SUMMER IS COMING; MAKE PLANS NOW
Summer is prime time for a family getaway. If you're concerned about costs, now's the time 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 25 cheap summer family vacations -- looking mainly at travel and lodging in late July, with prices accurate at the time of writing.
OCEAN CITY, MD
Best destination for: Beach lovers, anglers, and amusement-park fans
This Maryland mainstay falls between Atlantic City and Rehoboth Beach to the north and Virginia Beach to the south, but still holds its own among East Coast beach hotspots. This 8,000-person town draws more than 300,000 visitors each weekend for amusement-park rides, cotton candy, salt water taffy, wax museums, white marlin fishing, fireworks, and free concerts. Hotel rooms can be prohibitively costly at $350+ per night during this peak season, but you can knock that price down with a vacation house or condo rental.
OLD ORCHARD BEACH, ME
Best destination for: Seafood lovers, boaters
That "Vacationland" designation on Maine license plates isn't there for nothing. The state absorbs a whole lot of New England's summer travelers, with towns like Portland and Bar Harbor getting inundated with their neighbors from the south. Yet this spot along Maine's coastline between Kennebunkport and Portland remains largely under-appreciated despite its rides, arcades, seafood shacks, fry stands, mini golf, ice cream, long pier of bars and clubs for the grown-ups, myriad boat launches for everyone, and proximity to the famed Portland Head Light. While Cape Cod and Maine's northern coast can get costly around this time of year, you can still rent a hotel room or cottage that fits the whole family for $65 to $100 a night.
SAN DIEGO, CA
Best destination for: Museum fans and animal lovers
Way down in Southern California, San Diego makes an unassuming summer hot spot. The average high temperature is in the mid-70s, with the average ocean temperature matching it. The Go San Diego Card gives families admission to Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, Legoland California, the museums in Balboa Park and other amenities. Meanwhile, there are multiple hotel options for families at $150 a night or less.
WINTER PARK, CO
Best destination for: Thrill seekers, hikers, and cyclists
Colorado ski resorts are an incredible bargain during the summer months, largely because the most obvious attraction isn't available. However, the Winter Park Resort – like many ski resorts in the summer – features hiking, biking, horseback riding, rafting, and zip lining. Snow Mountain Ranch, meanwhile, has a summer tubing hill, miniature golf, swimming, and indoor and outdoor climbing walls. The town's Hideaway Park hosts summer concerts every Thursday, but the biggest attraction might be the room rates, which start at $80 a night around this time of year and offer a lot of options below $150.
Best destination for: Music fans
Missouri's down-market answer to Las Vegas is just the place for families who'd love nothing more than listening to the dulcet sounds of Frankie Avalon, Ronnie Milsap, Three Dog Night, The Charlie Daniels band, Abba tribute bands, surviving members '50s and '60s vocal groups or any number of John Denver and Patsy Cline memorial tribute shows. Motels like the Spinning Wheel Inn start at $50 a night, but there are plenty of hotels around the theater district where a family can stay for less than $100 a night.
Best destination for: Foodies, baseball fans, Andy Warhol fans
Pittsburgh really wants to sell itself as Pennsylvania's kid-friendly destination: Hard to do in a state that gave Hershey its own town and has Crayola based in Easton. However, Pittsburgh boasts a children's theater festival, the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh and other activities designed to keep the kids busy. Adults, meanwhile, will find inexpensive dining options, rides on the Incline, free downtown subway access, the Andy Warhol Museum, and tickets to Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games readily available on SeatGeek or StubHub for less than $20. While there are multiple hotel options downtown in the $150 range, looking just a bit outside that cluster will get you rooms at closer to $100 a night.
Best destination for: Golfers, beach lovers, anglers
If you have kids with simple needs who'll be fine with a beachfront location, gorgeous view, and maybe some time fishing, Destin is a fine destination. There are a whole lot of golf courses, spas, tennis courts and resorts scattered around the area, but serene surroundings and high temperatures around 89 make Destin ideal for relaxation. You might be able to sneak a $90-a-night deal out of a golf club like Sandestin, but even a family resort like the Destin Inn with a pool, gym, putting green and games for the kids goes for less than $150 a night.
Best destination for: History buffs, theme-park fans
Yes, Virginia's historic Williamsburg is a history buff's paradise. Part of the "Historic Triangle," along with nearby Jamestown and Yorktown, Williamsburg is home to Colonial Williamsburg and all the tri-cornered hats, blacksmithing, and butter churning therein. However, it's also right near Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Water Country USA and King's Dominion – which may be a good Plan B if the kids (or the adults) get a bit restless with their theme-park history lesson. Despite being right near all of the aforementioned amenities, Williamsburg is teeming with Super 8-, Motel 6- and Quality Inn-grade hotels whose prices fall between $50 and $80 a night.
