Summer is finally here, which means the big family travel season is upon us. We all look forward to those long sunny days, the warm nights, and the lazy weekends. On the other hand, we’re less excited about the usual spike in gas prices, the money we’ll spend cranking the air conditioner, and the peak-season ticket prices for pretty much everything.
And thanks to inflation, Americans are watching their wallets closer than ever. Over the last few years, we’ve seen prices rise precipitously in everything from airfare and car rentals to hotel rooms and restaurant menus. In other words, travel has gotten quite expensive.
That’s why we’ve provided a series of tips on how to save if you’re planning a vacation to a traditionally expensive destination like Japan, Hawaii, or Disney World. No matter how you slice it, trips to these locales will cost you a bunch of money. So it’s obviously important to save at every turn.
But what if you planned a summer vacation to a super cool destination that wasn’t prohibitively expensive to begin with? Believe it or not, these places do exist, and many of them have tons of vacation rental options to boot. From big cities to small beach resorts, from family-friendly Main Streets to gorgeous natural surroundings, America is a bounty of incredible destinations. And it is entirely possible to choose a destination that won’t cost you a fortune, at least relative to some of the more extravagant locations noted above.
With that in mind, today we’re looking at cheap family vacations that you can take this summer without breaking the bank.
General Tips For Saving On Your Vacation
Of course, it bears noting that there are ways to save no matter where you’re planning to travel. You’ll want to start by shopping around for affordable vacation rentals. With services like Airbnb and VRBO, as well as the usual array of traditional hotels, you have a lot of options to choose from.
And if you really want to save, throw a tent in your trunk, pack a ton of bug spray, and camp out. Reconnect with nature while dramatically reducing your overall cost of travel. In other words, find ways to control your lodging costs regardless of your destination.
And if you’re planning to hit the popular tourist spots when you arrive, make sure you go online and find coupons and discounts for theme park entry, event attendance, popular restaurants, museums, and more. Start with the Welcome Center or Visitor’s Center for your destination and plan your itinerary around some of the best deals.
And of course, choosing a destination with a ton of free attractions is always a great way to make the dollar go farther. Build your family vacation around nature hikes, beach days, Main Street strolls, and immersive historic districts. There are tons of amazing places where you can do these enriching activities entirely for free.
And finally, bear in mind that while this list is tailored for summer vacationers, many of these destinations are just as lovely, and a bit more affordable, during the off season. If you really want to check out one of these great vacation spots on a budget, think about booking your trip in the late fall or early winter.
With these tips in mind, below are a few popular vacation destinations where your money will go a bit further.
15 Cheap Family Vacations You Should Consider
The destinations included on our list tend to offer a wide variety of attractions, including many free or low cost attractions. This, along with affordable vacation rental options, a lower overall cost of living, and the availability of coupons and discounts for visitors, makes these options among the most affordable family vacation destinations.
1. Branson, Missouri
A while back, we offered all sorts of tips for how to save money on a family vacation in Branson, Missouri. The Midwestern tourist destination also tops our list here for its combination of affordability, accessible vacation rentals, and attractions with appeal for the whole family.
Branson is brimming with popular family destinations. A hub for theme park entertainment and national park options, Branson offers a perfect balance of ticketed experiences like Dolly Parton’s Stampede country music theater and the Silver Dollar City amusement park, and free attractions including extensive hiking trails in the surrounding Ozark Mountains.
With a downtown waterfront stretching along the banks of the Lake Taneycomo, Branson Scenic Railway offering visitors a glimpse of early frontier life, and 76 Country Boulevard playing host to near-constant musical performances, Branson is simply one of the best cheap family vacations you can take.
- Branson Landing
- Table Rock Lake
- Silver Dollar City Amusement park
- Branson Scenic Railway
- Andy Williams Performing Arts Center and Theatre
- Titanic Museum
- 76 Country Boulevard
2. Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
A combination of early railroad construction and stunning natural beauty have helped to make Wisconsin Dells a popular tourist destination for more than 150 years. The Midwestern City takes its unique name from the Dells of the Wisconsin River. The Dells are a gorge formed by a glacier. The scenic gorge stands on the banks of the Wisconsin River and features distinctive sandstone formations.
