How To Make the Most of Your Summer Vacation on a Tight Budget

This is a horizontal, color, royalty free stock photograph of a 30 year old American woman in Fort Lauderdale Beach, Florida on a bright, hot summer day.
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For many Americans, this will be the first summer that comes with vacation plans since before the pandemic started. Whether your idea of summer fun involves surf and sand, remote wilderness, the big city, or something in between, it’s probably safe to say that your budget will determine your itinerary. 

The following guide will help you stretch your dollars no matter what comes to mind when you think of summer vacation. If you’re planning a holiday for June, July or August, here’s how you can loosen up even the tightest of budgets. 

Outdoor Enthusiasts: Plan Your Vacation Around National Parks

America’s 400-plus national parks offer budget access to some of the most beautiful and historic natural paradises in the country and the world. Whether you camp, RV or stay in local accommodations, you can visit several parks in just a few days in most parts of the country — and the National Park Service offers a few ways to save while you explore.

  • For $80 per year, the America the Beautiful Land Pass grants you unlimited access to 2,000 federal recreation sites, including all 400-plus parks, as well as national wildlife refuges, grasslands, national forests, and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. One pass covers an entire vehicle of people at per-vehicle parks, or up to four adults otherwise. Children 15 and under are free. 
  • For seniors, an annual pass costs $20 and a lifetime pass costs $80. There are also discounts for military personnel, fourth graders, the disabled, and other groups. 
  • The park system hosts free entrance days throughout the year, including one in August.
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Urban Vacationers: Book Your Stay With Free Festivals in Mind

If pavement and people are more your speed than Yellowstone and Yosemite, keep in mind that just about every medium-to-major city in the country puts on free festivals, concerts and other outdoor events throughout the summer. If you have a city in mind for your summer travels, just browse its event calendar to line up your trip with free happenings that suit your style. 

Here are just a few of the top free summer events in America’s biggest cities — there are literally hundreds more.

  • New York hosts the Free Summer Concerts series at some of the city’s most iconic parks throughout the season.
  • The Chicago Gospel Music Festival, the Chicago Blues Festival and the Millennium Park Summer Music Series take place in the Windy City throughout the summer — and they’re all free.
  • In Los Angeles, the KCRW Summer Nights series holds concerts all over the city throughout the season. Twilight on the Pier takes place in Santa Monica and Farmers Market Friday Night Music is a family-friendly series — and those are just a few of the city’s many free summer events.

Traveling Internationally? Visit Off-Season Destinations

Some of the top destinations in the world are half empty and half-priced during their specific off-seasons — and for some of the hottest travel spots on Earth, that season is summer. Off-seasons are off-seasons for a reason, and that reason usually has something to do with the weather. 

In much of Southeast Asia, for example, summer is the rainy season — there’s a good chance that monsoons could wash out your vacation. But there’s also a good chance, according to the travel magazine Days to Come, that you’ll find giveaway prices, open access and light crowds with only modest rain to dampen your adventure. 

Bangkok, Northern Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia welcome visitors in their offseasons from May through the fall.

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According to Days to Come, you might also try these locations, which have some or all of their off-seasons in the summer: 

  • Mexico
  • The Caribbean
  • Brazil
  • Chile
  • Argentina
  • Australia
  • New Zealand

Life’s a Beach — Especially When the Beach is Free

All across America’s 95,471 miles of shoreline, there are two kinds of beaches. There’s the kind you have to pay to enjoy, and then there’s the free kind.

On the bustling, crowded and expensive island of Ocean City, N.J., for example, a daily beach tag costs $5, a weekly beach tag costs $10 and a seasonal pass costs $25 — $20 if you buy one before the end of May. The neighboring island of Strathmere, on the other hand, is famous for not being famous — its beaches are big, clean, uncrowded and free to enjoy.

That same storyline plays out all over the country — and for you this summer, it’s all about finding your little slice of free shoreline. 

The EPA maintains a giant database called the National List of Beaches, which you can use to research individual spots, but the easier option is simply to Google the state you’re planning to visit along with “free beaches.”

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