Though days spent exploring the best national parks in the U.S. or scouring the collections at the best art museums in America might be fun activities for the whole family, they end up costing way more than a family’s budget. The best cheap family vacations require some planning—and we’re here to help. Whether looking for the best extreme outdoor adventures in America, tricks for seeing big cities on a dime or low-cost relaxing beach getaways, your family is in for quite the journey.
Cheap family vacations in America
While the nation’s capital might have a reputation as one of the most expensive destinations in the country, its attractions sure aren’t. Here, many of the museums are absolutely free, including the National Air and Space Museum (NASA stuff! Star Trek memorabilia!), Museum of Natural History (dinosaurs! rocks!), the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and a half-dozen fine art institutions. To save money, avoid traveling during holidays and the summer, and try staying in a hotel in Bethesda, Maryland or Arlington, Virginia where double bedrooms start at just $95/night (and make sure to take the metro into the city!).
No other place on earth is like this national park. The massive, natural sanctuary (3,468 square miles of green!) mesmerizes all visitors with its mountains, canyons, geysers and subalpine forests. Bring a tent and get here early to take advantage of the first-come seven camp sites operated by the National Park service ($12-$26 a night). Pack the car with plenty of sandwiches as you make your way through this wonder.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
While the sand here can get crowded, miles of beach allow for plenty of space. Try booking a hotel room without ocean views (you’ll see the sea anyway) and plan to visit Monday-Thursday or Tuesday-Thursday to keep those prices down—we recommend the Sea Mist Oceanfront resort. The waves are pretty gentle so little kids can appreciate them without feeling overwhelmed. When the sun gets too strong, try mini golf, outlets or bowling for hours of family fun.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and for good reason, the Grand Canyon is a sight like no other. The kiddos might complain when you ask them to drop their iPads, but they’ll remember hiking these trails forever. To make a real vacation of it, head to the North Rim and stay for a few nights at the Grand Canyon Lodge, where a family of up to 6 visitors can stay in a Pioneer Cabin for $181 a night. Here, mule rides ($40 an hour, $75 for a half day) are easily accessible and delicious barbecue can be enjoyed at the Grand Canyon Cookout.
Ace Adventure Center, Minden, West Virginia
Any family on a budget will appreciate the all-inclusive package deal that allows for spending without worrying about added charges. The Ace Adventure Center has you find a package to fit your squad. If you have young elementary school aged kids in tow, go for the River Rafting Package, which includes all your meals and a full day of rafting plus water park passes for $114 each adult and $94 for youth on Tuesdays-Thursdays. Older kids would probably rather opt for a day of rafting followed by a day on the zip lines (and some water park and lake time), which will set you back $207 each, including meals.
If your squad’s favorite subject in school is history—or riding roller coasters—then make the trip to Williamsburg. If you’re planning on staying for multiple nights, opt for the area’s package deals—while they might seem steep up front they can save your family hundreds when it comes to admission to the various museums and parks. The “America’s Historic Triangle Package,” which will set your family back $139 a head, is a particularly good deal, as it includes lodging for two nights, breakfast and admission to Yorktown, Jamestown and Williamsburg, the latter boasting some spectacular examples of living-history, actors living out the lives and working in the shops as America’s early European settlers did. If you’re hoping for more thrills on your time-traveling trip, opt for a “whole lotta Williamsburg” deal that includes a lodge, admission to Busch Gardens, Water Park USA and Williamsburg’s historic museum.
Flying L Ranch, Bandera, Texas
Yeehaw! Giddyup to this genuine dude ranch outside of San Antonio for some Western-themed fun. Whether dying to try horseback riding ($120 per person) or just hoping to relax in a resort where kids can entertain themselves, this ranch has you covered. Come during the cooler months (November-May) to enjoy some particularly good package: Accommodations, breakfast, dinner, pool, water park and evening “Western entertainment” for only $129 per adult and $90 per child.
