South Carolina is a place where you can easily splurge or save depending on the direction your itinerary takes. At the lavish end of the spectrum, you can enjoy five-star boutique hotels and fine dining with authentic Southern flair in the capital, Columbia, and the cobblestone-clad port city of Charleston.
World-class golf courses and beach resorts are staples on Hilton Head Island in the South Carolina Lowcountry, while amusements and activities – often for a fee – keep visitors busy in Myrtle Beach.
The Palmetto State is also full of bargains, accessible statewide with a little preparation and research. Even in some luxury destinations, you can save big on transportation, attractions, and yes, even sought-after tee time. And some of South Carolina’s best bargain adventures are the ones you don’t need to plan or budget for.
Among my favorite vacation memories in the state are hitting a roadside produce stand for local peaches, visiting local mom-and-pop gas stations for some boiled peanuts, and making a pit stop at a barbecue joint for some wood-pit roasted goodness with a side of collard greens.
Best of all, you’ll often be greeted with a friendly smile and a turn of phrase to remember. As you prepare for your next South Carolina trip, here are some tips for maximizing your budget.
Consider your regional airport options to save
South Carolina has three international airports – Greenville-Spartanburg, Myrtle Beach and Charleston – but compared to O’Hare International in Chicago or Los Angeles International Airport, all are visibly less hectic. If you can snag a direct or cheap flight to these spots, do so.
If you can't bag a bargain or direct flight, don’t overlook Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport or Charlotte Douglas International as options. Weaving these mega-airports into your trip can equate to hundreds of dollars saved.
Atlanta is approximately 120 miles southwest of the South Carolina border, providing a straight shot to the South Carolina Upcountry and cities such as Greenville and Spartanburg. Charlotte’s airport is just 15 miles from the state’s northern border, with Interstate 77 providing a 95-mile route to Columbia.
Travel in the winter for the best flight and hotel deals
December through February is widely considered South Carolina’s off-season. Temperatures in Columbia, for example, peak in the mid-50s and dip into the mid-30s at night. You’ll need a winter coat, but the dough you can save on flights and hotels will give you a warm glow.
In addition to browsing major travel sites, be sure to visit hotel websites, or call them for winter getaway deals. From family-friendly resorts in Myrtle Beach to family-run inns in quaint downtown Florence, Santee, and Beaufort, do some digging and it will often pay off.
Hop on a trolley or bus to take in the cityscape
In the summertime, when statewide temperatures can creep up to 100 degrees, you'll want a shaded break from hot city strolls. For those wanting to take in city skylines in a cooler, more leisurely fashion, there are trolley and bus systems aplenty that will be far cheaper than the alternatives.
In Hilton Head, the Sea Pines and Breeze trolleys offer free rides. Charleston's DASH shuttle is also free, with routes running every 10 to 45 minutes.
And, in Greenville, the free downtown trolley runs up and down the city's Main Street core. Columbia’s COMET bus system offers day passes for $4; as a bonus, you get free bike rental with your pass.
Tee off at twilight in Hilton Head
A round of golf at Hilton Head's top golf destinations – Harbour Town and Port Royal Golf & Racquet Club – can easily run to three figures and then some, particularly during the spring months.
Golfers looking to maximize their budgets should book as far in advance as possible and consider teeing off at twilight (which typically means starting your round later than 3pm).
Snag a snowbird camping pass for extended winter stays
Camping in South Carolina is a budget-friendly alternative accommodation option for nature lovers. Each year, residents of the Northeastern United States migrate away from the cold and head south for the winter, with the Palmetto State being among the top destinations.
And these so-called “snowbirds” often weave in a camping adventure while they’re at it. Depending on the site and facilities, campsite rates run from about $10 per night to over $50 for a fully equipped plot. From December through February, South Carolina State Parks offers snowbirds a 30-day stay at half-price at selected parks around the state.
Explore history via guided walking tours
In history-infused towns such as Greenville, Charleston and Columbia, you’re bound to have questions while gawking at museums and historic estates. Rather than a private, pricey tour with transport included, consider booking a cheaper walking tour.
In Charleston, Free Tours by Foot employs professional guides who offer weekly ghost and architecture walks; guests can name their own price but be sure to tip your guides!
In Greenville, the city has mapped out four DIY walking routes, all of which are less than two miles in length. And in Columbia, the city has weekly Main Street walks on Saturdays that cost just $10, starting at the Columbia Museum of Art.
Purchase a state park passport to save on admission fees
South Carolina has 47 state parks, with admission typically costing less than $10 per car for each site. If a park-hopping itinerary is on the cards, consider a South Carolina State Park Passport for savings. For access to all of the state’s parks, there's a 7-day passport for $65 or a year-long passport for $99.
The all-park option is well worth the added dough as it grants free admission to some of the state’s biggest attractions, including the castle at Huntington Beach State Park and tours of historic homes such as the Hampton Plantation and Rose Hill Plantation.
Hit Lake Murray for free family-friendly events galore
Dubbed 'The Jewel of South Carolina", this manmade 50,000-acre lake is approximately 10 miles northwest of downtown Columbia. As well as fishing, boating and golfing, the lake and surrounding quaint communities are hotspots for free family activities.
The town of Chapin has free movie nights at Melvin Park, Newberry has a farmers' and artists' market with kids’ activities, and the City of West Columbia has a weekly artisan market along Meeting Street. Saturday is typically the best day for a Lake Murray adventure – it’s when the events are in full flow.
Download the ‘Passport to Fun’ for deals on activities in Myrtle Beach
Myrtle Beach is a white-sand draped utopia primed for family adventures, but planning a trip to Myrtle Beach on a budget is no easy task. Whether outings are scheduled months in advance or on the fly, the cost of attractions, food and everything in between soon adds up.
However, Visit Myrtle Beach has a free, downloadable Passport to Fun that offers deals on some of the city’s most interactive and kid-centric experiences. These deals can include discounted tickets to WonderWorks Myrtle Beach, The Funplex and Shipwreck Island Adventure Golf and savings on watercraft rentals.
Navigate Charleston’s breweries aboard the free Brewery District Beer Trolley
Charleston is a craft beer haven but those $5 to $10 brewskis can add up quickly, and after a few, you shouldn’t be driving anyway.
From 1pm to 9pm on Saturdays, the "Holy City" has a free shuttle that makes hourly stops at some of the city's most-renowned spots, including the Tradesman Brewing Company, Baker & Brewer and Munkle Brewing Co. It’s cheaper than taking an Uber to and from each spot and the company is typically way more entertaining.
Daily costs in South Carolina
- Basic room for two: $90–120
- Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): From $140 per night
- Public transport ticket in a South Carolina city: $1–2
- Boiled peanuts at a gas station: $2–3
- Cup of coffee: $2–3
- Sandwich: $6–10
- Dinner for two at a downtown restaurant: $50–70
- A pint of beer at the bar: $6–7