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While jetting off to Fiji or a ski vacation in the Alps may be out of the cards if you’re on a tight budget, you don’t have to sit home dreaming you were somewhere else. There is a wide range of more affordable winter escapes that you can enjoy closer to home. Whether you want to hit the slopes, escape the cold for sunnier shores, or explore the wine country or America’s history, we’ve got plenty of ideas that are sure to inspire while coming in at a lower price than most.
San Antonio, Texas
San Antonio has been named the country’s most affordable city in the U.S. for a family vacation based on its kid-friendly attractions and the cost of hotels and meals. It’s a great place for a fun and educational trip with historic sites like the Alamo and other missions, which are free to visit. There are also museums to explore, with many offering free or discounted days, theme parks to enjoy, and professional sports teams if you want to catch a game. Taking in the sights while strolling the River Walk always makes for a good time and there are many lovely parks for picnics.
Las Vegas, Nevada
While Vegas is now equated with pricey vacations where high rollers drop piles of cash at blackjack tables and pay hundreds of dollars for a meal at a celebrity chef restaurant, there are many ways to visit at a more budget-friendly price. The city offers lots of free and cheap things to do and there are frequent deals on hotel rooms that may not have private Jacuzzis and floor-to-ceiling windows but provide a clean and comfortable stay. Just walking the Strip can make for some great people-watching, while the Flamingo Wildfire Habitat, Bellagio’s Conservatory & Botanical Gardens, and the Bellagio water fountains are all free for the whole family to enjoy. Plus, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is just 17 miles from the Strip and offers more than 30 miles of hiking trails.
Catalina Island, California
If you want to go diving or snorkeling, there’s no need to fly to the Caribbean or get out your passport as Catalina Island offers some of the best underwater life to explore in the continental U.S. It’s just 20 miles off the Southern California coast, which means you can be swimming through the brilliant clear blue waters with diverse marine life with just an hour boat ride from Long Beach. Head to highly-rated Lover’s Cove and you’re likely to spot everything from eels and octopi to sea stars and Garibaldi fish. While there are many hotels to choose from, you’ll save a lot by camping at Two Harbors. As the area enjoys a mild climate, it rarely gets too cold, even in the winter.
Niagara Falls, New York
Niagara Falls is stunning in the winter and you won’t have to worry about the crowds. It’s easily reached from many east coast cities, including New York, Boston, and Cleveland, and you can even snowshoe through the state park which offers free snowshoe rentals. If it’s cold enough, it brings a view of the famous “Frozen Falls,” with the mist from the cascades freezing, coating the surrounding landscape with thick layers of snow and ice. Afterward, warm up at an attraction like the Aquarium of Niagara or grab a hot chocolate at Platter’s Chocolate Factory as you witness the chocolate-making process.
The historic mining community of Kellog is home to Silver Mountain, offering fun on and off the mountain at more affordable prices than most. The area gets 300 inches of snow annually and includes 73 trails with diverse terrain for snowboarders and skiers. Snow tubing, scenic gondola rides, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and the largest indoor waterpark in Idaho can be enjoyed too. Plus, there are plenty of family-friendly restaurants offering cheap and tasty eats.
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
A vacation to the many theme and waterparks in Wisconsin Dells can be doable on a budget with the right planning. There are lots of small family-owned motels offering cheap accommodation in close proximity to all the biggest attractions, but even the bigger waterpark hotels can be affordable while offering complimentary passes to the waterparks. If you avoid the period around the holidays, you can also avoid the highest prices. Mt. Olympus Water plus Theme Park and Noah’s Ark Waterpark offer an overwhelming array of aquatic rides, including two wave pools, a surfing simulator and 51 slides, guaranteeing family fun.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Summer is the peak season in Gulf Shores, but many say winter is the best time to visit with the weather mild, fewer crowds, and lower rates all enjoyed with an endless list of possible activities. While the water will be too chilly for swimming, outstanding fishing can be enjoyed by casting a line right from the dock. Hikers will find many scenic treks with opportunities to watch for wildlife like rare birds, nesting turtles, and alligators, while the Winter Concert Series is affordable to attend too.
South Padre Island, Texas
South Padre Island offers a fabulous budget-friendly winter getaway and enjoys over 300 days of sunshine a year, with temperatures typically ranging from the upper 60s to the mid-70s. It sits on the tropical tip of Texas, bordered by Laguna Madre Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, providing plenty of free fun in the sun on beautiful beaches. It doesn’t cost a thing to enjoy strolls on the sand, shell collecting, sandcastle-building, or just relaxing in a beach chair while watching the waves roll in. Enjoy picnics in Isla Blanca Park, and if you’ve got money to spare, perhaps take a dolphin cruise.
Enjoy affordable and educational fun with a trip to Williamsburg and the adjacent towns of Yorktown and Jamestown that make up the Greater Williamsburg Area, AKA America’s Historic Triangle. It boasts over 400 years of history, including the opportunity to take a trip back in time to Colonial Williamsburg where history comes to life. Visit Historic Jamestown, the Americas’ first permanent settlement, where you can see firsthand the ongoing archaeological discoveries of the fort and thousands of artifacts that have already been unearthed. The Yorktown Victory Center is a fascinating living history museum of the American Revolution with a re-created military encampment depicting life in the military during Colonial times along with indoor exhibits.
Winter is a great time to experience Seaside, one of Oregon’s most popular family vacation destinations with fun to enjoy year-round, including a downtown with arcade games, bumper cars, skee ball, and many other carnival-type amusements. The aquarium is cheap to enter and you can even feed its famous seals. Walking or biking the nearly three-mile stretch of beach along the promenade is free and provides spectacular ocean views. Searching for silver dollar shells at low tide, sandcastle building, and other beach activities can often be enjoyed too.
Paso Robles, California
While Napa Valley tends to be rather pricey, if you’re looking for a wine country retreat that’s more affordable, consider Paso Robles instead. The “Wild West of America’s wine regions” it’s home to more than 200 wineries and some 26,000 acres of vineyards. There are many opportunities for touring and tasting, with the region especially renowned for its Rhone-style vintages. Many of the wineries here are free to visit and if you’re interested in history, the Paso Robles Pioneer Museum has an impressive collection that even includes an entire one-room schoolhouse.
While Moab experiences sizzling hot temperatures in the summer, winter can be idyllic. If it snows, the fiery red rock formations look even more dramatic under a dusting of white powder. Plus, there will be few if any crowds to contend with and activities like hiking or mountain biking won’t cost you a thing, other than the low entrance fee if you plan to visit Arches National Park. The season is ideal for accessing the trails at Dead Horse Point State Park as you’ll enjoy them practically all to yourself. And after dark, outside of town, the stargazing is fantastic with incredible clear night skies.
Tucson offers lots of winter sun with temperatures in the mid-60s with the sun shining nearly every day of the year. Plus, it’s very budget-friendly with plenty of delicious cheap eats and affordable accommodation along with budget-friendly things to do. Enjoy the warmth and the beauty of the area with a visit to Saguaro National Park, where there are miles of scenic trails and all sorts of desert life, from the characterful cacti to desert tortoises and Gila monsters. Visitors can also explore the El Presidio Historic District, one of the oldest inhabited sites in the country, which includes impressive architecture and the Old Town Artisans marketplace with all sorts of items made by Tucson and regional artists.