In addition to the natural attractions drawing travelers to Wisconsin Dells, the city is also noted for its numerous theme park and water park offerings. Over the years, the tourist area has grown to include the nearby village of Lake Delton. Visitors flock to both areas every year to take advantage of countless affordable and free family friendly activities.
The city’s Scenic River Walk offers incredible views of the Wisconsin River from the bluffs above. The downtown area is teeming with stores, street buskers, and sunset views. And the Dells are situated in close striking distance of no fewer than four state parks–Devils Lake, Mirror Lake, Rocky Arbor, and Roche-A-Cri. If you’re looking for an affordable combination of national and state parks as well as amusement and water parks, Wisconsin Dells could be a great spot for your next family vacation.
- Elm Street Plaza
- Scenic River Walk
- Ho-Chunk Gaming
- Circus World
- Noah’s Ark Waterpark
- Wisconsin Deer Park
- Tommy Bartlett Exploratory
3. San Antonio, Texas
It’s easy to find entertainment and culture in San Antonio without spending a fortune. San Antonio is actually one of the most populous cities in the nation, ranking seventh in the U.S. at the time of writing with more than 1.4 million residents. It’s no wonder there’s so much to do.
One of San Antonio’s most popular attractions is entirely free of charge. The city’s celebrated River Walk offers a waterside stroll through San Antonio’s expansive cultural district. Visitors will find a city rich with art, commerce, and history.
Speaking of history, San Antonio is, of course, most famous for the Alamo. However, this is just one of five Spanish missions that history buffs can visit along the city’s 12-mile Mission Trail. If you’re looking for a mix of history and fun, how about visiting the nation’s oldest children’s amusement park? Kiddie Park was built in 1925 and remains a popular family vacation destination to date. One thing that makes it so popular is free admission. You can pay by the ride, and you can visit the San Antonio Zoo while you’re there. Ticket prices for both are very affordable.
In fact, San Antonio is brimming with affordable and free recreation options. For instance, if you time it right, you can visit the Witte Museum of natural sciences for free on Tuesdays, and the San Antonio Children’s Museum for free on Thursdays. In other words, if you plan out your itinerary thoughtfully, San Antonio can be among the most amazing and affordable family vacations.
- The Alamo
- San Antonio RiverWalk
- San Antonio Children’s Museum
- Witte Museum
- Mission Trail
- San Antonio Museum of Art
- Pearl Brewery
- SeaWorld San Antonio
4. Williamsburg, Virginia
Williamsburg, Virginia is deeply embedded in American history. Many of its attractions are built around the legends and figures who helped to form this nation. Its story begins as early as 1632, when British settlers formed a settlement called Middle Plantation. In addition to serving as the capital of the Virginia Colony, as well as the capital of the earliest incarnation of the Virginia Commonwealth, Williamsburg was a major hub for revolutionary activity.
Because of its central role in pitching the fight for American independence, today Colonial Williamsburg offers a fully restored and immersive historical experience rooted in American colonial life. Along with nearby Yorktown and Jamestown, Williamsburg forms what is known as the Historic Triangle.
This area attracts more than four million visitors a year. Of course, it isn’t just the historic sites that make Williamsburg an exciting destination for the entire family. Having a couple of the popular amusement and water parks certainly helps a lot. Busch Gardens Williamsburg routinely attracts more than 2 million attendees a year, and stands just a few miles away from the largest water park in the Mid-Atlantic, Water Country USA. Visitors can save money by purchasing multi-park passes for both Busch Gardens and Water Country.
- Colonial Williamsburg
- Busch Gardens Williamsburg
- Water Country USA
- College of William and Mary
- Governor’s Palace
- Jamestown Settlement
- Jamestown-Scotland Ferry
- DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum
5. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina has a long, deep history as one of America’s top summer vacation spots. From its beautiful beaches and its upbeat nightlife to its world famous golf courses and top shelf restaurants, it’s no wonder Myrtle Beach draws more than 20 million visitors a year.
Myrtle Beach may be a popular draw, but it’s also the centerpiece of a massive stretch of beaches called the Grand Strand. Taken together, this 60 mile expanse offers affordable beach-adjacent vacation rental options galore.
