After nearly two years of Covid restrictions and financial challenges, it may feel like you'll never be able to afford a family getaway again.
But rising costs, pent-up travel demand, and higher airfares don't mean you have to skip a vacation this year. With over 19,000 cities in America, there are many destinations for a vacation outside of expensive towns like New York City, Waikiki, San Diego, Washington D.C., or Chicago. You don't need a big budget to make memories in these 20 towns across the United States.
1. Florida’s Jacksonville
Located in northeastern Florida, Jacksonville is less than a day’s drive from major cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, Pensacola, Charleston, Birmingham, Mobile, as well as Florida. Whether you're an explorer, historian, beach, or salt-life lover, Jacksonville has 22 miles of beach, the largest urban park system in the nation, fishing, museums, and even a craft beer scene.
You don’t have to spend a lot discovering Jacksonville’s beauty, vibrant arts, and culinary scene. Bike along the Baldwin Trail, a lush, shaded path, before making your way over to Jacksonville Beach, a popular seaside destination with white-sand beaches. Stop by the Jacksonville Farmers Market, one of the oldest markets in Florida, where seafood, fresh produce, and local delights line the streets.
Afterward, walk The Riverwalk, take a scenic stroll along the St. Johns River before dropping into the Riverside Arts Market, a weekly arts festival free to visitors that features live entertainment. Make sure you check out the city's many fish camps (casual, inexpensive waterside fish restaurants) and try Mayport shrimp, chowder, and other authentic Florida seafood.
2. Florida’s Ocala
If you've ever dreamt of sleeping under the stars, add Ocala in Marion County, Florida, to your bucket list. Full of picturesque campgrounds, R.V. parks, charming cabins, and other budget-friendly accommodations, it is known for big-city amenities with small-town charm.
Ocala offers many free things for visitors to do. First, stroll through the outdoor Tuscawilla Art Park in the historic Art District, walk around the Ocala Historic Downtown Square, or explore the Fort King National Historic landmark. After working up a sweat, kids can cool down at Lily’s Splash Pad or Citizens Circle Splash Pad. Finally, wrap up your trip with free Ocala Recreation and Parks Service events such as their monthly outdoor movie screenings and line dancing events at the community center.
3. Florida’s Orlando
It may be surprising that USA Today ranked Orlando the #1 Most Affordable Vacation Destination Among Top U.S. Cities. With over 120,000 hotel rooms in the city, there's a wide range of accommodation options, with hotel rates averaging $110 a night.
If you're having a no-park vacation, you can still get your Disney, LEGO, or Universal Studios fix for free at Disney Springs, Disney Boardwalk, or Universal City Walk. Golfers can play at the city's many public golf courses, including Winter Park, costing just $18 per round.
Nature lovers can explore The Nature Conservancy's Disney Wilderness Preserve and downtown's 43-acre Lake Eola Park with no admission fees. Or enjoy free admission to The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, or CityArts.
4. Idaho’s Twin Falls
Known as The City of Waterfalls, Twin Falls has over 30 of them, including The Niagara Falls of the West – Shoshone Falls, which is even taller than its New York counterpart. While you could spend your entire trip swimming, hiking, boating, or relaxing in Shoshone Falls Park for less than $10 admission, this affordable destination has a long list of other free hiking and outdoor sites.
According to Idaho Tourism, hotel rates on average are $120 a night, with options even under $100 a night. With lava fields, summer fairs, historical sites, and cowboy culture, there’s a wide range of attractions in Twin Falls.
5. Iowa’s Council Bluffs
Located on the east bank of the Missouri River, across from the city of Omaha, Nebraska, it’s a great alternative in the region. With 25 hotel options in Council Bluffs alone, there are accommodation options for a range of budgets as well as free and inexpensive things to do. If you've always wanted to stand in two places at once, take a stroll over the beloved Bob Kerrey Pedestrian bridge connecting Council Bluffs to Omaha.
Train-lovers will enjoy the free-of-charge Union Pacific Railroad museum featuring 150 years of history and interactive exhibits. Or enjoy budget-friendly family vacation classics like disc golf, mini-golf, bowling, indoor go-karts, public art, and bike trails.
6. Iowa’s Mason City
Architectural lovers and fans of Frank Lloyd Wright will enjoy a getaway to Mason City. Select nights are available for $150 at the Historic Park Inn Hotel, the last remaining hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the world. Another Wright-designed property, the Stockman House, is also open for tours for only $10 a person. Or enjoy a self-guided walking tour through The Rock Crest & Rock Glen neighborhood, showcasing the largest group of Prairie School-designed homes on a unified site.
7. Missouri’s Branson
Branson is not only the #1 best value in U.S. travel according to Trivago but is described as the Orlando of the Midwest for its Disney World-meets-Nashville vibe. Drawing vacationers for over a century to its stunning scenery, outdoor activities, warm people, and a wide range of things to do, it’s not a surprise that 9 million people a year visit Branson.
With 16,500 guest rooms across resorts, brand-name hotel chains, independent inns, cabins, condos, and vacation homes, you can find accommodations for your budget. Like other destinations on this list, plenty of hotel rooms often means great deals are available.
