To know me is to know that I love planning vacations. I always like to say planning vacations is one of my spiritual gifts—it’s so much fun. Seriously, my in-laws even ask me to plan their vacations! Couple that with my other passion for finding a good deal, and I’m in heaven. I say all of this because if you’re looking for cheap places to travel, I can help.
There are tons of ways to save money when you travel, but let’s start with choosing places that have plenty of things for you and your family to do that won’t break your budget. I do want to mention I made my list of cheap places to travel based on how easy it is to get there, along with how many free or cheap things there are to do once you’re there.
Of course, finding cheap places to travel in the U.S. might feel hard right now (looking at you, inflation) but they’re still out there. Here are my top 10 favorites.
1. St. Louis, Missouri
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Okay guys, I’m ranking St. Louis among the cheapest places to travel because it’s a drivable destination for so many people in the South and Midwest. The best part is that the Gateway City (as they like to call it) has a lot of free things to do when you get there. Now that’s my kind of city!
- The St. Louis Zoo: Yup, it’s really free! There are some attractions with a small cost once you get inside—like the sea lion show, zoo train or carousel—but you’ll get to see as many lions, tigers and bears as your heart desires for exactly $0.
- Forest Park: This is one of the greatest urban parks in the country.1 It’s the heart of St. Louis, consisting of 1,300 acres filled with museums and cultural centers, lakes, trails and a boathouse. There’s even hot air balloon races in the summer! It’s a must for your visit!
- Purina Farms: It’s a pet lovers’ paradise just 40 miles west of St. Louis! Photo ops, cat and dog shows, and a baby animals petting area would keep my kids happy for sure!
- The Gateway Arch: This should definitely be at the top of your itinerary. Tram rides to the top are as low as $15 for adults and $11 for kids.2 Plus, you can tour the museum for free!
- The City Museum: It’s like a giant playground for the whole family, and you can take a family of four for around $72. Children under 2 are free.3
- Missouri Botanical Garden: This is a national historic landmark and considered among the top three botanical gardens—in the world! Tickets are $14 per person for ages 13 and up.4
- The Budweiser Brewery Experience: Are you a Budweiser fan? If so, you’re in luck. Take the Day Fresh Tour for $15 per person and learn how they brew their beer.5
- Food: St. Louis is famous for its food, and you’ll get the most bang for your buck at places like Blues City Deli and Lulu’s Local Eatery. And you don’t want to forget about dessert. Check out Ted Drewes for their famous frozen custard.
- Grant’s Farm: This experience can be a little on the pricey side, but if you’re an animal lover, it just might be worth it to meet the Budweiser Clydesdales up close and personal. Admission is $25 per person (kids under 3 years old are free). Just make sure to budget for the other activities like carousel rides, camel rides, and feeding the goats. You’ll also need money for parking!6
2. Washington, D.C.
Our nation’s capitol may not come to mind when you’re thinking about cheapest places to vacation (and save money). But if you book an inexpensive Southwest flight and an affordable Airbnb, this is one of the cheapest places to go! That’s because there are so many incredible things to do in this city like exploring museums, going on tours and visiting the nation’s coolest landmarks.
- The White House: Who wouldn’t want a tour of America’s most famous home? Plus, tours are free! You’ll just need to book at least 21 days in advance.
- The Smithsonian’s National Zoo: Ever wanted to see a panda live and in person? The National Zoo is only one of three zoos in the U.S. where you can see one!7
- The Smithsonian Museums: These museums are world class and totally free. The National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum have so much to offer for everyone in your family.
- The Supreme Court: If you’re into politics like me, this is exciting! You can actually sit in on a court session (amazing, right?) or take in a free lecture on how the court functions.
- The Library of Congress: This is the largest library in the world.8 It offers guided tours, exhibitions and a variety of live events.
- The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: This museum is widely regarded as one of the best museums in the world. There are several rotating exhibits and lectures, but perhaps the most powerful—the self-guided Holocaust exhibition spanning three floors—is there year-round.
- The monuments: There are a ton of memorials, but a few highlights include Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Washington Monument . . . just to name a few.
- Food: D.C.’s food game is strong, with a melting pot of influence from basically everywhere in the world.
- Half-Smoke: What some call the official food of D.C. It’s basically a half-beef, half-pork hot dog. Each restaurant likes to put their own spin on the half-smoke. Try them out and see what you think!
- Wiseguy Pizza: You guys know how much I love pizza, so I can’t send you on vacation without recommending a pizza place. Wiseguy is known for its five-star reviews and budget-friendly New York-style crust.
3. Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan
You might not think of the beach as a cheap place to travel, but this one still makes the cut. This beautiful lakeshore off of Lake Michigan is full of things to do! Named after an Ojibwe legend of the sleeping bear, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Park covers over 50,000 acres along Lake Michigan. The dunes were voted the Midwest’s “Number One Nature Escape for Families” by Disney’s FamilyFun Magazine, thanks to the scenic hikes, drives, campsites, and canoeing and kayaking trips. The park does charge an entrance fee of $25 per vehicle.9 But once you’re in the park, the opportunities for good, old-fashioned (free) fun are endless!
- Star Parties: These are led by park rangers one a month in the spring and summer, complete with a bonfire on the beach. It’s worth timing your trip around this experience!
- Fishing: You can fish in any of the 21 lakes inside Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Park.
- Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive offers 7.4 miles of beautiful sights. Along the way, be sure to stop at Sleeping Bear Dunes Overlook. It’s the perfect place to catch a sunset.
- Cherry Republic’s Glen Arbor gift shop: Michigan is famous for its cherries, and you can try some for yourself here.
- Cottage Book Shop: Booklovers will love poring over the shelves of the renovated log cabin that’s been turned into a book shop. (Browsing is free!)
- Cherry Public House: This falls between cheap and pricey, depending on what you get. To save money, share a basket of Cherry BBQ Rub fries with a flight of their unique cherry beers—yes, please.
- The Manitou Islands: Take the ferry over to explore the lighthouse, secluded beaches and even old shipwrecks. Just make sure to budget for the ferry tickets. It’s $42 a ticket for adults and $21 a ticket for kids 12 and under (kids 2 and under are free).10
4. New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans made my cheap places to travel list because it’s so rich in history, music and delicious food. And you don’t have to be rich to go—unless it’s during Mardi Gras (hotels like to double and triple their nightly rates to cash in on the party).
- The French Quarter: This iconic area is the oldest neighborhood in New Orleans and makes for super charming photo ops.
- City Park: It has the largest collection of live oak trees in the world—some up to 900 years old.11
- St. Louis Cathedral: It’s one of New Orleans’ most well-known landmarks and is totally beautiful!
- A literary walking tour: You can visit the homes of Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and more. While the actual guided tours cost a pretty penny, with a little research, you can take your family on your own tour!
- The National WWII Museum: This museum has over 24,000 five-star ratings on Tripadvisor and costs around $30 per ticket for adults and around $18 for kids in kindergarten through twelfth grade!12
- St. Louis Cemetery No. 1: It’s historical and creepy, and it seems so fascinating to me! Guided tours are $25 per adult and $18 per child.13
- Preservation Hall: If you’re looking for a classy date night, check out live jazz. You can do that here for around $25 per ticket.14
- Algiers Ferry: Take a ride down the Mississippi River and get an incredible view of the New Orleans skyline for just $2 per person!15
- Food: Try an original New Orleans Sno-Ball or a favorite of mine: beignets—a French-style donut covered in powdered sugar. There’s really no excuse for leaving New Orleans without eating at least 27. Or locals say the po’boy at Adams Street Grocery & Deli is the best value in town.
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5. Phoenix, Arizona
Ranked one of the top 100 best cities in the world, Phoenix has a lot to offer. Go for the desert landscape, shopping and architecture, and—if you’re a fan of queso like I am—stay for the Mexican food. If you’re adventurous, you could purchase an annual national park pass and tour any of Arizona’s beautiful parks. Plus, those passes will get you into any national park in the country! And if you’re even more adventurous, you can go camping for $22 per night in Sedona (that’s one way to make your vacation really cheap).16
Here’s how to make it cheap, though: Visit Phoenix during the summer months. That’s when hotel prices are slashed in half because most people flock to Arizona when it’s cold everywhere else. But be warned: Those summer months get hot (with a capital H)!
- Papago Park: It’s gorgeous, and you could spend a whole day exploring the trails and beautiful landscape. Watch the sunset at Hole-in-the-Rock.
- Camelback Mountain: If hiking is your thing (full disclosure: it’s not mine), you’ll love it!
- Fountain Park: Take the kids for a picnic, to play disc golf, or to splash around at the splash pad.
- Desert Botanical Garden: This is located in Papago Park, and it’s full of color and life with more than 50,000 plants. You can spend the day there with a family of four for under $100. These pictures give me all the heart-eyes.17
- Mexican food: You can get it pretty much everywhere in Phoenix, but Carolina’s Mexican Food and La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop are known for their authentic flavor (for super cheap).
