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Across the country, everyone is feeling the pinch of inflation. Eggs have become a hot commodity and that fancy coffee costs about $1 more than it did last year. For travelers, domestic flights are up 52% in cost for 2023, according to travel site KAYAK. And yet, the post-pandemic travel bug is still driving what looks to be another adventurous year for Americans. In the same survey, KAYAK found that searches for domestic travel have risen 25% as people plan their new year adventures.
It’s true that those bucket-list destinations might have to move to a back burner for many travelers due to financial considerations. That doesn’t mean they need to sit at home, though. More people are turning to smaller cities, national parks, and other destinations they’ve never considered as they plan their next adventure.
Utilizing chain hotels with reward programs is one way travelers can save money, as is choosing cabins or condos with kitchens. Every fourth grader in America (and their family) is eligible for a free National Parks pass, as are people with disabilities and military members. Travel does not need to be expensive to be valuable. The benefit of looking at travel through this lens is that these locations are still packed with amenities and attractions at a lower price point. Check out some of the best cheap places to travel in 2023 that might not be on your radar — yet. I was lucky enough to be invited as press by many of the locations, and got to explore all the fun they have to offer firsthand.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
California draws thousands of tourists each year to its most widely-known national parks, like Yosemite and Joshua Tree. They are fabulous, but the state is also home to Lassen Volcanic National Park. Located in the Cascade Mountains, Lassen has everything that visitors could need within the park, including lodging, junior ranger programs and dining options. Most visitors camp or stay at cabins or the guest ranch located within the park, but neighboring towns have a slew of motels and chain hotels that are incredibly affordable. According to Priceline, the average hotel room near Lassen costs around $116. There are also some kitschy properties like the River Inn, which evokes Schitt’s Creek vibes, for around $80 bucks a night.
An example of Rust Belt Revival, the steel city has worked hard to shed its smoggy skies and expose its award-winning skyline. With more than 400 bridges and steeper streets than San Francisco, the city often surprises first-time tourists with how vast it is and how much there is to do. Pittsburgh is home to Mr. Roger’s legacy and is still the filming location for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Stop by The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh to pose by Roger’s iconic shoes and explore four floors of hands-on activities. There are also Carnegie Museums, a Smithsonian location and the National Aviary to explore. An influx of tech and medical sector workers has kicked the local food scene up a notch, too. While in town, every tourist must ride the Duquesne Incline to the top of Mount Washington to absorb that stellar skyline. An average domestic plane ticket to Pittsburgh costs around $280.
Badlands, South Dakota
Most Americans have seen a photo of Mount Rushmore, but more than half have never been there. While stopping by the mountain carving is a cool photo opp, the Badlands of South Dakota have so many other attractions to visit in addition. It’s also ultra-affordable, with an average hotel price of under $100. The Crazy Horse Memorial is an impressive rock carving — still uncompleted — honoring the Lakota leader who fought back against colonization. Badlands National Park is one of the richest fossil beds in the world, making it particularly enticing for dinosaur lovers. Every visitor to the Badlands is also required (unofficially, of course) to stop by Wall Drug, the rambling curiosities shop that attracts millions of visitors each year.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia
Of America’s 63 national parks, New River Gorge is the most recent. The park is centered around the dramatic path of New River — which is, ironically, one of the oldest rivers on the planet. Geared towards adventure, there are more than 1,600 climbing routes, world-class whitewater rafting and amazing fishing. There’s plenty of camping within the park and hotels averaging $100 per night in nearby Beckley. ACE Adventure Resorts has everything from luxe cabins to rustic campsites as well as whitewater tours where kids raft free with an adult ticket. Locals love Tudor’s Biscuit World — a regional chain based in West Virginia — for a hearty breakfast before outdoor adventures.
Door County, Wisconsin
A popular getaway for locals, the waterfront fun of Door County is actually a great budget option for travelers from any region. Lodging in Door County ranges from chain hotels and Airbnbs to condo communities with amenities such as The Landmark Resort, with rooms starting at around $150. From sand sculpture contests to kayak and stand-up paddleboarding rentals, there are a ton of low-key affordable and free activities in Door County. While water sports are one of the biggest draws, it’s also a great winter-time getaway for ice fishing and cross-country skiing. It’s also a great spot to curl up with a good book in front of a fire.
