You finally settle on a destination for your next US vacation, and just minutes into planning, it hits: sticker shock. The bubble of excitement can easily burst when poked by the reality of prices. Luckily, there’s nearly always a solution.
The US is so vast, so varied, there’s one budget tip that works for almost every expensive destination: go somewhere else. There are cheaper alternatives in every direction, and the lesser-known destinations often hold more surprises for a curious traveler.
But hold on, there’s often no need to squash your travel dreams so quickly. A little know-how can go a long way to turn a would-be budget-crusher into an affordable adventure, and even add some unexpected fun.
It doesn't cost a dime to drink in Hawaii's astonishing landscape, does it? © Glowing Earth Photography / 500px
The good news about Hawaii is that relaxing on the beach, swimming and hiking are all free. The bad news is that nearly everything else comes at a premium.
The simplest way to save money is just plain good Hawaiian advice: stay put and chill out. Set aside any island-hopping plans: not only does it cost money, it takes time and harshes whatever mellow you were working on.
Timing is everything. If you’re willing to wait and jump on cheap fares that start showing up toward the end of the year, you can often fly to Hawaii from the US for less than a cross-country flight. There’s little downside to going in winter: surf will be higher in some spots (bad for snorkelers, good for surfers), and you might hit a bit more rain (bad for dryness, good for rainbows).
For good eats, do as the locals do. Shop at one of the many farmers’ markets, and sign up for the local grocery store loyalty cards: it only takes a minute, and they remove at least some of the sting of high food prices in Hawaii. Some of the best local food in Hawaii is totally missed by visitors — even better, a steaming bowl of saimin noodle soup or a Hawaiian plate lunch will save enough cash to buy yourself a Hawaiian shave ice when you’re done.
Downtown used to be the poor relation in Las Vegas, but these days it's just a better deal for budget travelers © Fotos593 / Shutterstock
What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, or so the slogan goes. But if you’re not careful, what really stays in Vegas is all of your hard-earned cash.
Let’s lay the cards on the table: Las Vegas can be downright cheap if you can resist temptation. Vegas lures in travelers with cheap hotel rooms, rental cars and vacation packages. Use this to your advantage.
Hotel deals are easy to find even right on the Strip if you don’t mind staying at one of the older or less trendy properties. Even better deals are to be found in the revitalized downtown, with the bonus of a certain retro vibe that’s largely missing from the Strip. Hotel rooms are simply where you sleep: stay in a budget room and explore the splashiest casino to your heart’s content.
The easiest way to resist Vegas’ money-draining temptations is to leave — and you don’t have to go far. In Valley of Fire State Park, Red Rock Canyon and Sloan Canyon National Conservation Areas, all just short drives away, nature provides flash that makes the lights of the Strip pale by comparison.
More tips: Viva Las Vegas on a low-roller’s budget
You've seen it in the movies a million times, but Central Park is just as good in real life – and there's no entrance fee © Songquan Deng / Shutterstock
New York City
New York City’s most famous attractions can drain your wallet faster than you can order a pastrami sandwich, but those pricey options barely scratch the surface of what NYC has to offer.
In fact, finding what to do on a budget is not the challenge. Art lovers can stroll the galleries of Chelsea, fashionistas can take in the exhibitions at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and bookworms can lose themselves for hours in the New York Public Library, all for free. New York has something free to match every interest, and you might even walk away with a new interest or two.
Good advice for any budget-minded trip: head for a park. New York’s Central Park is more than any old park, it’s a venue for events both planned and unplanned, an outdoor gallery, a free botanical garden, a bike path, a virtual tour of famous movies, and a rock to eat your bagel on.
The city may never sleep, but you’ll have to at some point. The outer boroughs have traditionally been the places to find deals, but bargains can be found even in Manhattan. Why drop extra dough on a sterile chain hotel, when you can soak up some real NYC atmosphere and history at the jazzy Harlem Flophouse or the super-artsy Carlton Arms?
More tips: 45 free things to do in New York City
Jackson Hole doesn't have to be a bottomless pit for your budget en route to the grandeur of Grand Teton National Park © Kris Wiktor / Shutterstock
The name may contain the word 'hole', but Jackson Hole is a decidedly posh hole. The cowboy hats are a little taller, the boots a little shinier. Not everyone is 'all hat, no cattle', as locals like to say: this is still ranching country, not just a retreat for the wealthy.
The crowds around Jackson and Teton Village are drawn to the winter snow for skiing, or the summer sun for exploring Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Budget seekers, and crowd avoiders, should target the spring and autumn. Spring wildflowers or fall aspens turning gold? You can’t lose.
Jackson Hole may have a luxe reputation, but there’s still a hostel: The Hostel in Jackson Hole is often the cheapest accommodation option around. Vacation rentals or private rooms in local homes can be a great deal, particularly in low season — getting a big house with a large group is a great way to cut down on both lodging and food costs.
Nora’s Fish Creek Inn serves up a great country breakfast with portions big enough to share (skip the line to sit right at the counter if you’re a small group). Load up for a day of hiking with a sandwich and healthy snacks from Jackson Whole Grocer — you may get finer lunch fare in town, but you won’t have the view.
Getting to Martha's Vineyard can be expensive, but you can admire its intricate architecture free of charge © travelview / Shutterstock
Martha’s Vineyard has a reputation as a playground for the rich, a place where only presidents and celebrities go for a summer getaway. Even the name, calling an island a vineyard, seems to puff up the air of exclusivity — but once you’re there, you’ll realize that the reputation is more myth than reality.
The fastest way to put the brakes on spending is to leave the car behind on the mainland. Passenger rates on the Steamship Authority ferries are under $20 roundtrip, while a standard-sized car is over $100 round-trip. Yikes. And then you have to deal with parking and crowded streets in the island towns, particularly during the high season. Paying for a headache: who needs it?
Buses connect all of the island towns seven days a week, for only $1.25 from one town to the next; a three-day pass for $18 lets you go anywhere without thinking about it. Even better: hop on a bike and explore at your leisure. Bikes can be rented on the island, or are provided free by some of the inns and hotels.
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