- Last Chance: This is Nordstrom’s clearance store, where designer clothes sell for, in some cases, just a few dollars! If you love fashion or just want the best deal ever on a pair of jeans, check it out.
6. Virginia Beach, Virginia
Virginia Beach is beautiful and makes my list of cheap places to travel because there are plenty of affordable lodging options: camping in the woods, camping at the beach, and renting a cozy cabin or an Airbnb.
- Virginia Beach Oceanfront: This three-mile boardwalk would make my beach-loving heart so happy.
- Cape Henry Lighthouse: You can explore the shore of the Atlantic Ocean and see the lighthouse that stands near the site where the Jamestown settlers first set foot in America. (You can also tour the lighthouse for $10—and children under 42 inches are free!)18
- Virginia Legends Walk: I always find it interesting to learn about historical figures and where they lived. The Legends Walk is a self-guided tour where you can learn all about famous Virginians like Edgar Allen Poe and Ella Fitzgerald. Cool, right?
- First Landing State Park: Relax on the beach or hike all the trails! Admission is just $7 per car on weekdays and $10 on weekends.19
- Ocean Breeze Waterpark: This will keep a family of four entertained all day long for under $200 when you book tickets online.20
- Food, obviously: Try she-crab soup—a staple menu item at several restaurants in Virginia Beach. And get lunch at Margie & Ray’s Crabhouse and Restaurant, where an entire plate of seafood, fresh or fried is only $8.99.21 The Back Deck’s daily specials include $3 fish tacos on Tuesdays!22
- The Military Aviation Museum: This museum has planes from both World War I and World War II. Tickets are $15 for adults and less for seniors and kids! Bonus: Admission is free to all WWII and Korean War veterans.23
7. Seaside, Oregon
Seaside is a charming, family-friendly town—right on the water. It made my cheap places to travel list because there are so many unique things to do at little or no cost. Flights into Portland International Airport are on the cheaper side—you’ll just need to find a good deal on a rental car to drive to the coast when you land. Make sure to book in advance for an even better rate.
- Arcadia Beach State Recreation Site: This is one of the cleanest, most scenic beaches in the area.
- The Tillamook Head Trail: Take in breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean during a hike.
- The Turnaround: It’s the perfect place to see a gorgeous beach sunset and pose for a selfie with the Lewis and Clark statue.
- Seaside Aquarium: You can interact with and feed the seals! Adult tickets are $10, and kids 6–13 are just $5.24
- Sam’s Seaside Café: This restaurant has something for everyone, from hand-breaded oysters to a garlic-lovers burger.
- Biking: Rent bicycles and explore the town and many biking trails in the area.
- Seaside Inverted Experience: Have you ever wanted to do a handstand? Or hold a bike above your head? Now you can—kind of. This photo experience will give you the inverted experience you’ve always wanted (without all the heavy lifting). Admission is only $15 and includes a photo souvenir.25
8. Tulsa, Oklahoma
Despite Chandler’s complaints in Season 9 of Friends, Tulsa is actually a gem. There’s so much to explore while spending little to no money. And the hotel rates are some of the best of any major city out there!
- Gathering Place: This public park is more like a resort and may very well make it worth the trip to Tulsa all on its own.
- Woodward Park: Surrounded by old, historic neighborhoods, this park feels like you’re stepping into a fairytale.
- The Center of the Universe: Hunt to find this eerie, discreet circle at 1 S. Boston Avenue in downtown Tulsa. If you stand on the center and speak, your voice echoes.
- The Tulsa Zoo: Spend the day with lions, elephants, giraffes and more for less than $50 for a family of four.26
- Decopolis: This is Tulsa’s art deco museum, and it’s a shimmering gold spectacle of 1930s glamour.
- Andolini’s Pizzeria: This place has my name written all over it. If you’re going out to eat, paying for pizza beats buying individual entrees for everyone. Plus, guys, it’s pizza.
9. Gatlinburg, Tennessee
You know I can’t make a list of cheap places to travel without including a destination from my home state of Tennessee. The Great Smoky Mountains are a popular tourist destination year-round, and here are a few reasons why.
- Cades Cove: If you’re looking for tons of panoramic views you can enjoy in the comfort of your own car, check it out.
- Clingmans Dome: This observation tower is perched at the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- Grotto Falls: Take the 2.6-mile roundtrip hike from the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail to see the 25-foot waterfall.
