Summer vacation is just around the corner, believe it or not. Doesn’t it feel like we were just celebrating the holidays? The kids will be out of school and on day one they are super excited, day two they are kind of excited, and day three is when the boredom sets in and your sanity flies out the window.
If you look at your states visitor’s website you can find a lot of free and inexpensive things to do in your area. That is a great way to cure the “school’s out” blues. If you want to go outside your state there are several cities that offer free to low-cost activities that are educational and fun!
Of course, going outside your home state means traveling. Did you know that traveling to and from a destination actually counts for 65 percent of a family’s vacation budget? It is true! The majority of spending money is spent on plane tickets. But there are ways to bust that cost and put more money in your pocket. Visiting sites like Expedia, Priceline, Skyscanner and, my personal favorite, CheapOAir.com, can sometimes give you cheaper airfare. Some airlines will offer really cheap tickets to popular cities so follow your favorites on Facebook because that is where they usually announce the sale. Be sure to check out our post on airfare hacks for additional tips on how to save.
Hotels can also be expensive. Your best bet is to do some research and try to travel when there are no major events happening, which includes things like spring break! Be sure to check TripAdvisor for reviews on the best places to stay, and then book your hotels through sites like Booking.com, where you’ll often find the best hotels at discounted prices. Another great way to save on accommodations is by booking through AirBnB. By renting someone’s home (or a room in their house), instead of a hotel, you can save big bucks!
The best advice I can give for traveling to these cities on a budget is to save your money. Have you ever heard of the dollar trick? It’s genius! Most dollars have a letter before their issued number. Pick 3 letters from the alphabet and every time you find a dollar with one of those letters save it. I did this for Christmas and saved over $800 in a year!
If you’ve got your money saved and you’re ready to travel, check out the cities below. They’re all surprisingly great cities to visit on a budget. They are full of history, fun, and great times for your family!
5 Best U.S. Cities to Visit on a Budget
Atlanta is great for families and very budget friendly. There are so many free things you can do in the area that it cold take a week to fit in everything.
One can’t-miss destination is the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Run by the National Park Service, you can visit the home where he grew up, listen to some of his sermons in historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, and stop at The King Center to visit his tomb and eternal flame.
Take a stroll through the Castleberry Hill Historic Arts District and check out all of the amazing artwork on display.
If you are visiting on a Wednesday don’t forget to go to the “Underground Atlanta.” This is a “city beneath the streets” where you will find 225,000 square feet of shopping and entertainment! You’ll definitely want to stop by for lunch because of the more than 60 food trucks that set up shop for Eat Street! Food Truck Wednesday.
The Children’s Museum of Atlanta is free every second Tuesday of the month and has a lot of interactive displays for kids.
If you want to make a day out of it by tossing the frisbee, having a picnic, or bike ride, you have to visit Piedmont Park. It is simply gorgeous and a great way to soak up some of that beautiful Atlanta weather!
Reminisce about the 1996 Olympics (remember how exciting it was watching Michael Johnson run or the Magnificent Seven win Gold?! How did Kerri Strug pull off that vault landing on one leg?!), at Centennial Olympic Park. You’ll often find live music playing, kids (of all ages) can splash in the Fountain of Rings, and an audio walking tour is available.
CityPASS Atlanta: You can save 40 percent on admission to five of Atlanta’s top attractions with a CityPASS! For $75 for each adult or $59 for children between the ages of 3-12, you can gain access to the following attractions:
- Georgia Aquarium
- World of Coca-Cola
- CNN Studio Tours
- Zoo Atlanta OR Center for Civil and Human Rights
- Fernbank Museum of Natural History OR College Football Hall of Fame
Budget-friendly hotels in Atlanta:
- The Wingate by Wyndham Atlanta/Buckhead is one of the top-ranked hotels on TripAdvisor and typically costs just over $100 per night.
- I always love staying at InterContinental hotels, and great deals are not hard to find for the InterContintal Buckhead Atlanta.
