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10 Best Affordable Spring Break Destinations on the Cheap

By Brian Martucci

outer banksDepending on where you live, spring can be a frustrating time of year. For folks in more temperate parts of the country, late March brings warm breezes and an explosion of color from early flowers and tree buds. But in the mountainous west, the U.S.’s northern tier, and most of Canada, winter’s grip remains tight, and cabin fever continues. And down south, March and April mark the return of the uncomfortable heat that can last through October.

No matter where you’re from, you’re sure to find a weather-related excuse to take a quick spring trip. The real question is whether such a trip is fiscally prudent. Spring break is a popular travel time for penny-pinching college students and young people, but what if you’re not interested in packing 15 people into a three-bedroom house and partying on the beach for a week straight? Are there any spring travel options out there for folks who just want to get away for a few days without breaking the bank or short-changing a long-planned summer vacation?

As it turns out, there are. Springtime, including the traditional spring break season (basically the month of March), is actually a very quiet time for travel – outside of classic spring break destinations such as Daytona Beach and South Padre Island, many tourist areas experience a drop in visitors. Accordingly, cheap airfare and deep hotel discounts abound.

Tips for an Affordable Spring Break Trip

No matter where you’re headed, it is important to keep several general cost-cutting tips in mind.

1. Utilize Available Public Transit

Even if the advertised per day price seems reasonable, the cost of renting a car can quickly become prohibitive. Taxes, fees, mileage charges, and other unwanted surprises at the kiosk – not to mention the cost of parking and gas – add up. And heaven forbid you forget to top off your tank before returning the car – most rental car companies charge between $5 and $10 per gallon for the “convenience” of returning your car without a full tank. Over the course of a four-day trip, a rented car can add hundreds of dollars to the cost of your vacation.

In bigger cities, public transportation is your friend. Many tourist-friendly towns offer short-term transit passes that significantly reduce the face value of each individual ride. For instance, San Diego offers a four-day trolley pass that allows unlimited rides for $15. By comparison, a full-fare, one-way ride is $2.50.

You don’t necessarily have to stay in a potentially more expensive central district to enjoy the benefits of public transit: In San Diego, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, affordable outlying neighborhoods often enjoy robust connections to centrally located tourist areas.

Of course, not every destination has great public transit. If you must rent a car, use a comprehensive tool such as KAYAK or Hotwire to quickly sort through location-specific offers from multiple car companies. Unless you’re taking a family vacation or bringing along a big group of friends, stick with the smallest vehicle in which you can comfortably fit – even if it’s a bit smaller than what you’re used to.

Alternatively, ask the rental kiosk attendant if they’re offering deals on any specific models or vehicle types. When they’re faced with a local glut of, say, minivans, rental car companies might slash rates on them to encourage turnover.

2. Take Midweek Trips If Possible

Hotels specify “weekend” and “midweek” rates for a reason: It’s much harder for most people to find time to get away during the middle of a regular workweek. When vacation days are limited, it certainly makes more sense to stretch them out by taking Fridays or Mondays off and getting a head start (or delayed return) on a three-day weekend.

However, given the hefty premiums that some hotels charge for weekend stays, this can end up costing you. If possible, look into visiting these locales for two or three nights in the middle of the week.

3. Investigate Vacation Rentals and Short-Term Housing

Staying in a well-run hotel can be a great experience. Then again, you pay for what you get at a full-service lodging facility. While it might not make sense for a romantic, frugal getaway for two, you may be able to dramatically reduce your lodging costs by staying in a vacation rental property or hostel. For North American destinations, Airbnb offers a wide selection of homes, apartments, and even rooms for rent – just be sure to do your due diligence on whoever you’ll be renting from.

If you’re looking for an even cheaper place to rest your head, look into the website Couchsurfing, whose participants often accept in-kind payment such as help with the dishes, cooking, and other chores. For longer trips, Craigslist can connect you with short-term sublets or apartment swaps.

Finally, the best lodging deals in countrified locales are generally found at private or state-run campgrounds. As long as you don’t mind roughing it, there are plenty of these to go around in the months before summer’s peak camping season.

4. Control Your Food Costs

With so much else to worry about, even the most frugal travelers fail to budget for several days of on-the-go sustenance. When you don’t have access to your home’s trusty refrigerator and pantry, your food costs can spiral rapidly.

However, there are many ways to save money on food while traveling on vacation. If you’re staying in a hotel, look for a room with a mini-fridge and microwave, even if you have to pay a few more dollars per night, and take an hour or two on the day of your arrival to shop for cereal, trail mix, sandwich supplies, and other cheap, healthy food items. When it’s time to eat, pack yourself a picnic lunch or dinner.

Of course, part of the allure of travel is the promise of novel food items. You don’t have to choose between dining at four-star restaurants and forgoing local food altogether. There’s a happy medium somewhere in between, and the power of the Internet can help you find it.

For starters, the food truck movement has absolutely blown up during the past few years, and it’s now possible to find cheap mobile eateries in many metropolitan areas. In fact, you could probably eat at a different food truck every day of the week in San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Nashville.

And each destination has plenty of cheap, no-frills, hole-in-the-wall-type places that also happen to make great, innovative creations. These eateries might not be the most visible or best-known establishments in town, but they shine on digital directories such as Yelp and UrbanSpoon. For special deals, you can also look to online coupon providers such as Groupon and LivingSocial, which both offer deep, limited-time discounts at specific restaurants, or check in with the local tourism bureau to learn about restaurants that offer unadvertised specials to tourists.

enjoying drinks

Affordable Spring Break Spots

These popular North American destinations, all within easy driving or flying distance of major U.S. and Canadian cities, boast some of the best deals around.

