The many costs of planning a vacation will put a stress on most people's finances, but where you actually choose to go can be what really makes or breaks your travel budget. From arranging airfare to booking a hotel room to dining out on the town, these expenses can quickly rack up — especially if you're in a city with high prices.
So just where are the best places to vacation if you want the most bang for your buck — and which are sure to drain every last penny from your bank account? A new GOBankingRates study investigated 50 of the most popular vacation cities in the U.S., ranking each on the factors that matter most to frugal travelers: hotel prices, transportation and airfare costs, and food and drink expenses. (Skip to the last side for a full methodology, including weighting and data sources.)
If you are thinking about taking a trip this summer, read on to find out the 10 best cities for a cheap vacation this summer.
10. Denver, CO
Denver scored the No. 10 spot on our list because of the city’s relatively inexpensive airfares and affordable food and drink options. From hitting the local ski slopes to catching a live show at the city’s famous Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre, Denver has attractions the entire family will enjoy. Denver’s hotel prices and transportation costs were slightly higher than some other cities that topped our list, but overall this is still a very affordable and lively place to visit.
9. Memphis, TN
Memphis, Tenn., is famous for its food, and you'll be able to enjoy the local fare at a bargain since this city had some of the lowest drink and food prices of any in our study. Visitors enjoy the city's vibrant blues, jazz and country scene (Memphis is called both the "Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll" and "Home of the Blues"), and Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion is a top attraction. Higher round-trip airfare costs hurt Memphis in its scores, so try to save up those miles before you book the flight.
8. Salt Lake City, UT
Sleepy Salt Lake City might not seem like a likely candidate for one of the best vacation cities in the U.S., but travelers to this city enjoy touring the local national and state parks, skiing, visiting museums or catching a Utah Jazz game at Energy Solutions Arena. Airfare prices to and from Salt Lake City can be slightly high, but those costs are offset by the area's inexpensive transportation and hotel prices.
7. Grand Rapids, MI
Grand Rapids, Mich., landed seventh on our list of the best vacation cities in the U.S. because of its inexpensive hotel and transportation costs. Visitors to Grand Rapids enjoy the fresh water beaches, vibrant nightlife, historic sites and numerous outdoor activities, like playing golf and biking the city's hundreds of miles of trails.
6. Albuquerque, NM
Travelers on a budget should consider Albuquerque, N.M., for its low-cost hotel and transportation fees. In addition to the vibrant local art scene, vacationers can enjoy the city's many popular museums, like the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. There are also a lot of photo opportunities for nature enthusiasts, including Albuquerque's scenic Rio Grande Valley. Like some other cities on this list, it can get pricey to fly there, so watch for low airfares and book your trip accordingly.
5. Detroit, MI
Motor City might be an unlikely vacation spot, but the area actually has a number of attractions that make this destination a standout. Summer travelers can enjoy the Woodward Dream Cruise and the annual Detroit International Jazz Festival, as well as several local sporting and arts events. Detroit also boasts extremely low hotel, food, drink and transportation costs, so go ahead and book that trip!
4. Kansas City, MO
Even if you aren't a barbecue fan, there are plenty of other reasons to visit Kansas City, Mo. The city is home to a thriving arts scene, eclectic mix of music and some seriously die-hard sports fans, earning it the unlikely title of the "Soccer Capital of America." Transportation is a little more expensive than some of the other cities at the top of our list and airfare was only slightly cheaper than average, but low hotel and food costs pushed Kansas City to the No. 4 spot.
3. Orlando, FL
Orlando, Fla., is, of course, famous for its theme parks, including Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando, among others. What many don't know is visitors also have access to a wealth of golf courses, shopping venues and restaurants. The airfare and transportation costs were some of the best on our list — just make sure you don’t blow your budget on food and drink.
2. Jacksonville, FL
Jacksonville, Fla., is another Sunshine State town that tops our list of best vacation cities in the U.S. From stand-up paddle boarding to fishing excursions, many head to Jacksonville to hit the sand and sea. Jacksonville scored well in all categories, but this city had the lowest overall hotel prices out of any of the destinations on our list.
