10 Affordable U.S. Travel Destinations – and How to Experience Them on a Budget

With the summer approaching, you’re probably looking wistfully at pop up ads of perfect white beaches with happy glistening people sitting on them. If money is tight, don’t assume an American seaside break—or any other U.S. vacation—is out of your financial reach. Compromise on timings and location, and you can get a lot of beach, city or unspoiled countryside for your buck.

Yosemite National Park, CA

El Capitan and Merced River meet in Yosemite. (Photo: Fotolia)

El Capitan and Merced River meet in Yosemite. (Photo: Fotolia)


This 1,200 square mile hunk of Californian wilderness is home to some of the most beautiful scenery the state—or country—has to offer: soaring waterfalls, ancient sequoia trees, plus a glut of hiking trails and natural monuments.

How to visit on a budget
Take a tent and camp for a fraction of the price of a hotel. This will also give you the freedom to stay at a safe distance from the seven square-mile patch that lures most of the park’s tourists. Also, stock up on supplies before you enter the preserve. To get around, take advantage of Yosemite’s free bus service.

Destin, FL

Sunset in Destin, Florida. (Photo: Ruth P. Peterkin/Fotolia)

Sunset in Destin, Florida. (Photo: Ruth P. Peterkin/Fotolia)


In the heart of Florida’s Panhandle sits this under appreciated Gulf Coast enclave. The beaches are white, and the city has a low-key, relaxed vibe. Which is no small thing in a state where the most big name beaches are lined with flashy high rises and associated ridiculousness.

How to visit on a budget
Go off-season and book a vacation rental or hotel for well under $100 per night. The beach is free and, if you take your own chairs, umbrellas and food, you can save a fortune. Pack a rod, and you may even be able to catch your dinner. After all, Destin is known locally as the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.

Nashville, TN

Nashville in the morning. (Photo: Fotolia)

Nashville in the morning. (Photo: Fotolia)


Low hotel prices, live music in almost every bar and superb barbecue make Music City one of the most enticing spots in the South. The pressure is on to visit the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame, but Nashville’s smaller live music venues are a better bet for the money-conscious traveler.

How to visit on a budget
Holiday in the winter when hotel prices are low and the heat is less intense. Invest in a total access city pass, which buys you access to four attractions for only $60. Also, check out Nashville’s tourism site for free activities and money-saving coupons.

New Orleans

New Orleans. (Photo: Fotolia)

New Orleans. (Photo: Fotolia)


Sublime Creole and Cajun food at reasonable prices, live music and cheap, gaudy beverages served in plastic cups (which you can take to go!) are just some of the things that make this Louisiana jewel so popular.

How to visit on a budget
Avoid high prices—not to mention time spent forcibly nestled in the armpits of unwashed revelers—by not planning a trip during Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest. July and August are the best months for finding a great deal on a hotel. But whenever you go, avoid the rip-off accommodation options in the French Quarter.

Washington, DC

The Smithsonian (Photo: Fotolia)

The Smithsonian (Photo: Fotolia)


The nation’s capital brims with lobbyists, bureaucrats and distinctly un-budget hotel options. But you can still holiday on the cheap, because within DC’s limits are enough free attractions to fill several vacations.

How to visit on a budget
Three words: The Smithsonian Institute. Admission to this excellent crop of museums—plus the National Zoo—is free, making it a great option for money-conscious holidaymakers. Bu the complimentary fun doesn’t stop there. Check out this 20-free-things-to-do-in-DC guide. Between museums, try to avoid the street vendors selling over priced, disappointing fare. Pack a lunch or target the city’s ethnic food hotspots. The U Street Corridor is famous for its great and reasonably priced Ethiopian restaurants.

Chicago, IL

Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago (Photo: Fotolia)

Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago (Photo: Fotolia)


Brave, budget-conscious visitors to the Windy City book their trip for the winter months when hotels and airlines slash their prices. The chilly weather might make Chi-Town seem like an unattractive holiday spot, but if you’re primarily interested in the city’s museums and excellent restaurants then it’ll be minimally bothersome.

How to visit on a budget
Book a B&B in one of Chicago’s northern neighborhoods like Andersonville or Lincoln Park. And about those museums you’ll be hauled up in because it’s so darn cold: most are free on certain days, so plan your schedule accordingly. And invest in a Chicago CityPASS, which gets you massive discounts on the city’s top attractions.

