11 Budget-Friendly Family Vacations That Are Super Fun

This year's top budget-friendly family vacation destinations in the U.S. deliver maximum bang for your vacation buck.
Man on water slide (Photo: @Globetrotter via Twenty20)
Photo: @Globetrotter via Twenty20

By the time you add up transportation, lodging, and meals, the best family vacation spots in the U.S. can get pretty expensive. And if you have a large family, need to fly somewhere with the kids, or rely on restaurants for meals, even modest family vacation ideas can start to feel financially overwhelming. But when you plan ahead and stick to a budget, cheap family vacations to some of the most popular tourist attractions in the country aren’t just doable—they can actually be among the best family vacations you’ll ever have. 

Cheap Family Vacations in the United States

With the right combination of free activities, advance planning, and strategic frugality, cheap family vacations don’t have to mean boring family vacations. Here are this year’s top budget-friendly family vacation destinations that deliver the maximum bang for your vacation buck.

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1. Custer State Park, South Dakota

Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park (Photo: @btrimmer43)
The Wildlife Loop in South Dakota’s Custer State Park is a prime spot for viewing animals in the wild (Photo: @btrimmer43 via Twenty20)

South Dakota’s first and largest state park, Custer State Park, is a 71,000-acre wildlife preserve known for its free-ranging bison herd, buffalo safari jeep tours, and buffalo round-ups. Built for road trips, it boasts a number of scenic drives where you can take in the Black Hills scenery and additional wildlife like bighorn sheep, elk, mountain goats, pronghorns, deer, prairie dogs, and perhaps even a mountain lion. 

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The park’s 18-mile Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway is a prime viewing route for the wildlife that lives among its pine-covered hills, rolling prairies, and red-walled canyons. Another way to spot animals is taking a two-hour Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour to not only view the wildlife up close in their natural habitat, but also learn about the animals and park history from a guide. 

With low- and no-budget activities such as camping, hiking along the numerous trails, swimming in the park’s five lakes, boating, fishing, horseback riding, and even watching performances in the Black Hills Playhouse theater, there is something for everyone on a budget in Custer State Park. 

Conveniently, Custer State Park is located just east of the city of Custer, and it’s not far from other budget-friendly family vacation spots like Mt. Rushmore and Badlands National Park. You can easily explore all three in a single family trip that won’t break the bank.

Where to Stay for Cheap Family Vacations Near Custer, South Dakota

The nearly century-old State Game Lodge was the “Summer White House” for President Calvin Coolidge and the First Lady for three months in 1927. The State Game Lodge has a variety of national park lodge-like accommodations, from historic guest rooms in the main lodge to more modern hotel rooms and luxury cabins. In addition to accommodations, the State Game Lodge serves as the departure point for the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours.

For an even cheaper family vacation that makes the most of the surrounding natural beauty, check out Gold Camp Cabins. This rustic resort offers multi-room cabins with kitchens, BBQ grills, and a fire ring. There’s a fishing pond on site, too (but no internet).

2. Bowling Green, Kentucky

Entrance to Mammoth Cave National Park (Photo: Wangkun Jia / Shutterstock)
Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, the largest known cave system in the world, is free to enter (Photo: Wangkun Jia / Shutterstock)

Cheap family vacations don’t get any more all-American than the caves, cars, and pure Americana in the rolling green hills of Kentucky’s Cave Country. Just an hour north of Nashville, the small (and underrated) town of Bowling Green is the closest tourist center to Mammoth Cave National Park, the world’s largest known cave system and a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot. (Mammoth Cave is 40 miles northeast of Bowling Green.)

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There’s no fee to enter Mammoth Cave National Park, and the aboveground activities like nature walks and hikes are free as well. You do need a ticket for a scheduled tour to enter the cave itself, and it’s recommended that you purchase your tickets ahead of time as they will sell out. Cave tours prices are inexpensive (they range from $11 to $23) and take anywhere from one to three hours to complete. 

Beyond Mammoth Cave, the gearheads in your family will love the National Corvette Museum (about $18 per ticket) and anyone 13 or older can take a Corvette Assembly Plant tour and see where every single Corvette is produced. A museum-and-plant tour ticket is $50, but the cost comes down with discounts for kids, seniors, and members of the military.

Nestled along the Barren River, Beech Bend Park is a classic family-run entertainment complex that includes an amusement park, water park, and drag strip. Its raceway is one of America’s oldest continually operating drag strips. Races take place every weekend between March and November, and many events are nationally recognized car shows. Sometimes you can even drag your own car out on the strip!

