8 Best Cheap Vacations in the US to Stretch Your Vacation Budget

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Boats passing pedestrians on the San Antonio Riverwalk
Boats passing pedestrians on the San Antonio Riverwalk. Photo credit: Kristin Shaw

Want to plan that family vacation, but money is tight? We get it. And, while we can’t make travel money fall out of the sky (we wish!), we can offer some budget-friendly ideas for a getaway. Whether you’re embarking on the great American road trip with your entire family or looking for cheap places to visit with your friends, we’ve got a list of places to check out, plus some tips on how to make any vacation affordable.

1. Cheap Vacations at the Beach – The Best Budget Vacation

The beach is always one of the cheapest vacation destinations. While some beaches require permits to drive and park on the beach, those expenses are usually minimal. This varies by location, but it isn’t usually hard to find a free beach.

If you’re road-tripping, you can bring all the necessary beach equipment with you, such as umbrellas and beach chairs, and save on the rental cost. Pack a cooler full of drinks and snacks – enjoy a beach picnic and save money.

If you choose a beach that belongs to the state park system, such as Mustang Island State Park on the Texas Gulf Coast or Henderson Beach State Park near Destin, you might find additional free attractions available, such as ranger-led programs or state park junior ranger programs, similar to what you’d find in a national park.

Tips for finding a cheap beach resort

Check out the tourist or visitor information for the beach town you’re interested in visiting. Most will have a section on available lodging, and you can compare prices and amenities. Sometimes the cheapest places might be a little further from the beach or in a smaller, off-the-beaten-path beach town that might have less amenities. You’ll have to decide what’s important to you.

Beachfront hotels are almost always going to be more expensive, but the convenience of being able to walk to the beach might cause that higher price to win. Make sure you compare the cost of driving and parking before you go with that less expensive hotel or rental that’s a mile away from the beach.

Kayaks on the San Antonio River Walk
Seeing the San Antonio River Walk by kayak. Photo credit: Heidi Gollub

2. Cheap Vacations in San Antonio Texas

San Antonio is a great place to go for an affordable vacation. Also known as the Alamo City, San Antonio welcomes visitors year-round, although the summers are very hot and humid. Spring Break is a popular time to visit because it’s warm enough for outdoor activities, you usually don’t need a coat, and it’s not so hot that it’s hard to be outside during the afternoons.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Planning to visit in August? Indoor activities are your friend.

Enjoy the Riverwalk, eat some epic Mexican food and wander through this big city (it’s America’s seventh largest, if you didn’t know) and take in the Spanish architecture vibes and more.

If you’re a foodie, San Antonio is a great place to be. Enjoy Tex-Mex and BBQ and lots of other culinary delights both downtown and in the ‘burbs if you care to venture away from downtown. One popular local hotspot is Dudy Nellie’s Irish Pub which is located on the Riverwalk, along with countless other restaurants and cafes.

Where to stay in San Antonio on a budget

If you want killer hotel deals, the further away from the Riverwalk you are, the less you’ll pay. However, the Riverwalk is where the action is and probably where you’ll want to spend most of your time. Before you book a hotel 10 miles from downtown, factor in the need for a car and the cost of parking. For great locations, check out the Hyatt Regency Riverwalk and the  Hotel Valencia Riverwalk.

The Hyatt has modern rooms with fantastic views and a rooftop pool for lounging. The location and the Riverwalk views from the floor-to-ceiling lobby windows are hard to beat, and when you’re ready to go out and explore, you’re right in the middle of everything. If you’ve got World of Hyatt points, this is a great place to use them.

The Hotel Valencia has a beautiful lobby with the Riverwalk’s only tequila bar. They frequently run specials, such as rooms combined with musical entertainment, such as their famous Tango in the Courtyard show or river cruises.

Rooms near the airport (about nine miles each way to the Riverwalk) are lower priced, but you’ll have to drive to get to restaurants and entertainment. There are also hotels near other area attractions, such as SeaWorld and Six Flags Fiesta Texas, that typically run specials. If exploring downtown San Antonio is your plan, I recommend budgeting to spend more on lodging and staying on the Riverwalk.

