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How to have a fulfilling staycation when you’re sick of your house

Explore your city on foot, try sleeping in a different room, or learn a new skill.

Image of a person in bed, showing their feet, a guitar, a mug, and a book.
Many travel experts think staycations will be the future of travel, if people emerge from the pandemic more cautious of flying.
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I woke up on April 20 to an old calendar reminder that I should be packed and ready to board my flight to Barcelona, Spain, in about six hours. I had, of course, already canceled my trip and requested refunds two months ago, back when Spain shut down its cities to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The notification was just another reminder of the Before Times, when I had a nine-day vacation that would’ve provided a much-needed mental refresher from work. Instead, I opted to take a brief staycation — in my own apartment.

Millions of Americans are currently under stay-at-home orders and many have postponed or entirely canceled their vacation plans for the current year. Since domestic and international travel has slowed to a virtual halt, people won’t be traveling very far anytime soon. In the meantime, local staycations seem to be most people’s only option, unless you have a second vacation home or extra money to spend on a short-term rental or hotel room with limited human contact.

In the days when a flight seemed to be a safe luxury, a staycation was a code for “chill vacation” — a short, sometimes local trip with limited planning and expenses. The goal of a staycation is to relax in a place that is close to home but still a novel environment. But now that most cities and states are on lockdown, how do you plan a fulfilling break in a space you’ve occupied every hour of the day for the past couple of months? What if you aren’t afforded a significant amount of time off?

Yes, we’re in a pandemic. You still need a vacation.

It’s possible that, due to the coronavirus, people with jobs might take even less time off work than they usually do — whether they hold essential positions or are working from home. In 2018, about 55 percent of workers reported they didn’t use their allotted time off, according to the latest data from the US Travel Association. That amounts to about $65.5 billion in lost benefits, a number that could easily climb in 2020 resulting from the economic slowdown and uncertainty as to when it’ll be safe to travel again.

For some, however, it can feel oddly wasteful to take vacation days just to spend time inside, especially when the economic downturn has led to massive unemployment. Many companies have reduced their budgets and implemented hiring freezes, so it’s likely that individual workload could increase. And even before the pandemic, more than half of US workers reported feeling guilty about taking vacation time, according to a 2019 survey of over 2,000 full-time workers. In this situation, many Americans could be working without meaningful time off for at least another couple of months.

Meanwhile in quarantine, people have reported higher levels of stress-induced fatigue: Essential workers are likely overworked, underpaid, and worried about the possibility of catching Covid-19; parents might be exhausted with around-the-clock child care; and in general, people could be emotionally fatigued due to the unprecedented and unpredictable nature of the pandemic.

“You need a lot of physical energy for your cognitive work. We’re doing so much worrying and rumination,” Nancy Sin, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, told Vice. A mental and physical break, then, seems all the more necessary for employees, who are possibly on the verge of burnout as the pandemic wages on.

How people can still achieve the feeling of travel during a staycation

After more than a month of working from my tiny apartment, my weekends have started to blend into my weekdays. And while that helps with the passage of time, it’s much harder to differentiate between time spent indoors for relaxation and leisure, versus time spent indoors because, well, I sort of have to. For my staycation, I took two days off to give myself a four-day weekend, which I spent making cocktails, working on a short story, and watching old French films.

Dan Kieran, author of The Idle Traveller: The Art of Slow Travel, thinks that local staycations — much like what I undertook — will be the future of tourism and travel at least for the next year or two, as people emerge from the pandemic more cautious and hesitant to fly to far-off destinations. International travel will resume, but already, experts are predicting that many aspects of the industry, from medical screenings to personal hygiene, will change.

“My favorite thing to do is walk out my front door in a different direction,” Kieran says. “Instead of giving yourself a specific amount of time to explore a place, reflect on where you are and try to get lost to achieve that travel feeling.” He encourages people to take walks and explore their outdoor areas as if they’re a foreign traveler: They could walk along an unfamiliar street or choose to not use their GPS or phone, which would replicate that sense of adventurousness so many people crave.