Where to Stay for Budget-Friendly Vacations Near Bowling Green, Kentucky

Close to shops and restaurants, Hilton Garden Inn Bowling Green offers a cooked-to-order breakfast, heated pool, and whirlpool. It’s a great (and relatively cheap) home base for all of Bowling Green’s family-friendly attractions.

3. Santa Monica, California

view of Los Angeles' Santa Monica Pier
Santa Monica’s sunny beaches can be a part of a cheap family vacation in California (Photo: Visit California/Hub)

A city within a city, Santa Monica’s location within greater Los Angeles makes it a great home base for SoCal family beach vacations. And while LA can get pricey fast, Santa Monica’s sunny beaches are a great budget equalizer when planning cheap family vacations.

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Santa Monica has a popular stretch of beach adjacent to the Santa Monica Pier. This classic amusement pier opened in the early 1900s and has a number of kid-favorite rides, including a roller coaster and the Pacific Wheel. An unlimited ride wristband is $40 for ages eight and up and just $20 ages for seven and under; individual ride fees range from $5 to $12. Since it’s a public beach park, you can bring a picnic lunch to save on food costs as well.

Of course, Southern California is known for its endless summers and beach culture, and it’s easy to check out the other beaches in the Los Angeles area too: Venice Beach is the place to people watch and always has a number of roller skaters, skate dancers, artists, and bodybuilders on scene; Manhattan Beach’s long strip of sandy shore is anchored by beach volleyball courts and the free nonprofit Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium; Hermosa Beach is a two-mile strip connecting Manhattan and Redondo Beaches; and The Strand is a 20-mile paved biking and running path that stretches all the way from Hermosa Beach back north to Santa Monica.

Where to Stay for Cheap Family Vacations Near Santa Monica, California

You can pay upwards of $500 per night at some Santa Monica hotels, but for the perfect combination of affordability and location, try the Ocean Lodge Santa Monica Beach Hotel. This three-star family-friendly beachfront hotel has rooms in the $200 per night range and is just a five-minute walk from Main Street and Santa Monica Pier.

For a lower-budget option, check out the Sea Blue Hotel, a cute offering right across from the pier that boasts both junior and family suites and has the lowest price tag on the beach.

4. Bangor and the Maine Highlands, Maine

View of Mount Katahdin (Photo: @Altechphoto via Twenty20)
Head to Maine for cheap family vacations loaded with free and affordable activities (Photo: @Altechphoto via Twenty20)

The Great Outdoors is just a family road trip away for anyone in the Northeast. The Maine Highlands region, which includes Moosehead Lake, Baxter State Park, Mount Katahdin, and the city of Bangor, is an area filled with natural beauty and wildlife. Even the city of Bangor itself boasts miles of biking and hiking trails inside Bangor City Forest, and the Orono Bog Boardwalk is a one-mile nature walk into the bog on the University of Maine’s campus.

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Legendary folk hero Paul Bunyan welcomes visitors to Bangor in the form of a 30-foot-tall statue, and the Maine Discovery Museum ($10 per person) in Bangor is devoted to children and encourages creative play. Teens and pop culture fans will know that legendary horror novelist Stephen King’s long-time home is in Bangor, and it’s easy to explore the places that have inspired many of his novels, such as It, Pet Sematary, Carrie, and The Stand

Only an hour-away from Bangor is Acadia National Park, the only national park in the Northeast and a relatively cheap family vacation destination that’s loaded with beaches, islands, and scenic walking and carriage trails. Bangor is a great starting point to stock up before visiting this rocky section of the Atlantic coast. And just a few hours west of Bangor is the state’s High Peaks region, home to the Maine Huts and Trails organization, which maintains family-friendly huts and trails for walking and biking trips.

Where to Stay for Cheap Family Vacations Near Bangor, Maine

For cheap family vacations that deliver an authentic Maine outdoors experience, stay at the campgrounds at Baxter State Park, the northernmost point of the Appalachian Trail. Primitive cabins are available, but you will need to bring all supplies for sleeping and cooking. Those who aren’t into “roughing it” will find a variety of chain hotels in Bangor. One option is Country Inn at the Mall, which includes breakfast in its nightly rates. The affordable Whitetail Inn and Suites in Lincoln boasts a central location and offers several units with kitchenettes.

5. Hershey, Pennsylvania

Aerial view of Hersheypark (Photo: Hershey, PA)
Head to Hersheypark for cheap family vacations that can compete with Disney and Universal for theme park thrills (Photo: Hershey, PA)

How can you go wrong with an entire town dedicated to chocolate? At Hershey’s historic amusement park, Hersheypark, you’ll find more than 60 sweet rides, including 15 roller coasters, an outdoor water park, and a family campground. One-day admission ranges from $55 to $63 for families, and multi day passes can be as low as $45 per day. The sweet smells alone are worth the price of admission. There’s also an entire chocolate-themed dining establishment, The Chocolatier Restaurant, with fantastic theme park views and a menu showcasing classic family fare with a fun chocolatey spin. 