1. San Diego, California

  • High Season: June through September
  • Average April High (F): 68 degrees
  • Flight Time From New York: 6 hours
  • Flight Time From San Francisco: 1 hour, 25 minutes

San Diego occupies a unique place in the American psyche: As the southernmost big city on the U.S. West Coast and Tijuana’s American counterpart, it boasts a slightly exotic vibe that entrances visitors from beyond the Southwest. It also has miles of sandy beaches and top-tier golf courses. San Diego’s mild climate is legendary, even by California standards – the city receives barely 10 inches of rain per year, according to the National Weather Service, and temperatures rarely dip below 40 degrees at any point during the year. Sunshine is almost a given; fully overcast days are decidedly rare.

Near the city center, a massive revitalization project has spiffed up the Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego’s answer to New Orleans’s French Quarter. This sprawling entertainment district has its fair share of overpriced bars and eateries, but there are some good deals to be had here as well.

Check out Berkeley Pizza, with medium pizzas hearty enough to feed a family of four, and reasonably priced, locally sourced craft beers on tap (its “beer and a slice” deal is particularly popular for dine-in customers). Bolillo Tortas, meanwhile, boasts more than a dozen varieties of its signature torta and 20 tap beers, and nothing on its menu costs more than $10. For more cheap dining options, look to the area around the University of San Diego’s campus, which is close to the city’s densest cluster of affordable hotels.

Where to Stay
While many big cities have a “hotel district” where out-of-town tourists tend to cluster, San Diego’s Hotel Circle takes this concept to a whole new level. Stretching for two miles along Interstate 8 (between Interstate 5 and CA-163), Hotel Circle is close to the city’s Old Town neighborhood and lies within a short trolley ride or easy driving distance of major attractions like the University of San Diego, Gaslamp Quarter, Petco Park, Sea World San Diego, and Fiesta Island Park. Also, it’s just a few minutes from San Diego International Airport.

For convenience alone, Hotel Circle earns high marks, but it’s also home to lots of full-service discount hotels that won’t dent your vacation budget – there’s a Best Western, Howard Johnson, Comfort Inn, and a Motel 6, as well as several extended-stay options for longer trips.

Where to Avoid
San Diego loves its tourists, but certain areas aren’t particularly friendly to frugal travelers. The coastal suburbs to the north are particularly exclusive, especially La Jolla, where Mitt Romney owns a home, as well as neighboring Del Mar. Both of these places are renowned for their beautiful beaches – but with so much coastline elsewhere in the area, there’s no compelling reason to make the trip. If you must go, pack a picnic and don’t even think about doing anything more than window shopping.

Cheap Events and Attractions
You don’t have to spend a dime to kill time in San Diego. At more than 1,200 acres, Balboa Park is larger than New York’s Central Park. Its vegetated trails are perfect for an early morning jog against the backdrop of downtown’s towers, and its public lawns practically beg you to bring a picnic lunch and people-watch. It also houses the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Natural History Museum, and San Diego Air & Space Museum. On Sundays, Spreckels Organ Pavilion hosts free concerts, and late spring brings the Twilight in the Park concert series.

For an unobstructed view of the bay, head to Embarcadero Marina Park or Harbor Island Park. It’s possible to walk along the waterfront for several miles in this part of downtown San Diego. Or, catch the ferry to Coronado Island from the Broadway Pier or the convention center downtown to enjoy a 15-minute ride across the sparkling San Diego Bay to Coronado Island. It costs only $4.25 per adult each way, and kids under four ride free. You can also bring your bike at no extra charge.

For a look at slightly smaller Mission Bay, Fiesta Island Park’s wide-open spaces are hard to beat. With multiple marinas on this nearly enclosed body of clear blue water, you can watch pleasure boats cruise in and out of the harbor until the sun goes down.

Getting Around
If you’re in town for just a few days, you won’t need to rent a car here. Instead, opt for a four-day trolley pass (just $15 per person) and ride the Green, Blue and Orange Lines to your heart’s content. The Green Line runs north of downtown, offering reasonable access (some walking required) to the San Diego Bay waterfront in downtown and north-of-downtown attractions such as Sea World San Diego and Fiesta Island Park, which are also quite close to the water. The Blue Line wraps through downtown, touching the Gaslamp Quarter, then heads south along the coast to Chula Vista, where Bayside Park offers a different view of the bay, before terminating near the border.

Why Is It a Good Deal?
As it turns out, San Diego isn’t just a spring break destination – it’s also one of the United States’ most popular big cities for tourism, and one of the best U.S. cities to visit on a budget. During the spring, San Diego hotels combat dipping occupancy rates with rate cuts and package deals.

balboa park gardens

Balboa Park Gardens in San Diego

2. Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

  • High Season: December Through May
  • Average April High (F): 86 degrees
  • Flight Time From New York: 8 hours (with a 1-hour layover in Chicago)
  • Flight Time From San Francisco: 3 hours

Located about halfway down Mexico’s Pacific Coast, Puerto Vallarta is a tropical paradise that’s popular with spring-breaking students, luxury travelers, and virtually everyone in between. Puerto Vallarta caters heavily to American and Canadian tourists, so be on the lookout for special package deals, especially as the high season draws to a close in May.

Puerto Vallarta built its reputation as a tropical resort, but there’s more than meets the eye here. The area was among the first in Mexico to actively court American expats and retirees, and the fruits of that half-century effort are evident in locals’ familiarity with the English language and American customs.

It is important to note that Puerto Vallarta’s tropical climate produces two sharply delineated seasons, one wet and one dry. The wet season roughly coincides with the Pacific hurricane season. In most years, it begins by late May and wraps up in early October. Accordingly, the bone-dry winter and spring months tend to be a little more crowded. However, the true high season is confined to the Christmas season and Easter week, so those are the only travel times to actively avoid.

Where to Stay
For frugal vacationers, affordable hotels and eateries abound just outside the trendy beachfront district. If you’re looking for a place within walking distance of the water, concentrate your efforts on the neighborhoods around two beaches: Playa Los Muertos, south of the city center, and Playa Boca de Tomates, in the north. The former is popular with tourists from other parts of Mexico and boasts a laid-back, nonjudgmental vibe. Plus, the crystal-clear water here is perfect for swimming.

