Do you want to take a vacation, but feel like you don’t have the funds to make it happen? You may have many more options than you think. There are a multitude of ways to save money on a wonderful trip: Going on a group vacation with friends or family can trim costs exponentially, and procuring affordable accommodations, such as at a hostel, can save you hundreds. And if you can plan your trip well in advance, you can set up a vacation fund.
These are all great ideas to save money on any vacation, whether you’re planning to go to Disney World with the kids, or taking a romantic vacation to Hawaii. However, if you’re more flexible, you could simply choose a destination known as much for its affordability as it is for its array of attractions. Consider the 10 best budget cities in the U.S., and you may be able to take a trip well within your means.
1. San Antonio, TX
While 3 million tourists annually visit the Alamo each year, there is more to San Antonio than its history. Infused with Mexican culture, San Antonio is famous for its Tex-Mex cuisine, fiestas, and marketplaces. And with the city’s recent expansion of one of their most popular attractions, the River Walk, there is no better time to visit and get great deals.
There are plenty of ways to travel to San Antonio, including air, car, rail, and bus. To get the best deal, consider a bus ride on Greyhound, and once you arrive in San Antonio, plan to travel by bus again. The city has an extensive bus system known as the VIA Metropolitan Transit.
There are a plethora of hotels in the River Walk district. “Budget Travel” recommends the Hotel Havana, a refashioned 1914 building decorated in a vintage Cuban style, for $115 per night. If you want to go cheaper, choose to stay at San Antonio’s only hostel, the Bullis House Inn, at a cost of $19.27 per bed per night.
For history buffs, there is the Alamo and the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which both offer free admission. For those who enjoy taking it easy while taking in all the city has to offer, take a stroll on the River Walk and through the King William Historic Area. And for those who like a good party, head to San Antonio in late April for Fiesta, a Tex-Mex Mardi Gras. San Antonio also offers a bike rental program called B-Cycle at a rate of $10 per day.
2. San Diego, CA
Unlike its northern neighbors Los Angeles and San Francisco, bargains abound in this Pacific oceanfront city. The weather is nice year-round due to a low precipitation average of 10 inches a year, although April through October offers the best beach temperatures. As one of America’s 10 most-traveled cities, San Diego offers a wide range of sites and attractions, many of which are kid-friendly, while accommodating visitors with low prices on hotels and car rentals.
While air travel may be the most expensive aspect of a trip to San Diego, there are many other ways to travel to this coastal Pacific city. Traveling to San Diego by train is an option, as the historic Santa Fe Depot is located in the heart of downtown. Also, since San Diego is on the coast, it is possible to arrive by cruise ship – though this isn’t necessarily a budget-friendly option.
Once you are in San Diego, car rental prices are competitive, and public transportation via the trolley downtown is a great way to get around; you can travel to Seaport Village, the Gaslamp Quarter, and historic Old Town all for $5 with a day pass. In fact, day passes are also honored by the local bus system. And if you’re staying on the coast, definitely take advantage of the Coaster coastal rail system that travels from Oceanside to San Diego for $11 round trip – kids under six ride free.
The average nightly rate for a room is only $128, but prices range anywhere from $20 a night to several hundred. And if you’re up for a true budget-friendly experience, check out the range of hostels in San Diego. A hostel typically appeals to young, budget-savvy travelers who are comfortable sharing a bathroom and kitchen facilities (and even sleeping quarters) with other guests. It can be a great way to meet other travelers. Plus, many hostels also offer private accommodations for families and couples. A nightly stay at a hostel can be typically had for less than $30.
There is something for everyone to enjoy in San Diego. One of the best family-friendly bargains to be had here is a day at the beach, and if you choose a beach with a boardwalk, like Pacific Beach or Mission Beach, bring your inline skates or rent a bike to see even more of the coastline, culture, and shops.
Another fantastic and affordable option is to take the San Diego Harbor Excursion from San Diego Harbor to the island of Coronado. The beautiful 15-minute ride costs $4.25 each way, and will point out San Diego sites only visible by water – get a seat on the top of the ferry to work on your tan. Once you arrive at the Coronado Ferry Center, you can do a little window shopping, get some lunch, and hang out at the beach. If you have a little more money to spend, choose one or two of the world-famous San Diego destinations to splurge on, like LEGOLAND, Sea World, or the San Diego Zoo.
