You’ve got a few days to explore a new city, but you’re hoping to keep your budget in check. Good news: For savvy travelers, planning an affordable vacation is fairly easy -- provided, of course, that you know where to go. By veering slightly off the beaten path, you can enjoy an incredible trip without overspending.
We collected travel tips for nine of the most affordable vacation spots in the United States. If you’re traveling on a strict budget, keep these destinations in mind.
Kansas City, Missouri
Most Missouri vacations end up in Saint Louis, and we certainly won’t dissuade you from visiting the Gateway to the West. However, Kansas City offers just as many points of interest for the adventurous traveler at a reasonable price; in our research, the more affordable hotels in the area charged $50 to $75 per night.
If you don’t mind spending on souvenirs, you might want to check out Country Club Plaza, an upscale shopping square located in the southern part of the city. The stores here can get a little costly, but it’s a great place to grab a bite to eat while window shopping. A less expensive alternative is the Kansas City Crossroads Arts District, which features a variety of smaller shops and boutiques. Frequent art-centered events like the First Fridays Art Crawl are ideal for learning to appreciate Kansas City’s unique charm.
The KC Streetcar offers free transportation to several of the city’s best tourist areas, including City Market, Union Station, and the Power & Light District. Swing through downtown and grab some barbecue (we recommend Plowboys), and then head to Kauffman Stadium to catch a Kansas City Royals game.
Louisville residents take pride in their city’s unconventional culture; driving around town, you’ll frequently see “Keep Louisville Weird” bumper stickers. Most travelers won’t find the city weird, exactly, but its burgeoning art scene and excellent gourmet food options certainly make for an interesting vacation. Hotel reservations are typically available from $60 to $85 per night.
Located on the Ohio River, Louisville is a great destination for nature lovers. Stop by Cherokee Park and walk the trails, and if you’re visiting in the summer, stop by the Iroquois Amphitheater to enjoy some free public events.
Louisville also has several great free museums, including the 21c Museum Hotel, a contemporary art museum featuring a double-size replica of Michelangelo's David. While the museum is attached to a hotel -- hence the name -- admission is free, and the museum is open 24/7. The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft also offers free admission, and the Speed Art Museum is free on Sundays.
Many of Louisville’s restaurants are relatively inexpensive, but make no mistake: They offer a wide range of gourmet fare fit for the foodie traveler. Some of the best new restaurants can be found in the Butchertown neighborhood. Be sure to check out bourbon country’s only brandy distillery, Copper & Kings. When you’re ready for an authentic Italian meal, Pizza Lupo is an outstanding option.
For a quiet vacation, Sturbridge lets you get away from it all (without really getting away from it all -- Boston is only an hour’s drive away).
Hotels rooms are available for $50 per night or less, but for just a bit more, you can book a room at the Old Sturbridge Inn & Reeder Family Lodges, located a short distance from the Old Sturbridge Village. The lodges offer a bed-and-breakfast experience at a fair rate, and since they’re right near the village proper, they’re a convenient option for thrifty travelers.
And while we’re on the subject, the Old Sturbridge Village is an essential stop. It’s an authentic recreation of a 19th-century village, complete with costumed historians working fields and tending shops. When you’re ready for a change of scenery, Sturbridge offers convenient access to Wells State Park, a peaceful spot for hiking, fishing, and boating with 10 miles of secluded trails.
San Antonio, Texas
San Antonio is quickly becoming a popular destination for tourists, and with hotel rates starting at about $35, it’s also quite economical.
If you’re stopping by the city for the first time, you’ll want to visit the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which features five Spanish missions (most famously, the Alamo) manned by experienced tour guides. Admission is free, although donations are accepted. Animal lovers should also experience the San Antonio Zoo, which features 750 species on 56 acres; admission is around $25 per person, although rates vary throughout the year.
San Antonio’s art scene is exciting, and the Artpace contemporary art museum is a shining example of what the city is doing right: Each year, the museum offers residencies to nine artists, ensuring an ever-changing collection of compelling exhibits. Admission is free. When planning your visit, check the Artpace website to find the times of artist performances, lectures, and other events.
Of course, no San Antonio vacation is complete until you’ve taken a stroll down the River Walk, an urban waterway lined with restaurants, shops, and live entertainment. It’s San Antonio’s most popular tourist attraction for a reason -- and even if you don’t spend a dime, you’ll enjoy every second.
Memphis's legendary blues and soul heritage makes it an essential destination for music lovers. It’s less expensive than that other Tennessee music city, but it’s no less interesting -- in fact, Memphis offers a more well-rounded set of options for travelers on a budget.