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And the best part? Admission to Hersheypark doesn’t just cost less than Disney—a lot less—it also goes further. Every ticket holder is entitled to a sweet preview of the amusement park on the evening before your scheduled visit.

Other attractions in Hershey, Pennsylvania, include Hershey Gardens, The Hershey Story, ZooAmerica, and Hershey’s Chocolate World (home to Hershey’s largest candy store). At Hershey’s Chocolate World, chocolate tours are always free. Of course, if you ever decide to leave the kids at home with their grandparents for a weekend, there are plenty of romantic getaways in Pennsylvania that are great for couples too.

Where to Stay Near Hershey, Pennsylvania, for Affordable Family Trips

The best family resorts in the U.S. don’t just tolerate kids—they actually welcome them. At Hershey Lodge, the hotel’s official motto is “kids are not just welcome, they’re expected.” Kids even have their own kid-sized check-in desk. Children sign the guest book, color, learn about resort activities, and maybe even meet a Hershey character or two. Hershey Lodge has two outdoor pools and a large, heated indoor pool, basketball and tennis courts, and free mini golf for hotel guests. 

Hershey Lodge also has a free shuttle to Hersheypark and Hershey’s Chocolate World. And on select dates this summer, Hershey Lodge offers a variety of packages that include park tickets, breakfast, and/or free nights.

6. Central Florida

LEGOLAND Florida Water Park is one od the top Orlando-area water parks for families (Photo: LEGOLAND)
Central Florida has plenty of cheaper alternatives to the Disney and Universal theme parks (Photo: LEGOLAND)

There’s no question that many of the best family vacations involve the roller coasters and lazy rivers of the Orlando theme parks and Disney water parks. Unfortunately, though, no trips built entirely around the Florida theme parks would ever qualify as cheap family vacations. The good news is there’s a host of free and affordable attractions worth visiting in Orlando and Tampa that are perfect for family trips—and you might even save enough money on these cheaper alternatives that you’ll have enough left over to take in a day or two at Disney’s Star Wars Land or Universal’s Harry Potter theme park as well. 

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Besides Mickey Mouse, what’s the first thing kids think of when you mention Florida? Perhaps alligators and oranges come to mind. The Circle B Bar nature reserve on Lake Hancock has 3,000 to 4,000 alligators and one of the most impressive bird habitats in the country. And, proving that the best deals are free deals, admission to the nature reserve is totally free. As for those delicious Florida oranges, at Ridge Island Groves in Haines City everyone can pick an orange right off the tree on a $8 orange grove tour (or pick as many as you want for $1 per pound).

Those looking for an alternative theme park to Disney and Universal can head to LEGOLAND Florida, which is built on the former site of Cypress Gardens. LEGOLAND Florida offers more than 50 different rides and attractions, including the Pirate River Quest, a boating adventure that traverses a tropical lake and canals with various wildlife sightings along the way. (The tour is fit for all ages and includes ADA accessible boats.) The park also features plenty of LEGO models, live shows including a water ski show, and the original botanical garden. It’s an especially good amusement park choice for families with younger children.

Where to Stay for Cheap Family Vacations in Central Florida 

At Westgate River Ranch Resort and Rodeo, the one of the best dude ranches east of the Mississippi River (read our review), on-site recreational activities including horseback rides, airboats, swamp buggy tours, zip-lines, and a weekly Saturday night championship rodeo. Kids will love the cowboy-themed accommodations ranging from family glamping tents and teepees to two-bedroom cabins and new Conestoga wagons. While some of the accommodations can get expensive, the basic campsites sleep up to six people for $50 to $65 per night.

7. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama

Sunset over Gulf Shores, Alabama (Photo: Dave Parfitt)
Enjoy 32 miles of unspoiled beaches in Gulf Shores, Alabama (Photo: Dave Parfitt)

Located on a narrow barrier island at the southernmost tip of Alabama, the family-friendly Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area is 32 miles of soft white sand beaches along the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The inland areas beyond the dunes are marked by pine tree forests, freshwater lakes, rivers, bayous, and coves filled with an abundance of wildlife.

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With nearly 6,500 acres of protected land, 28 miles of paved and enhanced trails, and almost three miles of beautiful beaches, Gulf State Park is one of those state parks that’s so grand it feels like it could easily be a national park instead. The park received an $85 million dollar infusion following the BP oil spill and has upgraded its facilities immensely with that investment. Its Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism and Sustainability is a world-class ecotourism and experiential learning facility developed in partnership with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. 