1. Las Vegas, NV
Anyone who's come back from a Sin City vacation with significantly lighter pockets have only themselves to blame; it's the No. 1 best vacation city on our list. The place is just crawling with deals, like inexpensive buffets, hotel and show packages, and more. Plus, most airports offer multiple flights a day, and the average cost of a round-trip flight to Vegas was the lowest of any city featured on this list. That said, the key to surviving this city on a budget is to keep your gambling in check.
10 Least Affordable Vacation Cities in the U.S
Unlike our top 10 most affordable cities for vacations, travelers to these 10 cities will spend significantly more for their time off. From expensive airfare to overpriced restaurants, you might want to think twice before you book a trip to one of these destinations (or start saving now). Here they are, listed from the least to most expensive.
10. Houston, TX
Houston actually has decent hotel prices, but airfare costs are well above average. This is city also has expensive food, drink and transportation costs.
9. Miami, FL
Transportation and airfare to Miami isn’t so bad — it’s the hotel, food and drink that will put a major dent in your budget. The good news is that people watching is free and there is no shortage of that in this city.
8. Los Angeles, CA
Vacationers love Los Angeles for the wide variety of nearby attractions. From spending the day at Disneyland, to hitting the beach or taking a celebrity homes tour, there’s no shortage of things to do. Unfortunately, it just happens to be an expensive place to do all those things. Hotels, food and drink prices are actually fairly reasonable, but getting there and then getting around will cost you.
7. Boston, MA
Despite its high prices, Boston is still a popular U.S. travel destination. The city is home to historical landmarks, beautiful architecture and a vibrant nightlife. The costs of flights to Boston and transportation around town are just below average, but be prepared for high hotel, food and drink costs.
6. Charleston, SC
Charleston, S.C., has fairly average airfare and transportation costs, but the higher hotel, food and drink prices put this historic city at No. 6 on our list of most expensive vacation cities.
5. Honolulu, HI
The price of paradise is high, especially in Honolulu, Hawaii. While flight prices are below average, high hotel rates, expensive transportation costs, and pricey food and drink options make this one of the most expensive cities to vacation in.
4. Jersey City, NJ
High food, drink and airfare costs landed Jersey City, N.J., in the No. 4 spot on our list of most expensive vacation cities; hotel prices are also higher than average. It might be just a stone’s throw from all the attractions New York City has to offer, but you aren't really going to save that much more by staying in the Garden State instead.
3. San Francisco, CA
San Francisco is another expensive city — for both residents and tourists. Its food and drink costs are the highest of any in this study, and the hotel and airfare prices aren't much better. It’s pretty cheap to get around, thanks to an efficient public transportation system, but that won’t save you enough to justify the other expenses.
2. Santa Barbara, CA
Many of the attractions in Santa Barbara, Calif., scream "luxury" for a reason, as it’s one of the most expensive vacation destinations in the U.S. Hotel rooms are pricey, but airfare to Santa Barbara will be the biggest cost — the highest round-trip average of any city surveyed. Sure, touring wineries, riding horses in the mountains and strolling past downtown boutiques sounds relaxing, but is it really worth it?
1. New York, NY
New York City is one of the worst cities for saving money in the U.S., and it's also the most expensive city to visit. Transportation costs in New York are actually below average, but the food and drink prices are total budget-busters and the average hotel rate is $200, the most expensive on our list. Still, there’s a lot to see and do in the city that never sleeps — if you can afford it.
GOBankingRates curated 50 of the most popular vacation destinations in the United States, grading each on the factors that impact travelers' budgets the most: hotel prices, airfare, food and drink expenses, and ground transportation costs. Data on three-star hotel prices, local food and drink expenses, and ground transportation costs were provided by numbeo.com (with data pulled April 15, 2015), while domestic airfare information was provided by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (with data pulled from the BTS's report for the third quarter of 2014 — the most recent numbers available at the time of writing). No data points were missing or excluded for all of the 50 cities surveyed. The study ranked all 50 cities on their affordability based on a five-day vacation period, weighting each of the categories to be representative of an actual vacation budget: 45 percent for hotel costs, 30 percent for airfare, 15 percent for food and drink, and 10 percent for ground transportation.