Palm Springs, CA

Palm Springs (Photo: Fotolia)

Palm Springs (Photo: Fotolia)


This desert oasis conjures up images vintage Hollywood starlets draped seductively on expensive poolside furniture. Sure, you can blow your cash trying to emulate Audrey Hepburn on hiatus, but there’s plenty of moderately priced accommodation in the region’s Spanish and mid-century chic hotels.

How to visit on a budget

Hotel rates fall as the temperature soars in July and August, so factor this in when booking. For some relief from the heat, visit the mountains. If you’re after some budget retail therapy, Palm Springs is home to some of California’s best thrift stores.

Austin, TX

Austin (Photo: Fotolia)

Austin (Photo: Fotolia)


For a Texas vacation that the Ewing clan wouldn’t be seen dead on, head to the proudly alternative Austin. If the city’s slogan “Keep Austin weird” isn’t enough to lure you, then how about its affordability? It has everything budget conscious, trend-seeking travelers could want, from the inexpensive live music venues to picturesque outdoor swimming spots, like Lady Bird Lake and Barton Springs Pool.

How to visit on a budget
Follow the student crowd, and avoid festivals and game days. The achingly cool city has an impressive collection of stylish but moderately priced (sometimes under $100 per night) boutique hotels. Although the culinary scene has exploded in recent years, there’s still a decent crop of budget-friendly, mouth-watering BBQ and Mexican food options. For ribs with a side of live music, head to 2nd and 6th Streets.

Charlottesville, VA

Grape growers in the east coast’s nearest equivalent to Napa Valley have only recently been able to tease decent vintages out of the soil. Touring the town’s wineries is fun and surprisingly affordable. As an added bonus, you’ll get to gaze at the stunning Virginian countryside as you sip a local Bordeaux.

How to visit on a budget
Hotel prices are encouraging reasonable, especially compared to exorbitantly overpriced Napa. Visit Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello, off season, November to February, and ticket prices drop.

Las Vegas, NV

Las Vegas (Photo: Fotolia)

Las Vegas (Photo: Fotolia)


Stippled with low-cost hotels, this adult playground can provide a bargain break, provided you don’t gamble away everything you save. Instead, hang out at the casino’s all-you-can-eat buffets and lounge in your inexpensive luxury hotel room.

How to visit on a budget
Stick to the low-risk slot machines, soak up the sun at one of the many public pools and hammer those heaving buffets. If you put in the research, you can score some amazing deals on flights and hotels. Vegas traffic is a nightmare, and car hire will pump up your spend, so get around using public transport or those things on the end of your legs.

See more:
Traveling DIY Style: Tips for Brits Planning U.S. Holidays
Themed Vacations: Ideas for Brits in America
5 Very American Ways for Brits to See the U.S.
9 U.S. Vacation Destinations That Will Remind Brits of Home
7 Ways to Scrimp and Save in the U.S.

Join @MindtheGap_BBCA on Twitter tomorrow (Wednesday, April 30) at 2 pm ET to chat about ways to save on travel costs. We’ll be joined by blogger Kash Bhattacharya, known on Twitter as @BudgetTraveller. (Visit his website.) Tweet us using hashtag #MindTheChat for a chance to win the most recent season of BBC AMERICA’s Top Gear (Season 21) on iTunes!

  • brazildj

    It’s not the Golf Coast, it’s the Gulf Coast, named for the Gulf of Mexico. Bush league mistake.

  • expatmum

    There’s a great Embassy Suites in Foggy Bottom in DC which makes all the sites and Georgetown walkable. It’s very reasonable and you get a free buffet breakfast. Sticker shock for dining out is high since many people are on expense accounts. $40 for an entree is not unusual in decent-but-not-high-end restaurants.

    One thing about winter visits to Chicago, we get a lot of tourists and out of state shoppers around Xmas and a lot of people at Thanksgiving, so the rates might go up at those times.

  • maggie

    it’s not cheap but here in New England there are some beautiful places

  • Gillian Pilgrim

    I honestly cannot fathom sending anyone, short of your very worst enemy, to New Orleans in July and/or August. I’ve never been to England, but I’m reasonably sure no one there has ever experienced anything even close to 100+ degree temperatures with 90+ per cent humidity. NO ONE goes there in the summer, which, by the way, is also popularly known as HURRICANE SEASON.
    I’m not even going to address the wisdom of sending British citizens to the Redneck Riviera, other than to say “don’t”.

    • frozen01

      I used to live in the area, and it’s really not nearly as bad as you’re making it sound. Yes, it is hurricane season, but this does not mean a hurricane will hit anymore than going to Chicago in the winter (which they also suggested) would mean you’ll be snowed in by a massive blizzard (in fact, it’s far less likely). Average temperature in July/August is 91, but keep in mind, everywhere has AC, and it enjoys a nice cooling Gulf breeze. True, it will probably be a little warm for some Brits, but then again Chicago winters would be far colder than they’re used to, as well.