3. Kansas City, MO
Voted number one in affordability in “Travel + Leisure” magazine’s annual America’s Favorite Cities survey, Kansas City is a hub for barbecue and high culture. In the heart of the Midwest, Kansas City is surprisingly diverse in culture, art, and cuisine. What also makes Kansas City a great travel destination are the many free attractions. Just make sure not to travel in the mid-summer when this city is at its hottest and most crowded.
There are two great things about traveling to Kansas City. First of all, it’s in the middle of the country, so traveling does not take too long from any destination. Secondly, Kansas City International Airport is not dominated by any one airline, resulting in competitive airfare. Once in Kansas City, you may need to rent a car depending on how far you plan to travel from downtown. While there is a bus service, it only services the core of the city.
The average price of a hotel in Kansas City is $139 per night, and $139 a night is also the price of Kansas City’s first green hotel, the Q. Unfortunately, there are no hostels in Kansas City.
First thing to note is that Kansas City offers a couple of free attractions, including tours of the Harley-Davidson Plant and Boulevard Brewing Company. Another free attraction, Kaleidoscope, is an art studio geared toward kids who want to learn to be creative and express themselves.
For the adults who want to get a taste of the arts in Kansas City, make sure to visit Crossroads Art District, which features more than 70 art galleries. And if you visit in September, you can partake in Kansas City’s annual Plaza Art Fair and Barbecue Blaze Off. More information about Kansas City and its free attractions and deals is available at the official travel website.
4. Atlanta, GA
Being one of the country’s major airline hubs makes Atlanta a great city to stop at and enjoy on a budget. While Atlanta is most well-known for being home to the 1996 Olympic Games, sporting events and outdoor activities take place year-round. And with Atlanta’s sprawling boundaries, you can head slightly north of the city for some scenic hiking in the Appalachians, or to the east to visit Stone Mountain Park.
The easiest way to get to Atlanta is by air. In fact, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport has been known as the world’s busiest airport since 1999, and is the home of Delta and AirTran.
Once you arrive in Atlanta, travel by Atlanta’s rail system, MARTA, if you plan to stay within the city limits. Otherwise, rent a car, but keep in mind that traffic is a major problem in and around the city, especially during rush hour.
Choose a hotel based on what you would like to do while enjoying your stay in Atlanta. If you plan to visit a lot of museums, stay in a hotel downtown. If you would like to stay in a chic boutique-style hotel, head for Midtown. If the nightlife is your main interest, stay in the Buckhead district, and consider staying at the Buckhead Hostel, which offers beds at $65 a night and private rooms for $95 a night.
There are some fun and family-friendly museums and attractions that are free or cost less than $10 per person for admission: the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Site, Centennial Olympic Park, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, the Center for Puppetry Arts, and the Fernbank Science Center.
For outdoor adventures, go east to Stone Mountain Park, where admission is only $8 per carload. If you travel in April, make sure you participate in the annual Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park, and during Labor Day, check out Dragon*Con.
5. Philadelphia, PA
For those wanting to take a trip to the Northeast, Philadelphia is a cheap alternative when compared to its neighbor, New York. Packed with historical sites, the City of Brotherly Love is also a great place for unique eats, as well as fun street food. And with Philly’s BYOB policy at many restaurants due to expensive liquor licenses, dining out is less costly and more fun for most visitors.
Philadelphia is a major Amtrak hub, so if you have access to train, this will most likely be your best bet. If you are traveling from New York City, commuter rail is also a viable form of transportation to Philly. If flying is a better option due to your departure city, consider Philadelphia International Airport, as well as Newark International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which are a short train ride away.
Once in Philadelphia, travel by the Southern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known as SEPTA, to get the most bang for your buck. Their one-day Independence Pass is only $11 per person or $28 per family, and allows you to ride on any SEPTA bus, trolley, subway, or train.
Not only can you score a major deal in Philadelphia on a hotel room, you can go with an even cheaper option by staying in a hostel. There are currently two hostels located within city limits: Apple Hostels of Philadelphia and Chamounix Mansion Hostel. If you don’t want to stay in a hostel, hotel rooms only average $130 per night, 30% less than those in New York City.
The first thing to do upon arrival in Philadelphia is to go to the Independence Visitor Center, where you can receive a free overview of the city and its attractions – and you can even pick up free tickets to Independence Hall. After visiting Independence Hall, check out the Liberty Bell for free, and then learn about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution at the National Constitution Center for less than $15 per person.