As for entertainment, Myrtle Beach is home to two enveloping walkable areas–Broadway at the Beach and Barefoot Landing. Both are dense with free activities for kids, window-shopping for the parents, live music, and more. In other words, it’s easy to find fun for the whole family in Myrtle Beach, even if you’re traveling on a budget. Oh, and if you’re looking for a place where you can do horseback riding on the beach, this is your destination.
- Myrtle Beach Boardwalk
- Broadway at the Beach
- Barefoot Landing
- Myrtle Beach Skywheel
- Ripley’s Aquarium
- Myrtle Beach State Park
- Myrtle Beach Art Museum
- Vereen Memorial Historical Gardens
6. Asheville, North Carolina
The largest city in Western North Carolina, Asheville has grown dramatically in stature among tourists in recent years. Increasingly noted for its lively music scene, its concentration of hip breweries, and its surrounding natural beauty, Asheville has become a popular draw, particularly among young families.
If you enjoy outdoor music, Asheville is an amazing destination. It is particularly noted for the near-constant opportunities to experience live music whether you’re stopping to watch street performers, dining alongside restaurant entertainers, or attending full-scale, city-sponsored free outdoor concerts. With so much free entertainment, Asheville has the potential to be an incredibly affordable family vacation.
It also helps that Asheville is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which makes it a great destination for nature lovers. Pay per car and access hiking trails in some of the best national parks and state parks in the nation. Oh, and while you’re on your budget-friendly family vacation, make sure you get a glimpse at how the other half lives with a visit to the historic Biltmore Estate mansion.
- Biltmore Estate
- Blue Ridge Parkway
- The North Carolina Arboretum
- River Arts District
- The Botanical Gardens at Asheville
- Chimney Rock State Park
- Asheville Pinball Museum
7. Gulf Shores, Alabama
The resort town of Gulf Shores, Alabama is located on the Gulf of Mexico which means that it boasts a subtropical climate all year-round. This makes it among the top vacation destinations for off season beach entertainment. And if you enjoy outdoor adventure and the chance to scope some incredible wildlife, you’ll find ample opportunity in the Gulf Shores State Park, the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, and countless other lush, natural settings.
For a unique and free way to experience the gorgeous beaches in Gulf Shores, check out Fort Morgan. Once designed to stave off naval attacks from the British, today the Fort is home to beautiful beaches, picnic areas, a gift shop and stellar birdwatching conditions. If alligators are more your speed, hop on the Hugh S. Braynon Backcountry Trail and wind your way alongside the Gulf of Mexico.
And for an immersive, cost-free experience, wander The Wharf. This Main Street district offers a concentrated hub of restaurants, shops, amusement park rides, and live entertainment. In other words, there’s tons to do on any vacation budget.
- Gulf State Park
- Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo
- Pelican Place at Craft Farms
- Orange Beach
- Fort Morgan
- Waterville USA
- The Wharf
8. Bar Harbor, Maine
Bar Harbor is a resort town situated in Hancock County, Maine. While the year-round population is relatively small–at just over 5,000 residents according to the 2020 census–its population swells with visitors in the summer and autumn months.
Many visitors are drawn by the coastal areas’ incredible natural beauty. In fact, Bar Harbor boasts the highest point on the Atlantic Seaboard. Cadillac Mountain offers unparalleled vistas of the Eastern shoreline. This peak is located in the region’s top tourism draw–Acadia National Park.
Remarkably, this is the only national park in all of New England. Acadia National park includes miles of historic motor and carriage roads as well as more than 150 miles of hiking and biking trails and a series of towering mountain peaks without equal on the East Coast of the U.S.
These attractions also help to make downtown Bar Harbor particularly lively during the warm months, as travelers visit its seafood restaurants, pubs, bookshops, and maritime museums, as well as Bar Harbor’s stately Village Green park. These low cost attractions make Bar Harbor an excellent destination for family travel.
- Acadia National Park
- Village Green
- Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium
- Abbe Museum
- George B. Dorr Museum of Natural History
- Mount Desert Island
9. Chattanooga, Tennessee
Situated on the border between Tennessee and Georgia, Chattanooga is nestled in the lush rolling landscape of the Great Smoky Mountains. The result is one of America’s most beautiful cities, a growing metropolis teeming with contemporary development and nightlife while conjuring memories of a nation built on the railroads. And if you’re looking for ways to save on a vacation, Chattanooga has been identified as one of the most walkable cities in the U.S.