Playa Boca de Tomates lies in the shadow of Nuevo Vallarta, but harmless silt discharge from the nearby Rio Ameca makes the water less-than-appealing for swimmers. But if you just want to soak up the rays, it’s hard to do better. Major hotel chains such as Westin and Holiday Inn have outposts close to the beach, so you can stay in a name-brand place if you’d like.

Where to Avoid
As an international tourist destination, Puerto Vallarta does have its share of trendy neighborhoods. Generally speaking, the area around centrally located Playa Olas Altas is more expensive than other parts of town. If you want to grab a bite while taking in an ocean view here, be prepared to pay South Beach prices. This area tends to be crowded with rowdy international students anyway.

Further north, Nuevo Vallarta is another area to avoid. This is unfortunate, because it’s absolutely beautiful, but Nuevo Vallarta is basically a giant, golf course-riddled playground for wealthy Americans, Europeans, and Mexican oligarchs.

Cheap Events and Attractions
Puerto Vallarta is a regional center for history and culture. The Church of Our Lady Guadalupe, in the city center’s old town district, is among the most impressive Mexican churches outside of Mexico City. You don’t have to pay to get in, although you do need to pay attention to scheduled worship times. There’s also no admission fee to Playa Los Muertos or Playa Boca de Tomates.

For a free view of the city and ocean, take a hike up one of the rocky crags that overlook the coast. When it’s time to eat, head south and stroll through the neighborhoods that surround Macroplaza Puerto Vallarta. There you can find familiar fast food joints, as well as authentic hole-in-the-wall restaurants that are easy on the pretension and even easier on the wallet. Vallartan cuisine is heavy on finned fish and shellfish, so bring an appetite for protein.

Getting Around
Unless you plan to head south to the national park Selva el Tuito, you don’t need to rent a car when you’re here. In fact, since many of the city’s most important attractions are within a mile of the waterfront, you can probably get by without even getting into a taxi or hopping on a bus. That said, the city’s bus service is better than that of most similarly sized American cities, especially close to the waterfront. A single ride costs 7.5 pesos, which is less than a single American dollar. If you’re not visiting multiple destinations in a day, you can probably get by without purchasing a pass.

Why Is It a Good Deal?
Despite its reputation as an international destination, Puerto Vallarta is still far cheaper than comparable destinations in the U.S. and Caribbean. As in many Mexican tourist towns, outsiders and expats segregate themselves into tightly controlled enclaves. As long as you’re willing to push the boundaries of your comfort zone and spend time at beaches or in neighborhoods where Spanish is the lingua franca, you’ll more than make up for the cost of your plane ticket.

puerto vallarta

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

3. Savannah, Georgia

  • High Season: Mid-March through mid-May, and mid-September through mid-November
  • Average April High (F): 78 degrees
  • Flight Time From New York: 2 hours, 25 minutes
  • Flight Time From San Francisco: 6 hours, 50 minutes (with a 1-hour, 30-minute layover in Chicago)

Outside of New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina, no other city in the Southeast can match Savannah’s historic charm. The city’s downtown core is a well-preserved museum of 18th-century brownstones, lush parks, and cobblestone streets. Farther out, an extensive Victorian District borders yet more parkland.

Beyond the central city, well-kept subdivisions and condo complexes cater to retirees and second homeowners. Meanwhile, the beach communities to Savannah’s south and southeast – Hilton Head, Tybee, Jekyll, and St. Simons Islands, among others – attract folks who enjoy warm-weather sports and beachfront living.

Parts of the Savannah area, including Tybee, are popular with spring-breaking students, but others remain quiet until the traditional start of the summer travel season in late May. If you’re traveling with a group, look into the cost of renting a beachfront house on one of the islands, or a walk-up near the center of town.

Where to Stay
Once you venture outside its historic heart, Savannah has a surprising selection of affordable lodging options. Midtown Savannah, centered around the hospital-heavy Midtown Arts District, has a selection of middle-of-the-road hotels that cost less than $100 per night during the spring. Farther out, along Abercorn Road, discount lodging such as Super 8 and Motel 6 offer comfortable, bare-bones alternatives.

Farther out still – roughly 20 minutes from downtown – Interstate 95′s interchange with Pooler Parkway near Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport sports still more chain hotels, including Country Inn & Suites, La Quinta, and others. If you’d like to be closer to the water and don’t want to pay hotel prices, set up camp – literally – at the Rivers End Campground & RV Park on Tybee Island, a modern facility with hookups and beach access.

Where to Avoid
Central Savannah – anywhere north of Henry Street, between Martin Luther King Drive and Broad Street – is dotted with pricey inns and grand hotels, so it’s best to avoid if you’re on a budget. (That doesn’t hold for vacation rentals; with a big enough group, it’s possible to find deals here.)

Outside the center of the city, certain islands are touchy as well. Each patch of dry land has its own character, and some – in particular, Skidaway Island and Whitemarsh Island – are downright exclusive. In fact, it’s best to avoid the area’s island resorts in general.

Cheap Events and Attractions
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that central Savannah is a life-sized museum. To see its sights on the cheap, take an extended stroll along the Savannah River, on aptly named River Street, then turn down Broad Street and wend through the alleys and side streets in its historic quarter. Rest on the wrought-iron benches in the city’s signature park squares, beneath Spanish moss-covered live oaks and vibrant floral displays.

For a broader view of the city and its eclectic architecture, head south to Forsyth Park, the city’s answer to Central Park. Most of this stunning expanse is a broad, flat lawn that’s bisected by a tree-lined walkway. On nice days, Savannah College of Art & Design students sunbathe, throw discs, and play pick-up soccer by the hundreds. Nearby Daffin Park is nearly as big but far less crowded.

For a more adventurous day of sightseeing, head out to the marshes and estuaries that dot the nearby coast. Most of this land and water is protected by federal or state agencies, and dozens of migratory bird species make their homes here. Don’t worry about renting a boat, as many of the most scenic areas feature boardwalk access.

