Cheap family vacation ideas from NYC
Travel time: 2hrs by car; 1hr 30min by train
Don’t drive? No problem—just hop on Amtrak (or take NJ Transit from Penn Station and connect to SEPTA) and you’ll be in Philadelphia before you know it. The City of Brotherly Love is full of fun things to do for families. Explore our nation’s history with a visit to Independence National Historical Park, then take a Sunday family tour at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Hungry? Head to Reading Terminal Market, an affordable food hall selling everything from authentic cheesesteaks to soft Amish pretzels. As for your accomodations, The DoubleTree by Hilton is particularly convenient thanks to its location right in the heart of Center City.
Travel time: 2hrs 30min by car or train
This laid-back town sits in the shadow of the Shawangunk Mountains. Take in their breathtaking beauty by hiking into Mohonk Preserve, an 8,000-acre nature preserve with plenty of easy to moderate trails. New Paltz is also home to Historic Huguenot Street, a neighborhood of 30 buildings dating back to the 17th century. Shell out $15 per adult for a guided tour (kids under 12 are free) or download the free app to learn about the history and culture of the Huguenot immigrants on your own. Stroll along the charming Main Street to find plenty of tasty restaurants, quaint shops and antique sellers. There’s a centrally located and reasonably priced Hampton Inn in New Paltz; the area also boasts plenty of cheap options on Airbnb.
Travel time: 3hrs by car
Normally a destination for summer beach trips, Cape May is an especially good deal during the off season. In the spring, summer or fall, families can take a whale-watching cruise with Cape May Whale Watcher to catch a glimpse of dolphins, porpoises and humpback or finback whales. In cooler weather, explore the town’s historic architecture on a Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts tour. Big families can reserve a few neighboring studios with small kitchens at the Madison Avenue Beach Club, which also boasts an outdoor pool and hot tub.
Travel time: 3hrs by car
One of the most affordable ski destinations in the area, Hunter Mountain makes an easy winter vacation destination. Families can also take advantage of a nearby snow-tubing park and zip-line course. It’s a winter sports town, but if you do visit in warmer months, you might spend some time hiking through the Catskills. With few hotels in town, your best bets are either the Hunter Mountain Resort (which can spike in price during busy season) or one of the many cabins on Airbnb.
Travel time: 3hrs 30min by car
The main attraction in this quaint New England village is Mystic Seaport, a harbor full of historic vessels and a recreated 19th century village. Families can climb aboard the Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving wooden whaleship in the world, and other schooners, sloops and steamboats. Though the seaport operates year round, it closes some exhibits over the winter. If you choose to visit from September between December, don’t miss your chance to visit B.F. Clyde’s Cider Mill. Kids can sip hot cider while parents indulge in the hard stuff at this 126-year-old steam-powered mill—the oldest in the country. Rates at The Whaler’s Inn in the center of town are usually quite reasonable.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Ken Mist
Travel time: 4hrs 30min by car; 1hr by plane
Bean Town has plenty to do for families, including a wealth of free and cheap activities. History buffs will want to walk the Freedom Trail to see 16 historic landmarks like Boston Common, Faneuil Hall and Old North Church. As the name suggests, it’s completely free. Kiddos will have a blast watching marine life in the New England Aquarium or playing with the hands-on exhibits at the Museum of Science. As for dining, authentic Italian food from the North End is a must—especially beloved city institutions like Mike’s Pastry. Though it’s a little further away from downtown, The Copley House in Back Bay often has affordable rates.
Travel time: 6hrs by car; 1hr 20min by plane
Maine’s largest city is still a great bargain—especially when you compare it to New York City prices. Kick off your trip with a stroll through the quaint downtown neighborhood of Old Port. It’s full of kitschy gift shops, local restaurants and New England charm. Spring and summer visitors can spend an afternoon root, root, rooting for the home team at a Portland Sea Dogs baseball game—tickets are legendarily cheap. Don’t forget to visit the Portland Head Light, a classic New England lighthouse, and the Tate House Museum, an impeccably preserved Colonial home, while you’re there. Stay in the heart of Portland at the Hilton Garden Inn to make your trip especially convenient.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Phillip Capper
Travel time: 6hrs 30min by car
For a family trip with plenty of teachable moments, take the kids to Williamsburg. The town boasts three historic attractions—Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Battlefield—that will show little ones what life was like in the colonies. Chat with living history performers as you explore village life in Colonial Williamsburg, then visit the first settlement at Jamestown and a recreated Powhatan village. Round out the trio by exploring the site of the final battle of the Revolutionary War at Yorktown. When the kids have had it up to here with history, take a break at Busch Gardens. This European-themed park has enough roller coasters and water rides to keep everyone happy. As for hotels, the Days Inn Williamsburg Historic Area offers the best bang for your buck—albeit without any extra frills.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Brian Holland
Travel time: 7hrs by car
Though it’s a bit of a drive from New York City, Niagara Falls is well worth the journey. Marvel at the sheer power of the falls—3,160 tons of water flows over them per second and they’re capable of producing more 4 million kilowatts of electricity—on a Niagara Falls Tour With Maid of the Mist Boat Ride. Since it’s such a huge draw for tourists, the Niagara Falls area boast plenty of budget hotel options. We like the Days Inn Niagara at the Falls: It’s still affordable, but the rooms don’t feel cheap. Don’t want to go through the hassle of planning your own trip? Sign up for one of the two-day all-inclusive bus tours of Niagara Falls from New York City.
Travel time: 7hrs by car
For a relaxing beach vacation, make the day’s drive down the coast to Virginia Beach. This charming seaside town offers plenty of fun warm-weather activities, from learning how to surf to biking along the boardwalk to paddling out on a kayak in search of dolphins. Climb to the top of the Cape Henry Lighthouse for spectacular views of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Beach bums might want to book a room at the Best Western Plus Virginia Beach, which is just a four-minute walk to the ocean.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Joanna Poe