      I don’t even know where to start with the “Redneck Riviera” comment. New Orleans is a southern gem of history, culture, and food, and one of the must-see cities of the US.

      • Gillian Pilgrim

        I LOVE New Orleans, but it’s pretty awful in the summer, and any vacation there is going to have to include many hours spent walking it’s lovely streets to admire the architecture (and be lured by the smell of food). The Redneck Riviera is just another name for the Florida Panhandle, another location suggested by the author.

        • expatmum

          Let’s not forget that Brits flock to Florida in the summer without a second thought. They’re not bothered about the heat and humidity at all.

        • frozen01

          It’s funny, but I grew up in the panhandle, and never once in my 32 years have I heard anyone use that term. Now? That’s the second time in a few months (someone else just mentioned it the other day in my presence). *tsk* Terrible phrase, and not particularly fair. If you like quiet, scenic, non-touristy places, it’s lovely.

          In my experience, and to mirror what expatmum said, Americans complain more about the heat and humidity than the Brits do.

      • Carolyn Hanson Mayer

        I wouldn’t go to the Gulf in the Summer. As for Chicago – that’s my hometown. Very cold Downtown around January – dress accordingly! If you stay Downtown a car is not needed. NO, you’re unlikely to be snowed in. Another reason to skip the car – no Winter driving! Almost nothing keeps Chicagoans in. Field’s/Macy’s inspired Selfridge’s. Check out the architecture
        Oh, and *never* highlight the Trump Tower – it’s detested. There are a dozen better and happier Chicago landmarks!

        • frozen01

          It’s where I live, too, coincidentally. That’s why I used it :)

  • M Elliott

    Okay, doing research online for deals and packages have never been easier. Book with B&Bs, use coupons services like Groupon and talk to the locals for restaurant ideas. Air fare is what is going to cost you the most. You should always use public transportation anywhere you go in the US. If camping isn’t your thing, renting a simple cabin at Yosemite is going to cost you a fraction of a hotel.

    If money is something you are worried about, then you should not go to any of the places listed. There are many places that you can visit that would cost you half if not more. Go to the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. Stay away from highly commercialize places, because you are always going to end up spending more.

    I believe this basic information can be applied to anywhere, anytime someone travels.

    • frozen01

      Thing about B&Bs is they can be quite expensive and have very limited hours. The last one I looked at in my area, staff services were only around between 4-7pm!
      Booking a room at a simple hotel outside of the touristy areas is what I’ve found works best. You might be commuting a little bit more, but what’s a half hour out of your day when you’re paying half… or even a quarter!… of the price?

      But speaking of talking to the locals for restaurants, Chicago is a great place to visit for this reason. There are an absolute TON of excellent places to eat in every price range. Get out of the downtown area and you’ll find yourself awash in very affordable choices with boatloads of local flavor.

      • Carolyn Hanson Mayer

        Yes, Chicago has great food!

        When venturing outside of Downtown, be careful! The South-Side is infamous (dangerous!) Do your homework first. Head North? Check out Evanston and the rest of the North Shore. You can take the train there from Downtown.

        • frozen01

          Personally, I like Wicker Park. Safe area, tons of reasonably-priced restaurants and night life, easily accessible from the El (on the 24-hour Blue line, no less), lots of quirky shops (from antiques to books/comic books/zines to art to clothing), farmers markets, etc. It’s also home to the famous Violet Hour, which is an interesting little speakeasy not far from my favorite diner (Blue Line diner, featuring $3 mimosas on the weekend), and a beautiful old bank that was converted to a Walgreens (complete with “vitamin vault” which still has the bank vault door, some of the safe deposit boxes, and the blueprints on display).

    • Carolyn Hanson Mayer

      Not all of the US has good public transportation. Check on that first. Yosemite is fantastic! And affordable, as are the other national parks. But, for Yosemite you need to make reservations in advance. Way in advance – like a year, last I heard.

  • Lindsey

    Las Vegas traffic is actually great compared to places like California. It only gets congested on the Strip from tourists who rented cars to cruise from the top of the Strip to the bottom.

    • Carolyn Hanson Mayer

      Cheaper in Las Vegas, too.

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  • James Bond

    cape cod is really nice, but unless youre going for one or two days only, its not for the traveler on a budget. especially if youre heading to martha’s vineyard/nantucket. even the sweets are expensive.