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have plenty of other budget-friendly family attractions as well. Kids love the Fort Morgan Historic Site, Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo (admission is $15 to $25), and the Ferris Wheel on The Wharf ($5 per person).

Where to Stay for Budget-Friendly Family Vacations Near Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama

Located right on the beach, The Lodge at Gulf State Park is a Hilton Hotel inside the park that was totally reconstructed after Hurricane Ivan (2004) and opened in 2018. Dedicated to sustainable tourism, the lodge is right next door to the park’s Interpretive Center, Alabama’s most environmentally friendly building. For a less expensive option, consider Courtyard by Marriott Gulf Shores Craft Farms, which boasts an outdoor pool and on-site restaurant.

8. Washington, D.C.

View of the Washington Monument (Photo: @1davidlange via Twenty20)
Many of the best things to do in Washington, D.C., are free or extremely inexpensive (Photo: @1davidlange via Twenty20)

The nation’s capital is always a cheap-but-fun family destination because so many of the most popular sites have free admission. History-loving families should head to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of African American History and Culture (start your visit on the ground floor for the history tour or on the top floor for a celebration of African American arts and culture), National Air and Space Museum, Library of Congress, or Ford’s Theatre.

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Art lovers will enjoy the sculptures of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden or the National Gallery of Art. Both are free, though sometimes timed passes are required at even free D.C. museums. Nature lovers will enjoy the National Zoo, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, the Potomac River, and Rock Creek Park

Of course there’s always free sightseeing just by walking down Pennsylvania Avenue and spying the White House or strolling the length of the National Mall, checking out the monuments and memorials between the U.S. Capitol and Lincoln Memorial. Take a detour off the mall to stroll around the Tidal Basin and visit the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.

With all of the free options in and around the National Mall, you may be wondering how you can do it all? The good news is that the DC Circulator has a regular bus route in and around D.C.’s most popular sites; it’s just $1 per ride and you get a free transfer within two hours to Metrobus, so you can rest your weary legs and hit as many sites as your family can comfortably enjoy.

Where to Stay for Cheap Family Vacations Near Washington, D.C. 

The mid-range Gaylord National Resort is just outside Washington, D.C., on the shores of the Potomac adjacent to all the shops, restaurants, and activities of National Harbor. Its nearly two-acre glass enclosed atrium brings the outdoors in (without D.C.’s infamous humidity) and contains gardens, fountains, and two-story period houses that serve as gift shops. In the same general area, Residence Inn National Harbor is a less expensive suite-style hotel option that includes free breakfast. 

9. Branson, Missouri

A peaceful moment in Branson, Missouri (Photo: Dave Parfitt)
Branson is synonymous with family vacations in the Midwest (Photo: Dave Parfitt)

With all of its family-run business and entertainment offerings, Branson truly puts the “family” in family vacations. You’ll find many of the kid-friendly attractions as you cruise down the Country Boulevard of Missouri Highway 76. Branson’s Entertainment District, called The Strip, hosts theaters with a number of extravagant shows, but there’s also the World’s Largest Toy Museum ($15 to $23), Branson Ferris Wheel ($10 to $13), Titanic Museum ($15 or $35 or $115 for a family pass), Aquarium at the Boardwalk ($19 to $65), and multiple high-rise Mario Kart-style go-kart tracks like The Tracks

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The show that launched Branson’s tourist boom, The Shepherd of the Hills, is located at the western end of The Strip. This production has run for decades and features a massive cast (more than 90 people), live animals, a shoot-out, and a fire as it weaves a colorful story of the Ozarks and the people who settled there. Shepherd’s is now an Adventure Park with options that go far beyond the theater production that made it famous, offering canopy tours, zip lining, coasters, and more.

Just outside of town is Silver Dollar City, a theme park that’s also part living history museum, part artisan community, part food festival, and part natural wonder (seriously, you can go spelunking there). When you’ve had your fill of the roadside attractions along The Strip, head out on a real Midwest road trip to the hills for some hiking, biking, or climbing. There are plenty of outdoor things to do in Branson and the surrounding forests, mountains, and lakes.

Where to Stay Near Branson, Missouri 

On the shores of Table Rock Lake, Big Cedar Lodge is an attraction unto itself. The lodge offers a wide range of accommodations from family-friendly hotel rooms to private luxury cabins. There are also five different swimming pools, a sandy beach, paddle boats, canoes, and kayaks all available for use. In both the Theater District and in and around Downton Branson, there are plenty of even more economical options such as the Hotel Grand Victorian and The Lodge of the Ozarks.

