10 Best Budget Vacations for This Summer

10 Best Budget Vacations for This Summer

Summer is just around the corner, and what better way to celebrate than by getting out and exploring a new area? For some, the perfect summertime getaway is lounging on a picture-perfect beach, while others look forward to the flowers and animals that warm weather brings. Fortunately, the U.S. is full of places to take affordable vacations for all types of travelers.

These are the top 10 family summer vacation ideas on a budget.


1. Finger Lakes, New York

The Finger Lakes region of New York gives you everything there is to love about lakeside vacationing — ample swimming, boating and fishing opportunities — as well as dozens of wineries, orchards and breweries to sample. Some popular, low-cost attractions in the area include:

  • Women's Rights National Historic Park: The Women's Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls offers free admission and includes exhibits and demonstrations about the women's rights movement throughout history. See the Elizabeth Cady Stanton House and get some fresh air at Declaration Park, complete with a 100-foot waterfall.
  • Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge: Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in Seneca Falls is open from dawn to dusk, with more than 4,700 acres of freshwater wetland and 9,000 acres of protected acreage. You'll find endless trails for hiking and biking, and the park hosts several birding events throughout the year.
  • State parks and waterfalls: The Finger Lakes region is famous for its breathtaking natural areas. Some local favorites include Ithaca Falls, Taughannock Falls State Park and Watkins Glen State Park.
  • Windmill Farm and Craft Market: Skip the big box stores and find truly unique pieces at the Windmill Farm and Craft Market near Penn Yan. Pick up souvenirs and gifts for loved ones at one of the 175 indoor and outdoor shops filled with locally made goods, crafts, food, produce, furniture and decorations.

Williamsburg, Virginia

• Jamestown-Scotland Ferry
• Greensprings Interpretive Trail
• Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center

2. Williamsburg, Virginia

Williamsburg is one of the best vacation spots for couples on a budget because it offers a serene escape in a historic, charming small town that isn't lacking in things to see and do. Options include:

  • Jamestown-Scotland Ferry: Ride the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry for a free scenic ride from Jamestown to Surry. The boat runs 24 hours a day all week long, and leashed dogs are permitted.
  • Greensprings Interpretive Trail: Greensprings Interpretive Trail is a 3.5-mile dog-friendly nature trail that leads past beaver ponds and wooded wetlands. There are educational signs along the way explaining the region's diverse environment and rich history.
  • Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center: If you're saving your money for one big attraction in Williamsburg, the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center is worth the price of admission. Buy a single or multi-day pass and see live reenactments, museums, art, carriage rides, fife and drum parades, special historical events and more.

Many local museums also participate in free visitor days throughout the year — check museum websites and local calendars to learn more.

3. Gulf Shores, Alabama

Plan the perfect beach vacation without breaking the bank in Gulf Shores, Alabama. In addition to popular sandy beaches like the Gulf Shores Public Beach and Orange Beach, you can visit places like:

  • Fort Morgan Historic Site: Fort Morgan Historic Site is centered around the historic Fort Morgan, built in the 1800s and used all the way until World War II. Admission is affordable with family and child discounts, and the surrounding park has places to picnic, launch boats or relax on the shore.
  • Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo: The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo offers affordable admission for adults and children and houses more than 100 wildlife species, including 22 critically endangered and threatened species.
  • Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge: Visit Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge and see some of Alabama's last remaining undisturbed coastal barrier habitats, with dunes, woodlands and more than 300 types of birds.

4. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming is a bucket list destination for many travelers and provides enough entertainment to last your entire trip. Admission fees to the park vary, depending on whether you're in a non-commercial vehicle or entering by bike or on foot, but passes are typically good for seven days after purchase.

Once you're in the park, you can:

  • See natural thermal basins.
  • Explore a hiking or bicycling trail.
  • Go fishing from a boat or the shore.
  • Spend the day paddling on the water.

The park also has over 2,000 campsites you can reserve for an immersive outdoor-themed trip — just be sure to book ahead of time, as the campgrounds are very popular with visitors.

The Outer Banks — also known as OBX — are barrier islands just off the North Carolina coast, perfect for swimming, sunning and splashing in the ocean waves.