Even indoors, a person could alter their environment by choosing to sleep in a different corner or room of their home or, if they have a backyard, camp outside for a night or two. It could seem silly, Kieran admits, but these activities are also family-friendly: “You can bring your sleeping bag in the lounge, sleep with your kids, or camp in the garden. If you break down what you love most about travel, it’s actually quite easy to find equivalence that doesn’t require you to be in a different geographical location,” Kieran concludes.

Kieran has long been an advocate of slow travel, a decades-old movement that presents itself as the antidote to the fast-paced style of tourism most travelers are accustomed to. It’s a mindset that rejects commercialized tourism and encourages travelers to venture “off the beaten path” to explore local cultures, foods, and transportation methods. This means a traveler could spend more time at a place than they originally planned, remaining open to itinerary changes. “There are not a lot of rules to it. It only requires you to keep an open mind,” Kieran says, which is why he believes the coronavirus could be “a huge moment for slow travel.”

People can practice slow travel even in their own cities, since the philosophy encourages close interaction with a local community that can be achieved through walking. “When we travel, we go to different parts of the world to activate a different way about thinking about life, which pushes us in a different head space,” Kieran says.

“Travel is not really about your physical location. Slow travel is a mindset,” Kieran tells me. Although new locations and environments help kickstart that mentality much faster than a staycation, he believes travel is about thinking differently about your own surroundings and being challenged by them, which is why he’s encouraging people to get lost in their own town.

Why should we love staycations? Because “you’re the CEO of your own life,” says one personal adviser

Marty Nemko, a career and personal adviser, has always been an advocate for staycations. He tells me that now, more than ever, it’s important for people to recognize how many leisurely activities they can partake in at home “at no cost or hassle.”

“In my experience, staycations provide a much better pleasure to pain ratio than a regular vacation,” Nemko says. “There’s greater pleasure in doing whatever you want in your own home.” (Kieran agrees. He tells me that the etymology of the word travel originates from travail, the French word for work, which is thought to stem from trepalium, the Latin term for a torture instrument. “The word travel literally means torture,” he says.)

While a staycation within a familiar space can initially appear limiting, Nemko encourages people to take on a small project, whether it be home renovation or learning how to cook a new cuisine over the course of two or three days. (He coined the term “projation,” or a project-vacation, in a recent Psychology Today article.)

“You can write that screenplay you’ve been meaning to write or adopt a hobby that gives you a sense of purpose,” Nemko adds. “Even if you make a room more livable that you’re living in, it’s the fact that you did something for yourself or the world.”

Online, there’s been a huge cultural debate about productivity in quarantine, primarily among creatives like me who are working home. With all this extra time, should you try to be productive or simply take a break? Nemko believes that people should strive to be purposeful and productive, while I personally believe in doing what ultimately feels good for my brain and body, productivity be damned. Even a brief staycation is unstructured time that you’re allowed to enjoy however you want.

For people who are unable to get much time off work besides their weekends, Nemko suggests implementing micro-breaks or restructuring the workday so it fits your own personal needs if you’re working from home.

“At this moment, you can inject freedom in your work life since you don’t have your boss breathing down your neck,” he says. “You’re the CEO of your own life. Get out of that chair whenever you want and take a walk or clean the bathroom.” Nemko sprinkles his day with what he calls nano-breaks, gaps of time that are extremely short, to indulge in a funny Youtube video or a brief period of meditation. “Even a minute when you’re not thinking about work, that can be very refreshing. The trick is not letting a minute turn into 30.”

When travel eventually resumes again, many experts expect travelers to gravitate to more rural locations with fewer people. Short-term rentals in remote places could be a vacation alternative for urbanites to escape the city. (Getaway House, a tiny house rental start-up, is operating in most cities even during the pandemic, and RVs are in demand.)

“I think people are going to look closer to home or spaces that remind them of home, which is a powerful and positive thing,” Kieran says. “People might start to recognize that they don’t need to go to a foreign place to be excited and invigorated.”