For sustenance, check out Sweet Spice Restaurant on Waters Avenue – its Caribbean-inspired menu features sub-$10 entrees and plenty of heat. On Tybee Island, Gerald’s Pig & Shrimp has the best of both worlds: steaming hot barbecue and Southern-tinged seafood classics, including an iconic shrimp and grits dish.

Getting Around
Many of Savannah’s attractions – especially natural areas like Tybee National Wildlife Refuge and Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge – aren’t easily accessible by public transit. As such, you may need to bite the bullet and rent a car. However, if you’re planning to spend the bulk of your time in Savannah proper, skip the car and take advantage of Chatham Area Transit’s half-dozen free routes, which all converge on downtown Savannah. CAT also offers an unlimited day pass for $3 and a seven-day pass for $16.

Additionally, Savannah is very flat and has plenty of dedicated bikeways and bike lanes. While an overnight bike rental from Perry Rubber Bikes will set you back by $45, that may still be cheaper than renting a car.

Why Is It a Good Deal?
Few destinations blend outdoor attractions and historical  charm as seamlessly as Savannah. While the city’s historic district can be pricey, the beaches and wildlife refuges that surround it are free to the public. You can spend as much or as little as you want in Savannah – and with close-by camping options, your biggest daily expense might well be the delicious food you put in your stomach.

savannah forsyth park

Forsyth Park in Savannah

4. Washington, D.C.

  • High Season: Late March through mid-June, and mid-September through early November
  • Average April High (F): 66 degrees
  • Flight Time From New York: 40 minutes
  • Flight Time From San Francisco: 4 hours, 50 minutes

Washington, D.C. may be one of the country’s more expensive metro areas – at least in terms of raw costs for real estate and other basic necessities – but it’s actually a surprisingly affordable tourist destination during the low season, aside from a brief flurry of activity during the Cherry Blossom Festival, which happens in late March or early April. Despite its expensive reputation, D.C. has an incredible array of free or low-cost cultural institutions, as well as a surplus of grand public spaces. From the National Mall to Rock Creek Park, it’s possible to wander through the city for an entire day without paying a dime to enter a public space.

Its climate is another huge selling point. It’s no San Diego, but the city is hard to beat in the springtime. By late March, winter’s chill has gone for good, and summer’s oppressive humidity is still two months away. Don’t forget to pack an umbrella, but do remember to leave the heavy coats and snow boots behind.

Where to Stay
D.C. is divided into four quadrants: Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, and Southeast, whose boundaries meet at the Capitol. But the city’s most affordable hotel districts lie just outside its boundaries. To the north, Silver Spring, Maryland sits on the Metro’s Red Line and features discount hotels like Best Western and Comfort Inn, along with discount luxury outlets like Hampton Inn and Marriott Courtyard.

On the other side of town, Crystal City, Virginia – a massive business district – has a similar mix of reasonably priced places to stay. Farther afield, the suburb of Falls Church, Virginia is about 30 minutes from central D.C. via the Metro’s Orange Line, and is noted for affordable hotels and walkable streets.

Where to Avoid
In a word, Northwest. This is one of the D.C. area’s most expensive places to buy a home, and hotel operators here have apparently taken cues from local realtors. The obvious advantage to Northwest is its proximity to D.C.’s most popular attractions, including most of the Federal Government’s landmarks, but it’s simply not worth the added cost. An extra 30 minutes on the Metro could save you $100 or more per day.

Cheap Events and Attractions
For such an expensive city, D.C. has plenty of free or low-cost attractions. From the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, the central city is awash in public edifices that are either free to the public or easy to appreciate from outside.

When it’s possible to see and touch so many pivotal pieces of American history – perhaps while reading about their significance on your mobile device – there’s no need to splurge on a tour. Plus, world-class museums such as the Smithsonian Castle and the National Zoo are free to the public. Whereas a day of museum-hopping in New York or Chicago might set you back $40 or $50, D.C.’s taxpayer-subsidized attractions are easy on the wallet.

If the weather is nice, consider spending the bulk of your days outside. A stroll up the National Mall takes you through two centuries’ worth of architectural history and culminates at the Capitol Building, surely one of the most impressive examples of Classical architecture in the new world. For a stunning view of the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River, head west to West Potomac Park and the FDR Memorial.

Want to see most of D.C. in a single sweep? Take the Blue Line across the Potomac and pay your respects at Arlington National Cemetery, which happens to sit on a ridge that boasts excellent views of central D.C.

Getting Around
The nation’s capital is blessed with an excellent public transit system. The Metro, as it’s known, is anchored by five heavy rail lines – Blue, Green, Red, Orange, and Yellow – and a network of complementary buses.

If you stay outside the city’s core and take the train in, you’ll be able to walk between most of the landmarks that you’ll want to visit. The exception is Rock Creek Park, on the far northern fringes of town, but the Red Line passes pretty close to its eastern entrances. Unless you plan on making trips to the Civil War battlefields (Manassas, Antietam, and Gettysburg) in the surrounding countryside, a car will only slow you down.

Why Is It a Good Deal?
Every year, millions of families visit D.C. during school breaks in the summer or around the holidays, but traffic drops off precipitously during the transitional seasons. The only real blip in this trend is the world-famous Cherry Blossom Festival, which usually happens in late March or early April (the exact time of “peak bloom” varies from year to year, depending on the severity of the preceding winter). The sight of the city’s cherry trees in simultaneous bloom is truly breathtaking, but accommodations are much more expensive at the festival’s height, so frugal travelers would do well to avoid this time.

washington monument

The Washington Monument

5. Vermont

  • High Seasons: June through mid-October, Christmas through mid-February
  • Average April High (F): 55 degrees
  • Flight Time From New York: 45 minutes
  • Flight Time From San Francisco: 7 hours, 50 minutes (with a 1-hour, 45-minute layover in Chicago) to Burlington

By March, most northerners are sick of snow, ice, and subfreezing temperatures. Vermonters, on the other hand, live to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of the winter.