5. Outer Banks, North Carolina

The Outer Banks — also known as OBX — are barrier islands just off the North Carolina coast, perfect for swimming, sunning and splashing in the ocean waves. Beaches here are a popular place to fly kites and build larger-than-life sandcastles.

Other destinations to add to your OBX itinerary include:

  • Cape Hatteras National Seashore: Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a designated area where you can tour the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, see sea turtles in their natural habitat and even reserve a camping spot along the shore.
  • Duck Town Park and Boardwalk: Duck Town Park and Boardwalk contains 11 acres of forest and swamp trails, with quick access to kayak launches, water fountains, picnic shelters, restaurants, shops and a playground. Check the local calendar to see if any festivals or special events are taking place during your visit.
  • Hatteras Ocracoke Ferry: The Hatteras Ocracoke Ferry ride is a free 40-minute excursion that takes you to a peaceful island, ideal for relaxation and searching for souvenir seashells.
  • Jockey's Ridge State Park: Jockey's Ridge State Park is home to the eastern United States' tallest natural sand dune system in Nags Head. The park offers free admission, so plan to spend the day exploring.

6. South Padre Island, Texas

South Padre Island is one of the most exciting budget-friendly vacations because it has a little bit of everything — sunny beaches, nature trails and immersive wildlife experiences:

  • South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary: See alligators and butterflies and take a guided or self-guided birding tour at the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary. Kids under 4 get in for free with a paying adult.
  • Sea Turtle, Inc.: Sea Turtle, Inc. is a sea turtle rehabilitation, conservation and education facility with daily presentations and live turtle feedings. Tickets are affordable, and children 4 and younger get free admission.
  • Laguna Madre Nature Trail: The Laguna Madre Nature Trail is a 1,500-foot boardwalk that takes you across 4 acres of marshland. Don't forget your camera and binoculars — you'll see plenty of birds and wildlife along the way.
  • Port Isabel Lighthouse: The Port Isabel Lighthouse, now a state historic site, is a beautiful place to spend the day. They offer affordable tour tickets for everyone 4 years or older and at least 38 inches tall.
  • Photo opportunities: Go on a photo scavenger hunt to find some of South Padre Island's most photo-worthy destinations, like the largest outdoor sandcastle in the U.S. near the Visitor's Center, Whyland's Whaling Wall mural on the side of the South Padre Island Convention Centre and the historic Cristo de Los Pescadores memorial at Isla Blanca Park.

7. New River Gorge, West Virginia

As you enter the New River Gorge area of West Virginia, you're greeted by the picturesque New River Gorge Bridge, one of the most photographed areas in the state and a recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places. Once you've snapped a photo of the famed bridge, visit one of the area's state parks for endless hiking, biking, paddling and camping opportunities:

  • Babcock State Park: Babcock State Park is more than 4,000 acres of hiking trails, picnic spots and campsites. Other popular attractions here are geocaching and visiting Glade Creek Grist Mill, a functioning replica of the original Cooper's Mill.
  • Hawk's Nest State Park: Hawk's Nest State Park is 270 acres of adrenaline-fueled fun, with an aerial tramway, jetboat rides, hiking trails, swimming spots and challenging whitewater rafting.
  • Little Beaver State Park: Little Beaver State Park is popular with outdoor enthusiasts because it offers 562 acres of hiking, biking and camping spots and an 18-acre lake for fishing, paddleboarding and kayaking.

Cades Cove

The Island at Pigeon Forge

Clingman's Dome

The Village in Gatlinburg

Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

8. Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

The Tennessee portion of Smoky Mountains National Park is a favorite choice for family vacations on a budget. There is so much to do, you can easily customize your itinerary to fit your interests and financial needs. The area is full of scenic mountain overlooks, postcard-worthy waterfalls and fishing opportunities at places like the Little Pigeon River, French Broad River and Douglas or Cherokee Lakes.