It’s also absolutely gorgeous. Get a look at the highest and deepest publicly accessible cave waterfall in the U.S. at Ruby Falls and see the incredible vistas from Lookout Mountain. For the most exhilarating way to get to the top, try the Incline Mountain Railway. By the time you reach the summit, you’ll be cruising at a near-vertical 72% grade!
And of course, the city of Chattanooga was immortalized by the famous Glenn Miller song “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” helping to solidity its permanent status in American rail lore. Experience it for yourself by visiting the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and booking one of several historically themed train excursions.
- Tennessee Aquarium
- Lookout Mountain
- Tennessee Riverwalk
- Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center
- Hunter Museum of American Art
- Bessie Smith Cultural Center
- The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum
- Ruby Falls
10. New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans requires very little introduction as a tourist destination. Its incredible history, remarkable culture, and colorful reputation precede it. In spite of its well-earned title as a party town, New Orleans is also an amazing family vacation destination. Home to many reasonably priced hotels, a rich buffet of historic sites, and countless world-class restaurants to choose from, New Orleans is nonetheless a very affordable place to vacation.
If you’re looking for live entertainment, music literally pours out of the restaurants and marches through the streets. The Crescent City’s buskers are also among the best in the world. And the price of entry is little to nothing for live music in the city’s nearly infinite offering of venues.
The only thing in New Orleans that compares with the music is the food. If your family is the adventurous type, you could take a culinary tour of the bayou for a fairly reasonable price. You’ll find the world’s best crawfish, catfish, jambalaya and so much more if you know where to look. And of course, New Orleans is packed with cultural experiences including walking tours of the city’s unique above-ground graveyards, bayou airboat tours, and riverboat queen rides down the muddy Mississippi River..
- French Quarter
- Bourbon Street
- Preservation Hall
- Frenchman’s Street
- Cafe Du Monde
- Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
- St. Louis Cathedral
- Audubon Zoo
- Steamboat Natchez Cruise
11. South Padre Island, Texas
If you’re looking for a spot with year-round sunshine and warmth, check out South Padre Island in Texas. With more than 30 miles of beach, a penchant for live music entertainment, and exceptional fishing conditions, South Padre is pretty hyped during Spring Break and the summer months. But if you’re looking for an affordable family vacation, South Padre is actually a great place to visit off season.
The island reportedly enjoys an average of 300 days of sunshine every year. This makes it a solid place to visit if you’re looking for an escape from the gloomy winter. Indeed, you’ll enjoy stunning views to the Gulf of Mexico and Laguna Madre Bay at any time of year. And if you are a wildlife enthusiast, note that South Padre Island Birding is some of the best in the world.
Indeed, South Padre’s extensive recreational opportunities for nature lovers make it an extremely budget friendly getaway, whether you plan to walk Isla Blanca Park, check out the lagoons along the Laguna Madre Nature Trail, or you plan to take it all in while horseback riding at the South Padre Island Adventure Park.
- Isla Blanca Park
- Laguna Madre Nature Trail
- South Padre Island Adventure Park
- Beach Park at Isla Blanca
- Gravity Park
12. Savannah, Georgia
Established in 1733, Savannah is the oldest city in the comparatively old state of Georgia. It should therefore come as no surprise that Savannah is an amazing destination for those with an interest in American history.
It helps that it’s also an absolutely gorgeous city with beautiful Victorian architecture, weeping willows draped in Spanish moss, and a generally eerie energy that speaks to the city’s haunted past. Indeed, you can take daytime walking tours of the city’s Historic District, or you can wait until after dark for Savannah’s unique tour-guided ghost tours.
While we admit that this is not one of Savannah’s more kid friendly attractions, the daytime brings opportunities to enjoy the restaurants, ice cream shops, and souvenir shops along the River Street walk. And just a short drive from the city, Tybee Island draws both locals and tourists to its sandy beaches, mini golf courses, and amusement park rides.
