If you’re on a strict budget, planning a vacation can feel like an impossible dream. Popular locations like Disney World, Hawaii, or New York have so much to offer – but can cost so much to pull off. Luckily, there are plenty of wonderful U.S. cities that are as fun as they are affordable. Consider any of one of these 10 money-saving destinations for your next vacation:
FAMILY FUN & OUTDOOR ADVENTURES
Atlanta has a multitude of things to offer people on a budget. Sporting events and outdoor activities take place year-round, and scenic hikes and natural vistas await you just outside the city.
If driving to Atlanta isn’t an option, flying there is very convenient. Its Hartsfield-Jackson airport is home to Delta and AirTran. To get around in the city, take Atlanta’s rail system, MARTA. If you rent a car, keep in mind that traffic is a major problem in and around the city, especially during rush hour.
If you’re planning to visit lots of museums, stay in a hotel downtown. If a chic boutique-style hotel is more your style, head for Midtown. If you like the nightlife, stay in the Buckhead district. For extra savings, consider staying at the Buckhead Hostel, which offers beds at $65/night and private rooms for $95/night.
See & Do
Fun and family-friendly museums and attractions that are free or cost less than $10 per person for admission:
- Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Site
- Centennial Olympic Park
- Atlanta Contemporary Art Center
- Center for Puppetry Arts
- Fernbank Science Center
For outdoor adventures:
- Go east to Stone Mountain Park, only $8 per carload.
- Head north to hike the Appalachian mountains.
- In April, don’t miss the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park.
- During Labor Day, check out Dragon*Con.
BEACHES, BOARDWALKS, & PARKS
San Diego, CA
There is a lower-cost way to visit the gorgeous California coast. As one of America’s 10 most-traveled cities, San Diego offers a wide range of adult and family attractions and delivers low prices on hotels and car rentals. What’s more, the weather is nice year-round due to a low rainfall average of 10 inches/year.
If you can’t afford to fly to San Diego, traveling by train is an option, as the historic Santa Fe Depot is located in the heart of downtown.
Once you are in San Diego, car rental prices are competitive, and public transportation via the downtown trolley is a great way to get around. With a $5 day pass (also good for the local bus system), you can travel to Seaport Village, the Gaslamp Quarter, and historic Old Town in one afternoon. And, if you’re staying on the coast, definitely take advantage of the Coaster coastal rail system that travels from Oceanside to San Diego for $11 round-trip – and kids under six ride free.
The average nightly rate for a room is only $128, ranging from $20/night to several hundred. If you’re up for a true budget-friendly experience and are comfortable sharing a bathroom and kitchen facilities (and even sleeping quarters) with other guests, check out the range of hostels in San Diego. Plus, many hostels also offer private accommodations for families and couples. A nightly stay at a hostel is typically less than $30.
See & Do
There is something for everyone to enjoy in San Diego:
- One of the best family-friendly bargains is a day at the beach
- If you choose a beach with a boardwalk, like Pacific Beach or Mission Beach, bring your inline skates or rent a bike to see even more of the coastline, culture, and shops.
Other great options include:
- Taking a 15-minute ferry ride on the San Diego Harbor Excursion from San Diego Harbor to the island of Coronado – only $4.25 each way.
- Once you arrive at the Coronado Ferry Center, you can do a little window shopping, get some lunch, and hang out at the beach
- If you have a little more money to spend, choose one or two of the world-famous San Diego destinations to splurge on, like LEGOLAND, Sea World or the San Diego Zoo.
BIG EASY = BIG FUN
New Orleans, LA
New Orleans is all about having a great time. Street performers are present year-round in the Big Easy, and there are festivals in every season. If you like to listen to music or enjoy people-watching, a trip to New Orleans might be perfect for you.
New Orleans is on the Gulf Coast, which makes it possible to travel there by boat. If flying is better for you, the Louis Armstrong International Airport offers flights to and from all over the country. If you are traveling by car, Interstate 10 is the main highway into the city. Bus and train are also available.
Once in New Orleans, take a ride on the world-famous New Orleans streetcars. Get a one-day Jazzy Pass for only $3 and you can ride on any street car or local bus as many times as you want.
The average hotel price is $150 per night, which is a little more expensive than other budget cities. To save money, look for places to stay outside the French Quarter such as the Garden and Magazine Districts. Traveling to and from the French Quarter is easy and fun via streetcar. Also, to get the best rates, avoid visiting the city during popular events like the Jazz & Heritage Festival and Mardi Gras. Of course, if you go specifically for those events, you might need to stay farther outside the area to get a deal. Hostels are also available for less than $20 per night.
See & Do
New Orleans is a great city to explore:
- Check out the world-famous French Quarter by foot, either with a guided walking tour, or just going it alone.
- You’re bound to find historic mansions, old cemeteries, and plenty of Southern charm.
- Outside of the French Quarter, one inexpensive activity is to hop on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar for $1.25 and ride past the historic mansions.
- Or to get a little exercise, take a bicycle tour to take in all the city’s architecture.
For more entertainment and fun:
- Take a riverboat cruise or a swamp tour.