- If you don’t mind staying near the airport, the Holiday Inn & Suites Atlanta Airport will cost you about $100 per night. This hotel comes with free wifi and a pool.
Surrounded by the mountains and within driving distance of some of the world’s top skiing destinations, Denver is a beautiful and affordable place to visit year-round.
Visiting City Park is one of the best free things to do in Denver. The Denver skyline adds a stunning backdrop to your day of fun. You can play tag, eat lunch, or just hang out while taking in the beauty that is Denver. You’ll find the Denver Zoo here, as well as the Denver Museum of Nature, sporting fields, playgrounds, lakes, and more. If you want an extraordinary view, visit May-June. The snow capped mountains are stunning next to the springtime happenings in the park!
For around $10 a person you can visit the Children’s Museum of Denver. It is great fun for the whole family and has a lot of interactive displays.
If you don’t mind walking, I highly recommend the Denver Story Trek. You will visit landmarks and some of Denver’s most notable neighborhoods. You can take advantage of customized or a pre-planned tour. Everything is self-guided and you can download the audio files from their website. It is educational but also a lot of fun!
Denver is one of the beer capitals of the world, and there are a few free brewery tours in Denver. Great Divide Brewing Company and Wynkoop Brewing Company both offer free tours, though tours are capped at 20 people so you will want to arrive early. While craft brews are all the rage right now, good old Coors also calls Denver home and the MillerCoors Brewing Company Tour is also free.
Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre is 15 miles outside of Denver, but totally worth the trip. The rocks themselves are breathtaking (and free to visit). Shows at the amphitheatre are not free, but I can’t imagine there’s a more gorgeous venue if you have the time and money and are interested in any of the performances.
Budget-friendly hotels in Denver:
- Hyatt Place Denver/Cherry Creek – This hotel offers the free trifecta of free parking, free breakfast, and free wifi, and rooms generally cost less than $150/night.
- Renaissance Denver Stapleton Hotel – I almost always stay at Marriott hotels, and I love when you can stay at one for less than $100/night! I stayed at this hotel a few years ago and the rooms were comfortable and it had a huge glamorous lobby. Also, randomly enough, the woman that checked me in grew up in my old neighborhood in Chicago. Small world!
New York City, New York
You may be surprised to find this one on here. Every time someone says New York City you probably see dollar signs in your head. But believe it or not, there are some great ways to see New York City that won’t bust your budget.
If you really want to see NYC in all it’s glory, take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. The commuter ferry is free for all and when you get to the other side you just get in line to go back again. It is a lot of fun and has some great photo opportunities, but as it’s a commuter ferry, you probably won’t want to go during rush hour!
Rockefeller Center is a must-visit, in my opinion, especially if you enjoy people-watching! I love this area in the winter when the giant ice-skating rink fills the plaza. The Today show also films here, so if you’re lucky you might find yourself on TV or in the summer you can catch one of the artists performing in their summer concert series.
In most cities, one of the best free activities is the city park and NYC has one of the best in the world. Central Park always has something going on and is always free. It is the perfect place to have a picnic and people watch.
While there’s not really anything in particular I recommend doing in Times Square, I definitely recommend walking through as it’s one of the most exciting areas in the country. Is it touristy? Yes, definitely! But the hectic, bustling and loud atmosphere is quintessentially New York City.
You won’t want to miss the Statue of Liberty, although actually going out to Liberty Island can be a bit pricey as ferry tickets cost $18.50 each for adults. For a free alternative, head to Battery Park where you’ll be able to get a great view of Lady Liberty.
Visiting the New York Public Library is an awesome experience. Browse the thousands of books lining the shelves and make sure to sit in the great reading room for awhile. There are also exhibits such as the ORIGINAL Declaration of Independence and you can even find the original Winnie-the-Pool and his friends Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga and Tigger – the ones given to the real-life Christopher Robin Milne – on display at the New York Public Library.