For more free entertainment, tour the city’s public art, which is the largest collection in the country. Last but not least, go get a Philly cheesesteak and a salted soft pretzel. Reading Terminal Market is where you can find these classic Philly treats, along with many others sold by a multitude of street vendors.
6. Houston, TX
It may not come off as the most exciting city to visit, or the most comfortable due to its hot temperatures, but Houston is one of the most interesting and most multicultural cities in the nation. The fourth largest city in the United States, Houston is home to NASA and several major oil producers. And while the shopping is upscale, the prices for hotels are quite reasonable.
Traveling to Houston by plane is probably your best bet, as it is home to two major airports, George Bush Intercontinental and William P. Hobby, as well as two smaller regional airports, Sugar Land Regional and Ellington Field. Amtrak and Greyhound are also viable options, and several major highways connect to the city.
Once in Houston, you may want to rent a car. Traffic, however, can be an issue, so plan your travel around rush hour.
The average cost for one night at a hotel is only $113. However, prices range from $40 to several hundred, so to pick the best hotel for your price range and desired location, use the hotel search on Houston’s Visitor Guide to find your perfect match.
If you are interested in staying in a hostel, the Houston International Hostel is located in the museum district and has rates as low as $17 per bed, per night.
Houston has a slew of attractions that offer free admission. The Menil Collection contains almost 15,000 pieces of art divided into four areas: Antiquity, Byzantine and Medieval, Tribal, and 20th Century Art. Other free attractions include the Art Car Museum, the Holocaust Museum Houston, the Lawndale Art Center, and the Rothko Chapel.
Additionally, Houston locals rave about Discovery Green and Miller Outdoor Theatre for free entertainment. And if you do rent a car, get in a beach day on Galveston Island, only a short one-hour drive away.
7. New Orleans, LA
While hotel rooms are a little more costly in New Orleans than the other cities on this list, you can save big when it comes to entertainment. Street performers abound year-round in the Big Easy, and there are festivals in every season. If you like to party, or if you enjoy people-watching, a trip to New Orleans may be perfect for you.
Since New Orleans is on the Gulf Coast, it is possible to travel there by boat. If boat is not a viable option, the Louis Armstrong International Airport offers flights to and from all over the country. If you are traveling by car, Interstate 10 is the main highway into the city. Bus and train are also available.
Once in New Orleans, take a ride on the world-famous New Orleans street cars. The street car is a pleasant and affordable way to get to the French Quarter if you’re staying out of the area. Get a one-day Jazzy Pass for only $3 and you can ride on any street car or local bus as many times as you want.
The average hotel price is $150 per night, which is a little more expensive than the other cities featured. Look for lodging outside the French Quarter to save money, and keep in mind that traveling to and from the French Quarter is easy and fun via the street car. Check out the Garden and Magazine Districts for more affordable lodging options. Also, avoid visiting the city during popular events like the Jazz & Heritage Festival and Mardi Gras to get the best rates. Of course, if you go specifically for those events, you may need to stay farther outside the area to strike a deal. Hostels are also available for less than $20 per night.
New Orleans is a great city to explore by foot, either with a guided walking tour, or just going it alone. You’re bound to find historic mansions, old cemeteries, and plenty of Southern charm. And there’s plenty to see outside of the world-famous French Quarter. One inexpensive activity is to hop on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar for $1.25 and ride past the historic mansions. Or to get a little exercise, take a bicycle tour to take in all the city’s architecture.
For a little entertainment and fun, take a riverboat cruise or a swamp tour. And don’t forget to try a bite of New Orleans’ signature foods: Creole dishes, crawfish, po’ boys, gumbo, red beans and rice, and beignets.
8. Denver, CO
Sitting at an altitude of 5,280 feet, the Mile High City features a unique blend of cosmopolitan and Rocky Mountain Western culture. Visitors can find breathtaking views on the many free hiking and biking trails in and around city. With mild temperatures (except for winter) and various festivals year-round, Denver is the ideal value vacation spot for those seeking a city and a mountain getaway all in one.
Frontier Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines are the major carriers for Denver International Airport. The airport is located a fairly long distance from downtown, however, so plan to take the public transportation service, known as SkyRide, to your destination. It is also possible to travel to Denver by car, train, or bus.
In Denver, you can travel for free around downtown with Denver’s MallRide service. Beyond the downtown borders, Denver’s public transportation system is affordable and reliable, costing anywhere from $2.25 to $5. Denver also offers a bike sharing program for $8 a day.