Panama City, Panama
Who says you can't go international on a budget? Travelers who frequent Mexico’s resort towns should try Panama City, a wallet-friendly option with so much to do. While flights from the U.S. can be a bit expensive — Priceline cites an average cost of $650 — the affordability of lodging and dining makes up for it. At Riane Aeropuerto Hotel and Casino, which has a pool with swim-up bar, outdoor games and a round-the-clock airport shuttle, a standard hotel room is around $100. Hyatt’s Hotel La Compañía, located in a former Jesuit convent in the historical cultural district, offers a luxury stay for around $350 per night — half what a comparable room would be in Cancun. Along the Amador Causeway, which has a bit of a Key West Vibe, guests can explore museums, check out a sloth preserve, bike or grab dinner at a local favorite — Fishlovers Ceviche y Bar.
Québec City, Canada
Tourists regularly flock to Canada’s two largest cities, Toronto and Montreal, when it's time to head up north. But travelers shouldn't miss their third-largest metropolis, Vieux Québec, or Old Québec City. The destination is a UNESCO World Heritage site lined with cobblestone streets and 400-year-old buildings. Don’t worry about not speaking the language: Québécois kids begin learning English in first grade and residents are happy to assist tourists. With an average hotel price of $200 per night, Quebec City is often described by visitors as having a European feel due to the architecture and French language, but at a fraction of the cost of an overseas trip.
Florida has developed a reputation for affordable oceanfront vacations, but the post-pandemic travel boom has left many top spots like Daytona and Tampa short on hotel rooms. Titusville, located near Cape Canaveral on “The Space Coast,” offers everything more populous beach towns do at a more affordable price. The flight to Titusville costs around $250 and hotels average just $150. The Kennedy Space Center provides a full day of space flight simulations, tours and interactive experiences for kids and adults. While rocket launches are visible from many spots in and around Titusville, Marriott has a new hotel with rooftop launch viewing. There’s also a robust ecotourism industry in the region. The Marine Discovery Center offers boat tours, exploration, and even an occasional manatee sighting.
While it’s not a small city or a lesser-known vacation spot, the nation’s capital is a truly affordable vacation with endless entertainment options. The Smithsonian museums and galleries, as well as the National Zoo, are all admission-free. D.C. has a vibrant and ever-evolving food scene that is perfect for a splurge dinner during a trip, but the cafés within museums as well as the food trucks and food halls across the city are packed with options at a much lower price point. The metro system is simple to navigate, so most visitors who fly to the capital will not need to rent a car.
A survey by Campspot for their 2023 Outdoor Almanac ranked Great Smoky Mountains National Park as one of the top five national parks Americans hope to visit in 2023. Gatlinburg, considered the gateway to Smokies, is the perfect home base for travelers who want to explore the area. There are family-friendly campgrounds packed with amenities like Jellystone Pigeon Forge; motels and cottages like Carr’s Cottages with family suites starting under $150 and plentiful chain hotels. From Ripley’s museum to mountain coasters and even their own space needle, it's impossible to get bored in Gatlinburg.
The largest children’s museum in the world is located in Indianapolis. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis covers nearly 30 acres and draws over one million visitors each year. For families with kids, this attraction alone makes Indy a great destination for a vacation. There’s so much more to do there, though. Time your visit to coincide with the Indy 500, or visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum to learn about the history of auto racing any time of year. For an experience with a slower pace, take a pedal boat tour on a portion of the Indiana Central Canal. Like most smaller cities, Indy is home to a plethora of hotels and Airbnbs — the average cost of a nightly stay is only $130.
Big Bear Lake, California
Located in San Bernardino National Forest, Big Bear Lake is an easy drive from Phoenix, SoCal and Las Vegas. Some visitors compare it to Lake Tahoe at a lower price point. The skiing includes more beginner trails and affordable lift tickets — and is generally less crowded than Tahoe. During the other months of the year, Big Bear has all the popular mountain town activities like kayaking, horseback riding, mountain coasters and ziplining. There’s also a vibrant mountain biking community in and around Big Bear Lake.
