The Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Vacations

Budget travelers can find great value and plenty of free activities in these inexpensive vacation destinations.

San Antonio Riverside Walkway

by NEA Member Benefits

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Editor’s Note: NEA Member Benefits understands how much you love to travel. And, while now isn’t the time for unnecessary trips, we’re here to help you plan future vacations with helpful travel guides and tips. That way, when the novel coronavirus is under control, you’ll have everything you need to get back on track and plan memorable trips for your family. If you plan on visiting another state, please check the self-quarantine stipulations for each state.

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 eight of our top metro destinations for budget-conscious travelers. And, no matter which city you visit, don't forget that your NEA membership benefits can help you find deals on airfare, rental cars and hotels to help you get there.

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. And, with free transportation care of the Kansas City Streetcar, you’ll be able to see and visit many of them without spending a dime. The KC Streetcar runs through a 2.2-mile route, which starts at Union Station and travels to the city’s River Market, with 16 stops along the way.

Kansas City also has plenty of free or low-cost outdoor attractions, including the 2-acre Kauffman Memorial Garden (don’t miss the Secret Garden behind the conservatory); the 300-acre Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens that features eight ecosystems; and the kid-friendly Penguin Park in Northland that features a 26-foot kangaroo slide and a 23-foot playable penguin. 

If you have kids in tow, a stop at the Crown Center might be worthwhile. It features several kid-friendly exhibits, such as Kaleidoscope, SEA LIFE Aquarium and Legoland Discovery Center.

No admission is charged to visit the city’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Dole Institute of Politics and Frontier Army Museum. The C.W. Parker Carousel Museum, American Museum of Jazz and Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop-Farm are cheap attractions you can stop by for a dose of history, music or fun.

Hotel rates in Kansas City average just $115/night.

Travel discounts for NEA members: Be sure to check the NEA Travel Program to search for deals on flights to Kansas City International Airport, rental cars to get around the area, and rooms at affordable hotels such as Hotel Indigo, Hilton Garden Inn and Stoney Creek.

Local planning resources: Visit KC | list of free attractions | Kansas City Streetcar |  Union Station | Kauffman Memorial Garden | Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens | Penguin Park | Crown Center | Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art | Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art |Dole Institute of Politics | Frontier Army MuseumC.W. Parker Carousel Museum | American Museum of Jazz | Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop-Farm

Salt Lake City, Utah

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

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

Always-free attractions include Hill Aerospace Museum, the Utah Sports Hall of Fame Museum and Clark Planetarium (but expect to pay for IMAX movies and star shows). If you’ll be in town for several days, purchase a Connect Pass. It includes attractions such as the Natural History Museum of Utah, Utah Olympic Park, Utah’s Hogle Zoo and Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and it can save you 50% or more off regular admission prices.

The average hotel costs around $110/night.

Travel discounts for NEA members: Be sure to check the NEA Travel Program to search for deals on flights to Salt Lake City International Airport, rental cars to get around the area, and rooms at affordable hotels such as DoubleTree Suites Downtown, Kimpton Hotel Monaco, and Crystal Inn Hotel and Suites.

Local planning resources: Visit Salt Lake | Great Salt Lake | Hill Aerospace Museum | Utah Sports Hall of Fame Museum | Clark Planetarium | Connect Pass | Natural History Museum of Utah | Utah Olympic Park | Utah’s Hogle Zoo| Utah Museum of Fine Arts

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 and The Alamo. Join the tourists who flock to Paseo del Rio. This waterside promenade follows the San Antonio River through the center of town, but venture a couple of 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. And, if you’re spending some time in the city, you might want to get hold of a Go San Antonio Pass, which provides access to 25+ attractions. Starting at $95 for an Explorer Pass, you’ll get entry to three attractions, including the Buckhorn Saloon and Texas Ranger Museum and more.

The average hotel room costs about $100/night.

Travel discounts for NEA members: Be sure to check the NEA Travel Program to search for deals on flights to San Antonio International Airport, rental cars to get around the area, and rooms at affordable hotels such as Hilton Garden Inn, Hyatt Place and Crockett Hotel.

Local planning resources: Visit San Antonio | River Walk | The Alamo | VIA Metropolitan Transit |BCycle | Go San Antonio Pass

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. 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.” 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 for children 6–17 and free for kids 5 and under.

Other no-cost attractions include the 16-mile Paseo del Bosque Trail along the Rio Grande, Petroglyph National Monument, and the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History.      

The city's average hotel rate is around $100/night.

Travel discounts for NEA members: Be sure to check the NEA Travel Program to search for deals on flights to Albuquerque International Sunport, rental cars to get around the area, and rooms at affordable hotels such as DoubleTree by Hilton, Comfort Inn & Suites, and Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town.

Local planning resources: Visit Albuquerque | Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta | Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum | Paseo del Bosque Trail | Petroglyph National Monument | National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

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. Or, get a ticket to an intimate musical night at South Main Sounds.    

For more local history, time your visit to include a tour of Stax Museum of American Soul Music, 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 five city blocks.

Tickets to Graceland, Elvis Presley's former home, start at $45.50 for 11 and up, $25 for children 5 to 10 years old and free for kids 4 and under. But, if you're just there to snap a photo or visit the Meditation Garden (limited hours), you don't have to shell out a dime.

Hotel rooms in Memphis average $120/night.

Travel discounts for NEA members: Be sure to check the NEA Travel Program to search for deals on flights to Memphis International Airport, rental cars to get around the area, and rooms at affordable hotels such as Memphis Belvedere Suites and Four Points by Sheraton.