Whether you want to actually spend money or not, you must at least go window shopping on Fifth Avenue. There’s no street in the country that’s more famous for shopping, though I’d have to argue that Michigan Avenue in Chicago is a close second!
I am a Broadway junkie and always try to see a show whenever I visit. I’m not big on paying full-price, however, and usually pick up discounted Broadway tickets from the TKTS Booth. Picking up same-day tickets from this booth can save you up to 50 percent!
I’ve had the opportunity to catch a taping of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and the dress rehearsal for Saturday Night Live when I’ve visited New York City. While the tickets aren’t necessarily easy to get, they are FREE! Just Google the show you’d like to see and “tickets” and you’ll find how to request tickets. Just be warned: You will need to request tickets well in advance of the date you’d like to attend, so keep an eye on the ticket websites if attending a taping is on your must-do list!
CityPASS New York City: There are two different CityPASS options for New York City. With the first, you’ll get to visit six different attractions for $122 for adults or $98 for children. With the second, you can visit three of 10 listed attractions for $76 for adults or $56 for children.
CitySights NY: My husband and I love doing hop-on/hop-off bus tours whenever we visit a new city. It’s a great way to get a lay of the land and to see someplace new without having to worry about transportation. With CitySights NY you will be able to tour uptown, downtown, Brooklyn and the Bronx, and even go on a night tour. Tickets are valid for 48 hours and cost $69 for adults if you buy them in-person, but you can get a discount if you purchase them online.
Budget-friendly hotels in New York City: I know what you’re thinking – budget-friendly in New York?! Ha! I don’t like to spend a lot of money when I travel – even when my old job was footing the bill – so the following are a couple of hotels where I usually managed to find reasonable prices:
- Holiday Inn Express Chelsea – The rooms at this hotel are definitely cozy, but with prices typically costing less than $150 per night, it’s worth being a little cramped.
- Courtyard Manhattan/Midtown East – This is usually my preferred hotel since it’s right in the middle of everything. The price seems to fluctuate greatly, so keep an eye on this one because I’ve found that the price often goes down quite a bit below the listed price.
Tip: Another way I’ve saved on hotel costs is by staying just across the river in New Jersey. Getting from New Jersey to Manhattan is super easy and the extra hassle can be worth the savings. You can also look into staying in another borough, like Queens, or even on Long Island, though I haven’t personally done this. Also, It never hurts to search sites like Groupon or Living Social for discounted hotels. You never know what you’ll find, especially if you’re traveling during an off-time.
Dallas has some incredible nightlife and San-Antonio has some amazing attractions but if you want to see Texas on a budget you need to head to Houston. Not only are hotels cheaper but it has several attractions that are really fun and most are free or low cost.
One of the best things to do is visit the Miller Outdoor Theater. Bring a blanket, a picnic, and get ready to catch a show! Shows range from classical ballet to Shakespeare.
Market Square Park is awesome in the summer because they show free movies in the park. All you need is your chair and some popcorn!
Houston Arboretum and Nature Center is a 155-acre nature sanctuary that has five miles of trails and exhibits. Everything is free of charge.
If you are in the area on Saturday check out the Urban Harvest Farmer’s Market. It is a great way to see local fare and free samples are always available.
Last but certainly not least, one of my favorite things to do in Houston is taking the 90-minute Sam Houston Boat Tour. It is free, but you will need reservations. It is a great way to learn about the history of the seaport and be able to watch ocean freighters and barges navigate the 50-mile channel.
CityPASS Houston: With a Houston CityPASS you can save 48 percent on admission to five top Houston attractions. Tickets cost $59 for adults and $49 for children ages 3-11. The following attractions are included:
- Space Center Houston
- Downtown Aquarium
- Houston Museum of Natural Science
- Houston Zoo OR Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
- Kemah Boardwalk OR Children’s Museum of Houston
Budget-friendly hotels in Houston:
- JW Marriott Houston – I used to travel to Houston for work each fall, and Houston was the only city where I could stay at a JW Marriott because I could often find rooms for $99/night. I’m not sure why this JW is so affordable, but this is actually one of my favorite hotels in the country both because the price is awesome and also because the staff was always beyond welcoming.