Hotel prices are competitive, and range from about $50 to several hundred dollars – but to get the best deal, stay at a hostel. The Denver International Youth Hostel is located only five minutes by foot from downtown, and costs only $19 per bed, per night. Located even closer to downtown is the AAE 11th Avenue Hotel & Hostel, which offers rates of $19 per bed, per night, or private rooms for $43 a night.
One of the most well-known attractions in Denver are the breweries. Tours of the Coors Brewery are free, but you need to drive to Golden, Colorado, which is about 20 to 30 minutes outside of Denver. After you have yourself a beer, slow down a bit and go to one of the many free or inexpensive museums and tours: United States Mint Tour, Denver Story Trek, Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, and the Colorado State Capitol.
If you rent a car, drive over to Colorado Springs to see the breathtaking views of the Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak. Also, be sure to sign up for Denver’s Deals & Discounts to get coupons and updates on ticket discounts.
9. Phoenix, AZ
For those who like the sun but not necessarily the beach, Phoenix offers more than 300 sunny days a year. While temperatures are blazing hot during the summer in the Southwest’s most populated city, winters are mild. Even though this city in the desert is hot, it offers a unique landscape, and taking it all in does not come at an expensive price.
If you were hoping to travel by train, think again. Passenger train service to Phoenix is currently unavailable, but you can get to Flagstaff and then go the rest of the way to Phoenix by bus. Flying may be your best option, as Phoenix is a major hub for the Southwest.
Travel around Phoenix by the new METRO Light Rail, which costs only $3.50 for an all-day pass. You can get a taxi to go anywhere that the METRO does not service.
There are a lot of options for accommodations in Phoenix. You can find everything from budget hotels, to expensive resorts and spas. Camping is also an option while in Phoenix. If you have an RV, consider staying at the award-winning Desert’s Edge RV Village, which offers a pool, a game room, and a fitness center.
If you visit Phoenix, be sure to spend some time in nature, despite the warm climate. The best way to do that is by hiking and biking – check out either the Echo Canyon or Cholla trails. Additionally, get some exercise by taking a hike up Piestewa Peak right in the heart of Phoenix. Mountain bikers should go to South Mountain Park and Preserve for more than 50 miles of bike travels.
To get a taste of culture, check out the world-famous Heard Museum to learn about Native Americans of Arizona and New Mexico – the cost of an adult admission ticket is only $15. And if you are an art fan, know that every first Friday of the month hundreds of galleries and shops are open to the public for a city-wide art walk.
10. Memphis, TN
Home of the blues, Memphis’s downtown has gone through a revival over recent years to make the city more safe and inviting. Memphis is known for two things: barbecue and musical history. While the city may appear at first glance to be more for adults with its exciting nightlife and live music, it also offers some fun, interesting, and affordable attractions for kids.
Since Memphis International Airport is the major distribution center for FedEx, the airport has come to be known as a cargo airport. However, Delta also holds a hub at Memphis’s airport, so finding a flight should not be a challenge. Bus, car, and train are also viable options when traveling to Memphis.
The cheapest way to get around Memphis is to use public transportation, such as the free shuttle to Graceland; however, Memphis is easy to navigate, so traveling by car is simple.
Memphis offers a wide range of prices for hotel accommodations. The AAE Vista Inn and Hostel is your most inexpensive option, as prices start at $22.22 per person, per night, and it’s only one block from the famous Beale Street. Wherever you choose to stay, make sure to visit the Peabody Hotel to watch the ducks parade through the hotel lobby and swim in the fountain. This is free to the public.
During the day while the kids are in tow, make sure to visit the Memphis Zoo, which boasts activities for both children and adults alike, making it worth the admission price of $15 per adult and $10 per child. Next, take a trip to Mud Island River Park which is accessible by monorail; admission to the park is free, but the monorail ride will cost a few dollars. And don’t forget to make a stop at Graceland!
Once the kids are asleep, head to Beale Street for some barbecue, drinks, and live music. Many bars and clubs do not have a cover charge.
Vacations are what you make of them, and if you do your research, you can vacation in a number of cities across the U.S. at a reasonable price. The key is to make sure you can get a great deal on airline tickets or find a more affordable means of travel. Additionally, by saving money on hotel accommodations, you can set aside more money to spend on food and entertainment. You may even want to sign up with a daily deal website, such as Groupon, to receive coupons and deal alerts for the city you plan to visit.
Which other cities do you consider to be budget-friendly?
(photo credit: Bigstock)