can help you save up to 50% off the price of popular attractions.
4. Go to the Movies in the Afternoon
These days, a full-price evening show costs about as much as an entire month of Netflix. That’s a big ask for two hours of entertainment you can just wait a few months to catch on your stream.
Then again, some movies are made to be seen on the big screen. For those, there’s the trusty weekday matinee: half the price for the same on-screen experience and with fewer heads in the way. Purchase your tickets from home through Fandango and you can bypass the ticket counter.
Should you deem the traditional multiplex experience insufficiently romantic, look for a drive-in theater near you. Drive-ins aren’t as common as they were in the mid-20th century, but they’re still around and more plentiful in climates conducive to year-round outdoor viewing. Drive-ins are more likely than conventional theaters to show double and triple features for the price of a single flick too. Even better, outside food and beverages are usually welcome.
5. Have a Movie Marathon or Binge-Watch a TV Show
There’s no need to leave the house to enjoy a movie or two – or an entire season of your favorite streaming show. There’s no admission fee outside the monthly subscription you’re already auto-paying without a second thought. And there’s no one around to judge you for sitting a little too close to your partner.
6. Curl Up at Home With a Good Book
Screen time is overrated. Why not use part of your staycation to curl up with your partner and whittle down your reading list?
To make things more interesting, read the same book. You may need to begin a few days in advance, depending on the length and density of the book. Then you can compare notes over a candlelit dinner or that picnic in the park.
7. Enjoy a Couples Massage
Few staycation activities combine romance and relaxation like a professional couples massage. If your budget can handle it, stick around the spa afterward for a treatment or two. Check out Groupon because they frequently have spa deals, especially around Valentine’s Day. This could help you save a significant amount of money.
Alternatively, forgo the spa entirely and take turns playing masseuse at home, with homemade spa treatments thrown in for good measure. It’s no substitute for the real thing, but it’s a great deal less expensive.
8. Hit the Beach
No need to jet down to Florida or the Caribbean to experience a beachfront date night (or day). Most of us live within convenient driving distance of standing or flowing water, whether that means the ocean or the little human-made reservoir on the outskirts of town.
And there’s a good chance your local water source has public shore access or even a proper beach. Spend an afternoon soaking up the rays there, weather permitting. Or turn the affair into a weekend getaway with a miniature beach vacation at a low-cost bed and breakfast.
9. Lounge by the Pool
If the only “beach” within miles is a pool deck, make do.
A day pass to the pool at your local YMCA or YWCA typically doesn’t cost more than lunch for two at Subway, not that lunch at Subway is anyone’s idea of a romantic time. Your local community center may not charge at all for pool access, though it’s sure to be crowded and loud – and not so romantic – on warm days.
One possible solution is a day pass to a hotel or resort pool, where you’ll enjoy fewer fellow sunbathers, comfier seating, and access to a lounge bar. Download ResortPass to find affordable day passes near you.
10. Camp Out in Your Yard
If your backyard is big enough to accommodate a tent you already own, you’ve got yourself a free night under the stars. For best results, schedule your backyard stay to coincide with the Perseids, an August meteor shower almost reliable enough to set your watch to.
If you’re not eager to camp out feet from where you usually sleep or you live in an area where light pollution makes stargazing untenable, head to the nearest rural state park and set up camp there. On a weeknight, it’s typically easy to find a campsite, but book ahead if availability is a concern – most state park systems offer online campsite bookings.
If you’re not into tent camping, you can rent an RV through Outdoorsy.com and have more of a glamping night under the stars.
11. Take a Hike
While you’re at the park, stretch your legs a bit. Pick a route with a defined destination, like a mountain summit or secluded lake – but don’t make it so challenging you’re in no mood to celebrate or cuddle at the terminus.
12. See Your Town & Beyond on 2 Wheels
Hiking is peaceful and rewarding, but you can cover more ground on two wheels. Find a map of protected or grade-separated bike trails in your region – you can probably get one on the local tourism authority website. Choose a suitably challenging round-trip route with multiple points of interest along the way.
Alternatively, plan an out-and-back ride with its midpoint in a town known for quaint charm or natural beauty – there’s at least one on the outskirts of every big metro area.
13. Visit the Nearest National Park or Historic Site
The nearest national park is probably closer than you think. Yes, genuinely iconic parks – like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon – tend to be isolated. But America abounds with smaller, lesser-known national parks and historic sites just a short road trip away.