Other popular family-friendly places are:

  • Cades Cove: Cades Cove is a one-of-a-kind spot for history lovers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. The park is an 11-mile, one-way loop that guests can walk, bike or drive to take a self-guided tour of historic preserves, including log houses, churches, barns, a working grist mill and cemeteries. Expect to see many animals along the way, like deer, turkey and possibly even bears. Camping is available nearby, and there is a gift shop at the end of the loop for souvenirs.
  • Clingman's Dome: At 6,643 feet, Clingman's Dome is Tennessee's highest point, which you can take full advantage of from on top of the observation tower or at a pullover spot. The view is unlike any other — on a clear day, you can see as far as 100 miles in every direction.
  • The Island at Pigeon Forge: For a more high-energy attraction, visit The Island at Pigeon Forge. While the rest of the Pigeon Forge strip is full of tourist attractions like museums, bumper cars and dinner shows, the Island offers free parking and free live music during the tourism season. While you listen to the bands, you can visit the arcade, dine at a restaurant, visit unique shops or get an alternative view of the town from on top of The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel.
  • The Village in Gatlinburg: Hidden inside the bustle of crowded shops and eateries in Gatlinburg is a little spot called The Village, a European-style area with quaint bakeries, cafes, shops and occasional live performances.

9. Hot Springs, Arkansas 

Head to Hot Springs, Arkansas, for a relaxing getaway perfect for all types of summertime travelers:

  • Hot Springs National Park: Hot Springs National Park is the region's main attraction, thanks to the Buckstaff and Quapaw Bathhouses, where you can take a dip in the indoor thermal springs piped in straight from the park.
  • Lake Catherine State Park: Lake Catherine State Park is a quieter destination near the Ouachita Mountains, with playgrounds, picnic sites, waterfalls and boat rentals available. Reserve a stay at a nearby cabin, tent site or yurt for a truly outdoor experience.
  • Garvan Woodland Gardens: Garvan Woodland Gardens offers affordable admission — free for children 3 and younger — to botanical gardens filled with butterflies, flowers and garden exhibits. Tour the Anthony Chapel, a venue popular for its architectural design, and take photos across the gardens' numerous picture-perfect sites.
  • Mid-America Science Museum: The Mid-America Science Museum is 21 acres of interactive, award-winning exhibits showcasing natural science. Some popular kid-friendly points of interest here include the Light Bridge, a lifesize Mastodon Skeleton and Dinotrek, with lifelike dinosaur replicas.

10. Bar Harbor, Maine

Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island in Maine is one of the best affordable vacations because it has everything you want from a New England summer — like seafood restaurants and breathtaking coastal views — without the dense crowds and long lines you get in areas like Martha's Vineyard or Cape Cod.

Fun things to do here include:

  • Acadia National Park: Acadia National Park is one of the country's most popular national parks because it's full of scenic trails, historic carriage roads, climbing and horseback riding opportunities and perfect stargazing spots. While you're here, you can't miss Cadillac Mountain, the East Coast's highest point, and Bubble Rock, a giant rock moved by glaciers near a 768-foot peak.
  • Little Hunters Beach: Little Hunters Beach isn't a sandy beach like others in the area — instead, the shores are lined with smooth pebbles, perfect for photo opportunities and relaxation.
  • Great Cranberry Island: Great Cranberry Island is a small, two-mile-by-one-mile island off the coast that gives you a unique view of Mount Desert Island. Rent or charter a boat to get here, and bring your walking shoes to take in the area's trails.

Vacation on a Budget With Help From ecoATM

With the right preparation, you don't have to choose between an epic summer trip or saving money.

Vacation on a Budget With Help From ecoATM

Whether you're driving or flying, here are some tips for keeping costs low on affordable family vacations:

  • Plan ahead: Reserve a room or campsite and purchase special event and attraction admission tickets as soon as you're sure where you're traveling to start building your budget and pay for things a little bit at a time. Prepaying will also save you time during your vacation and help you avoid long lines at popular attractions.
  • Visit during the week: Many hotels and attractions offer discounted rates during the week and raise prices on the weekend. Crowds may also be smaller in some areas.
  • Bring car snacks: Bring car snacks and small lunches to enjoy between attractions and save your dining out budget for indulgent dinners or desserts at a local eatery.
  • Take advantage of free amenities: Take advantage of all free amenities at your lodging, like breakfast or coupons to local attractions.
  • Sell unwanted devices to ecoATM: Have an old smartphone lying around? Instead of letting it gather dust or tossing it into the trash where it will become harmful e-waste, trade it into an ecoATM and get instant cash to spend on your vacation.

With the right preparation, you don't have to choose between an epic summer trip or saving money. Learn more about the benefits of trading in your old phone and find an ecoATM kiosk near you to get started!