“Work. Work. Work. Work. Work.”
Sure, Rihanna probably wasn’t singing about college, but that chorus doesn’t know any different.
Perhaps lately your mind has begun to wander(u) beyond the windows of your library. Maybe mid-Calculus, you started thinking about being somewhere — anywhere — else. After a long year (or semester … or month) of staying on the grind, taking a break to unwind and unplug sounds like just what the Doctor of Philosophy ordered.
Here at Wanderu, we know scratching your W A N D E R L U S T itch is good for the soul. And for you college students, we know it’s gotta be good for your bank account, too.
In this round-up of the 10 best vacation destinations for college students, we’ve done the homework for you. Not only are these cities easily accessible by intercity bus, but they rank high in affordability, offer a little bit of something for everyone (looking at you, VSCO girls), and most are just enough off-the-beaten-path to conjure a little intrigue.
So, what are you waiting for? You got a vacation to plan.
1. San Antonio, TX
BEST TIME TO VISIT: November – April, during the offseason. Hotels are cheaper, tourist attractions are less crowded, and the weather — while still warm! — hovers between the upper 60s and mid-70s.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: The San Antonio River Walk, an urban waterway dense with shops and restaurants; The Alamo; UNESCO World Heritage Site San Antonio Missions; Market Square, the largest Mexican market in the U.S.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: It’s easy to understand why San Antonio is one of the country’s most-visited cities: It’s got a storied past (see: The Alamo and San Antonio Missions), warm weather year-round, and a rich Hispanic influence coursing through everything from the landscape to the festivals to the cuisine. Many attractions — Market Square, San Pedro Creek Culture Park, Japanese Tea Garden — are free and/or budget friendly, making this an ideal destination for students.
An added bonus, the city’s transportation offerings are prolific. Tickets for Hop On, Hop Off buses last 24 hours (and you can get on/off as many stops as you like), while rentable BCycle bike rentals dot the city’s landscape.
2. Kansas City, MO
BEST TIME TO VISIT: April – October to avoid frigid temps and to hit up a variety of events and festivals. If you’re up for the chilly weather, you’ll find the cheapest lodging rates in November.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (free admission!); Crossroads Art District, “KC’s Creative Neighborhood” of art galleries, studios, restaurants and shops; the Vegas-esque Power & Light District; City Market, est. 1857, is one of the Midwest’s largest farmers markets.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Voted No. 1 in affordability by Travel + Leisure, Kansas City is the place to go to get the most bang for your buck. Locals swear by the BBQ, vibrant music scene — culminating in the Jazz District, where you’ll find free concerts year-round — and craft distilleries and breweries (more than 50!).
The so-called “City of Fountains” (because it allegedly boasts “more fountains than Rome”) is dotted with walkable outdoor parks and loads of excellent museums, including the Negro League Baseball Museum, World War I Museum and Memorial, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and American Jazz Museum.
Downtown is easy to navigate via the free streetcar, which will take you to the city’s most popular districts and attractions.
3. Philadelphia, PA
BEST TIME TO VISIT: March – May. You’ll find the city awash in blooming cherry blossoms as spring approaches, and lodging rates are less expensive than the tourist-heavy summer season.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: Historic sites like Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Center; Philadelphia Zoo, the very first chartered zoo in the U.S.; one of the largest art museums in the country, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the “Rocky Steps.”
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Philadelphia is a city of firsts, from America’s “birthplace” where the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were signed, to America’s first zoo and first university.
Today, it has an East Coast feel without East Coast prices, with a vast (and inexpensive!) public transport system spread throughout the city and surrounding regions. Don’t miss out on a variety of free festivals and events, as well as dining options ranging from local dives to swanky 5-star venues (personally, we’re partial to the dives). Read our guide on how to be a foodie on a student budget.
And while you can’t do Philly without regarding its rich history (see: Independence National Historic Park, Reading Terminal Market), there are tons of modern-day attractions as well. Don’t miss Spruce Street Harbor Park, the Schuylkill River Trail, and free museums for every interest under the sun
4. Daytona Beach, FL
BEST TIME TO VISIT: March – May for the nicest weather (aka, no hurricanes or unrelenting heat) and the most spring break parties. You’ll find cheaper travel and lodging rates and fewer crowds during August – November, though, and you’ll have to go in February if you’re hoping to catch the Daytona 500.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: With 23 miles of white-sand beaches, if you’re not coming to Daytona to work on your tan, you’re doing it wrong.
The “Festival Capital of Florida” also provides perpetual entertainment, with year-round events spanning Biketoberfest to the Halifax Art Festival. Every Friday and Saturday in summer, visitors can rock out to free concerts on the beach in the iconic Bandshell. And weekend fireworks off Daytona Beach Boardwalk and Pier are best experienced with White Claw in hand.
5. Memphis, TN
BEST TIME TO VISIT: April – May, to take advantage of spring-like weather and multiple big-time festivals; and October – November, for cooler weather and discounted lodging and attractions.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley; iconic Beale Street; Levitt Shell, the 1930s venue where Elvis played his first paid concert. (Today the venue hosts more than 50 free concerts every year.)