You’ll probably spend most of your visit on Beale Street enjoying live entertainment, shops, restaurants, and a variety of inexpensive music history museums. Many offer pay-what-you-can options on certain days of the week, so check online to plan your visit effectively. The National Civil Rights Museum is free to Tennessee residents on Monday afternoons, the Dixon Gallery and Gardens is pay-what-you-can on Tuesdays, admission to the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum is only $13, and the Center for Southern Folklore is always free.
Downtown and parts of Midtown are very walkable, but for just $1, you can take the trolley around town. This is a great way to visit Shelby Farms Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country. Five times the size of Central Park, it’s located right in the heart of Memphis and features more than 40 miles of trails to enjoy. You can even explore the park on horseback.
When you’re hungry, you could stop by Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken or Payne’s Bar-B-Que, but our favorite option is Pho Hoa Binh, a Vietnamese and Chinese restaurant known for its $4.75 lunch buffet.
The only downside: Hotels in Memphis generally start at around $150 per night. You can reduce that rate somewhat by booking a room away from the city’s downtown area.
Phoenix has been courting vacationers in recent years, and it’s clearly working; the city welcomed nearly 44 million tourists in 2017 alone. Nevertheless, it’s still a fairly inexpensive destination. Hotels in the area start at around $50 per night.
Start with a half-day tour to get a feel for the city, or if you’d rather explore on your own, check out the Roosevelt Row Arts District for street art, galleries, festivals, and an art walk (held on the first Friday of every month). For modestly priced -- but still delicious -- meals, take your pick from the array of innovative street food vendors located throughout the city. Search for specific food trucks and find their locations using the Phoenix Street Food Coalition directory.
From late fall to early spring, Phoenix offers tremendous opportunities for hikers. Be sure to pack plenty of water, even during moderate weather. The free Phoenix Trail Guide is a great resource for planning your route.
Nags Head, North Carolina
Located in the Outer Banks chain of islands off the coast of North Carolina, Nags Head is a beautiful beach getaway that’s still somehow affordable. The charming town is home to 11 miles of coastline and dozens of small family-owned shops and restaurants, so you’ll have plenty to do.
Be sure to check out Jockey’s Ridge State Park and see the tallest natural sand dune system on the Atlantic Coast. The park is free to the public every day, and it’s a perfect place to take in the natural scenery while walking along the ocean. On the north side of town, you can find the Gallery Row Arts District; grab a cup of coffee and check out the local boutiques, gift shops, and art galleries.
The town’s beaches are accessible and cheap, and they’re a great place to spend a sunny day. However, you’ll want to get there early unless you have money for parking; free spots fill up quickly, especially during the peak summer season. The more affordable hotels in the area cost from $90 to $140 per night.
History buffs will feel completely at home in Williamsburg, the capital of the Colony of Virginia and one of the most important sites of the American Revolution. The more affordable hotels cost from $55 to $75 per night.
The best way to explore is the Yorktown Trolley, which is free. It’s also equipped with air conditioning (in our opinion, a fairly important point). Its route is a 4-mile loop that includes historic sites like the Yorktown Battlefield, the American Revolution Museum, and Yorktown village.
Take advantage of the town’s multiday events pass to watch reenactments, visit museums, and broaden your knowledge of colonial history. You can customize the pass to fit your plans, so you won’t pay for anything you’re not interested in.
Of course, there’s more to Williamsburg than its 300-year-old streets and historical reenactments. We’d also recommend taking a walk along the Greensprings Greenway Interpretive Trail, or if you’re looking for something slightly more involved, enjoying a day of canoeing, fishing, and picnicking at Waller Mill Park.
Sunny California vacations don’t need to drain your pocketbook. Nestled in Monterey Bay, Monterey has wonderful beaches, but it also features plenty of walking tours, museums, and parks to keep vacationers busy.
Don’t miss Cannery Row, a historic area right by the coastline. Take in the ocean view while exploring boutique shops, and then head to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a world-class aquarium that offers a full day of excitement for about $50 (reduced rates are available for seniors, students, and children).
The city also operates a free trolley, which stops by the aquarium, Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the downtown area. The Monterey Visitors Center often offers coupons for the most popular local attractions, along with comprehensive event lists.
Lodging in Monterey can be somewhat expensive compared to lodging in other cities on this list -- hotels in the area start at around $90 per night. Still, you’ll get a lot of value for that investment, since you can easily spend several exciting days in Monterey while sticking to your budget.