For budget-conscious travelers in this corner of New England, the mid-March through mid-May corridor occupies a frugal sweet spot between the busy, expensive midwinter period and the busy, expensive summer season. If you arrive in March, chances are good you’ll find residual snow cover and nary a sign of spring; in a typical year, flowers start popping by the second week of April. That’s okay though, as normally bustling ski areas such as Sugarbush and Okemo offer deep discounts for late-season skiers. Conditions permitting, the bigger resorts try to remain open until mid-April or beyond.

Where to Stay
Vermont isn’t a big state, but it’s big enough. If you prefer cosmopolitan surroundings, use Burlington as your home base. The downtown area features both large hotels and quaint inns, but they tend to be pricey at any time of year. Stick to the area just south of downtown, along the Route 7 corridor – places such as Liberty Inn, Bel-Aire Motel, and Champlain Inn offer modern (but affordable) creature comforts in 1950s-style motels.

Outside of Burlington, look to lesser-traveled areas such as the Northeast Kingdom, which is physically isolated from the rest of the state by a long, rugged mountain range. Bed-and-breakfast rooms can cost 30% less than comparable units in the pricier southern and northwestern sections of the state.

Where to Avoid
Although ski resorts tend to offer deals in early spring, nearby lodging options often remain pricey throughout the low season. Additionally, hotels in the central core of Burlington – and, to a lesser extent, those in smaller cities such as Montpelier, Bennington, and Brattleboro – charge a premium for charm and convenience.

Cheap Events and Attractions
Burlington is a beautiful town, and many of its signature attractions are free. On the city’s Lake Champlain waterfront, Waterfront and Battery Parks feature panoramic views of Grand Isle and, in the distance, New York State’s towering Adirondack Mountains. While the lake ice is unsafe by late March, it’s never too late to walk along the trails that connect downtown Burlington with the northern neighborhood of North Beach. For cheap eats, visit Pho Dang Vietnamese in nearby Winooski, or head to Al’s French Frys in South Burlington. Both offer sub-$8 entrees.

Beyond Burlington’s borders, wide-open spaces beckon. Barely 20 miles east of town, Mount Mansfield State Forest harbors the highest point in the state, along with dozens of miles of hiking trails. Just south of there, Camel’s Hump State Park features a challenging “hump” to a 4,000-foot peak with breathtaking views of Lake Champlain and the mountains beyond. Further south still, the Appalachian Trail passes through southern Vermont. Just keep in mind that many trails should be avoided during mud season, which usually lasts from the time the ground thaws through Memorial Day weekend.

Getting Around
If you’re confining your stay to Burlington, it’s doubtful that you’ll need to rent a car. Most of the city’s attractions lie within walking distance of one another, and Chittenden County Transportation Authority offers a 10-ride pass for $10. For trips to Vermont’s rural hinterland, though, you’ll probably need a car. If you’re splitting your vacation between city and country, consider renting only for the time that you spend out of town.

Why Is It a Good Deal?
Vermont’s tourism industry has a very well-defined low season, and it just happens to fall between March and May. Relative to the Memorial Day-Columbus Day corridor, hotel prices drop by as much as 50% during this time. As long as you’re okay with a little mud and cool weather, you’ll love Vermont in the springtime.

burlington waterfront

Burlington Waterfront

6. The Outer Banks, North Carolina

  • High Season: Late April through early October
  • Average April High (F): 70 degrees
  • Flight Time From New York: 1 hour, 30 minutes
  • Flight Time From San Francisco: 7 hours (with a 1-hour layover in Charlotte) to Norfolk, Virginia

At the height of summer, North Carolina’s Outer Banks region is popular with Mid-Atlantic residents looking to escape the inland coastal plain’s excessive heat and humidity. From late May through late September, sea breezes keep temperatures 10 or 15 degrees cooler than on the mainland.

Earlier, this effect works in the opposite direction – unlike inland areas, the Outer Banks never really get cold in the winter, and the ocean banishes the cool season’s residual chill by mid-March. This is a well-kept secret, as tourist traffic drops precipitously in the fall and doesn’t really pick up until Memorial Day. Local business owners use the long off-season to repair and upgrade their facilities, but most remain open in some capacity. Accordingly, this is a great part of the world for winter-weary travelers to visit on a shoestring budget.

Where to Stay
The Outer Banks is a long, narrow strip of land that separates Pamlico Sound from the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s dotted with a handful of settlements, none of which can properly be called a city. Each of these settlements has one or more lodging facilities, which tend to come in one of two forms: larger beachfront hotels and quiet motels that feature drive-up rooms and cottages.

Generally speaking, the latter offers better value. For instance, if you’re staying near Buxton, check out Cape Hatteras Motel or Cape Pines Motel. You’ll find a handful of discount hotel chains here too, such as Comfort Inn Cape Hatteras. In Rodanthe, North Carolina’s easternmost point, the selection is thinner – consider renting an apartment or beachfront cottage if you’re staying for more than a couple days.

Where to Avoid
Even in the spring, the northern half of the Outer Banks tends to be pricier than the southern half. This includes the communities of Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, Duck, and Kitty Hawk. It’s not that it’s impossible to find deals here, it’s just that real estate is more expensive. If you’re set on staying up here, consider looking for affordable vacation rentals.

Cheap Events and Attractions
This place is a beach-lover’s paradise. After all, the barrier islands that make up the Banks are basically one giant series of white-sand beaches.

In the north, spend time at uncrowded Duck Beach, then visit Kitty Hawk, where the Wright Brothers first achieved powered flight. Further south, visit the sharp “elbow” bend of Cape Hatteras National Seashore for a 270-degree ocean view. This preserve, along with Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, also harbors an impressive dune complex that’s popular with hikers and bird-watchers alike. From the highest dunes, with the Atlantic Ocean to your east and Pimlico Sound to your west, you’ll feel like you’re completely surrounded by water – and you won’t have to pay a cent for the view.