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Memphis landed the No. 3 spot on Money Magazine’s Most Affordable Destination list, which makes the “Home of the Blues” an ideal vacation spot for college students on a budget.
But don’t think that will stunt your ability to enjoy the city in full: You’ll find live music on nearly every corner of historic Beale Street, and many of the city’s dozens of performance venues offer free concerts year-round. Nationally renowned music festivals (the month-long Memphis in May festivities, for example, wrap four events into one) provide a mini-immersion in the local flavor, while the region’s 100-plus barbecue restaurants will keep you fueled.
6. Denver, CO
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Anytime other than June – August, when tourism to the mountainous region — and activity/travel/lodging rates — peaks. (No pun intended.) In fact, Denver is third in our ranking of best cities to spend the fall.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: The great outdoors beckon in Denver, with your pick of hiking trails, kayaking and whitewater rafting, ziplining, mountain biking, skiing and more in and around the metropolis. And backcountry vistas are abundant in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, a 1.5-hour shuttle ride from Denver’s Union Station.
If the urban landscape is more your thing, MallRide and MetroRide buses offer free transport throughout downtown Denver, from the historic Union Station to the hip LoDo district to the bustling 16th Street Mall. Interested in exercise? The city is also extremely walkable, and downtown is laced with dedicated bike lanes.
7. Traverse City, MI
BEST TIME TO VISIT: September, when the flow of tourists slows and “color season,” or the changing leaves, are in full-swing. If crowds don’t bother you, the “Cherry Capital of the World” draws more than half a million visitors to its annual Cherry Festival in July.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: It’s always wine o’clock somewhere in Traverse City, where more than 40 wineries hail from the so-called Traverse Wine Coast. The grub is good, too, with a hefty helping of mom-and-pop restaurants leading Bon Appetit to designate the city among America’s Top Five Foodie Towns. And keep in mind, this is Michigan, so we’re talking prices that won’t break a student’s budget.
By day, hike the “mountains of sand” at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, or explore the more than 100 miles of trails that curve around Lake Michigan.
8. Phoenix, AZ
BEST TIME TO VISIT: In a phrase: not summer. Avoid the scorching temps and take advantage of the still-warm weather that spans from November through April.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: Visit the Desert Botanical Garden for a combo of peaceful nature and breathtaking art; enjoy interactive exhibits at the Musical Instrument Museum, ranked one of TripAdvisor’s top 20 Museums in the U.S.; hike up Camelback Mountain at sunrise for stellar views of the city.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: The capital of the Southwest is rich with free (or very cheap) things to do for students of any interest. Outdoor activities are king — whether you’re trekking to the 2,704-foot peak of Camelback Mountain or browsing the Desert Botanical Museum at twilight (tickets are only $14.95 after 5 p.m.).
Or, if street art is more your style, visit the gripping graffiti along Roosevelt Row — which is even better after a boozy brunch at nearby Welcome Diner, where biscuits and gravy are as decadent as they are decently priced.
9. Bend, OR
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Locals will tell you “shoulder season” — September and October — is the best time to be in Bend.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Mountain biking, hiking, kayaking, skiing, fishing, camping — if it can be done outdoors, it can be done in Bend. (Yes, your camping gear can fit in the luggage hold of the bus.)
A little more than three hours southeast of Portland, Bend is the unofficial “outdoor playground of the West,” making it perfectly situated for active college students. It’s also adjacent to the Newberry National Volcanic Monument: 54,000-acres of lava flows, waterfalls and magma-formed geologic marvels.
At the end of the day, unwind with a cold one at one of Bend’s 20-plus microbreweries — the highest per-capita rate in the U.S. — or savor the small-town feel of Bend’s quaint downtown shops and restaurants. (The town’s craft-brewery selection should come as no surprise. Northern neighbor Portland is the third best craft-beer city in the entire country.
10. Montreal, QC
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Fall (September through November) is a seriously magical time to visit Montreal — if only to see the leaves change in Mount Royal Park.
TOP ATTRACTIONS: Stroll through Old Montreal for a taste of Europe in Canada; visit Jean-Talon Market for a crepe or wedge of cheese; prep your Instagram for the bizarre Barbie Expo, showcasing 60 years of fashion on the chic doll.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Montreal oozes charm. It also oozes gravy atop a pile of poutine: We recommend Greenspot off Notre-Dame Street, where a classic plate runs about CA$10.
Whether you’re studying French or are just capable enough to order une bière, the bustling Quartier des Spectacles entertainment district is a terrific place to flex your language skills with the local bartenders. A pro tip: Packed with fresh food booths, visit Jean-Talon Market for some to-go grub before walking to the top of Mount Royal Park, where you can picnic while enjoying the panoramic views.
So, take a sabbatical from your studies — it’s time for a trip! Round up your crew and start making memories at one of these top destinations for college students. Or if you’re planning a trip for spring break, we have a list of SB-specific hot spots that might be more up your alley. 😎
Just remember: Cheap travel opportunities are endless with Wanderu. Compare routes, schedules and prices on bus and train fares across the United States (and Europe!), and book your tickets on a single platform without paying a premium. Just download the Wanderu app or visit Wanderu.com to start your search.