Local planning resources: Memphis Tourism | Beale Street | Brass Notes Walk of Fame | Mud Island River Park | Graceland

Las Vegas, Nevada

Sin City is a popular destination for its casinos, entertainment and nightlife, but you don’t have to break the bank to afford a vacation here.

The Strip is central to several attractions, including the famous Bellagio’s dancing fountains and its free daily light and water show accompanied by popular music. The resort’s Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, a 14,000-square-foot space featuring a rotating exhibit display, is also free.

The Volcano at the Mirage, just outside the Las Vegas Boulevard Main Entrance, is another free attraction that has been wowing tourists for 30 years. You can also visit the free Flamingo Wildlife Habitat at the Flamingo Las Vegas. Open daily from dawn to dusk, the 15-acre outdoor space is the residence of a flock of Chilean flamingos as well as ringed teal ducks, sacred ibis, a couple of brown pelicans, swans, koi fish and turtles.

If you’re in Downtown Las Vegas, don’t miss the Fremont Street Experience. It’s a five-block party where bands and DJs perform for free and street performers entertain spectators. While you’re here, check out the murals on the side of the buildings, too.

Las Vegas room rates vary greatly throughout the year with prices as low as $59 per night. Note: If you're looking for an adults-only property, check out the Circa Resort and Casino, which opened in late 2020.

Travel discounts for NEA members: Be sure to check the NEA Travel Program to search for deals on flights to McCarran International Airport, rental cars to get around the area, and rooms at affordable hotels such as California Hotel and Casino, Downtown Grand and The D Las Vegas.

Local planning resources: Visit Las Vegas | Bellagio’s dancing fountains | Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens | The Volcano at the Mirage | Flamingo Wildlife Habitat | Fremont Street Experience | Circa Resort and Casino

Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta is a city brimming with history but also with great outdoor spaces to rest and relax in. Don’t miss a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Sweet Auburn, the center of Black Atlanta. The park features the home, church and neighborhood of one of America’s leading civil rights movement figures. Check out the Behold monument and stop to smell the roses in the “I Have a Dream” World Peace Rose Garden.

Then head over to the Georgia State Capitol, a National Historic Landmark representing more than 100 years of the state’s history and architecture. Get a copy of the Capitol brochure and go on a self-guided tour of the Capitol Museum, where you can find exhibits, memorials, artwork and other artifacts important to Georgia’s history.

Soak in more of the state’s history from a different perspective at the Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta’s first public park and also its oldest cemetery. Within its 48 acres of outdoor space, you’ll also find a botanical preserve with magnolias and shady oaks. For more of Atlanta’s natural beauty, take a trip to the Atlanta Beltline, where you can enjoy about 10 public parks and 33 miles of multi-use trails; check first to see which parks and trails are open.

Be prepared to pay around $140 for a hotel room in Atlanta. Two new hotels of note: Reverb by Hard Rock and Embassy Suites by Hilton Atlanta Midtown (scheduled to open in February 2021).

Travel discounts for NEA members: Be sure to check the NEA Travel Program to search for deals on flights to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, rental cars to get around the area, and rooms at affordable hotels such as Residence Inn Atlanta Midtown/Georgia Tech, TownePlace Suites Atlanta Buckhead, and Fairfield Inn & Suites Atlanta Buckhead.

Local planning resources: Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau | Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park | Georgia State Capitol | Capitol tour brochure | Capitol Museum | Oakland Cemetery | Atlanta Beltline | Reverb by Hard Rock | Embassy Suites by Hilton Atlanta Midtown

Tampa, Florida

A 90-minute drive from Orlando, Tampa is blessed with year-round warm weather and beautiful outdoor spaces. At the 3-mile Tampa Riverwalk by downtown’s waterfront, you’ll see people walking, jogging or biking, and if you join them, you’ll pass popular landmarks, such as the Tampa Museum of Art and Curtis Hixon Park. Or, take a tour of the public art installations. Another outdoor space that shouldn’t be missed is Bayshore Boulevard, the longest continuous sidewalk in the U.S., with scenic views of Tampa Bay and downtown.

If you’re more of an animal lover, head to Apollo Beach where the Manatee Viewing Center serves as the residence of manatees (the viewing center will reopen to the public in November 2021). This attraction is best visited in winter when manatees flock to the warm waters of the city’s Big Bend power plant.

Or, pay $2 to enter Lettuce Lake Regional Park, where you can climb the observation tower to view the birds and wildlife that reside in the park’s 240 acres. You could also stroll along its 3,500-foot boardwalk, explore the river by canoe or kayak, or join a free guided nature walk.

For history buffs, a visit to Tampa won’t be complete without a trip to Ybor City, a historic district northeast of downtown. Browse the wares of vendors at its Saturday Market, or (window) shop for cool vintage gear and antiques.

Hotels in Tampa average about $110 per night.

Travel discounts for NEA members: Be sure to check the NEA Travel Program to search for deals on flights to Tampa International Airport, rental cars to get around the area, and rooms at affordable hotels such as Hampton Inn Tampa Airport and TownePlace Suites Tampa Westshore.

Local planning resources: Visit Tampa Bay | Tampa Riverwalk | Tampa Museum of Art | Riverwalk public art installations | Bayshore BoulevardManatee Viewing Center | Lettuce Lake Regional Park | Ybor City | Saturday Market

Save even more with your NEA member benefits