If you’re hungry, there are plenty of cheap cafes along these barrier islands, from Grits Grill in Nags Head (offering shrimp and grits for $7), to Cafe Atlantic on Ocracoke Island (fried flounder sandwich for $6). Once you’ve filled up on the catch of the day, climb the stairs at Bodie Island Lighthouse – which is free to the public – for an even better view of the water.

Getting Around
If you plan on visiting multiple Outer Banks communities, you may need to rent a car. Alternatively, you can avoid the hassle of navigating and parking on narrow, sometimes sand-covered roads in an unfamiliar vehicle by renting a bike from one of several local outfitters. Ocean Atlantic Rentals, which operates four locations on the Outer Banks, offers weekly bike rentals from $40 per week for adult bikes. Just for the Beach Rentals offers nearly identical pricing, and both outfitters throw in free delivery on orders of $95 or more. At those prices, it might be worthwhile to snag a weekly rental for shorter trips too.

Why Is It a Good Deal?
Much of the cost of an Outer Banks getaway is bound up in airfare (or gas) and lodging, but once you’re here, you won’t have to spend a whole lot of money to enjoy yourself. Easy transportation is a big perk, as is the simple fact that local hoteliers and rental property owners are desperate for low-season business. As in Vermont, hotel costs can drop by as much as half from the summer season. And an abundance of camping makes the Outer Banks a sensible choice for cost-conscious travelers.

One final advantage of visiting the Outer Banks in the springtime is the weather. Between March and May, conditions are almost unfailingly mild. The wet, windy winter storms have long since departed, and hurricane season doesn’t begin until July at the earliest.

outer banks at nags head

The Outer Banks at Nags Head

7. Nashville, Tennessee

  • High Season: Mid-April through mid-October
  • Average April High (F): 71 degrees
  • Flight Time From New York: 2 hours, 20 minutes
  • Flight Time From San Francisco: 6 hours, 35 minutes (with a 1-hour, 30-minute layover in Dallas)

There are two things that every frugal traveler should know about Nashville. First, and most importantly, it’s way cheaper than you’d imagine. Forget the Grand Ole Opry, Dolly Parton, and all the other trappings of “country royalty.” There are plenty of millionaires who own second, third, fourth, and maybe fifth homes here, but there are also lots of hardworking stiffs who can get by on a modest income. When you come here, you’ll follow in their footsteps and enjoy yourself just fine.

Where to Stay
Nashville’s tourist district is pretty compact, so it’s important for car-less travelers to stay as close to it as possible. The area along the Cumberland River, near Exits 47 and 48 on I-40 – informally known as the Stadium District – boasts low-cost lodging options such as the Clarion Inn, Days Inn, and Knights Inn all within walking distance (or a short bus ride) of downtown Nashville. If you have a car and don’t mind driving into town, there’s an even bigger cluster of hotels – including budget-friendly brands such as Holiday Inn Express – near the Grand Ole Opry, off Highway 155. It’s about 10 miles by car from this location to downtown.

Where to Avoid
Central Nashville is awash with hotels, but they charge a hefty premium for convenience. Generally speaking, the west/south bank of the Cumberland River – basically, the city’s central business district – caters to business travelers and professionals who associate with the area’s sizable medical cluster.

A secondary area to avoid lies just to the south of downtown Nashville, near Vanderbilt University. Depending on the university’s event schedule, prices here can fluctuate wildly, and it may be best not to chance an unannounced rate hike by avoiding the district altogether.

Cheap Events and Attractions
Nashville is much more than the world’s country music capital. Visitors who don’t know Garth Brooks from George Strait can peruse Nashville’s world-class art institutions, visit its impressive zoo, catch a minor-league baseball game or a Nashville Predators NHL game, and hike in the picturesque hills that rim the Cumberland River Valley.

For a completely free outdoors excursion, take a picnic lunch to Shelby Bottoms – right along the river – and watch private boats navigate its rocky shoals. Nearby Stones River Bend Park offers a more rugged environment for urban hikers. To see one of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s smaller dams, venture northwest to the Old Hickory Dam and feast your eyes on the snaking lake that it holds back.

Those who don’t mind parting with a little cash can check out three extremely popular events that occur in March or April: Nashville Fashion Week, which is predictably heavy on “high country” elements; the Nashville Film Festival, which attracts an international lineup of directors and actors; and the Country Music Marathon, which draws as many as 30,000 entrants per year. The festival’s nerve center is right across the street from the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the 5pm red carpet events at Regal Green Hills Cinemas are free to the public.

Getting Around
Nashville doesn’t yet have a rail transit system, but the Nashville MTA’s bus system is quite good. If you’re staying for a couple days, opt for a $5.25 unlimited day pass, and for longer trips, purchase the $24 seven-day pass. From the hotel district near the stadium, a five-minute bus ride across the river drops you within walking distance of most of the city’s major attractions. For trips farther afield – say, to the Grand Ole Opry or the Old Hickory Dam – you may want to look into affordable car rental options.

Why Is It a Good Deal?
Although Nashville has emerged as a spring break destination for students from points further north, its tourist season doesn’t get going until the middle of April. If you can swing a trip in late March or early April, you’ll enjoy fantastic spring weather at much lower price points. Like the other sizable cities on this list, Nashville also offers plenty of free and cheap attractions that don’t require a car or special equipment to enjoy.

nashville

Nashville, Tennessee skyline at night

8. The Central Appalachians

  • High Season: Mid-May through late October
  • Average April High (F): 68 degrees in Charleston, West Virginia; cooler in the mountains
  • Flight Time From New York: 3 hours, 45 minutes (with an hour layover in Washington, D.C.) to Charleston
  • Flight Time From San Francisco: 7 hours (with a 1-hour, 15-minute layover in Dallas) to Charleston

The Appalachians stretch from Georgia to Maine, but tourist dollars aren’t spread uniformly along their spine. The northern end of the chain, from Vermont to Maine, is a wild mix of craggy peaks and tiny, bucolic towns; at the other end, Smoky Mountains National Park draws millions of visitors per year with awe-inspiring vistas and impossibly beautiful forests.