A thrill ride at Dollywood.. Photo credit: Jill Robbins

3. Pigeon Forge Tennessee

Pigeon Forge, and the nearby cities of Sevierville and Gatlinburg, sit at the entrance to the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This area is a popular drive market destination for travelers coming from all over the Southeast.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a great free activity. If you have kids 12 and under, they can do the free Junior Ranger program or take part in other ranger-led activities. Check the park’s schedule when you arrive to see what’s happening.

Although the Dolly Parton Stampede dinner show is not free, it’s free to stop by the barns and check out the horses used in the show.

The other activities in Pigeon Forge aren’t free – there’s a variety of shows, arcades and other entertainment that can add up quickly – so scope out what’s available and make a plan for your activities to stay on budget. If it’s not a trip to Pigeon Forge without a visit to Dollywood, check out the Dollywood special offers page to see if any of their discounts work for you. 

Where to stay in Pigeon Forge on a budget

Both the Country Cascades Waterpark Hotel and the Park Tower Inn have reasonable rates, a nice selection of amenities and clean, no-frills rooms. Country Cascades also offers a free hot breakfast, which is great for anyone focused on saving money. And, of course, camping is always the cheapest way to stay.

4. Cheap Vacations in the Land of Enchantment – Roswell and White Sands

New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment and two of the most budget-friendly destinations inside the state’s borders are Roswell and White Sands National Monument. Roswell is known for alien culture, but there’s also a reasonably priced zoo to check out. The International UFO Museum and Research Center are also fairly budget-friendly and the art museum accepts donations for admittance.

White Sands National Monument, near Alamogordo, is the state’s top outdoor attraction. Admission is reasonably priced and kids under 16 are free. Take sleds or pieces of cardboard to enjoy sliding down the sand dunes and pack a picnic for a great, low-cost day.

Where to stay in Roswell and Alamogordo on a budget

Roswell has several budget places to stay. If you like the comfort of a familiar brand, you’ll find Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Baymont Inn and Suites and more. If you have loyalty points with any of these brands, you’ll save even more. Look for the hotels that serve free hot breakfasts, like Fairfield Inn and Hampton Inn.

One of the most highly rated motels near White Sands, according to Booking.com, is the  White Sands Motel. The rooms have microwaves and refrigerators, convenient for storing your own drinks and snacks. The rooms are pretty no frills, but it’s near White Sands and within walking distance of several places to eat.

Another fun spot in New Mexico to visit for not a lot of money is Carlsbad Caverns National Park; however, unless you plan on backcountry camping, find somewhere else to spend the night. The hotel rooms in Carlsbad are usually more expensive than they’re worth.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Roswell and Alamogordo are 130 miles apart, which is roughly a two-hour drive if you want to stay in Roswell and plan a day trip to White Sands.

Two alligators rest together at Gatorland
Watching the world go by at Gatorland in Orlando. Photo credit: Gatorland

5. Orlando Florida

Whether you’re extending your stay in town after going to one of the Orlando theme parks or are planning a trip that doesn’t involve Disney or Universal, there are several budget-friendly things to do.

Gatorland is one of the area’s most iconic and affordable attractions. You’ll find 110 acres with alligators and crocodiles, a petting zoo, a splash pad play area and more. If you want a little culture, the Orlando Museum of Art is something to put on your list. If you enjoy rides and thrills but don’t want to pay theme park prices, check out the Orlando Eye, the Orlando Starflyer or Funspot America.

Just an hour outside  Orlando are several natural areas where you can hike, swim and kayak. Check out Blue Spring State Park, De Leon State Park and Rock Springs Run Nature Preserve at Kelly Park.

Where to stay in Orlando on a budget

Universal’s Endless Summer Resort is one of the best budget options in Orlando. Margaritaville Resort Orlando is also worth checking out if you like a hotel with lots of included amenities. Margaritaville, which is completely family-friendly despite its name, is located near Sunset Promenade, which has affordable dining.

Both of these properties are great budget choices no matter what type of Orlando activities you plan.

6. Cheap Southwestern Vacation: Tempe Arizona

If you want to explore the Southwest USA, Tempe, Arizona, just outside Phoenix, is a great place to explore for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. For those flying, Tempe is located less than five miles from Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport. And If you’re looking for inexpensive flights, Southwest Airlines has direct flights from Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas, and other cities.