10. New York, New York

View of the Manhattan skyline and Empire State Building in New York City (Photo: @eric_urquhart via Twenty20)
There are actually plenty of free and cheap things to do in New York City (Photo: @eric_urquhart via Twenty20)

It may not be the first place you think of for cheap family vacations, but there are actually plenty of free and inexpensive things to do in New York City. And when you strategically mix those free and inexpensive activities alongside a few pricier splurges, you can easily make the Big Apple a budget-friendly vacation destination for your family.

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Central Park may be one of the most famous urban parks in the world, and its 843 acres make up the largest green space in Manhattan. The park itself is a National Historic Landmark and has a number of kid-friendly attractions like the Central Park Zoo, Bethesda Terrace, playgrounds, statue walks, boating, tennis, and a variety of recreation and sporting activities. Central Park’s open-air Delacorte Theater is home to the popular Shakespeare in the Park productions and various other plays, concerts, and performances. 

Times Square, the “Crossroads of the World,” is what many people think of when they think of New York City. Kids will be mesmerized by the bright lights of the towering marquees and costumed characters. The Empire State Building is a 102-story Art Deco skyscraper that opened in 1931 and held the title of tallest building in the world for almost 40 years.

Finally, the Staten Island Ferry is a free service sponsored by the city of New York that shuttles passengers between lower Manhattan and Staten Island. The five-mile, 25-minute trip offers fantastic views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island as well as Manhattan’s skyline and bridges and won’t cost you a penny.

Where to Stay for Cheap Family Vacations Near New York City 

SoHo 54 in lower Manhattan is kid-friendly and offers rooms large enough to accommodate kids for about $150 on select nights. A little more expensive, but still among the most affordable New York family hotels, is the centrally located The Muse New York (formerly Kimpton Muse Hotel), less than a block from Times Square and Broadway and easy walking distance to Central Park.

11. Port Angeles, Washington

Only about two hours from Seattle, Port Angeles feels like it’s a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city. With easy access to some of the most beautiful spots on the Olympic Peninsula and lots to do for family members of all ages and abilities, Port Angeles is a perfect low-budget coastal adventure spot for your next family summer vacation.

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In town, you can get a sense of both the surrounding natural beauty and conservation efforts at the Feiro Marine Center. And for a small entry fee ($6 for adults, free for children) you can see up close the diverse marine life that makes up the Salish Sea. Combining natural beauty with the talent of local artists, the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center hosts exhibits that live in and among the beautiful setting.

Most people come to Port Angeles because it’s the northern gateway to Olympic National Park. Heading west out of town, stop first for the walk to Marymere Falls; this gentle hike through old growth forest crosses the river and winds up to a beautiful vista of the 90-foot waterfall. Following your hike, if you aren’t staying at Lake Crescent Lodge, it’s worth a stop. The waterside tables and chairs provide both a beautiful view and a chance to relax or play after your hike. Families can rent single or tandem kayaks; canoes; or paddleboards on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Loop around by car to the other side of Lake Crescent for another easy, shaded walk out on the Spruce Railroad Trail to Devil’s Punchbowl. This mostly paved walk takes you down a former rail trail, along the lake, to a swimming hole that can’t be missed. Jump from the rocks or bridge or simply ease in to get refreshed. For the more adventurous and hearty, the hike up Hurricane Ridge affords magnificent vistas of both the Olympic mountains and Vancouver Island.

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If you want to get a sense of the town from the water and experience the Salish Sea while adding another beautiful city to your vacation, take the 90-minute Black Bell Ferry from Port Angeles out to Victoria, Canada. You can pair your ferry crossing with lodging for discounts and have a two-for-one vacation.

Where to Stay for Cheap Family Vacations Near Port Angeles

Nature lovers shouldn’t miss Lake Crescent Lodge. With peak season pricing as low as $161 per night, this is a national park treasure. The lobby has games and a beautiful setting for any meal, and room options vary from shared bathroom to private cabin. For more downtown charm, contact the Sea Cliff Gardens Bed and Breakfast for availability and annual rates.

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Dave Parfitt is a freelance travel writer interested in illuminating transformative family travel, multi-generational travel, inclusive and accessible travel, under-the-radar destinations, and immersive, authentic experiences. Dave's work has appeared in Lonely Planet, AAA, Fox News Travel, US News & World Report, TravelAge West, USA Today, and Family Circle, to name a few. An academic with a PhD in neuroscience, Dave also works as an educational developer at a four-year college in Western New York when not in a theme park, national park, or on a cruise or road trip with his family.

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