By the time you add up transportation, lodging and meals, the best family vacation spots in the U.S. can get pretty expensive. And if you have a large family, need to fly with kids or rely on restaurants for meals, even modest family vacation ideas can become financially overwhelming. But when you make a good plan and stick to it, cheap family vacations aren’t just doable – they can actually be among the best vacations you’ll ever have.
With the right combination of free activities, advance planning and strategic frugality, cheap family vacations don’t have to mean boring family vacations. Here are this year’s top budget-friendly family vacation destinations that deliver the maximum bang for your vacation buck.
Custer State Park, South Dakota
South Dakota’s first and largest state park, Custer State Park, is a 71,000-acre wildlife preserve known for its free-ranging bison herd and buffalo safari jeep tours. Built for road trips, it boasts a number of scenic drives where you can take in the Black Hills scenery and additional wildlife like bison, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, and prairie dogs.
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The park’s 18-mile Wildlife Loop is a prime viewing route for the wildlife that lives among its pine-covered hills and rolling prairies. Another way to spot animals is taking a 2-hour buffalo safari Jeep tour to not only view the wildlife up close but also learn about the animals and park history from a guide.
Bowling Green, Kentucky
Cheap family vacations don’t get any more all-American than the caves, cars and pure Americana in the rolling green hills of Kentucky’s cave country. Just 90 minutes north of Nashville, the small town of Bowling Green is the closest tourist center to Mammoth Cave National Park, the world’s largest known cave system and a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot. (Mammoth Cave is about 40 miles northeast of Bowling Green.)
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There’s no fee to enter Mammoth Cave National Park and the aboveground activities (nature walks and hikes) are free of charge as well. However, you will need a ticket for a scheduled tour to enter the cave itself and it’s recommended that you purchase your tickets ahead of time. Cave tours range from $11 to $35 and take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2½ hours.
Bangor and the Maine Highlands, Maine
The great outdoors is just a family road trip away for families in the Northeast. The Maine Highlands region, which includes Moosehead Lake, Baxter State Park, Mount Katahdin and the city of Bangor, is filled with natural beauty and wildlife.
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Only an hour away from Bangor is Acadia National Park, the only national park in New England and a relatively cheap family vacation destination that’s loaded with beaches, islands and scenic walking and carriage roads.
How can you go wrong with an entire town dedicated to chocolate? At this Pennsylvania town’s 115-year-old amusement park, Hersheypark, you’ll find more than 70 rides, including 15 roller coasters, an outdoor water park and a family campground. There’s also an all-new chocolate themed dining establishment, the Chocolatier Restaurant, with fantastic theme park views and a menu with a fun chocolatey spin.
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And the best part? Admission to Hersheypark doesn’t just cost less than Disney, it also goes further. Ticket holders are entitled to a preview of the amusement park on the evening before their scheduled visit.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama
Located on a barrier island at the southernmost tip of Alabama, the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area is 32 miles of beachfront along the Gulf of Mexico. The inland areas beyond the dunes are marked by pine forests, lakes, rivers, bayous and coves filled with wildlife.
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With nearly 6,500 acres of protected land, 28 miles of paved and enhanced trails and 3½ miles of beachfront, Gulf State Park is one of those state parks that feels like it could easily be a national park instead. The park received an $85 million dollar infusion due to the 2010 BP oil spill and has upgraded its facilities immensely with that investment. Its Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism and Sustainability is a world-class ecotourism and experiential learning facility.
The nation’s capital is an affordable family destination because so many of the most popular sites are free. History-loving families should head to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Air and Space Museum, Library of Congress or Ford’s Theatre.
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Nature lovers will enjoy the National Zoo, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, the Potomac River and Rock Creek Park. Of course there’s always free sightseeing just by checking out all the monuments and memorials between the U.S. Capitol and Lincoln Memorial.