HILTON HEAD, SC
Best destination for: Beach lovers, history buffs, crawfish lovers
You can show the kids the island's Gullah culture, stroll the beaches, play golf, and eat crawfish for days if you'd like. However, if you have retired relatives from the Northeast making even the sweeping ocean views seem unpleasant, this at least serves as a moderately priced home base for day trips to Savannah or Charleston. Things can get costly on the island, too, but the Days Inn and Red Roof Inn on Hilton Head have rooms, pools, Wi-Fi and breakfast for less than $130 a night.
Best destination for: Cyclists, anglers, Prince fans
The Land of 10,000 Lakes is known for its winters, but it is also built for summer. Minneapolis-St. Paul, meanwhile, is a bike-friendly, lake-filled, park-strewn tangle of block parties, outdoor concerts, festivals, fairs (including the Minnesota State Fair), farmers markets, and more. Sure, you could take in the air conditioning at the Mall of America, but you're better off touring Prince's place at Paisley Park, taking a ride through the Twin Cities' lush greenscape, and getting some mostaccioli or fish fry afterward. Hotel rooms under $100 are available, but they may put you somewhat far afield. Rooms in either downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul start closer to $130.
Best destination for: Baseball fans and anglers
Go ahead: Take in a Tampa Bay Rays game in neighboring St. Petersburg. There are always plenty of good seats available. However, if indoor baseball isn't reason for a road trip, go fish off of St. Pete Beach, take in some fruit-laden cocktails, get a Cuban sandwich in Ybor City, and see if you can get a whiff of the city's cigar-making past without actually choking one down yourself. It's hot and humid in midsummer, so budget hotels can be found for less than $75 a night. However, even hotels near the Busch Gardens amusement park or Ybor City charge around $100.
VIRGINIA BEACH, VA
Best destination for: Surfers, history buffs, crab lovers
If you're an East Coast surfer, a history buff who's always wanted to visit Cape Henry, a former sailor with fond memories of Hampton Roads or Norfolk, or just a Baltimore or D.C.-area family who want to enjoy a plate of crab without being devoured by Chesapeake Bay mosquitos, Virginia Beach is a great nearby option. Shows at the amphitheater, amusements on the boardwalk, minor-league baseball game, the air show during the Neptune Festival, and the beach itself provide plenty of family-friendly distractions. There are about 40 hotels along the boardwalk alone, but they go for upward of $300 a night during the high season. Staying on the Chesapeake Bay side of Virginia Beach in late July can get you a room at a Quality Inn for as little as $60 a night.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
Best destination for: Nature lovers, hikers, and campers
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.
Best destination for: History buffs
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 condos and guest houses for around $100 a night.
BANFF NATIONAL PARK, CANADA
Best destination for: Nature lovers and campers
A favorable exchange rate is luring visitors north of the border this summer. 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 anyone under 17, but only $15 a day for families. Visitors can camp for about $12 U.S. If sleeping out in nature sounds too gritty, inns and hotels go for a range of prices, as low as $68 a night in late July.
MYRTLE BEACH, SC
Best destination for: Beach lovers and campers
Myrtle Beach draws 18 million visitors a year, with budget-friendly family options such as the beautiful landscapes and zoo of Brookgreen Garden ($18 for adults, $10 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 $24 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).
Best destination for: History buffs and political junkies
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.
OUTER BANKS, NC
Best destination for: Beach fans and horse lovers
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 can 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 $150 a night.
Best destination for:History buffs
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 $16 an hour for adults, $9 for kids.
Best destination for:Amusement park and nature enthusiasts
This Tennessee hotspot isn't the tourist trap that the Gatlinburg ski gondola-style tramway, Ober Gatlinburg theme park, and Seattle-style Space Needle would suggest. Even nearby Pigeon Forge's Branson, Missouri-style theaters, indoor skydiving, and Dollywood amusement park don't push it into that territory. The neighboring Great Smoky Mountains National Park not only draws nearly 9.5 million visitors a year, the most of any national park and 5 million more than the second-place Grand Canyon, but it also accounts for $720 million in local tourist spending all by itself. Not too shabby for a park with free admission and camping that starts at $17.50 per day. If you'd like some more stable shelter, nearby hotels start at $60 a night.
Best destination for: Nature lovers and thrill seekers
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 $36.50 U.S. for adults, $21.72 for ages 13 to 16, and $11.62 for ages 6 to 12. Locals recommend the suspension bridge at Lynn Canyon Park for a free alternative.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
Best destination for: Nature lovers and hikers
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 about $100 a night. Booking well in advance is crucial.
NIAGARA FALLS, NY
Best destination for: Honeymooners and photographers
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 ($46 for adults, $35 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.
BLACK HILLS, SD
Best destination for: History buffs and cyclists
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 or even less.
YMCA CAMP, CATSKILLS, NY
Best destination for: Families who love camping and the outdoors
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 $290 for each adult, $202 for the first child, and $110 for each additional child – less than $900 for a family of four.