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By Michelle Huffman
Family vacations are opportunities for your family to explore new places, experience life outside your everyday routine and connect in new and unexpected ways. None of that carries a price tag, but the trip itself sure does.
Planning an affordable, budget-friendly family vacation can get complicated. Sometimes, options you think may offer cost savings actually don’t. For example, Money.com found that renting an RV may actually cost more than staying at hotels, even when you account for the cost of cooking in your RV instead of eating out. A night at an Airbnb may cost just as much as, if not more than, a stay in a hotel in many cities in the U.S., according to Business Insider.
However, the best family vacations in the U.S. don’t have to be expensive. Try these options:
You’ll see this option on almost every list of affordable family vacations. While it may not be a novel idea, the reason you see it everywhere is that a National Parks vacation has been serving up fun for years. The parks are inexpensive, often charging around $25 per vehicle for larger parks, and they include many affordable lodging options, from camping to cabins to nearby budget hotels.
To really save cash, consider some less-popular parks like Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, which offers scenic forests, island-dotted lakes and views of the aurora borealis at certain times of year.
Take in the gorgeous rock formations of Arches National Park in Utah or go hiking, fishing and camping amid the incredible mountain scenery of Glacier National Park in Montana. So hit the road and get to your nearest National Park.
If vacation = beach for you, even if you have to fly there, you can still save money once you arrive. If you look at places like the Outer Banks or Virginia Beach, although you may experience bigger crowds, the options for affordability are typically much better than a more exclusive spot. For example, look into Myrtle Beach, a super-popular destination, but packed with availability and affordability. Try spots there like Dunes Village Resort for an inclusive option that gives you easy access to much more than just the beach.
If you need white sand beaches, try Gulf Shores, Alabama, which can feel like a tropical beach without the price of an expensive flight away from the continental U.S. Plus, there are other attractions like the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo and the Waterville USA/Escape House water and amusement park to round out the experience.
Resorts come in all shapes, sizes and speeds. Research affordable resorts in your area; look for resorts or cabin and campgrounds associated with a state park, or other natural landmark, such as a lake, that will provide extra entertainment. A pool, hiking trails and a small town nearby can provide endless entertainment for kids.
Oglebay Resort and Conference Center in Wheeling, West Virginia, has 1,700 acres, a 270-room lodge, 54 cottages, golf courses, specialty shops, gardens, museums, skiing and a zoo.
Or, check out the Tyler Place Family Resort in Swanton, Vermont, on the shores of Lake Champlain. The resort has children’s programs that allow parents to escape together while their children enjoy scheduled, supervised activities.
Great Wolf Lodge is a chain of water park resorts that feature restaurants, arcades, spas and children's activities and can be a particularly affordable option in the off-season because most of the attractions are indoors.
Instead of New York City or Los Angeles, head to some of these less touristy places that nonetheless have great food, beautiful scenery and cultural amenities to offer. These cities may be working hard to up their tourism trade and offer better deals, particularly as packages, for incoming tourists.
Look into a city like Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which is known as the gateway to the Smoky Mountains. Besides the gorgeous scenery just outside the city, it also includes vistas courtesy of the Space Needle and SkyLift Park, as well as museums, shopping and adventure parks with outdoor activities for the kids.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has cultural districts, eateries and unique attractions, like the Andy Warhol Museum and the steep hill-climbing cars called the Incline. It features dozens of beautiful bridges, amusement parks and views of its scenic skyline from inside its baseball stadium.
There is plenty of magic outside “the most magical place on Earth.” Especially when your kids are young — think Disney age — you can find a lot of novelty in places other than Disney.
The Wisconsin Dells is home of Noah’s Ark, the country’s biggest water park featuring 51 water slides, and dozens of other attractions. The Dells also have tacky-fun options like the Top Secret upside-down White House, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum and Mt. Olympus amusement park.
For older kids, Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, offers some of the largest, fastest and most thrilling roller coasters in the U.S., and thanks to its off-the-beaten path location, tends to offer much more affordable lodging options than a place like Disney World.
No matter where your travels take you, planning an affordable vacation is all about setting a budget, researching options ahead of time and finding simple ways to slash money, like eating in, enjoying free activities, and slowing down to enjoy and appreciate your family members.