Ka'anapali Beach Hotel, Maui, Hawaii
Vacationing outside the continental United States doesn’t have to be an experience only enjoyed post-retirement. Be on the lookout for special one-day sales through air lines and be flexible about your dates—the cheapest will be in January and February—in order to save hundreds on airfare. Stay at this beautiful budget resort that looks just like, and treats its guests just like, the neighboring luxury resorts. Here, kids under 17 years old stay for free in their parents’ room (slumber party!), which means even more savings for you (Courtyard view rooms can be as low $160 a month). Take advantage of the resort’s free cultural demonstrations and hands-on activities like all-ages ukulele and hula lesson, lei making classes and shows with Polynesian dancing. Better still, the location right on the ocean means hours of swimming, snorkeling and maybe even stand-up paddle boarding ($45 a day).Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Joe Parks
Old Orchard Beach, Maine
The quaint, peaceful beauty of Maine is on full display at this historic beach—a destination for over 170 years. Your family will enjoy gentle waves, fishing and top-notch whale watching. Treat your kids to Palace Playground, New England’s only beachfront amusement park, where they will enjoy over a dozen rides. Save money on lodging by forgoing the ocean front rooms in the hotels and motels—rooms with two double beds at the Luxor Motel will set your family back just $120 a night. Since no trip to Maine would be complete without some tasty seafood, head over to Sunset Bar & Grill, where a perfect, fresh from the water lobster roll will cost you just $10.95.Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Sandwich
Copper Mountain, Colorado
If your family loves skiing but isn’t crazy about all the added fees that usually come with the activity, try this resort. The condo-style units, which start at less than $150 a night, come with a kitchen, which makes it easier to avoid expensive area dining. Here, you can easily walk to the lifts, so no need to shell out money on a car shuttle, and the trails are great for everyone from beginners to experts. While the ski classes for little ones will set you back—prices start at $191 for full-day group youth lessons—the instructors are top notch, and more affordable than some of the ones you’ll find at the area’s other resorts. Meanwhile, the snow is the same quality powder you expect out west and the trails are challenging and fun enough for even very experienced skiers.Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Jeff Holland
Plan your trip wisely and you’ll save a ton of cash while in Chi-town. Fill your days with free activities: the Lincoln Park Zoo has no admission fee and is filled with furry, scaly and feathered friends, and you can have a one-of-kind cultural experience at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, National Museum of Mexican Art and the Smart Museum. Save money while eating by skipping downtown’s tourist traps and choosing savory delicious spots in Chinatown and Greektown while chowing down on two of the city’s top delicacies: deep dish pizza and hot dogs. When you’ve had enough eating and culture, unwind with a trip to Millennium Park’s Maggie Daley Park, a 20-acre Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory imaginative play area with tons of features you won’t find in your playgrounds back home. End your day at Navy Pier for some views you won’t forget—including, on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the summer, free fireworks.
Asheville, North Carolina
For families who love the great outdoors and good food, Asheville is for you. If you’re traveling with a large brood, go for a cabin rental outside of town to save money or bunk up in a budget hotel where you can find rooms for less than $100 a night, like at the Brookstone Lodge ($89 and up). Hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains and seeing the beautiful water falls at the Pisgah National Forest are gratis activities while, in town, you’ll find family fun with tickets to see the minor league baseball team ($8 each for general admission). Feel like splurging? The beautiful gardens and grounds of the Biltmore Estate are well worth the price of admission (adults $40 off peak, kids 9 and under free).
Enjoy the scenic landscape of the Pacific Northwest and a thriving, historic metropolis all in one vacation. Stay at a budget hotel in Belltown (you can find rooms for less than a $100 at Loyal Inn and just over $150 at the Belltown Inn), for convenience to the Space Needle, Pike Place Market and other top downtown attractions. The Seattle Art Museum includes some truly spectacular examples of artifacts and traditional art by Native Americans that are easily the envy of most other collections of Indian American art (bonus points: admission is a pay-as-you-wish donation). There are several national parks just a quick drive outside the city, including Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park, that boast forests and views unlike any you’ll find in the Midwest or East coast.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Take it easy in the Big Easy without worrying about your pocketbook. One of the best ways to see all the sites is with a ride down the Mississippi River on the Algiers ferry ($2 per person), which has been around since 1827. Many of the city’s famous delicacies can be enjoyed on the cheap, including crawfish (typically $10 a plate) and French Quarter beignets ($5) and the sight of the architecture is, of course, complimentary as you wander the streets. Rooms with two double beds start at just $99 at the Avenue Inn Bed & Breakfast. If your family loves an adventure, go for a New Orleans Haunted History Ghost Tour—you’ll learn some city history while shaking in your boots ($25 adults; $14 children).
New York, New York
We’ve got plenty of tips for making sure your family gets to experience one of the greatest cities in the world while spending the least amount of money. When it comes to traveling around town, stick to the subway—if you’re staying for close to a week or plan on riding the subway or bus at least 12 times during the course of your stay, invest in a weekly pass ($31). With your yellow card in hand, you’ll be able to zip around many of the pay-as-you-wish museums, including the internationally renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brooklyn Museum. If you’d love to see a Broadway play but not the $100-plus price tag, try your luck entering the digital lottery for $30 to $35 tickets to Matilda, The Lion King or Aladdin. Here’s another pro tip: the Staten Island Ferry is free and offers some of the best views of the Statue of Liberty. Though you might find some hotels in the Bronx and Brooklyn for cheaper, we suggest booking an Airbnb, where you can save money on food by cooking some of your meals at home.