While Branson is known for its 100+ live shows, it also offers tons of free things to do. Explore historic downtown Branson on the hop-on-hop-off trolley, check out Branson Landings' hourly water spectacular show, take in Ozark Mountain views at scenic overlooks, or explore all that Table Rock Lake State Park and Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area have to offer.
8. Missouri’s St. Louis
Home to the iconic Gateway Arch, St. Louis boasts an abundance of free fun and reasonably priced accommodations in an urban environment. It's been called the most affordable large city. With more than 40,000 hotel rooms ranging from $54 to $248, the average hotel room price in St. Louis is a wallet-friendly $93.
Explore the city and all it offers with free activities. Explore the Gateway Arch National Park and its surrounding grounds and recently renovated Museum at the Gateway Arch. Then, spend the day at Forest Park, where visitors can stop by the St. Louis Zoo, the St. Louis Art Museum, the Missouri History Museum, or the Saint Louis Science Center. Finally, visitors can stroll through the Laumeier Sculpture Park, one of the country's first and largest sculpture parks.
9. Nevada’s Las Vegas
With affordable hotel accommodations, all-you-can-eat buffets, a range of happy hour specials, local casual restaurants, plus a long list of free activities, Vegas is another urban, budget-friendly vacation. With over 150,000 rooms in town, there is a wide range of options. If you're looking for hotel deals, consider a mid-week stay or check-out well known affordable options such as New York, New York, Luxor, Excalibur, and Flamingo located right on The Strip.
Fill your day in the Entertainment Capital of the World touring attractions without paying for admission. Whether it sees Chihuly's stunning blown glass sculptures, touring a botanical garden, or catching the infamous water fountain show, it's all available free of charge at the Bellagio Hotel. At night head to historic Fremont Street to watch the pedestrian area studded with more than 14 million lights come alive and check out one of the city’s free concerts with acts like Three Doors Down and Plain White T’s.
10. New York’s Catskills
A go-to escape for centuries, there’s always been magic in a back-to-nature Catskills vacation. Less than 2 hours from New York City and about 3 hours from Boston, you’ll feel away, even if you’re close to home. See for yourself why it's a Lonely Planet Top 10 region in America.
The resorts depicted in Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are long gone, as millennial entrepreneurs, hoteliers, and restaurateurs from New York and other cities help modernize the region once again. There are many budget-friendly options in the area, such as Jesse’s Harvest House Restaurant and Lodge in Tannersville. Opened by former staff from the best restaurant in the country, at Michelin-rated Blue Stone at Stone Barns, you can stay in a room for around $125 a night and enjoy a delicious, elevated meal for a fraction of Manhattan prices.
There are so many affordable things to do around the Catskills, from month-long free Octoberfest Festivals, to hiking the infamous Kaaterskill Falls, to the no-fee Mountain Top Arboretum. Art lovers can step into the infamous Hudson River School of Art by visiting the exact public locations of their paintings from 200 years ago. Three of the Art Trail locations are in North/South Lake, a 1,000-acre state park named “America's First Wilderness” with so many activities you could spend a whole week there alone.
11. North Carolina’s Fayetteville
Known for decades as America's Hometown, it's not just one of the most accessible cities on the East Coast (located halfway between New York City and Miami), but its low cost of living translates into a great vacation on a budget.
In Fayetteville, you'll find two regional parks, more than 1,000 acres of recreation space, trails, lakes, and a new minor league ballpark with affordable tickets. Chock full of historical sites like The Airborne & Special Operations Museum, The Fayetteville Area Transportation and Local History Museum, and The African American Heritage Trail have free admission.
12. North Dakota's Fargo
Near the Minnesota border, Fargo, North Dakota, is a destination with city amenities available at a fraction of the cost and with smaller crowds. Downtown Fargo is nestled along the Red River, providing a scenic backdrop to the region’s best bars, 400 breweries, and 400 restaurants. Take a flight into their international airport, or surprise your train-lover with an Amtrak trip right into their downtown station.
In addition, Fargo is known for being extremely dog-friendly. You can even bring your furry friend to the brand new Jasper Hotel. The modern design and architecture of Jasper Hotel complement its historic mission to celebrate the heritage and spirit of Fargo as a pioneer town. The Hotel Donaldson’s 17 unique artist-inspired rooms with luxurious furnishings offer complimentary wine and cheese tastings and a complimentary turndown truffle service daily.
13. Oklahoma’s Chickasaw Country
Tucked into the rolling hills of south-central Oklahoma, Chickasaw Country is a low-budget destination that provides a high-quality outdoor experience. In addition to an abundance of picturesque campgrounds and R.V. parks, the area boasts a wide array of charming boutique accommodations for a serene, romantic getaway.
Couples can stay at Cedar & Stone, Pecan Valley Inn, or Acorn Vacation Homes, with hotel rates under $200 a night on average. The Arbuckle Mountain Range provides not only stunning vistas, but plenty of free or low-cost outdoor adventures to keep visitors busy. Hike, bike, or run through the endless miles of trails found in the Chickasaw National Recreation Area to catch glimpses of nearby natural wonders, including the Lake of the Arbuckles, Turner Falls, and Veteran’s Lake.
14. Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County
Located in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Lancaster County is a great value destination and within driving distance from Pittsburgh, New York, New Jersey, Washington D.C., and Virginia. There's a wide range of lodging options with many motels, hotels, farm stays, country bed and breakfasts, and house rentals in the $100 to $150 a night range. Cheeky couples can stay in one of the many accommodations in the town Intercourse, PA.
There are enough things to do in Lancaster to keep busy for months. For starters, learn about the Amish way of life at Kitchen Kettle Village or Lancaster Central Market, the nation's oldest continuously operating farmers market. Then, take a bike ride along the 14-mile Northwest Lancaster County River Trail or explore Lancaster County Central Park. After you've worked up an appetite, go out to dinner at one of the many Pennsylvania Dutch reasonably priced all-you-can-eat smorgasbords like the family favorite Good ‘N Plenty.
15. Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains
For more than 50 years, the Poconos Mountains welcomed honeymooners to their famous heart-shaped tubs. But its proximity to major metro areas, 2,400 square miles of natural beauty, year-round activities, and wide range of accommodations lands it on this list of cheap travel destinations for families or group trips as well.
The large region offers a range of budget-friendly accommodations – camping, glamping, inns, resorts, and vacation rentals. For example, you can rent a cabin at Promised Land State Park for about $40 a night, or stay at Wayne Inn for around $75 a night. Featuring many national, state, and local parks, bring a picnic lunch and explore Lehigh Gorge State Park, Prompton State Park, Promised Land State Park, Tobyhanna State Park, or The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, to name a few!
16. South Dakota’s Hot Springs
Located in the Southern Black Hills, explore the historical Mammoth Archaeological Site, Angostura Reservoir State Recreation Area, and Wind Cave National Park from this small town. There are options for every budget with a wide range of chain hotels, R.V. sites, KOA cabins, small inns, and bed and breakfasts. Couples will love to get away and relax in the mineral health spas and can enjoy adult-only budget-friendly accommodations like Bluebird Mesa Cabins, which offers glamping, teepee, and cabin rentals at affordable prices.
17. South Dakota’s Yankton
Both outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs will enjoy the small town of Yankton. Located along the Missouri River, take your pick of water recreation activities, fishing, or exploring the Lewis and Clark Recreation Area, one of the state park system's most popular parks.
Located on the northern shore of the 31,400-acre Lewis and Clark Lake, it features over 20 budget-friendly activities. The downtown is bursting with history, budget-friendly dining, and breweries and offers a range of accommodations.
18. Tennessee's Smoky Mountains
The Smoky Mountains ranks among the Top 10 Most Affordable Travel Spots by Lonely Planet, only one of two American cities to make the list. It's home to not only the most visited National Park in America, but also the family favorite Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge towns, and the oldest mountains in the world.
Smoky Mountains National Park not only contains some of the tallest mountains in North America, including Clingmans Dome, Mount Guyot, and Mount LeConte, but all of its 500,000 acres can be explored free of charge! Don't forget about the iconic amusement park Dollywood, TripAdvisor's Best Amusement Park in the World, and Budget Travel's Best Value Theme Park.
19. Tennessee’s Chattanooga
One of the most popular cheap travel destinations for families in the Southeast, it's been named by Lonely Planet as one of the Best Destinations in the U.S and a New York Times Top 45 Places to Go in the World. While outdoor enthusiasts have been coming here for decades, a recent urban revitalization has drawn a growing number of people to this city tucked between mountains along the stunning Tennessee River.
There are accommodations to meet a wide range of budgets: hip modern hostels, cabins, romantic bed and breakfasts, chain hotels, and even railroad sleeper cars. Explore the city on a bicycle, pedaling over the longest pedestrian bridge in the world to reach Coolidge Park, or hike the stunning mountains at Point Park or Coker Creek Falls.
20. Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley
Even in high-cost living areas, you don’t need to go far to find an affordable vacation. If you're one of the 6 million people who live in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area or the Northeast, you don't need to spend an arm and a leg for a weekend getaway or fun-filled family vacation. About 75 miles from D.C., the Shenandoah Valley features a national park, caverns, history, water parks, music, art festivals, wineries, breweries, and distilleries.
Go on a day-long road trip along the 105-mile Skyline Drive to marvel at the Blue Ridge Mountains and its vistas. Next, explore the Shenandoah National Park's 500 miles of hiking trails or 200,000 acres of protected lands for just $30 a car. Then retire back to a wide range of chain hotels, cabins, campsites, or resorts like Massanutten, the Mid-Atlantic's Premiere Four Season Resort Destination, where you can score condo rental travel deals from owners for as low as $100 a night on trusted rental sites.
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Monica Fish helps her fellow adventurers live a financially savvy life so they can travel and explore our beautiful world no matter their budget. She writes about smart timeshare ownership, vacation tips and tricks, NYC Metro Area trips and activities, and frugal, yet rich, living at PlannerAtHeart.com.