What are the cheapest family vacation destinations? How can I plan a family vacation but stay on budget?
If your family is like mine, vacations are non-negotiable, but that doesn’t mean we are spending thousands on our vacation — nope!
To stay on budget, look for little hidden gems within driving distance that don’t cost much money. Here’s a start:
Resorts, Water Parks and Amusement Parks
You don’t have to give your kids Disney or LEGOLAND in order to have a memorable family vacation.
There are tons of hotels and resorts all over the U.S. that have indoor water parks and play centers for kids. There are also theme parks that won’t make your wallet cry.
1. Wilderness at the Smokies Resort — Sieverville, Tennessee
When you stay at Wilderness at the Smokies Resort, you’ll get complimentary access to the resort’s two outdoor water parks and its one indoor water park.
Hotel prices start around $99.99 per night for a double queen room.
You can also pay extra to play at the Adventure Forest inside the resort, which features ropes courses, mini-golf, laser tag and more. Prices start at $22.50 per person for an all-day pass.
Not to mention the resort is only about 40 minutes from Smoky Mountains National Park.
2. Triple Play Resort — Hayden, Idaho
In addition to having its own indoor water park, bowling alley and game center, Triple Play Resort is less than 20 minutes away from Silverwood Theme Park, which is an affordable amusement park in Northern Idaho with an Old West theme. Silverwood tickets range from $24 – $42 when you buy them early — compare this to $150/person tickets to Disneyland!
To stay and play at Triple Play, it’ll run you about $160 per night. You’ll need to book a hotel package that includes water park and game center access. It’s about $109 per night to stay at the hotel without any access to the water park or games, but what’s the fun in that?
3. Holiday Inn Resort — Daytona Beach, Florida
If you’re craving the beach but you can’t swing a flight for the whole family to Hawaii, consider Daytona Beach, Fla.
When you stay at the Holiday Inn Resort at Daytona Beach, you get pool and beachfront access, splash pads and fire pits — plus up to four kids under age 12 eat every meal free.
Just a mile north of the resort is the Boardwalk, Main Street Pier and more.
Book a double queen room with a partial ocean view for $94/night and a room with a full ocean view for $130/night.
4. Sea Crest Oceanfront Resort — Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Myrtle Beach has a lot to offer families on a budget, and when you stay somewhere like Sea Crest Oceanfront Resort ($89/night for a double queen room), you’re more likely able to afford to spend money on attractions like Family Kingdom Amusement and Water Park, the boardwalk and the Sky Wheel.
Family Kingdom is $28.95 per person for an all-day pass to ride roller coasters in the dry park. It’s an additional $9.95 per person for water park access.
Sky Wheel is $14 for adults, $9 for children, and the boardwalk is free.
5. Mt. Olympus Resort — Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
At the self-proclaimed “Water Park Capital of the World,” you won’t have any trouble finding a resort with a water park — and probably a roller coaster (or three).
There are a lot of resorts to choose from in Wisconsin Dells, and most of them have an in-house water park or access to a nearby water park, but the Mt. Olympus Resort is one of the best deals at only $84.99/night.
You’ll get complimentary access to the indoor water park and theme park (including five roller coasters), plus a $50 food and beverage credit to spend at the resort.
Compare this to a single-day ticket to a Six Flags amusement park and water park for $77.90/person (no hotel stay!).
The Great Outdoors
Getting outside is not only good for your budget but it’s good for a family breather — especially if your family is on the go most of the year.
Remember, if you have a 4th grader, your whole vehicle can get into any National Park for free through the Every Kid in a Park program.
6. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
When visiting Bryce Canyon National Park, consider staying at the Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn. It’s eight minutes from the park with average rates of $100/night. You’ll have access to an outdoor pool and complimentary breakfast.
You can take the kids on the Rim Trail hike, which is 5.5 miles, or you can opt to hike only the most popular part — Sunrise Point to Sunset Point — totaling about 30 minutes.
You can also take the park’s shuttle to get back to your car if you don’t want to walk back.
7. Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
Choose from 10 hiking trails, or take a boat to ride down an aquatic trail to enjoy the Ozarks‘ 1,200 acres of land and water.
Take the kids to Jacob’s Cave to see prehistoric bones, reflective pools and the world’s largest geode. You can walk through the cave and observe every formation imaginable.
Consider staying at the Inn at Grand Glaize for only $69/night. You’ll have access to an outdoor pool, indoor game room and watercraft or boat rentals.
Lake of the Ozarks is a state park, so your Every Kid in a Park pass won’t work here, but that’s OK because it’s free to visit.
8. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Seeing Old Faithful, watching wildlife like bison and bears, and hiking around while getting used to that sulfur smell are a child’s rite of passage.
Yellowstone is one of the best national parks for kids. It costs $25 per vehicle to enter the park, and the pass is good for seven days.
Lodging can be challenging, and in-park lodging is not only expensive but is usually booked 18 months in advance!
Consider staying right outside the West Yellowstone Park entrance at any number of hotels that range in price from $59/night to $140/night.
9. Redwoods National Park, California
Even though the Redwoods are in California, don’t forget your warm layers since it can cool off significantly inside the forest.
The Redwoods offer 200 miles of hiking trails, but no hotels or lodges inside the park. This means you need to plan to camp in order to save the most money — book your campground well in advance!
Since the Redwoods are so close to the coast, which is a hot tourist attraction, hotels outside the park run close to $230/night.
But do plan to drive to the beach — it’s free, just like the park. Also consider driving up or down Highway 101 for breathtaking ocean views.
10. Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
Carlsbad Caverns are a collection of over 120 caves in New Mexico, but the most popular of them all is the Big Room.
At the size of six or seven football fields and at a depth of about 70 floors underground, it’s cold, but there’s a lot to explore.
You can walk the 1.25-mile loop down to the Big Room (or you can take the elevator), but plan to reserve about 90 minutes to explore. And bring your coats so you can handle the 56-degree temperature!
Carlsbad Caverns is best as a road trip pit stop because there’s not much around it in the way of lodging. If you get a chance to take your kids, though, they’ll remember it forever. Entrance is $15/every person who is 16 years and older.
Especially if you have pre-teens and teenagers, a trip that’s focused on U.S. history may be interesting while also affordable.
For example, if your child is entering a grade where they’ll be studying the Revolutionary War, a trip to the Freedom Trail in Boston will not only be fun, but it might also help their history grades next year.
11. National Underground Railroad Freedom Center — Cincinnati, Ohio
Educate your kids about freedom’s heroes at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
There are permanent and traveling exhibits in the museum, but you can plan on learning how the underground railroad worked and what it was like for slaves to find freedom.
You can also research your own family’s lineage for free at the Family Search Center on site.
Admission is $15 for adults and $10.50 for children ages 3-12 (Children under 3 are free).
For $99/night you can stay at the Holiday Inn Express in West Cincinnati — it has a pool and it’s only 12 miles from the Freedom Center.
12. Split Rock Lighthouse, Two Harbors, Minnesota
Split Rock Lighthouse was built in 1910 because so many ships crashed while traveling this particular stretch of Lake Superior. In fact, 30 ships crashed in 1905 alone!
Tour the lighthouse and then go on a hike or even camp in Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.
Lighthouse admission is $5/person with a max fee of $20/family.
13. The Freedom Trail, Boston, Massachusetts
I’m not kidding when I say that children learning about the Revolutionary War should, at the very least, walk The Freedom Trail.
It’s a 2.5-mile walk that hits 16 of Boston’s major historical sites — everything from the Boston Massacre site to a tour of the U.S.S. Constitution. You literally follow the red bricks to stay on the trail.
You can walk the trail on your own, or you can pay for a tour — $14/adult and $8/child.
Expect to pay at least $130/night to stay within walking distance of The Freedom Trail at a hotel like DoubleTree Hilton Boston Downtown.
14. Homestead National Monument, Nebraska
It’s totally free to visit the Homestead National Monument in Nebraska.
The monument celebrates the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed any qualified person to claim up to 160 acres of land. The site is one of the first claims made under the Act.
Plan to visit the museum, the Palmer-Epard Cabin, the heritage orchard, the nearby community garden and one of the oldest tallgrass prairies in America.
Stay at the Capri Inn and Suites, just four miles from the monument for $64/night.
15. Clinton County Historical Museum and Lake Champlain, New York
Upstate New York (near the Canadian border) was a hotbed of historical events like the Battle of Lake Champlain, which helped end British invasions into the U.S. in the early 1800s.
Check out the Clinton County Historical Museum ($5/adult and $2/child) which is dedicated to education about the battle and showcasing items like paintings, maps, historical clothing and more.
Five minutes away is the Kent-Delord House Museum ($5/adult and $3/child), which is a historic home, furnished as if it were still lived in during the early 19th century.
Stay at Comfort Inn & Suites 10 minutes away Plattsburgh for $110/night. There’s an on-site complimentary water park for the kids.
And then there’s the big-city vacation.
I’m a fan because you can do it really affordably when you research all the free activities in the city you’re looking at.
16. Orlando, Florida
Sure, there’s Disney World. But did you know there are tons of things to do in Orlando for free too? Including free activities on Disney property!
There’s a ton to do right in the heart of Orlando from Farmers Markets to walking through arboretums to outdoor movies.
Stay at a resort like Westgate Lakes Resort & Spa and enjoy mini golf, pools and more for around $109/night.
17. Atlanta, Georgia
About 15 minutes outside of Atlanta you can visit Stone Mountain Park, built on 3,200 acres of land.
Here you can see a laser light show, hike, do the ropes course or ride Skyride, which is a Swiss cable car that travels 825 feet off the ground for stunning Appalachian views. Tickets for Stone Mountain Park are around $35/person but include one meal.
If you’re willing to drive an hour, you’ll be rewarded with a stay at Great Wolf Lodge, which could be a vacation in itself — especially if you have small children. It’s a water park resort that runs about $180/night.
18. New Orleans, Louisiana
Walk along the Mississippi River Riverwalk and catch an IMAX movie. Hop on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar for $1.25/person and ride past historic mansions and cemeteries.
Be sure to get out and walk through the cemeteries, though. Since they have above-ground tombs, it’s nothing like your kids would expect from a cemetery.
There’s plenty of free entertainment inside the French Quarter, and be sure to get beignets at Cafe Du Monde. When it comes to hotels, however, try to stay outside the French Quarter to save money.
For example, if you’re willing to drive 15 minutes away from the French Quarter, you can stay at a hotel like Wyndham Garden New Orleans East for under $90/night. You won’t find much under $180/night inside the French Quarter.
19. Washington, D.C.
Another great educational experience! Yes, Washington, D.C. can be affordable, too.
In fact, everyone gets free admission to all Smithsonian museums, including these:
Look for a hotel where you can pay $150 or less and get access to a pool for the kids. Hotels in D.C. can be spendy!