Cheapest places to vacation in the U.S.
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Each year, the heat of summer rolls in hot, thick and heavy, and Americans everywhere start checking their bank accounts to see if they can afford a quick, inexpensive vacation here in the U.S.
There are breathtaking and thrilling places to visit all over the country, growing your family’s road trip bucket list by the second. It can be difficult sometimes to find the right place that combines entertainment with accessibility and affordability.
Of course, you can always make the most of the money you spend on travel by using a top travel card. But certain locations are less expensive to visit than others. Consider these affordable U.S. travel destinations for your next vacation.
Cheapest U.S. travel destinations
There is really nowhere like the United States of America. Every corner of the U.S. is filled with endless wonder and thrills, which can make vacation planning seriously overwhelming at first approach.
These are some of the factors we considered when choosing the best cheap vacations in the U.S.:
- Attractions – No one wants to go to a place that has little to do, so we screened each local carefully to find the best spots for tourists and locals alike. Even better, we looked for communities that offer quality events that are both affordable and family-friendly.
- Accommodations – Expensive hotels and cabins can quickly gobble up your travel budget, leaving you with no money for all of the fun stuff. While vetting American cities, we chose areas that offer plenty of options for affordable accommodations during your stay.
- Accessibility – Flying isn’t for everyone – one in five passengers get sick on every plane flight. So we also considered exciting locales within driving distance of every corner of the U.S. With a reasonable road trip, you can still maximize your vacation time despite the drive.
- Affordability – Everyone wants to have a great time without breaking the bank. Many cities offer free or discounted events for you to enjoy during your stay, offering an affordable way to experience a new location.
Without further adieu, these are our best recommendations for the cheapest U.S. vacations for your family this summer:
Myrtle Beach, SC – Beach Getaway
This East Coast retreat is a favorite along the Atlantic seaboard for its 60 miles of bronzed sandy beaches, thrilling amusement parks and towering water slides. There’s also plenty to keep you entertained off the beach. The outlet malls make for incredible shopping, while the athletes in the group delight in the area’s huge golfing community with over 100 courses to choose from.
During those afternoon storms, you can visit Broadway at the Beach, a sprawling entertainment complex with shopping, theaters and dining. Don’t miss the fire dancers and stilt walkers for an old-world feel! At the end of the day, there are medieval dinners and pirate shows that are entertaining enough for both children and adults.
You would think that hotels would be expensive, but that’s not the case. The larger resorts hover around $200 a night but watch for deals. Family-friendly hotels can run as low as $76 a night in high season, so you’ll have plenty of choices for affordable lodging.
Pro tip: The ocean is at its best from June through August, but you can also get great rates during the off-season if you like a little chill.
Washington, D.C. – The National Stage
Many things are expensive in Washington, D.C., but the attractions aren’t one of them. In a city so rich with history, there are endless things to explore and enjoy through D.C.’s narrow city streets.
Visit the Reflecting Pool and Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and Arlington National Cemetery for a healthy dose of history to prepare you for visits to the Capitol and even the White House. The George Washington Parkway wraps around the Potomac River for a beautiful run, walk or jog, or hit the water with a kayak or canoe to enjoy the Nation’s Capital from a water view. If you’re in the mood to make some new furry friends, the National Zoo has 2,700 animals waiting to say hello.
Even better? All of these activities are free.
Hotels in D.C. and the surrounding areas can be very expensive. Two-star hotels are under $100 a night, while three- and four-star hotels run $125 and up for a nightly stay. However, during the many special events that frequent D.C., you can easily pay double.
Pro tip: The cherry blossoms in March and April are absolutely breathtaking, transforming D.C. into a billowy garden of white and pink. Hotels may be a bit more, but stay outside the Beltway for even more savings.
Gatlinburg, TN – Natural Beauty
This is one locale where you are not limited to resorts, hotels and motels. Ditch the communal living for a budget-friendly cabin. Whether you are planning a romantic getaway or a trip for the whole family, you will be pleasantly surprised by the amenities that come with these stocked cabins. They are affordable, too, with gorgeous cabins and chalets available for well under $100 a night.