- Historic District
- River Street
- Bonaventure Cemetery
- Fort Pulaski National Monument
- Savannah Theatre
- Forsyth Park
- Tybee Island
13. St. Louis, Missouri
The city of St. Louis is best known for its world-famous Gateway Arch. The national landmark was built in tribute to the countless pioneers who started their journey into the American frontier from the big city. Indeed, St. Louis was a central hub of activity for those bound for parts unknown. This was certainly due to its ideal geographical location, at the point where the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers meet. These features earned St. Louis its nickname as the Gateway to the West.
As it happens though, there’s plenty to do without leaving St. Louis. You could start with a visit to Forest Park. After all, this site of the 1904 World’s Fair is–at 1300 acres–larger than New York’s celebrated Central Park. Other attractions for nature lovers include the 79 acre Missouri Botanical Garden.
And for an amazing window into the history of American ingenuity, you might be interested in the National Museum of Transportation, which houses one of the nation’s best and most extensive collections of transportation vessels. This makes it a uniquely enjoyable learning experience for visitors of all ages.
Of course, this only scratches the surface of activities in a broader metro area of more than 2.8 million residents. But if you’re searching for cheap family vacations in big cities, St. Louis has a ton to offer.
- Gateway Arch
- Saint Louis Zoo
- Missouri Botanical Garden
- Forest Park
- Saint Louis Art Museum
- The Magic House
- City Museum
14. Austin, Texas
Austin is the state capital of Texas, but that hardly captures what makes this quirky southwestern city so unique. Of course, Austin enjoys a singular reputation as the destination for conventioneers around its annual multi-industry South By Southwest festival. It is at once the nation’s largest annual tech industry and music industry gathering.
However, it’s important to note that Austin is a city bursting with energy and activity all year round. With a vibrant live music, arts, and culture scene, Austin is a major draw to young professionals, creators, and families. This has helped to make Austin one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. over the last 15 years.
It also makes Austin an amazing place for a family vacation. Boasting the slogan, “Keep Austin Weird,” this town draws visitors in search of a quirky and creative metropolis located in a state with a more generally conservative cultural identity. This lends to countless quirky free attractions, most famous among them the daily dusk gathering at Congress Bridge, where locals and tourists alike gather to watch the famous Congress Bridge Bats take to the night sky. From there, visitors can stroll down to Sixth Street, where music calls to passersby from every restaurant and pub.
And if you’re looking for some delicious local fare, the food of choice in Austin is barbecue. Nothing fancy, rarely expensive, but always delicious. In other words, you can hit all the highlights in Austin without breaking the bank.
- State Capitol
- South Congress
- O. Henry House Museum
- Stubb’s BBQ
- Rainey Street Historic District
- Barton Springs Pool
- Lady Bird Lake
15. Charleston, South Carolina
The city of Charleston, South Carolina is like a window into American history–a Southern City capturing the Victorian architecture, bustling outdoor markets, and horse-drawn carriages of a bygone era. To be sure, this bygone era is filled with troubling realities including the city’s central role in the American slave trade. The same public markets used to sell souvenirs to tourists today stand adjacent to the auction blocks used to sell slaves in the pre-Civil War South.
In this respect, Charleston is an important destination for families who wish to better understand even the darkest chapters of our nation’s history. Charleston offers a clear window into these realities.
But then, it also offers stunning architectural beauty, lush gardens, and some of the best shopping anywhere in the Carolinas. Stroll the waterfront area for a look at some of the area’s most stunning homes along Rainbow Row and The Battery. Close by, you’ll also find some of the city’s best boutique stores and restaurants and a sprawling indoor-outdoor market that offers a well-preserved look into the streets of Charleston a century ago.
- Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
- Charleston City Market
- Rainbow Row
- The Battery
- Waterfront Park
- Sullivan Island
- Folly Beach
Of course, there are affordable and expensive ways to visit each of these destinations. It all depends on the steps you take to save on your family vacation. As we mentioned at the start, you have plenty of lodging options if you know how to shop around. And every single destination on our list offers an online welcome center brimming with coupons, discounts and helpful tips on how to save once you arrive.
A little careful planning could make your family vacation a whole lot cheaper this summer. Naturally, if you’re planning to fly, the first step is generally to find ways of saving on your airfare. With that in mind, start your vacation planning with a look at ten ways to save on you next flight.