10 Budget-Friendly Vacation Destinations for Families

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Imagine this: Somehow, everyone in your family has availability for a group trip. 

The sun, the moon and the stars have actually aligned in everyone’s schedule, and you’re ready to head somewhere fun with your loved ones. The final task? Figuring out where to go — and how to get there. 

But, before we dive into actual destinations, it’s worthwhile to talk a bit about budgeting. We all know how quickly travel costs can add up, and while a Disney Cruise or Mexico all-inclusive would surely be a blast, your wallet will feel the fallout. At Wanderu, we aim to set you up with the cheapest travel possible — letting you compare bus, train and flight prices all in a single search. That means more money for bike rentals, escape rooms and other fun family expenses. 

That said, there are additional ways to save when a family trip is on the table. Here are a few more ways to keep costs low:  

  1. Travel off-peak. It may be hard to do with school and extracurriculars, but if you can swing it, a shoulder season (spring or fall) to a destination that’s popular in the summer or winter can save you tons of money on travel and accommodations.  
  2. Find free activities. When deciding how to spend your time on a trip, it can be tempting to pay for all the top tours and attractions. But with a large group, Broadway tickets and bus tours can be pricey. Look for group discounts, if those are an option, but otherwise it’s worthwhile to think about what you can do for free. Think beaches, parks and museums with free admission.
  3. Book travel early. Coordinating all your schedules is going to require advance planning anyway, so why not pull the trigger and purchase tickets early? Solidifying those travel dates way out in front can help you snag a solid deal.  

Below, we’ve analyzed our own Wanderu data to find destinations that are a bargain to get to and offer loads of inexpensive activities. This lively list of locations spans the country from coast to coast, so whether you’re clan is scattered throughout the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic or midway between San Francisco and L.A., all of these places should be relatively accessible. 

Now, without further ado, here are the best spots for your next family event.

1. Orlando, FL

Photo of a family walking down Diagon Alley.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Late spring. March to May will have the nicest weather, and lower rates for accommodations. 

TOP ATTRACTIONS: Disney World; The Wizarding World of Harry Potter; Gatorland.

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: OK, so it feels obvious to say, but it’s totally true: Orlando is one of the world’s ultimate family destinations.

Seriously, there’s something for everyone: thrills, adventure, whimsy. And while we like lounging in white sand as much as the next person, this is not that type of Florida excursion.

There are a seemingly endless amount of theme parks to visit: Sure, there’s Disney World, but within the greater Orlando area you also have Universal Studios (home to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter), Gatorland (which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like), LegoLand, and many more. From water parks to rollercoasters, zoos to aquariums, Mickey Mouse to The Tower of Terror, whether there are kiddos in your crew or not, your group is set up for endless fun.

Some general tips to save when it comes to these big-time amusement parks: As mentioned above, off-season travel is key. Don’t hit up Disney during the holidays and, if possible, avoid summer or other common school breaks. Think mid-February or early November. Also, bring your own snacks: Disney World churros run $6 a pop.

2. Washington, DC

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Shoulder seasons (March–May, September–November). The 2020 Cherry Blossom Festival runs from March 20 to April 12.

TOP ATTRACTIONS: Smithsonian Institutions; the White House; the Washington Monument

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: D.C. offers plenty of tame, non-rollercoaster options for the whole family. Between prime access to American history and art at one of the 70-plus museums, one visit to D.C. is really just scratching the surface of the culture alive in the District.

Even better, Washington is the place to be for all things free. That’s right, you can walk right in to all 16 Smithsonian museums in the city without paying a dime, and many other local sites follow their lead. Don’t believe it? Check out our “DC on a Budget” guide, which lists 22 free attractions.

When you’re done gazing out over the National Mall, check out the Lincoln Memorial (and Lincoln Cottage), or visit the U.S. Capitol itself. Beyond politics, the fam can catch a Nationals game, wander the Smithsonian Zoo, or even go undercover at the International Spy Museum.

Plus, in spring, those cherry blossoms we mentioned? To die for.

3. Grand Canyon, AZ

Scenic photo of the Grand Canyon at sunset.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Spring and fall. While summer might be more schedule-friendly, hordes of tourists make the season hard to enjoy. 

TOP ATTRACTIONS: Grand Canyon Village; rafting the Colorado River; Skywalk, a glass bridge that extends out over the Canyon.

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: The views alone make it worthwhile, but there is so much to explore in the Grand Canyon. (And while your parents may have road-tripped here in a station wagon as kids, we can tell you that a bus is a far more comfortable option.)

If adventure is your jam, a family excursion to the GC could involve an intense, frothy raft trip down the Colorado River at the base of the canyon. It could also involve walking out on the clear-floored Skywalk for a group selfie, getting acquainted with the historic Grand Canyon Village, or making the trek (it’s a 10-mile hike) to Havasu Falls, where crystal-blue waters invite you in against a stark red-rock backdrop. It’s a hot destination, in terms of both popularity and temperature, but the views alone are worth the trip.

4. Williamsburg, VA

BEST TIME TO VISIT: With gorgeous foliage on display, fall is the hands-down best.  

TOP ATTRACTIONS: Colonial Williamsburg; Governor’s Palace; Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Go full retro in Williamsburg, a haven for American history and art buffs.

Colonial Williamsburg is the gem of this city: It’s the world’s largest living-history museum, packed with tours, re-enactments, exhibits and more. (Seriously, you can watch a gunsmith weld a rifle barrel or an apothecare formulate medicine.) There’s also Historic Jamestowne just 15 minutes away — another landmark chock-full of culture offering a dive into America’s past.

Hungry for something a little more modern? Amp things up with a visit to Busch Gardens, whose rollercoasters are a perfect balance to Colonial Williamsburg’s blast from the past.

