A fun, cheap vacation on a budget in the United States is easy, if you know where to go. Here, we list five of the top cities to visit if you’re trying to save money, but still create unforgettable vacation memories. Recession or not, these ideas will help you stretch your dollar and have fun doing it!
1. Washington, D.C.
All of the national museums and many other attractions are free in Washington, D.C. You could easily spend a couple days walking around the National Mall area, visiting the free museums and attractions, and still feel as if you haven’t seen everything. The National Mall is a 3-mile long park in the heart of Washington, D.C. The Lincoln Memorial sits on one end of the promenade and the United States Capitol anchors the other end. Along the mall, you will find famous attractions such as the Smithsonian, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, and many others. The National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum are both great for kids. The interactive exhibits will keep you and them entertained for hours, all while learning. If you walk a few blocks north of the mall, you will find the White House.
Buy a metro pass to save yourself a lot of time and headache in finding parking. Passes are $9 for an all-day pass, or you can purchase in smaller intervals if you’d prefer to pay for each trip individually. Metro stations are conveniently located near all the major tourist attractions, with one located right in the middle of the National Mall. The metro pass can also be used to access areas other than the National Mall, such as the National Zoo and Arlington National Cemetery (also free). At Arlington National Cemetery, you may have the opportunity to observe a ceremony being performed for the Unknown Soldier.
Washington, D.C. has a great metro system, so you can stay farther away from the tourist areas to get lower hotel prices, yet still have easy access to the great attractions. Hotel rates in the tourist areas can cost over $300 a night! Stay farther away and hop on a metro to save yourself a lot of time and headache in finding parking.
2. Yellowstone National Park, WY
Bring a tent or camper and stay a few days at Yellowstone National Park for less than $100. It costs $25 for a sedan to enter the park and $12-$28 to reserve a camp spot for a night, depending on which campground you choose. Pack your car and stay a few days here to take in all that Yellowstone has to offer! If you stay on Veteran’s Day, entrance fees are waived. Old Faithful is perhaps the most popular geyser attraction in Yellowstone. The amazing geyser erupts every 90 minutes and sends water soaring to heights of over 130 feet!
Think Yellowstone is only known for Old Faithful? Think again. Yellowstone offers over two million acres of protected wilderness and petrified forests. In this park, you can expect to find abundant wildlife, nearly 2000 different species of plants, over 300 geysers, and nearly 300 waterfalls. The park contains over 1,100 trails for the hiking enthusiast and abundant backcountry camping opportunities. Visit the National Park Services website for trail maps, fee information, and information on how to prepare for your trip.
3. San Francisco, CA
Staying in downtown San Francisco, as with many other cities, is not cheap. However, the Silicon Valley area has a great train system that can transport you to the San Francisco quickly from one of its neighboring cities. Hop on the BART or Caltrain for a quick, scenic, and cheap trip to the city. When you get there, rent a bicycle from one of the many bicycle rental shops in the area to tour the bay area. San Francisco consistently ranks high on the most bicycle-friendly cities in the United States, and this is a great way to take in the sights while avoiding the downtown traffic congestion.
Ride around Golden Gate Park and across the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge. Completed in 1937, the 1.7-mile long suspension bridge has been declared one of the modern wonders of the world and is currently the second longest suspension bridge in the United States. Observe the magnificent views from the bridge or take a break on either side of the bridge where there are designated viewing areas.
Take a ferry to Alcatraz Island ($15-$30/person depending on season) and learn about the amazing story behind the former prision that was home to the most notorious criminals, notably Al Capone. See the cells where these criminals lived and learn about their many failed escape attempts Take an audio tour inside the prison and imagine the place coming back to life.
4. Seattle, WA
Washington State is home to many National Parks, with two of the biggest being Olympic National Park and Cascades National Park, both only a few hours’ drive from Seattle. Mount Rainier is also a short two hour drive from the city. If you are not in the mood for driving, you can still explore Seattle and its surrounding area on a budget. Take a trip to Pike Place Market, an open-air farmers market with the famous “flying fish” attraction. With everything Fresh from the farm, garden or the sea, you are sure to find inspiration for dinner ideas or a great snack from one of the chocolate boutiques. A few blocks from the market, you will find Olympic Sculpture park, a 9-acre waterfront park that offers free admission 365 days a year. Here, you can admire the various sculptures on display, have a picnic, or simply admire the beautiful views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. If you time your trip on the first week of the month, many of the nearby museums also offer free admission on the first Thursday of every month.
Hop on a ferry to visit Bainbridge Island ($5.55 for youth ages 6-18, $6.90 roundtrip for adults 19-64, $3.45 for seniors 65 and older), where you can find unique shops lining the port. Observe spectacular views of Puget Sound, the Seattle city skyline, and the surrounding islands during the ferry ride. Or if you are in the mood for more adventure, hop on a ferry to the San Juan Islands. Depending on the time of year, you may spot orcas or bald eagles around the island.
5. Las Vegas, NV
Las Vegas is best known as a city of excess in gambling, partying, and eating. However, Las Vegas can also be a great city for the budget-minded if you limit your losses at the casino and stay at a hotel away from the main strip. Many of the hotels on the strip offer free shows daily, and you don’t have to be a guest to enjoy the attractions.
On the Las Vegas strip, the Bellagio hotel offers a free and spectacular dancing fountain show every 30 minutes to a variety of classical and opera music. In front of The Mirage, you can observe a free volcano show every hour from dusk until midnight. The show, which uses water, lighting, choreography, and sound effects to simulate a volcano eruption, is sure to delight both kids and adults alike. Outside the Treasure Island hotel, treat yourself to free pirate show featuring sword fights, beautiful temptresses, and amazing dance choreography.
The Strip features many malls and shops, but any M&M lover is sure to enjoy the four-story M&M store. Take pictures with your favorite M&M, watch a free 3-D movie about the M&M’s adventures, admire extravagant M&M creations, and see the evolution of M&Ms throughout the years. This store is sure to please and entice any chocolate lover.
Off of the main Las Vegas Strip, visit Fremont Street for the Fremont Street Experience. Visitors can observe the giant light show choreographed to music every hour from 8:30pm to midnight. Fremont Street also offers many unique shops. Walk around the area and observe the street artists and the unique crafts, and take in the lively atmosphere of the area.