An Eastern Tennessee gem, Gatlinburg is the old frontier, offering miles upon miles of hiking and rafting amongst the natural waterfalls of the breathtaking Smoky Mountains. Just watch out for the black bears! The SkyLift and the Aerial Tram are attractions that are uniquely Gatlinburg and are experiences that are not to be missed. The Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster is another fun way to view the mountains in a way that will enthrall restless kiddies, and the family will also love local challenges like the Amazing Gatlinburg Race and the Amazing Mirror Maze. Be sure to enjoy some of the world-famous mountain moonshine!
Pro tip: This is an all-season locale, so you can’t go wrong. The Smoky Mountain Winefest and Annual Wildflower Pilgrimage come to town in the spring, and there’s the 4th of July Midnight Parade in the summer. During the colder months, bundle up for the many harvest festivals and holidays shows. Download the Visit Gatlinburg app for vacation planning tips and review the upcoming list of events.
San Antonio, TX – City of Culture
San Antonio offers affordable hotels in a city vibrant with Mexican history and culture. You will eat well and sleep well, and, of course, there is plenty to see, too. During the day, enjoy free visits to the Alamo, the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and the World Heritage Site, a Texas landmark officially recognized by the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO). The Spanish Governor’s Palace is just $3 to $5 for entry, and Brackenridge Park offers nearly 350 acres to explore, including a Japanese Tea Garden and Botanical Garden.
When the sun goes down, the nightlife is fantastic with endless dining, bars and live shows along the popular River Walk district. Nearby Hotel Havana provides an affordable stay with old Cuban flair, starting at $125 a night. The citywide transit service, VIA Metropolitan Transit, makes getting around a breeze. If you have some extra money to spend, SeaWorld and Six Flags Fiesta Texas are sure to provide extra delight for the whole family.
Pro tip: The Alamoji app is your ticket to everything San Antonio-related, but be sure to make sure that your trip does not coincide with any renovations and closures.
San Diego, CA – Endless Attractions
San Diego is California’s hidden secret and one of the best places to visit on a budget. It is cheaper than other hot spots like Los Angeles and San Francisco, mostly because of how it prices its attractions. With a single ticket purchase, you can earn access to all of San Diego’s best entertainment, creating endless thrills and adventure for the entire family. The Go San Diego Card gives you discounted access to well over 40 different attractions, including the San Diego Zoo and Zoo Safari Park, Knott’s Berry Farm, and its Soak City Waterpark, the USS Midway Museum and even LEGOLAND® California. You can even choose the length of your pass, with both single-day and week-long options available for your stay. The Balboa Park Explorer Pass also provides excellent value, with 65 miles of hiking and access to 17 different museums. If you’re traveling with children, visit in October for a month-long extravaganza featuring kid-oriented activities that are all free.
The San Diego Trolley provides accessible, affordable transportation, but hotels run the gamut. It is definitely possible to find a hotel room for under $100 if you’re willing to part with some of the higher-end amenities.
Pro tip: Travel between April and October for the best temperatures. However, with an average of only about 10 inches of precipitation a year, you don’t have to worry about your trip getting rained out.
Kansas City, MO – Local Flavor
Kansas City has many things going for it. There is cheap airfare for easy flights and great eating with world-famous local BBQ and a devoted craft brewery community. Many hotels are available around the $100 mark, with the nicer hotels running closer to $200 a night. The KC Streetcar offers an easy way to get around without having to rent a car or drive your own. You’ll save a ton on Ubers alone!
In Kansas City, there are endless places for you to wander around and get lost in for hours. Peruse the Country Club Plaza for Spanish-inspired open-air shopping and dining, and check out the frequent free events and live jazz performances in the Power & Light District. The Crown Center Shops are fun in the winter for the outdoor ice skating terrace, and the kids will love the arts and crafts at Kaleidoscope. The Boulevard Brewing Company, Harley-Davidson Plant and Kansas City Zoo are a matter of local pride and offer tours throughout the facilities for an insider’s look. If museums are more your speed, don’t miss the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Arabia Steamboat Museum and the National World War I Museum at Liberty Museum.