However, it often seems like coal mining in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania takes precedence over tourism. That’s unfair to the growing tourist industry of West Virginia and Virginia in particular, but it also means that sharp-eyed travelers can take advantage of impressive deals in an environment that’s no less beautiful than the chain’s more popular stretches.

Where to Stay
The phrase “Central Appalachians” isn’t exactly synonymous with “great outdoors,” but maybe it should be. Like Vermont, the region is dotted with state and national forests, as well as locally managed parks. Most of these offer camping in some form, from rustic and primitive, to modern and convenient. For the latter, check out the higher elevations of Savage River State Forest and New Germany State Park, both of which are in Garrett County, Maryland. The former has 70 primitive campsites at $10 per night, with a per-site limit of six people, while the latter has about 60 modern campsites at $17 per night.

Where to Avoid
As in Vermont, the most expensive lodging options in the Central Appalachians tend to cluster at the bases of ski resorts. Avoid Snowshoe Village altogether – aside from a handful of northeastern resorts, it’s the closest thing to Aspen on this side of the Rockies. You don’t need to avoid the Wisp area altogether, but stay away from ski-in, ski-out lodging and anything with frontage on Deep Creek Lake, the resort’s centerpiece.

Cheap Events and Attractions
In March, the snow still flies in the higher elevations of West Virginia and Maryland, so resorts such as Wisp and Snowshoe remain open. If you’re looking for deep discounts on late-season ski packages, look no further. Family-friendly activities abound near these snow-sport epicenters as well.

For a look at the region’s rich history, head over to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia for a walking tour of the old town. If the weather remains too iffy to attempt a hike into the highest elevations of the mountains, drive over to the New River Gorge and peer into its 1,000-foot depths. If you’re very lucky, you’ll get a free show, as daredevils routinely use the U.S. 19 bridge over the gorge to practice bungee jumping. At lower elevations, day hikes abound in southeastern Ohio’s Wayne National Forest.

Getting Around
If you want to enjoy your time in Appalachia, you need to rent or bring a car. While this can add to the cost of your trip, the area’s wealth of cheap lodging options should lessen the blow. If you use a city like Charleston or Morgantown, West Virginia as your home base, you may also be able to avoid rental fees on days that don’t find you venturing out of the city.

Why Is It a Good Deal?
Like Vermont, spring – especially early spring – is a lull time in the Central Appalachians. Independent hoteliers slash rates or close altogether, and even brand-name lodgings are half-deserted.

For campers, off-peak rates tend to be significantly lower than peak-season rates, and virtually empty campsites mean that visitors have their pick. Remember, this region is the outdoor destination of choice for active residents of D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and other big cities – so come summer, there’s not a lot of breathing room to be had. Enjoy it while you can.

harpers ferry

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

9. Panama City, Florida

  • High Season: Late November through early March, and late May through early September
  • Average April High (F): 81 degrees
  • Flight Time From New York: 4 hours, 10 minutes (with a 45-minute layover in Atlanta)
  • Flight Time From San Francisco: 7 hours, 25 minutes (with a 2-hour layover in Atlanta)

College students from the Northeast and Midwest flock to this modestly sized town on the Florida Panhandle, and neighboring cities such as Panama City Beach and Destin are quite popular too. However, there’s plenty of room for less adventurous travelers to spread out, as between Tyndall Air Force Base and the city of Destin, the Gulf of Mexico coastline is a nearly unbroken expanse of white-sand beaches and picturesque dune complexes.

Panama City is a great home base for frugal travelers who wish to explore this beautiful, mild part of the world. Depending on the size of your group and the length of your stay, opt for non-beachfront accommodations in Panama City or a rental property on its outskirts, and avoid the costly condo towers on Panama City Beach’s main drag.

Where to Stay
During the spring, even as Panama City recharges for the high season, Panama City Beach tends to remain fairly busy. Accordingly, the former tends to offer better deals on regular hotels, as well as vacation rentals. Howard Johnson, Red Roof Inn, La Quinta, and Comfort Inn all have convenient, non-waterfront locations within walking distance of Panama City’s downtown area

If your heart is set on a rental, look to the Pretty Bayou neighborhood or the adjacent town of Lynn Haven. Both places’ side streets are dotted with affordable cottages that may be available to short-term visitors. As a rule, rents and room prices fall as you travel away from the water. For your trips to the beach, choose peripheral parts of Panama City Beach, preferably within a few hundred yards of St. Andrews State Park.

Where to Avoid
Stay away from Panama City Beach, especially the waterfront strip of high-rise condos and overpriced hotels. In March, rowdy college students take over most of the town, so even morning trips to the beach can be trying. Also, avoid the area near Tyndall Air Force Base – it’s not expensive, but there’s just not much to do near its gates.

Cheap Events and Attractions
If you don’t like going to the beach, go somewhere else. Aside from a handful of trendy, expensive restaurants, there’s not a whole lot else to visit here. But in March and April, Panama City’s notorious summer humidity has yet to set in, while the sun is strong enough that you’ll probably feel like jumping into the mild Gulf of Mexico waters.

For a more natural look at a classic Florida beach environment, visit St. Andrews State Park, a picturesque collection of tidal pools and dunes on a narrow barrier island. If you walk in, admission will set you back just $2. And if you have a car, take a drive along Highway 30A to Point Washington State Forest for a hike through its cypress swamps and southern pine forests.

