Editor’s Note: As the pandemic evolves, travel rules can shift at a moment's notice. Be sure to read the health and safety protocols and requirements for visitors to any destination, as well as those of airlines, car rentals and hotels before you book, and again before you travel.
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
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 Museum | C.W. Parker Carousel Museum | American Museum of Jazz | Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop-Farm
Salt Lake City, Utah
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.
San Antonio, Texas
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.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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.
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.
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 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
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 Boulevard | Manatee Viewing Center | Lettuce Lake Regional Park | Ybor City | Saturday Market