Cheap family vacations in America
While the nation’s capital might have a reputation as one of the most expensive destinations in the country, you’ll be happy to know that its attractions are quite the opposite—many are totally free! You’ll want to explore the National Air and Space Museum (NASA stuff! Star Trek memorabilia!), Museum of Natural History (dinosaurs! rocks!), the Smithsonian’s National Zoo—among others. To save money, travel off-season (early spring works nicely!) and pick a hotel in nearby Bethesda, Maryland or Arlington, Virginia where double bedrooms start at just $95/night (and take the metro into the city!)
No other place on earth is like this national park. The massive, natural sanctuary (3,471 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 campgrounds (seven are first-come, first-served and five require reservations; $15–$47.75 per night). Pack the car with a cooler of campfire meals and snacks to get you through the weekend.
Though the sand here can get crowded, you’re sure to find a spot for your umbrella if you arrive early! To save some dough (if your dates are flexible), book a hotel room without ocean views—and plan to visit Mon–Thu or Tue–Thu—we recommend the Sea Mist Oceanfront Resort (it has its own lazy river and water park-like pool!). When the sun gets too strong visit shopping outlets or go bowling for hours of family fun.
It’s 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. 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 $179 a night. Here, mule rides ($45 an hour, $90 for a half day) are easily accessible, and delicious barbecue can be enjoyed at the Grand Canyon Cookout.
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 White Water Rafting package, which includes all your meals (starting at $99 per person, ages 6, 12 or 15 depending on trip). For the older kids, the Zip Line Canopy Tour ($99, children $49.50; ages 8 and up) offers plenty of adventure—you’ll be zooming around the treetops!
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. We’d recommend the “Kids Play Free Package” at Busch Gardens, which includes your choice of hotel (from selected partners), three visits to Busch Gardens and free admission to Water Country USA (in season)—just to name a few perks.
Yeehaw! Giddyup to this genuine dude ranch outside of San Antonio for some Western-themed fun. Whether you’re dying to try some horseback riding 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 packages: Accommodations, breakfast, dinner, pool, water park and evening “Western entertainment” are included in your stay.
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. 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 (for an additional fee).
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Joe Parks
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 oceanfront rooms in the hotels and motels—rooms with two double beds at the Luxor Motel will set your family back around $120 a night. Since no trip to Maine would be complete without some tasty seafood, head over to Sunset Bar & Grill to get a where a perfect, fresh-from-the-water lobster roll.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Sandwich
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. Oh, and see our guide to the best things to do in Chicago with kids.
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 ($59 and up). Hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains and seeing the beautiful waterfalls at the Pisgah National Forest are gratis activities, and in town, you’ll find family fun with tickets to see the minor league baseball team ($8.50 each for general admission). Feel like splurging? The beautiful gardens and grounds of the Biltmore Estate are well worth the price of admission (adults $55, children 10–16 $27.50, under 10 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 from $129 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.
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, 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. If your family loves an adventure, go for a Ghosts of the French Quarter tour—you’ll learn some city history while shaking in your boots ($25 per person).
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. 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 with these quick tips for getting cheap tickets. Here’s another pro tip: the Staten Island Ferry is free and offers some of the best views of the Statue of Liberty (see our ultimate guide to the best boat rides in NYC). Though you might find some hotels in the Bronx and Brooklyn for cheap, we suggest booking an Airbnb, where you can save money on food by cooking some of your meals at home.