It’s that time of the year again, when kids and parents, alike, are exhausted after the hectic study schedule and exams. With schools and colleges closed for good two months, families look ahead to spending some quality time with each other.
Family vacations need careful planning. Unlike trips with friends, where travel, food and stay expenses are split between travelers, family vacations can be a costly affair if not planned properly.
Memory-making family vacations on a budget
In a dream world, annual family trips to Paris, Tokyo or Disney World would be affordable. But budget constraints tend to mean that less expensive vacations are necessary. Luckily, there’s no shortage of cheap family vacations within a road-trip drive or a quick flight on a budget airline. So whether you’re looking for budget-friendly quick trips, longer beach vacations (with your very own beach house rental), family-friendly resorts in the Caribbean or all-inclusive hotels in Hawaii, we’ve got options for you.
Santa Monica, California
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, beaches are a great budget equalizer when planning cheap family vacations.
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; $20 for seven and under; individual ride fees range from $5 to $12.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Often overlooked as a budget-friendly destination, Myrtle Beach is a great place to visit for families on a budget. This beautiful beach city, with golden sand and teal waters, is a popular spot for families of any size or age.
Visitors can enjoy the beach, walk or ride bikes along the scenic boardwalk, play mini golf, visit the aquarium, or explore one of the many museums. Barefoot Landing in North Myrtle Beach is a great place to start, with its many stores, restaurants, and attractions like the Alligator Adventure Zoo and House of Blues Myrtle Beach.
Take a road trip to tour national parks near or far. “I think the national parks will be well-visited again,” says Spatz. So, try some off-the-beaten-path parks or aim to visit more popular ones mid-week. Spatz suggests Yellowstone as a great option for families. “There’s so much to do there, so much history, learning about all the geology, about all the different places you can visit in the park,” adds Spatz. “And certainly there are a lot of affordable places to stay.” Camping is also an affordable option.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
With white sandy beaches and warm Gulf waters, it’s easy to visit Gulf Shores and not spend a dime. The area is also home to Gulf State Park, which has hiking and biking trails, alongside fishing and wildlife viewing opportunities. Other family- and summer-friendly activities include dolphin cruises, water parks, and miniature golf. Don’t miss Matt’s Homemade Alabama Ice Cream for a sweet treat after a long day in the sand.
- Why We Love It: World-class museums, historical sites and cultural attractions
- Free Things to Do: Smithsonian museums, National Mall, Library of Congress, National Archives, Georgetown, Museum of Natural History
- Getting there: Fly into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
- Where to Stay: Gorgeous Townhouse (from $102/night, sleeps 8); Capitol Hill Apartment (from $165/night, sleeps 4); Shaw Neighborhood Condo (from $108/night, sleeps 5)
The main draw of Washington, D.C. is the National Mall, where all the museums offer free entry to visitors. Most of the national monuments are also free to explore, and the National Zoo welcomes guests for no charge every day of the year. Just make sure you reserve passes in advance for everyone, including infant children.
Custer State Park, South Dakota
Bison roam the plains while families swim, fish, hike, and more.
Custer State Park is one of the best things to do in the USA this summer! It’s near Mount Rushmore and there are five lakes where you can swim. Kids will love watching the bison roam, and don’t miss the Needles Highway and other scenic drives through this South Dakota park.
There is something magical about the roar of Niagara Falls that is mesmerizing to parents and kids alike. If you plan well, it can also be a budget-friendly family vacation. Niagara Falls State Park is free! If you have the funds, we recommend riding on the Maid of the Mist—kids under 5 ride free. The Cave of the Winds Tour, which takes you via elevator deep into Niagara Gorge, is also super fun!
The Canadian side of the falls offers the best views of Horseshoe Falls and plenty of fun activities like the zipline or the slightly less scary Whirlpool Aero Car. The ride takes you over the Niagara River to view Whirlpool Rapids. Kids might also like MarineLand, an amusement park complete with dolphins and whales.
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
“The Waterpark Capital of the World,” Wisconsin Dells is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the Midwest. While it was once relegated to summertime fun, it offers a fun escape all year-round with its many indoor water parks and opportunity for affordable amusements. Among its numerous theme parks are the Noah’s Art Waterpark which hosts an incredible array of aquatic rides, including 51 slides, a surfing simulator, and two wave pools, along with heart-pounding thrills like the Scorpion’s Tail. The Mt. Olympus Water plus Theme Park is a resort complex with an ancient Greece theme, complete with amusement park rides and an indoor/outdoor water park. You’ll find a wide range of accommodation options too, including affordable family-friendly hotels, resorts, and vacation rentals.
While Paris gets the majority of the travel attention, the City of Light’s younger sibling Lyon is an excellent and more budget-friendly option for families. Only a 2-hour high-speed train ride from Paris, Lyon is doable as a day trip, but I highly recommend spending more time if you can. And while France is not necessarily known as the best place for budget family vacations, Lyon can be very reasonably priced. With far fewer visitors than Paris, accommodations are significantly less expensive. They’re also more spacious than Paris’s tiny flats – perfect for family stays.
Lyon’s historic area is relatively small and very walkable, and boasts a number of kid-friendly activities. Little ones will love the Guignol museum or a short puppet show with the historic marionettes. Then, take the funicular to the top of the hill to see the basilica. Kids will also love exploring the “traboules” – old secret passages intended for merchants transporting silk and other goods.