- Don’t forget to try a bite of New Orleans’ signature foods: Creole dishes, crawfish, Po’ boys, gumbo, red beans and rice, or beignets at Café du Monde.
BLUES, ZOOS, & BBQ
Memphis is known for two things: barbecue and blues. While the city may appear at first glance to be more for adults with its exciting nightlife and live music, it also offers some fun, interesting and affordable attractions for kids, too.
If traveling to Memphis by air, Delta is a major carrier, so finding a flight should not be difficult. Bus, car, and train are also viable options.
The cheapest way to get around Memphis is to use public transportation, such as the free shuttle to Graceland. However, Memphis is easy to navigate, so traveling by car is simple.
The AAE Vista Inn and Hostel is your most inexpensive option, as prices start at $22.22/person, per night, and it’s only one block from the famous Beale Street. Wherever you choose to stay, make sure to visit the Peabody Hotel to watch the ducks parade through the hotel lobby and swim in the fountain – an activity that is free to the public.
See & Do
If you are with kids:
- Make sure to visit the Memphis Zoo, which boasts activities for both children and adults alike for $15/adult and $10/child
- Next, take a trip to Mud Island River Park, which is accessible by monorail, and is free, but the monorail ride will cost a few dollars
- Don’t forget to make a stop at Graceland.
For adult fun:
- Head to Beale Street for some barbecue, drinks, and live music
- Many bars and clubs do not have a cover charge.
TEX-MEX FIESTAS & THE ALAMO
San Antonio, TX
Infused with Mexican culture, San Antonio is famous for its Tex-Mex cuisine, fiestas, and marketplaces – not to mention the history of the Alamo. And with the city’s recent expansion of one of their most popular attractions, the River Walk, there is no better time to visit this affordable and fun southwest destination.
Getting to San Antonio can be done by air, car, train, or bus. To get the best deal, consider a bus ride on Greyhound, and once you arrive in San Antonio, plan to travel by bus again. The city has an extensive bus system known as the VIA Metropolitan Transit.
There are many hotels in the River Walk district. One of the most recommended for budget travel is Hotel Havana, a refashioned 1914 building decorated in a vintage Cuban style, for $115/night. If you want to go cheaper, choose to stay at San Antonio’s only hostel, the Bullis House Inn, at a cost of $19.27/bed, per night.
See & Do
For history buffs:
- Visit the Alamo and the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which both offer free admission.
To relax and see the city:
- Take a stroll on the River Walk and through the King William Historic Area
- San Antonio also offers a bike rental program called B-Cycle at a rate of $10/day.
For those who like a good party:
- Head to San Antonio in late April for Fiesta, a Tex-Mex Mardi Gras.
FOOD, FUN, & FREE ATTRACTIONS
Kansas City, MO
Kansas City is an affordable destination for barbecue and high culture. In the heart of the Midwest, Kansas City is surprisingly diverse in culture, art, and cuisine. It also has tons of free attractions. Just make sure not to go there in the mid-summer, when the city is at its hottest and most crowded.
Kansas City is in the middle of the country, so traveling there is quicker than travel to many other locations. Also, Kansas City International Airport is not dominated by any one airline, resulting in competitive ticket prices. Once in Kansas City, you may need to rent a car depending on how far you plan to travel from downtown.
The average price of a hotel in Kansas City is $139/night, which is the price of Kansas City’s first green hotel, the Q.
See & Do
Kansas City offers a couple of free attractions, including:
- Tours of the Harley-Davidson Plant and Boulevard Brewing Company
- Another free attraction, Kaleidoscope, is an art studio geared toward building kids’ creativity
- For adults who want to get a taste of the arts in Kansas City, make sure to visit Crossroads Art District, which features more than 70 art galleries
- More information about Kansas City and its free attractions and deals is available at the official travel website.
If you visit in September, you can partake in Kansas City’s annual Plaza Art Fair and Barbecue Blaze Off.
MUSEUMS & MOUNTAIN HIKES
The Mile High City — sitting at an altitude of 5,280 feet — features a unique blend of cosmopolitan and Rocky Mountain Western culture. The many free hiking and biking trails in and around the city offer great exercise and breathtaking views. With mild temperatures (except for winter) and various festivals year-round, Denver is the ideal value vacation destination for those seeking a city and a mountain getaway all in one.
Frontier Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines are the major carriers for Denver International Airport. You’ll need to take public transportation service, known as SkyRide, to your destination, as the airport is pretty far from the city. It is also possible to travel to Denver by car, train, or bus.
While in Denver, you can travel for free around downtown with Denver’s MallRide service. Beyond the downtown borders, Denver’s public transportation system is affordable and reliable, costing anywhere from $2.25 – $5. Denver also offers a bike-sharing program for $8/day.
Hotel prices are competitive, and range from about $50 to several hundred dollars – but to get the best deal, stay at a hostel. The Denver International Youth Hostel is located only five minutes by foot from downtown, and costs only $19 per bed, per night. Even closer to downtown is the AAE 11th Avenue Hotel & Hostel, which offers rates of $19/bed, per night, or private rooms for $43/night.
