13 Cheap Family Summer Vacations
Summer is prime time for a family getaway. If you're concerned about costs, now's the moment to start planning a fun summer vacation that fits your budget. Whether your family enjoys the great outdoors or prefers the air-conditioned indoors, we've got you covered with a list of 13 cheap summer family vacations -- looking mainly at travel and lodging in late July, with prices accurate at the time of writing.
Related: 12 Tips for Smooth Travel With Kids
National parks are the way to go for cheap sightseeing, and Yosemite offers some of the best. Seven-day admission is $30 for all occupants of a car ($15 for each person over age 15 entering another way). Yosemite is nearly as large as Rhode Island and boasts 800 miles of trails that accommodate the rugged hiker as well as the leisurely walker. With more than 100 lakes, multiple waterfalls, mountains, and a few beaches, there is something for everyone. Camping in a tent or cabin costs as little as $6 a night for each person. There are also park hotels and lodges.
Charleston's beaches offer plenty of free family fun. Just stake out a spot and let the kids play in the sand until the sun sets. Every second Sunday of the month, King Street in downtown Charleston closes to traffic, letting pedestrians stroll safely while browsing the shops. If booked ahead, hotel rooms can be around $150 a night, and Airbnb lists entire homes for just over $100 a night.
A favorable exchange rate is luring visitors north of the border this summer. All this year, admission to Banff National Park in Alberta -- 2,564 square miles of mountains and trails, lakes, glaciers, hot springs, and Canada's largest cave system -- is free for international travelers as well as residents, to mark the country's 150th anniversary. Visitors can camp for less than $12 U.S. If sleeping out in nature sounds too gritty, inns and hotels go for a range of prices, as low as $33 a night in late July.
Myrtle Beach draws 18 million visitors a year, with budget-friendly family options such as the beautiful landscapes and zoo of Brookgreen Garden ($16 for adults, $8 for children 4 to 12). Hotels start at around $108 a night, and camping at the 2,500-acre Huntington Beach State Park, roughly 20 minutes away, starts at $23 a night for a site with electricity and water, or $17 for basic tent camping. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children 6 to 15. The park is also home to the historic Atalaya Castle ($2 to explore the grounds).
Summer is a popular time to visit the nation's capital. In addition to year-round free entrance to historical monuments and museums, including the 19 that make up the Smithsonian Institution (the National Zoo is one), summer offers free outdoor movies and concerts. There are also free nightly performances at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. Pass on the downtown hotels, where rates are high, and opt for those on the periphery. Use the Metro to get around and save money on lodging and parking.
Several Outer Banks towns offer cheap and exciting experiences for families. Carova Beach and Corolla Beach are home to wild horses and ponies and free to visit, but generally accessible only with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. (Guided tours in season exceed $50 for adults.) Take a slow ride along the North Carolina coast on a ferry, with tolls varying by boarding port; some are free and others start as low as $1 for pedestrians or $15 for four-wheeled vehicles. Lodging is cheap for beach towns, with rates starting at about $127 a night.
Related: 50 of the Best Beaches in America
History busts out all over in Boston. On a self-guided tour of the 2.5-mile Freedom Trail, with 16 stops including Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere's house, and the Old North Church, everyone in the family should find at least one point of interest. Many museums and landmarks, such as the Commonwealth Museum and the U.S.S. Constitution, are free. Had enough history? The Landmark Orchestra traditionally plays for free Wednesday nights at the riverside Hatch Memorial Shell, and boats can be rented at Boston Harbor -- kayaks are as little as $15 an hour for adults, $9 for kids.
It's free to enter the 522,427-acre national park of the Great Smoky Mountains, stretching across western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, where camping starts at $14 a night. There are a number of free attractions near the park, including waterfalls and scenic drives.
Vancouver is home to Stanley Park, the largest urban park in North America, which offers five miles of waterfront views. Kids will be highly entertained -- and adults will get a breather -- at Canada's largest free outdoor water park, at Granville Island. Crossing the famed suspension bridge over the Capilano River leads to a park with guided nature tours, the Kids' Rainforest Explorer Program, and Treetops Adventure, a series of footbridges high up old-growth trees in a thriving coastal forest. But admission is $40 for adults, $27 for ages 13 to 16, and $14 for ages 6 to 12. Locals recommend the suspension bridge at Lynn Canyon Park for a free alternative.
The first national park in the world, Yellowstone is best known for Old Faithful, a geyser that shoots water more than 150 feet high. But there are plenty of other sights to be seen and adventures to be had. Hike the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, spot diverse wildlife such as bison, and visit the naturally formed, multicolor Grand Prismatic Spring. A seven-day car pass is $30. Camping fees start at $15 a night, or check out the Lake Lodge Pioneer Cabins -- while basic, they provide showers, a toilet, and a sink, and cost $90 a night. Booking well in advance is crucial.
The oldest state park in the country, Niagara Falls State Park boasts five main attractions, including the Cave of the Winds and Aquarium of Niagara, and access to all comes with a Discovery Pass ($45 for adults, $34 for ages 6 to 12, free for ages 5 and under). There are plenty of other activities and breathtaking scenes to enjoy at no cost, though, and on the New York side of the falls, lodging can fall below $100 a night. Bring passports to cross the border into Canada.
A trip to the Black Hills is a perfect summer vacation for the family that bikes together. Aside from the six national parks in the vicinity, there are 100-plus miles of bike trails as well as eye-popping scenic drives. Families can also explore Mount Rushmore, two national forests, two national grasslands, and four state parks. Learn the history of the Wild West by visiting Wounded Knee, Custer State Park, Crazy Horse, Devil's Tower (in bordering Wyoming), and the frontier towns of Sturgis and Deadwood. Area hotels charge as little as $150 a night.
A whole family can enjoy activities including cooking classes, rocket making, and boating at the Frost Valley YMCA Summer Family Camp. Some of the activities cost $10; horse-riding is $30. The camp, in New York's Catskill Mountains, offers a range of lodging options. Families can choose hotel-style accommodations, a cabin, or outdoor tents and yurts, all including three buffet-style meals for the entire family each day. For weekly outdoor stays, prices are $275 for each adult, $192 for the first child, and $104 for each additional child -- less than $850 for a family of four.