- All the hiking: There’s really no shortage of hiking opportunities here. I’m no expert in that, but Google is!
- Cabin lodging: When you go to Gatlinburg, you’ve got to stay in a cabin. They’re surprisingly affordable, and who doesn’t want to wake up every morning to a mountain sunrise?
- Dollywood: It’s a theme park, water park and resort all in one. Tickets start at $84, but you’ll save a bunch of money on multiple days if you buy the tickets in a bundle.27
- Delauder’s BBQ: This is a great spot for traditional barbecue.
- The Donut Friar: The best donuts in town! It’s cash only, so I’m already a fan!
10. Raleigh, North Carolina
The Raleigh-Durham area is beautiful, trendy and great for both families and couples making it a no-brainer for my cheap places to travel list. You won’t have to spend too much to get a decent hotel room, and they have reasonably-priced nonstop flights from many cities in the South and Midwest.
- Pullen Park: There is plenty to do at this park, and you can even pose for a cute picture with the statue of Andy and Opie from The Andy Griffith Show.
- Museum of Natural Sciences: Learn about dinosaurs, butterflies, fish and more!
- Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach: Both are about two hours outside of Raleigh. Pack up a cooler and spend a day at the beach!
- Marbles Kids Museum: Your kids will have an absolute ball at this imaginative play place. Tickets are just $9.28
- Beasley’s Chicken + Honey: This restaurant was started by a James Beard award-winning chef, and their fried chicken breast with honey is only $7.50.29
- The Boxcar Bar + Arcade: Raleigh is known for its beer scene, and this place offers daily drink specials and cheap arcade games to keep 21 and up guests entertained for hours.
- The Durham Bulls: I’m not super into minor league baseball, but I know many of you are. Plus, they have some pretty fun promotion nights: Star Wars and Afforda-BULL Eats nights? So fun!
What to Do Before You Travel
Researching alternative cheap places to travel is what this article is all about—because problems start when you go on vacations that you can’t afford. Keep your financial goals on track by doing these things before you travel (and make sure you get the best bang for your buck).
You guys, a budget is so important! I can’t stress this enough. You might think a budget is a set of rules for you to follow. But that couldn’t be further from the truth! Your budget gives you permission to spend. And if you’re not doing a regular budget, you need to. EveryDollar is my favorite budgeting app. It helps you create your zero-based budget (where your income minus your expenses equals zero) in no time. Get started today!
2. Research all the free or low-cost attractions.
Like I said earlier, this list of cheap places to travel is just a start. There are so many more places to visit that will help you make those sweet family memories for less! But the key to a cheap place is making sure you have your itinerary of free (or cheap) things to do before you get there. A plan helps you stay on track and on budget!
3. Stay with friends or family.
Besides the flight (or gas), you want to think about how expensive your accommodations are. One of the ways to get around that is by staying with friends or family! If your family and friends live in a really cool city, staying with them will cut your costs in half. (Just make sure to be good houseguests.)
4. Travel with others to share the cost.
One of the best ways to travel is with friends or extended family! Not only do you get to share a vacation together, you can also split the bill! That’s a win-win in my book.
5. Pack snacks.
When it comes to traveling with kids (or even your husband), one of the best things you can do is pack snacks. Nothing adds up more quickly than constantly buying snacks on the road. You can save so much money by stocking up at your favorite grocery store before hitting the road.
6. Always compare airlines.
This is a big one. I’m not quiet about how much I love Southwest Airlines. But just because they’re my favorite, it doesn’t mean they’re always going to have the best deals for your next cheap vacation. Make sure to compare flight prices on sites like Google Flights, Hopper, or even Scott’s Cheap Flights before you buy!
7. Book your stay during the week.
So many people love to travel over the weekend (makes sense with work, right?), but many times, rates go up on Fridays and Saturdays. Listen: It’s so much cheaper to stay during the week! Schedule your trip to begin on a Sunday instead of a Friday, and you’ll be saving cash. Any little bit helps,
8. Check out Airbnb.
Many times, staying in an Airbnb can be even cheaper than staying in a hotel (depending on location and seasonal rates). Before you book your stay at the Holiday Inn, compare prices with nearby Airbnbs. Not only can you potentially save money, but you can also negotiate the price with the owner. What do you have to lose? The worst they can say is no (but many times they say yes)!
If you want more travel tips where these came from, check out this video:
And don’t forget: Plan for everything. Things always cost more than you expect, so build a buffer in your budget to cover the unexpected stuff.