There’s Independence National Historical Park in central Philadelphia, Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park near downtown Atlanta, or Caribbean-esque Biscayne National Park just outside Miami, just to name a few. Any one of these urban or periurban sites is big and dense enough to occupy inquisitive couples for a day, maybe longer.
14. Do Some Offbeat Sightseeing
If you’re willing to incorporate a short road trip into your staycation, pick an offbeat point of interest or two to gawk at with your significant other. Roadside America has a vast list of roadside attractions in all 50 states, many of which charge no admission. Just verify with another source – preferably the attraction itself if there’s a staff – that it remains open to visitors.
15. Rent a Boat
You don’t need a yacht to have a romantic time on the water. A canoe, kayak, or paddleboat is just as romantic. If you live in a sizable city on a navigable waterway, your hometown probably has at least one private boat rental company that rents paddle-powered craft by the hour, half day, or full day.
It won’t set you back as much as you think. For example, Paddle Boston’s full-day double kayak rentals cost less than a fancy restaurant dinner for two. Years from now, you won’t recall what you ordered for your candlelit staycation supper, but the memory of that overwater skyline view will burn bright.
16. Take a Dinner Cruise
Prefer not to paddle yourself? Leave the steering to the professionals.
A dinner cruise takes care of two staycation mainstays: the overwater sunset and the romantic dinner for two. The experience isn’t downright cheap, but it typically costs less for a two- or three-hour cruise than for a single night’s stay in a boutique hotel – a reasonable outlay for your staycation’s main event.
17. Enjoy a Seasonally Appropriate Outdoor Activity
Let local culture and seasonality dictate your staycation’s daylight schedule. If you live in a four-season climate, that can mean:
- Touring historic mansions with formal gardens in spring
- Spending a few hours at a parade, street festival, or farmers market in summer
- Visiting an apple orchard or pumpkin patch in autumn (bonus points for a place that sells doughnuts and mulled wine)
- Snowshoeing or Nordic skiing at a municipal or state park in winter
18. Spend the Day Volunteering
You chose your partner in part because they share your values. What better way to recommit to making the world a better place than to spend the day volunteering for a cause you both care about?
Whether that means working on a Habitat for Humanity build, joining a roadside litter cleanup crew, or doling out meals at a food pantry, what’s important is that you’re doing your part together.
19. Make an Elaborate Home-Cooked Meal
An elaborate home-cooked meal probably isn’t cheaper than a restaurant dinner for two if it involves multiple courses, choice cuts, and wine pairings. But it’s sure to be more memorable, if only because of the effort you put into it. You can even cut the grocery store trip out of the day by using a meal delivery service like HelloFresh.
If spending the entire afternoon hunched over the stove isn’t your idea of romance, settle for an oven-baked, slow cooker, or pressure cooker meal you can leave to its own devices while you watch a movie or curl up with a book.
20. Try a New Restaurant
Reviled by penny-pinchers and dieters alike, the dreaded restaurant meal is indeed something you can do without. But splurging on a fancy dinner can also be a singular romantic experience when it involves a new cuisine or elevated cooking technique. And most people dine out more than once on a proper vacation. Why not let someone else do the cooking on your staycation?
Better yet, make an evening out of it. Pregame dinner with a drink at a local brewery or cocktail bar. Afterward, walk off the meal with a stroll through the park, along the riverfront, or wherever the mood takes you. Cap off the night at a bar or club with live music and a reasonable cover.
Pro tip: If you’d prefer to have that restaurant meal from your favorite restaurant at home, you can have it delivered through DoorDash.
21. Get a Last-Minute Hotel Deal
Budget permitting, spend a staycation night away from home – but not too far. Start by checking HotelTonight for last-minute deals on upscale hotels in your city.
If nothing catches your eye, use a booking app like Hotels.com to locate additional properties, then call them directly to inquire about vacancies and book at a lower-than-advertised rate. Hotels grow desperate to fill empty rooms as check-in time approaches and passes.
Even if you don’t get your first choice, you can almost always find a deeply discounted room sooner or later – potentially at 30% to 50% off the posted rate.
Unintended splurges happen just as easily in your hometown as in Hawaii, Aspen, or Paris. A couple of nights at the Four Seasons, a chef-driven tasting menu for two, and front-row seats at the orchestra can add up fast. These experiences, while romantic and fun, aren’t so good for your bottom line.
Forgoing a destination vacation in favor of a staycation doesn’t waylay your romance-repair efforts. But it can still set back your household budget and open new cracks in your relationship.
So don’t end your staycation worse off than when it began. As you plan your romantic “getaway,” keep a close watch on your budget and say no to pricey experiences you may come to regret.