My husband and I have a goal of taking our three children to all 50 states by the time they graduate from high school. Already, our two daughters — who are 12 and 10 — have visited nearly half of the states. And our son, who is just 5 years old, has been to 16.
Our adventures across the U.S. have taken us to a lot of cool places — some cheaper than others. But even with pricier trips, we’ve taken steps to keep vacation costs down as much as possible. Here are our favorite places to visit and how we’ve made them more affordable.
Our Favorite Weekend Getaway: St. Louis, Mo.
When you think of cool places to visit with the family, St. Louis probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But my kids have loved our trips to this Midwestern city, which is just a five-hour drive from where we live. Plus, it’s an inexpensive city to visit.
For starters, there are lots of free and fun things to do. The Saint Louis Zoo is free, has more than 14,840 animals and is in a beautiful setting. The Saint Louis Science Center — which has more than 700 hands-on exhibits — is also free, but there are fees for the IMAX theater, planetarium and special exhibitions. Admission to the Saint Louis Art Museum is free as well.
One of my kids’ favorite free spots in St. Louis is the Citygarden, a 2.9-acre park with 24 sculptures and three fountains. Kids can splash in the water features, which include a shallow pool with a waterfall and a spray plaza with 102 jets. There are even pool monitors to make sure kids stay safe.
In addition to free entertainment, there are several affordable options. The City Museum, which charges just $12 for admission, is the best kids’ museum I’ve ever visited — and I’ve been to a lot — because it’s fun for everyone. You can also take a tram to the top of the Gateway Arch — you know, that giant arch on the banks of the Mississippi River — for $13 per adult, $10 per child. On the Fourth of July, there’s a spectacular fireworks show near the Arch, making it a great time to visit.
Best Road Trip We’ve Ever Taken: Tour of the Southwestern States
My eldest daughter’s favorite trip was one we took over a two-week period when she was 6, moving through Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. The key to saving money on this trip was camping — lots of camping.
We flew into Phoenix on Southwest Airlines, which lets you check two bags for free per person, so we didn’t have to pay baggage fees for our camping gear. On our trip, we visited several national parks, monuments and forests such as the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Camping fees vary from park to park, but the most we paid was $26 per night in the Rocky Mountain National Park.
The key to saving money when visiting several national parks or federal recreation lands is to get an $80 annual pass because the entrance fee for individual parks is usually around $15 to $30. And we only did free activities, such as hiking and scenic drives.
The highlight of the trip wasn’t the Grand Canyon but rather Great Sand Dunes National Park, which has the tallest dunes in North America. Yes, sand dunes in Colorado right in the middle of a mountain range. In late May and June, it becomes the perfect beach for kids because melting snow from the mountains creates a creek through the dunes. The water is shallow, so even small children can play in it safely.
New York City: A Big-City Adventure Our Kids Won’t Stop Talking About
I know what you’re thinking: New York is expensive. But it’s one of those trips your kids will be talking about for years — at least, my kids still are. And there are ways to keep costs under control.
The average daily hotel room rate can run you a couple hundred dollars a night. But you’re not limited to hotels in Manhattan. Because the public transportation system is great — and riding a subway is part of the NYC experience — you can stay in nearby New Jersey, Brooklyn or wherever you can find cheaper hotels in New York’s other boroughs.
Or, you can rent a space through Airbnb.com. For example, you can get a two-bedroom apartment in lower Manhattan — with a kitchen where you can cook meals — for about $200 per night. Another option is to stay at a hotel that includes a meal as part of the price, such as the Embassy Suites by Hilton Newark Airport, which offers guests both free breakfast and an evening reception with drinks and appetizers.
To offset the cost of lodging in New York — for which we paid closer to $200 per night using Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” tool — we took advantage of free activities. For example, we strolled through Central Park. You can take the Staten Island Ferry for free and get a great view of the Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor and Lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers.
There are also ways to score discounts on entertainment. You can save up to 40 percent on the cost of the city’s top attractions — such as the Empire State Building and American Museum of Natural History — with a New York CityPASS. And, you can get tickets to Broadway shows at up to half price if you buy them the same day of a performance at a TKTS Discount Booth.
When booking a flight, compare fares to all three area airports: Newark Liberty International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport. Buy tickets more than a month in advance of your travel dates to get the lowest airfare.
My Favorite Trip: Yellowstone, the Mother of All National Parks
Seeing the world’s first national park was my favorite experience, as well as my two younger children’s top-rated trip.
Yellowstone is known for Old Faithful, a geyser that erupts every one to two hours. There are more than 10,000 geothermal features in the park, including bubbling mud pots, hot springs and hundreds of geysers. The mountains, rivers and waterfalls are awe-inspiring, and watching the bison roam freely was incredible. In the words of my 9-year-old daughter, “You get to see lots of awesome animals and scenery.”
We went in October during our kids’ fall break, so the crowds were much smaller and flights were cheaper. Rather than fly to the airport in Bozeman, Mont., which is closest to the park, we flew to Salt Lake City, Utah, because it cost about $200 less per ticket.
My family and I didn’t camp because it was too cold at night during that time of year, and grizzly bears were abundant. There are several lodging options at Yellowstone, but rooms fill up quickly. Book well in advance — several months to a year — to get a room in one of the lower-priced lodges.
We also visited the neighboring Grand Teton National Park. To save money, we used a pass for both parks that cost $50 rather than paying $30 for each park. The park’s lodges were already closed for the season, so we stayed in nearby Jackson, Wyo., where we benefited from off-season hotel rates that were half the price they would’ve been during the peak season in July. Plus, we were able to enjoy the pristine lakes and spectacular views of the Teton Range without any crowds.
Seaside: A Classic Florida Beach Trip Our Family Loves
Even if you’ve never heard of Seaside, Fla., you might have seen it on the big screen because it was the primary setting for the movie “The Truman Show.” It’s also been named one of the best beaches for families by Travel + Leisure magazine — and for good reason.
My family has visited this picturesque beachside community in the panhandle of Florida twice. There are no high-rise hotels — just pastel-colored cottages and some large homes. The beaches have powdery soft white sand, and you can see dolphins and sea turtles swimming in the Gulf of Mexico’s clear, calm waters.
The outdoor amphitheater in the town center plays host to weekly concerts during the summer, as well as occasional theater productions, including plays geared toward kids. It’s typically filled with families nearly every night for one event or another.
Here’s the thing, though. Staying in Seaside is expensive. We avoid the prices by renting a condo or house at a nearby beach for half the price we’d pay for a cottage in Seaside. There’s a string of beach communities along Highway 30A, near Seaside. And they all have the same beautiful white sand and turquoise waters. We cook meals at our vacation rental to save money, then drive about 20 minutes to take advantage of the free, family-friendly activities at night in Seaside.
Of course, any trip you take can be expensive, depending on travel, accommodations and activities. However, our family managed to keep the costs of these five trips — and all of the other ones we’ve taken — under control by finding free entertainment, looking for deals on lodging, driving when possible and being flexible with flights. We’ve never had to sacrifice fun to save money.
Keep Reading: How to Travel the World for Practically Free