5. San Diego, CA

Photo of the San Diego Zoo.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: San Diego is pleasant year-round, including winter, where temps linger around the high 50s/low 60s. 

TOP ATTRACTIONS: Incredible beaches; Balboa Park (and San Diego Zoo); Legoland.

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: San Diego’s beaches are vastly underrated — while Florida, Hawaii and the Los Angeles area get more attention, SD has some truly terrific sand.

With a comfortable, sunny climate that would make most other American cities jealous, San Diego is the place to go for water-related and beach activities. Whether your kids are adventurous enough to tackle the surf or are more comfortable sitting on the warm sand, the beaches are gorgeous and relaxed (Moonlight State Beach is ideal for families). 

At 1,200 acres, Balboa Park could consume an entire day on its own. Walk or bike it, but either way, make a pit stop at the San Diego Zoo — the most visited zoo in the entire U.S.

6. Wisconsin Dells, WI

Overhead view of the Wisconsin Dells.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Summer will be high tourism season, but the heat will also make the water that much more enjoyable. Early fall is also a good bet.

TOP ATTRACTIONS: Noah’s Ark Water Park; Mt. Olympus Park; Mirror Lake State Park.

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: When it comes to waterparks, the Wisconsin Dells are hard to beat. Come to the Dells prepared to splash and get splashed, with the destination’s many water parks offering up loads of entertainment. The most popular is Noah’s Ark Water Park, which checks in as the biggest waterpark in the entire country.

There is something here for your more outdoorsy kin as well — the city is situated right on the Wisconsin River, which was formed via glacial movement, leaving behind gorgeous sandstone formations. Mirror Lake State Park is also a phenomenal respite from the crowds, offering fishing, kayaking and more.

7. Salt Lake City, UT

Photo of downtown Salt Lake City with snow-capped mountains in the background.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: The fall — best prices, best temps. 

TOP ATTRACTIONS: Skiing; Tracy Aviary; Discovery Gateway.

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: A premier location in the wild West, Salt Lake City offers immaculate mountain views and entertainment for days.

Kids will have a ball at the Discovery Gateway, a children’s museum with more than 60,000 square feet of interactive exhibits. A spot in town that many guidebooks miss: the Tracy Aviary, where your family can get up close and personal with a plethora of bird species from around the globe.

For the thrill-seeking family, winter is your season, because there’s no shortage of powder-filled ski resorts within an hour or two drive of Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, the Great Salt Lake (the city’s namesake) is quite literally a very salty, very floatable lake to take a dip in if you’re visiting during the warmer months.

8. St. Louis, MO

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Dodge snow and humidity by visiting during shoulder seasons (April–May, September–October).

TOP ATTRACTIONS: St. Louis City Museum; The Gateway Arch; the Old Courthouse, a historic site built in the 1800s with a spectacular rotunda.

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Many skyscrapers offer elevators to impressive views, but there’s nothing quite like the curving cruise up to the top of the Gateway Arch. With a unique viewpoint that peers out across the St. Louis skyline, the Gateway Arch is the tallest arch in the world, as well as the tallest man-made monument in the entire Western hemisphere.

St. Louis is also home to one of the most exciting and original museums in the country: the City Museum, which features repurposed industrial and architectural objects welded into slides, ladders and stairs. While there are plenty of kid-friendly activities at City Museum, trust us when we say that fun has no age limit here.

9. San Antonio, TX

Photo of the famous Alamo mission at night.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: November through April to avoid sweltering heat and for better rates on accommodations. 

TOP ATTRACTIONS: The Alamo; the River Walk; various theme parks. 

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Already a pretty walkable city, a stroll down San Antonio’s River Walk will give you and your family access to seemingly endless food and drink options in the heart of downtown.

Then there’s The Alamo (you’ll remember it!), the historic mission where Texas troops took on General Santa Anna and his army in 1836 during the Texas Revolution. Sadly the Texans lost, but the site remains an impressive symbol of courage (and is also a pretty cool architectural site).  

All hopped up on American pride now? Turn the excitement up to 11 with a visit to Six Flags Fiesta Texas, Morgan’s Wonderland (which is completely wheelchair-accessible), or Schlitterbahn water park — all under an hour’s drive from downtown San Antonio.

10. Lake George, NY

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Summer in upstate New York is popular for a reason. 

TOP ATTRACTIONS: Fort William Henry; Million Dollar Beach; Prospect Mountain Highway.

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: What do you get when you build a small town on a gorgeous lake surrounded by the pristine Adirondack Mountains? Lake George, of course.

The biggest stressor you’ll feel upstate is deciding how to allocate your time: From town, you can venture out onto the lake, lounge under the sun on Million Dollar Beach, explore Fort William Henry (a restored British fort originally built in 1755), or hike up the Prospect Mountain Highway, a five-mile stretch serving up spectacular views.

Chillin’ in town can be just as pleasant, with mini-golf, restaurants overlooking the lake, ice cream and pizza parlors galore.

Planning a family vacation means maneuvering a lot of moving parts. But whether your family is seeking a few quiet days on the water, heart-pounding roller-coaster drops, delicious food options or an encounter with Mother Nature (or all the above), know that you have choices. The best of which we’ve listed above.

And remember, a family trip doesn’t have to bankrupt your grandmother’s estate. To find the very cheapest travel deals, turn to Wanderu. Compare routes, schedules and prices on bus, train and plane 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.

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About the author
Karl Ortegon

Karl Ortegon

Karl studied abroad in Stockholm, Sweden, where he became infatuated with meatballs and fika (though he didn't care for the sun setting before 4pm). He's down to go on a trip at a moment's notice, and he has previously written for travel guide website iExplore.