Pro tip: From Friday Fridays in the Art District to First Weekends in the West Bottoms, Kansas City keeps its event calendar packed for its residents and visitors. Check out the city calendar to see what events coincide with your upcoming trip!
Phoenix, AZ – Sunny Days
Phoenix is one place where weather is not likely to interfere with your plans. With over 300 sunny days each year, you’re not likely to find the moody forecasts of Florida and other temperamental states. Get a taste of the Old West with plenty of hiking, mountain biking and even horseback riding under the desert sun. There is also the Phoenix Zoo and plenty of water parks to cool off from the desert heat. If you have a car, Phoenix offers easy day trips to Grand Canyon National Park and Sedona.
It is easy to move around the city using affordable bike shares, and an all-day pass for the Valley Metro Light Rail system costs less than $5. The airfare is reasonable, and you will find the cheapest rates during the off-season, which runs from May through October. Just beware of higher temperatures during these times. Hotels run a little more here than in other cities on our list, but it is possible to find a four-star hotel for around $100 a night if you do your research.
Pro tip: Many of Phoenix’s many museums offer free admission on certain days of the month. Visit the Native American Heard Museum, Phoenix Art Museum, Desert Botanical Garden, Mesa Arts Center and Children’s Museum of Phoenix.
Gettysburg, PA – History Buffs
Gettysburg is situated in a central location along the East Coast, easily accessible to nearby metropolises like Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Three-star hotels will cost you between $125 and $150 a night, or you can choose more authentic lodging, such as the many inns, cottages, bed and breakfasts around town. There are also Gettysburg campgrounds if you prefer to be at one with nature. Regardless of where you stay, you can wake up and enjoy the best of Pennsylvania comfort food with farm-to-table favorites.
Gettysburg is known for its namesake, the Gettysburg National Military Park. Still, there is so much more to explore, like the Eisenhower National Historic Site, Gettysburg Lincoln Railroad Station and the Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve. The Eastern Museum of Motor Racing is a throwback to a beloved American pastime, and Mr. Ed’s Elephant Museum is a must for any travel itinerary with its 10,000-elephant display and an endless trove of candies and homemade fudge.
Pro tip: Gettysburg is great for self-guided tours, but there are many themed tours, as well, like the Gettysburg Battlefield Bus Tours or the Gettysburg Ghost Tours. Regardless of what you choose, you are in for a serious adventure.
Tips and tricks to save money when traveling
No matter where you choose to go, you can do so without breaking the bank. Here are some tips you can use to save money on your next vacation:
Use travel rewards
Travel rewards credit cards allow you to accumulate miles & points that can be used for free or discounted travel. Flexible points, like Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards, are some of the most valuable types of travel rewards.
Sometimes, moving your flight one day back or forward can bring significant savings. Use aggregator sites like Google Flights to find the best deals on airfare or a site like Hotels.com for hotel deals. And check out our guide to the best sites for cheap car rentals here.
Look for deals
Many museums and attractions will offer discounted or free admission on certain days of the week or a specific day each month. Before you buy any tickets, check the local community calendars for free events that coincide with your trip.
Book a room with a kitchenette
It may cost a little more, but if you upgrade your room to a studio or suite, you could have a full kitchen to cook meals. A quick trip to the grocery store can get you the basics, and while you can still have those lavish dinners out, you can save tons of money by cooking breakfast and lunch in your room.
A little creativity goes a long way when planning your trip, and there are many ways to make things affordable without sacrificing the fun factor.
The U.S. is full of exciting thrills with endless opportunities to discover new things and experience new adventures. We have our favorites based on things like accessibility, affordability, accommodations and entertainment. But there are so many more places still left to explore.
No matter where you choose to go, be sure to research your options for cheap or free incentives that are available. And don’t forget to make the most of your spending with a travel rewards card.
When it comes to travel, a little creativity goes a long way.
Featured image by jdross75/Shutterstock.
Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)