See & Do
A variety of activities await:
- One of the most well-known attractions in Denver are the breweries
- Tours of the Coors Brewery are free, but you need to drive to Golden, Colorado, which is about 30 minutes outside of Denver
- Then slow down a bit and go to one of the many free or inexpensive museums and tours: United States Mint Tour, Denver Story Trek, Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave or the Colorado State Capitol.
If you rent a car:
- Drive over to Colorado Springs to see the breathtaking views of the Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak
Also, be sure to sign up for Denver’s Deals & Discounts to get coupons and updates on ticket discounts.
SUNNY OUTDOOR EXPLORATIONS
Phoenix offers more than 300 sunny days a year – perfect for those who may love the sun but not the beach. While temperatures are scorching hot during the summer, winters are mild. The desert surroundings offer a unique landscape for visitors, and finding adventures in this southwest gem does not have to be expensive.
Flying might be your best option, as Phoenix is a major hub for the Southwest. If you can get to Flagstaff, it’s possible to go the rest of the way to Phoenix by bus.
Travel around Phoenix by the new METRO Light Rail, which costs only $3.50 for an all-day pass. You can get a taxi to go anywhere that the METRO does not service.
Phoenix offers everything from budget hotels to expensive resorts to spas. Camping is also an option while in Phoenix. If you have an RV, consider staying at the award-winning Desert’s Edge RV Village, which has a pool, a game room, and a fitness center.
See & Do
Spend some time in nature:
- The best way to do that is by hiking and biking – check out either the Echo Canyon or Cholla trails
- Additionally, get some exercise by taking a hike up Piestewa Peak right in the heart of Phoenix.
- Mountain bikers should go to South Mountain Park and Preserve for more than 50 miles of bike travels.
For a taste of culture:
- Check out the world-famous Heard Museum to learn about Native Americans of Arizona and New Mexico – the cost of an adult admission ticket is only $15
- And if you love art, know that every first Friday of the month hundreds of galleries and shops are open to the public for a city-wide art walk.
ENTERTAINMENT, ARTS, & NASA
Houston is one of the most interesting and most multicultural cities in the U.S. As the fourth-largest city in the nation, Houston has a ton of free attractions and is home to NASA, as well as many exciting art galleries.
Traveling to Houston by plane is probably your best bet, as it is home to two major airports, George Bush Intercontinental and William P. Hobby. There are also two smaller regional airports, Sugar Land Regional and Ellington Field. Amtrak and Greyhound are also viable options, and several major highways connect to the city.
Once in Houston, you may want to rent a car. Traffic, however, can be an issue, so plan your travel around rush hour.
Hotel prices range from $40 to several hundred, and the average cost for one night at a hotel is only $113. Use the hotel search on Houston’s Visitor Guide to find your perfect match.
If you are interested in staying in a hostel, the Houston International Hostel is located in the museum district and has rates as low as $17/bed, per night.
See & Do
Houston has lots of attractions that offer free admission:
- The Menil Collection contains almost 15,000 pieces of art divided into four areas: Antiquity, Byzantine and Medieval, Tribal, and 20th Century Art
- Other free attractions include the: Art Car Museum, the Holocaust Museum Houston, the Lawndale Art Center, and the Rothko Chapel.
For free entertainment, locals love:
If you do rent a car, get in a beach day on Galveston Island, only a short one-hour drive away.
HISTORY, CULTURE, & GREAT EATS
If you’re in the mood to visit the Northeast, Philadelphia beats New York hands down, economically speaking. Packed with history, it is also a great place for unique eats, fun street food, and lots of free arts and entertainment.
Philadelphia is a major Amtrak hub, so if you can take a train, it’s the best way to get to the city. From New York City, commuter rail is also a viable option to Philly. If you need to fly, Philadelphia Airport, as well as Newark and Baltimore-Washington are just a short train ride away from the city.
Once you’re in the city, get around on the Southern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known as SEPTA. Their one-day Independence Pass is only $11 per person or $28 per family and allows you to ride on any SEPTA bus, trolley, subway, or train.
Hotel rooms in Philadelphia average $130 per night, 30% less than those in New York City. Or, you can go with an even cheaper option by staying in a hostel. There are currently two hostels located within city limits: Apple Hostels of Philadelphia and Chamounix Mansion Hostel.
See & Do
When you get to Philadelphia:
- Head to the Independence Visitor Center for a free overview of the city — you can even pick up free tickets to Independence Hall
- Learn about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution at the National Constitution Center, for less than $15/person.
- Check out the Liberty Bell for free.
For more free/low-cost fun:
- Tour the city’s public art — the largest collection in the country.
- Get a Philly cheesesteak and a salted soft pretzel at Reading Terminal Market
- Enjoy Philly’s BYOB policy at many restaurants — makes dining out less costly and more fun
Vacationing on a budget can be a challenge, but if you do your research, it’s possible to find great deals on lots of fantastic locations. You may even want to consider Groupon to find coupons and deal alerts for the city you want to visit. The surprisingly affordable cities above offer a great range of deals on travel and accommodations – which leaves you more money in your pocket for food and entertainment.
Chime in below! What are some of your favorite U.S vacation spots?