By Kristina Russo | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor
5 Min Read | November 30, 2020 in Life
Check out the 12 most frequently mentioned affordable family vacation locations compiled from many travel-industry lists.
Fun, low-cost family vacations come in many varieties: beach, sightseeing, and theme parks.
Selecting the right location and traveling off-season are the most frequently recommended money-saving tips for family vacations on a budget.
If you’re seeking a family vacation that won’t break the bank, I’m about to save you a bunch of time. I’ve waded through the 120 budget-friendly family vacation locations on six different travel-industry ranking lists and counted which destinations appear most often. The result is this super-list of the 12 most frequently mentioned, affordable family vacation locations, along with some of the reasons those sources love these vacations. I’ve categorized each destination by its primary fun feature – but in most cases there are many more things to do at each stop. I only included domestic destinations because, well, you know … affordable!
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: A perennial family favorite because there are so many things to do, even beyond the free, sprawling beaches and swimmable waters. In fact, Myrtle Beach is the most frequently mentioned location among the six lists, appearing five times. The Myrtle Beach Boardwalk & Promenade has rides and attractions. Golfers enjoy over 100 full-size and miniature golf courses.1 And there’s an aquarium, Broadway at the Beach entertainment, Pelicans baseball, and many hotels with their own pools, lazy rivers, and spray pools.2 Experts recommend visiting on weekdays to save money.3
Outer Banks, North Carolina: A chain of barrier islands off North Carolina’s coast, where most visitors split seaside rental homes, Outer Banks is a classic beach escape. When you’re not enjoying the sun or conquering the tallest sand dune on the east coast, you can visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial or Cape Hatteras Lighthouse or watch herds of wild horses roam the shoreline. Booking rental homes or hotel rooms several months in advance and visiting during late spring or early fall can help you keep an Outer Banks family vacation affordable.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee: Gatlinburg checks a lot of boxes for an outdoorsy family vacation: hiking, whitewater rafting, zip-lining, and mountain coasters.4 There are three gateways into the free Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Via the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tram you can access the peak to experience an alpine slide, chair swings, mini-golf, and a maze. Outside the park, families enjoy several Ripley’s Believe It or Not attractions including Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, a nationally ranked aquarium. March, April, and September are the least expensive months for accommodations.
Grand Canyon, Arizona: Grand Canyon National Park, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, is an especially affordable family vacation in the spring and fall. Your family can hike the Rim Trail, ride mules along Bright Angel Trail, brave the Colorado River rapids, or enjoy barbecue at the Grand Canyon Cookout.
Minneapolis, Minnesota: Together with its “twin city,” St Paul, Minneapolis offers indoor and outdoor activities for the whole family. Some of the top attractions include the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the Minnehaha Falls and walking around the Chain of Lakes. Several art museums and the Como Zoo & Conservatory are other popular stops. But no trip to Minneapolis would be complete without a visit to the Mall of America for the Crayola Experience, Nickelodeon Universe, the Sea Life Aquarium, and some retail therapy!
Niagara Falls, New York: You won’t want to miss the sights and sounds of Niagara Falls, the oldest state park in the U.S. Touring the state park is free and many families add guided tours of the Cave of the Winds Mountain Park, Aquarium of Niagara, and trolley rides. The Maid of the Mist riverboat takes you up-close-and-personal to the bottom of the falls. The 4-D Niagara Power Vista movies are especially popular with STEM-loving kids. To maximize your vacation budget, experts recommend purchasing discounted state park Discover Passes for the attractions, visiting in the fall and staying on the Canadian side for favorable exchange rates.
Yellowstone, Wyoming: With its mountains, canyons, geysers and subalpine forests, this enormous national park is an excellent destination for the adventurous family. Great sites, like Mammoth Springs, Lamar Valley, Canyon Village, Grand Prismatic Spring, and Old Faithful are on most to-do lists.5 Camping makes this vacation affordable, especially outside of the summer, but requires advance planning. You can stretch your family vacation budget even farther with combo passes to nearby Grand Teton National Park.
Washington D.C.: Our nation’s capital is a wonderful city for cost-effective family vacations because it is filled with totally free attractions. The Smithsonian museums, especially the National Air and Space Museum, Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, are popular for kids of all ages. So are patriotic sights like the Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Monuments; the WWII and Martin Luther King Memorials; and the Tidal Basin, which are also free. Consider accommodations in nearby Bethesda, Maryland, or Arlington, Virginia, which tend to be more affordable than D.C. proper.
Branson, Missouri: Waterparks (indoor and outdoor), four theme parks (including the popular Silver Dollar Park) and the Titanic Museum, which all charge low prices, puts Branson on many “top” lists. Its wide assortment of lodging alternatives and family-friendly restaurants boosts affordability, alongside many promotional discounts for park tickets.6 You can explore the Ozark Mountains or 800 miles of shoreline while you’re there.
Williamsburg, Virginia: What’s better than American history mixed with roller coasters? Colonial Williamsburg transports your family back in time with re-enactments, ghost walks, carriage rides and stops at Jamestown and Yorktown Battlefield. For thrills, Busch Gardens and Water Country USA are nearby, as is the Williamsburg Winery. Combined lodging and ticket packages lowers costs, as does taking your trip in the fall, winter, or early spring.
Sandusky, Ohio: On the shore of Lake Eerie, Sandusky offers endless theme park amusement in addition to seaside boating and beach fun. Among the main attractions is Cedar Point, an award-winning theme park that specializes in roller coasters – and has its own waterpark. There’s another outdoor water park and five indoor waterparks, too. Travel lists highlight low hotel rates and big discounts on entrance tickets when you stay onsite.
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin: Calls itself the “Water Park Capital of the World” because it is home to six indoor and outdoor water parks, including the largest one in the country, Noah’s Ark. Water park access included in hotel rates and discounted passport-type tickets for multiple attractions make this family vacation budget-friendly. Beyond the waterparks, families enjoy ziplining, go-carting, skiing, railroad museums, circus, and golf – only a handful of the 100 activities listed on the Dells’ website.
Family vacations can be affordable if you know where to look. Whether your squad loves the beach, sightseeing, or theme parks, there are amazing choices and tips that help you stay on budget. After researching this article, I’m adding many of the dozen locations above to our family’s bucket-list.
1 “The 15 Best Affordable Family Vacations,” U.S. News & World Report
2 “Best Cheap Family Vacations,” U.S. News & World Report
3 “The Best Cheap Family Vacations in America,” Timeout
5 “Mom Picks: 30 Best Cheap Family Vacations 2019,” Escape Monthly
6 “10 Cheap Vacation Ideas for Families,” Family Vacation Critic