And for a relaxing day on the water that doesn’t put you at risk of a third-degree sunburn, purchase a $17 saltwater fishing permit and post up along any of the dozens of bayous that lead to North or West Bays (Posten Bayou, Pretty Bayou, and Robinson Bayou are closest to town). If you don’t catch anything, don’t worry – you can find affordable, locally caught seafood at dozens of area restaurants, including Dusty’s Oyster Bar (12 oysters for $10) and Finn’s Island Style Crub (fish tacos for $7).

Getting Around
In Panama City, it’s possible to confine your activity to a radius of a mile or two within the city center and spring for a taxi or bus fare ($1.50 for a single ride and $4 for a day pass with Baytown Trolley) to Panama City Beach. However, many of the area’s finest attractions aren’t easy to reach on foot or by public transit. A rental car would certainly make life easier, and if you’re traveling light, renting a bike might make more financial sense. Barley’s Bike Rental rents bikes for $20 to $25 per day, depending on when you visit, and includes delivery within the city limits.

Why Is It a Good Deal?
Panama City and Panama City Beach might be famous spring break destinations, but that doesn’t mean they’re unaffordable. If you stay in a hotel or rental property away from the Panama City Beach waterfront and rent a bike instead of a car, you’ll spend far less than the college students who snap up expensive rentals on the beach. Plus, the main attractions are free. Whether you’re walking through the pines at Point Washington, exploring the dunes at St. Andrews, or just sitting anywhere along the miles-long beach, you don’t have to pay anyone for the privilege.

panama city beach

Panama City Beach

10. Napa/Sonoma, California

  • High Season: Mid-April through mid-November
  • Average April High (F): 71 degrees
  • Flight Time From New York: 6 hours, 10 minutes
  • Drive Time From San Francisco: 1 hour

With impossibly exclusive restaurants and some of the world’s finest vineyards, Napa doesn’t seem like the sort of place that would fit most budgets, let alone a frugal traveler’s. In recent years, the neighboring wine region of Sonoma has been trotted out as an affordable alternative to Napa, and it does fit that bill.

However, those who advocate skipping Napa altogether are missing the point. Napa and Sonoma are best seen as two sides of the same coin, and it’s possible for budget-conscious travelers to experience them without taking out a second mortgage.

Where to Stay
Although the region is rather densely populated and boasts cute little towns, the Napa/Sonoma area is largely rural. As such, many of its most affordable lodging options lie off the beaten path. For instance, the Best Western and Comfort Inn outposts in the tiny town of Calistoga lie about 25 miles northwest of Napa, and owe their existence to a popular hot spring. In nearby Santa Rosa, on the other side of the Coast Range, the Highway 101 strip boasts cut-rate hotels like America’s Best Value Inn and Extended Stay America. They’re not fancy, but they get you close to the scenery and delicious wine.

Camping is also an option, as drive-in campsites at Sugarloaf Ridge run $35 per night, which is a steal in comparison to local hotels.

Where to Avoid
While Napa has a handful of national brand hotels that don’t carry the hefty nightly fees of Silverado Resort & Spa or Bardessono, pretty much everything within the area carries a hefty “convenience charge.” That includes seemingly innocuous places like the Hilton Garden Inn, whose bottle-of-wine-included deal should be a giveaway that upcharges aren’t far off.

Cheap Events and Attractions
A surprising number of local vineyards in both Napa and Sonoma offer complementary wine tastings by appointment. Heitz Wine Cellars and Buehler Vineyards, two of Napa’s oldest wineries, are among the most generous. That’s good news, because $25-per-person walk-in tastings have become commonplace at established vineyards in recent years. Keep in mind that many vineyards do expect patrons at free tastings to return the favor and purchase a bottle or two of wine on the way out – however, this is largely an unwritten rule.

To enjoy Napa and Sonoma outside the confines of a winery, check out sprawling natural areas such as Hood Mountain Regional Park and Annadel State Park. Both places feature miles of hiking. If you choose to camp at Sugarloaf Ridge, follow the trail up to the peak of Bald Mountain. According to the park’s website, those who make the climb can see the Golden Gate Bridge and the peaks of the northern Sierras on clear days.

To the north, Lake Berryessa Wildlife Area is a bass fisherman’s paradise. If you live in California, spending $47 for an annual resident fishing permit sounds like a good deal.

Getting Around
Given the sprawling geography of Napa/Sonoma and the prohibitive cost of limiting your activities to the built-up areas of Napa or Sonoma, renting a car is a must here – that is, unless you’re willing to set up an unorthodox “wine hike” or “wine bike” itinerary. Companies such as Zephyr Adventures or Napa Valley Bike Tours both offer safe, eco-friendly touring options for folks who plan to indulge at the region’s vineyards. The tours themselves are pricey, but there’s no law against copping an itinerary, packing some camping gear, and making a three- or four-day trek on foot or bike.

Why Is It a Good Deal?
Early spring may be the perfect time to travel to Napa/Sonoma. In most years – notwithstanding the three-year-long “exceptional drought” that has plagued the region – the rainy season ends by late March and is quickly followed by a spate of warm, sunny, stable weather conditions. The high season doesn’t begin until mid-April, though, so travelers can look forward to several weeks of fair weather and cut-rate hotel room rates.

lake berryessa near napa

Lake Berryessa near Napa

Final Word

Once you start looking for affordable spring break travel ideas, you’ll start seeing them everywhere. Whether you’re interested in following in the footsteps of millions of college students and spending a few days on a warm beach, or prefer to ride winter for as long as you can, this list has a trip that will speak to you – and won’t drain your bank account in the process.

What’s your favorite place to visit as the weather begins to turn warm?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci is a freelance journalist and branding consultant who loves to provide practical personal finance advice for regular people. When he’s not writing about frugal living, long-term investing, or consumer-friendly financial products, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine.

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  • Brian Martucci

    It’s the age old question: Sunshine in San Diego or snow in Vermont?

  • Alyson Duncan

    I’ve been looking for a cheap trip to take before Easter, great tips.

    • Brian Martucci

      Thanks! Hopefully you make it to one of the places on this list :)

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