Scope out Visit Tempe’s calendar of events as well as their listing of year-round free things to do before you roll into town. Tempe is a big festival town, and with year-round sunny weather, you’re always going to find something going on downtown, whether it’s a citywide celebration with free live music or some seasonal fun.

Tempe has lots of beautiful hikes and lots of art museums and art galleries that don’t cost any money. If you want to splurge on an activity, go to the Desert Botanical Garden.

Where to stay in Tempe on a budget

Tempe has a variety of accommodations at all price points. The cheaper, but still nice, hotels are going to be near the airport, and the pricier options are going to be in downtown Tempe, where you can walk to restaurants and attractions. If you opt to stay in one of the cheaper airport hotel options, do some price comparison on how much gas it will cost you to drive to and from activities in Tempe. Also, free parking is virtually nonexistent in Tempe, so expect to pay for parking wherever you go downtown.

The Hilton Garden Inn near Arizona State University is a good compromise. It’s within downtown Tempe so no (well, mostly) need to get on the freeway to do things within Tempe proper, but you’ll still need to pay for parking in downtown Tempe.

7. New Orleans Louisiana

Say New Orleans and people automatically think of nightlife and Bourbon Street, but there is more to the city than just a lively place to party.

Wandering around the French Quarter and through Jackson Square offer opportunities to people watch and check out local artists and street musicians. Other free things to do include exploring St. Louis Cemetery #2 and #3 (you’ll need a paid guide to explore #1), walking through New Orleans City Park and checking out the beautiful historic homes in the Garden District. The street cars aren’t free, but they’re pretty inexpensive and an easy way to get around the city.

Not free but reasonably priced are the World War II Museum and a ghost tour experience. The museum campus is extensive, and you can spend several hours checking everything out. The ghost tours are a fun, if a bit cheesy, way to learn about the history of New Orleans, haunted and otherwise.

Where to stay in New Orleans on a budget

As with San Antonio, staying further from the action may get you a cheaper hotel room, but the cost of going back and forth may negate the savings. For good deals in and near the French Quarter, the Embassy Suites Hotel New Orleans and the Fairfield Inn & Suites Downtown/French Quarter are going to be your best bets.

The Embassy Suites offers complimentary breakfast and a complimentary evening reception with drinks and snacks. All rooms are two-room suites with a separate bedroom and living area.

The Fairfield Inn combines a historic building and jazz-themed lobby decor with the comfort and hospitality travelers have come to respect from Marriott’s budget hotel brand. The complimentary breakfast and great location make this one a win for the pocketbook.

8. National Parks Make Great Cheap Vacations – Explore These Parks from Vegas

If you want to explore the National Parks in Utah or Death Valley National Park in California, you might find a better deal on flights by flying into Las Vegas and renting a car. Southwest Airlines has direct service into Las Vegas from several major cities. Southwest flights are usually reasonably priced, and each person gets two free checked bags.

National Parks make great, cheap vacation spots. Death Valley National Park can be done as a day trip from Vegas if you go in late spring while the days are long and you commit to an early start. Zion National Park is 159 miles from Las Vegas and Bryce Canyon National Park is 259 miles from Las Vegas. The West Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is 130 from Las Vegas. If you want a really quick day trip, Red Rock Canyon is less than 20 miles from Las Vegas.

If exploring these scenic outdoor spaces is on your travel bucket list and you’re flying, going via Vegas is probably cheaper than any other route, but always do comparisons.

Cheap Vacations in the US – Budget Travel 101 Tips

  • Travel during the off-season. If you visit an area that’s popular with the spring break crowd during summer or fall, you might find cheaper hotel rooms and other activities.
  • Look for hidden fees and freebies. Check the fine print carefully. That hotel room you thought was a great deal might have a hefty resort fee tacked on each day you stay. Also, check to make sure you’re aware of the charges you might incur for parking or internet. And a hotel with free breakfast always wins.
  • Consider Airbnb or vacation rentals – but choose wisely. Read Airbnb host reviews, and take a close look at what charges might be added to the per-night fee, such as taxes and services fees – those add up. A vacation rental with a kitchen can save you an incredible amount of money on meals but scope out things like how well-stocked the kitchen is and how far away the nearest grocery store is.
  • Scope out free activities in your host city. City websites, public libraries and museums often have listings of free things to do. Also, most museums have free days, so find out what they are and plan your visit around them.

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