The 5 Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Vacations

Who says city trips have to be expensive? Enjoy good value and plenty of free activities in these destinations.

San Antonio Riverside Walkway

by NEA Member Benefits

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Urban vacations have a reputation for being pricey—but they don’t have to be. The secret is choosing a destination that offers lots of low- or no-cost activities, whether that means soaking up a city’s culture, visiting free museums or exploring the great outdoors. Here are five of our top metro destinations for budget-conscious travelers.

1. Kansas City, Missouri

Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Vacations - Kansas City Missouri

An abundance of free attractions pulls Kansas City, Missouri, to the top of many lists for affordable city vacations. No admission is charged to visit the city’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Dole Institute of Politics, Frontier Army Museum and Money Museum at Federal Reserve Bank. Also no-cost are the Hallmark Visitors Center and its Kaleidoscope children’s art studio, as well as factory tours at Harley-Davidson.

In addition, it’s always free to visit the metro area’s more than 200 fountains, and many of the city’s famed barbecue joints are as affordable as they are tasty.

Hotel rates average just $119 per night.

2. Salt Lake City, Utah

Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Vacations - Salt Lake City Utah

A lot of Salt Lake City’s appeal is Utah’s spectacular natural beauty, which you can enjoy at little or no cost. Nearby canyons offer scenic drives, hikes or bike rides, and Great Salt Lake adds watersports such as kayaking and sailing, as well as bird-watching. In addition, the mountains that draw skiers in winter are a playground for hikers and mountain bikers in summer, and several state and national parks are within a few hours’ drive of the city.

Always-free attractions include Fort Douglas Military Museum, the Utah State Capitol building and Clark Planetarium (but expect to pay for IMAX movies and star shows). If you’ll be in town for several days, consider purchasing a Connect Pass, which includes attractions such as the Natural History Museum of Utah, Utah Olympic Park, Utah’s Hogle Zoo and The Leonardo, and can save you 50% or more off regular admissions.

The average hotel cost per night is $129.

3. San Antonio, Texas

Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Vacations - San Antonio Texas

Many of San Antonio’s top attractions are free, including the River Walk, The Alamo and the four missions that make up San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Join the tourists who flock to Paseo del Rio, the waterside promenade that follows the San Antonio River through the center of town, but venture a couple blocks away from the river for more affordable eats. You can take a boat tour on the river for around $12.

Get around town on a budget by using the city’s extensive VIA Metropolitan Transit bus system, or rent a bike for $12 a day through BCycle.

The average hotel room costs just $124 per night.

4. Albuquerque, New Mexico

Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Vacations - Albuquerque New Mexico

Fueled in part by iconic images of red rocks against blue skies, the American Southwest is a frequent bucket list destination, and Albuquerque makes a great base for exploring the region. Admiring views of the Sandia Mountains, exploring Old Town, driving a portion of historic Route 66 and enjoying the area’s 310 annual days of sunshine are always free.

The city bills itself as the “hot-air ballooning capital of the world,” and the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is held in October, but you can watch the colorful craft floating over the city almost every morning of the year. A flight will set you back $175 or more, but a visit to the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum is just $6 for adults ($4 for seniors; $3 or children 4–12).

Other no-cost attractions include the 16-mile Paseo del Bosque Trail along the Rio Grande, Petroglyph National Monument and the University of New Mexico museums, which include the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology and the Meteorite Museum.

Bonus: The city’s average hotel rate is just $89/night.

5. Memphis, Tennessee

Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Vacations - Memphis Tennessee

Memphis earns its spot on our list in part for the street performers that make this music city a great destination for audiophiles on a budget. Stroll historic Beale Street, learn more about musicians on its Brass Notes Walk of Fame and maybe catch a free concert at Handy Park. Also free are the outdoor concerts at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park.

For more local history, time your visit to include a free weekly tour or lecture offered by Jimmy Ogle Talks and Tours, or get another perspective on the area at Mud Island River Park, a scale model of the Lower Mississippi River that includes 20 cities and covers 5 city blocks.

The free Sun Studio Shuttle will take you to the gates of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s former home. Tickets are $41 and up for adults, $36.90 for seniors or students or $21 for children 7–12.

Hotel rooms in downtown Memphis average $140 per night; rates outside of downtown average $120 or less. 

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