- The Lancaster is the #1 ranked luxury hotel in Houston according to TripAdvisor, and you can sometimes find rooms for less than $150 per night!
Chicago, oh Chicago, city that I love. Chicago has a lot of history. There’s so much history that Frank Sinatra paid homage to the great city in his song “My Kind of Town.” There are so many amazing things to see here that it would be hard to list them all, so I’ve compiled a few highlights. (Of course, check out my post A Weekend in Chicago for even more Chicago recommendations.)
Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the few zoos in the country that is always free! (Word to the wise: Parking can be a real pain so be sure to allow extra time to find a spot!) Make sure to go see King, the first black Rhino to be born at the zoo in the last 25 years. The zoo also has an underwater viewing area where you can catch a peek at Sea Lions.
If you’re planning on visiting the zoo, there are two other sites in the area that you won’t want to skip! First up is Farm-in-the-Zoo, which is a small petting farm just south of Lincoln Park Zoo. It has its own entrance, but it is also free! Also, just to the north of Lincoln Park Zoo, you’ll find Lincoln Park Conservatory. All three options are fabulous – and free – for the entire family!
While there’s no denying that Navy Pier is incredibly touristy, it can be a fun place to visit! Navy Pier is a 50-acre playground that includes a Ferris wheel, ice-skating rink, beer garden the Chicago Children’s Museum, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and fireworks two days a week during the summer. Please note that some of the attractions do charge a fee.
If your family loves spending time outdoors then you definitely don’t want to miss The Lakefront Trail. This 18-mile (paved) pathway provides the perfect place to rollerblade, bike, walk or run. But, that’s not all! Situated along the trail are various beaches, gardens, playgrounds, volleyball nets, parks, concession stands and more!
Buckingham Fountain, located in Grant Park, is one of the largest fountains in the world! It offers free water displays every hour but the best time to go is dusk-10 p.m. It’s a magical experience as the 133 jets are set to light and music.
Even if you don’t plan on spending any money, window shopping on Michigan Avenue, otherwise known as “The Magnificent Mile,” is a must-do! Start your walk near Oak Street Beach and walk south toward the river, ending at Millennium Park, where you will, of course, have to take a selfie with Cloud Gate, otherwise known as “the bean.”
CityPASS Chicago: With a Chicago CityPASS you will save 53% on VIP access to five Chicago attractions. Passes cost $99.75 for adults or $84.75 for children ages 3-11. The following attractions are included:
- Shedd Aquarium – VIP ENTRY
- Skydeck Chicago – FAST PASS
- The Field Museum – VIP ENTRY
- Museum of Science and Industry OR 360 CHICAGO – EXPRESS ENTRY
- Adler Planetarium – VIP ENTRY OR Art Institute of Chicago – FAST PASS
Budget-friendly hotels in Chicago: Staying in downtown Chicago is not always cheap. That said, here are a few hotels that I recommend checking because you can occasionally find great deals:
- Hard Rock Chicago – the location doesn’t get much better, as this hotel is right on Michigan Avenue and within walking distance of pretty much everything
- Hotel Chicago Downtown (a Marriott hotel) – this is a surprisingly affordable hotel in the heart of downtown
- Omni Chicago Hotel – all of the rooms here are suites and this hotel is also right in the thick of everything as it’s located right off of Michigan Avenue and is in the heart of the shopping district
If you’re planning on spending a good deal of time in Chicago, check out my new ebook, The Insider’s Guide to Chicago, for even more tips on planning an affordable vacation to the Windy City.
Do Tell: Are there other cities to visit on a budget that you recommend? What’s the most budget-friendly place you’ve visited?