For East Coast travelers looking for a quaint town to spend a quiet vacation in, Leesburg fits the bill. Located within Loudoun County just about an hour outside of Washington, D.C., it also makes a great home base from which to explore the city without staying in an expensive hotel. Downtown Leesburg looks like stepping into a postcard, with art galleries, restaurants and retail space tucked into historic buildings. Shoe’s Cup and Cork is a popular local spot located in a former shoe store that serves local sustainable food, wine and beer. In surrounding Loudoun County, there are tours of wineries, breweries and a woman-owned distillery, Catoctin Creek, inside a former Pontiac dealership. Flights to nearby Dulles Airport average just over $300 for domestic flights.
When tourists think of visiting the Grand Canyon, the most popular base camps are Phoenix and Las Vegas — which can be pricey. Flagstaff, which is just over an hour away, allows vacationers to explore the canyon on a smaller budget. Flying to Flagstaff can be expensive, but it makes a great road trip destination for folks who want to explore the southwest. There are many hotel and bed-and-breakfast options that average just over $100 per night. For a quirkier accommodation, the vintage Airstreams at Village Camp Flagstaff are adorably Instagrammable.
Half of the U.S. population lives within a one-day drive of Columbus — making it both accessible and affordable. Columbus is home to Jack Hannah’s zoo, which includes a water park called Zoombezi Bay. Visitors should give themselves two days to enjoy everything the zoo has to offer. The local science center, COSI, has been rated the best science center in America for three years in a row by USA Today. Many museums and zoos have reciprocal programs with the Columbus attractions, so check your local memberships for discounts. While in town, guests can spend a free evening walking, biking or enjoying the spray park along the river on the Scioto Mile.
Galveston has developed a reputation for Texans as an affordable beach getaway — but with the average flight costing under $300, the Gulf Coast hotspot is a great option for any traveler on a budget. It’s easy to use hotel rewards in Galveston, but there are also RV parks like Camp Margaritaville and plenty of privately owned rentals averaging $160 per night. There is also no shortage of delicious beach-town eateries in Galveston that are uber-affordable. Playground Patio Bar & Grill has entertainment for all ages, and the Shark Shack makes a great quick lunch stop without having to brush off too much sand.
Arches National Park is one of the most stunning geographical formations in America. It’s also very, very rural. For adventure-seeking travelers who want to explore the 2,000 documented rock arches, the tiny town of Moab is a great spot to stay. Devil’s Garden Campground, located within the park itself, is traditional rustic camping with stunning desert views. Expedition Lodge, a vintage motel, is a better choice for visitors who want their own toilet and shower. Despite its rural roots, Moab has a great little food scene. The food truck park is a hit with visitors because everyone can get exactly with they want — no compromising necessary.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, visitors do not need a passport — which can be an expensive document to obtain. The average flight, according to Priceline, is also just around $300. San Juan is more than 500 years old and filled with historic buildings — with stunning beaches and rainforests surrounding it. Spotin Tours offers ecologically-conscious rainforest excursions for adults as well as kids. The Hotel El Convento is a registered historic hotel in Old San Juan with rooms starting under $150, and the Sheraton by Marriott in the same historic district is a great option for utilizing reward points.
Jekyll Island, Georgia
The sleepy sister to the more popular Saint Simon, Jekyll Island is a budget-friendly way to enjoy Georgia’s Golden Isles. The oceanfront Holiday Inn resort includes free meals for kids 11 and under at any time of day as well as sweeping views of the Atlantic with a full-service poolside tiki bar restaurant. It’s a quick trip over to Saint Simon for more plentiful dining options, but part of the draw of Jekyll Island is its slower pace. Driftwood Beach has plentiful climbing opportunities for little kids, and the Summer Waves Water Park provides a great break from the waves. It’s not easy to fly to Jekyll, but it makes a great road trip.
Estes Park, Colorado
This mountain town situated just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park is made for individuals and families who love adventure. The average flight to Estes Park is under $250, and the town is less than 90 minutes from Denver. With classic eateries like Penelope’s World Famous Burgers and Fries and more foodie-friendly spots such as Himalayan Curry & Kebab, there are great meals for any budget. ATV and horseback tours allow visitors to see the mountainous terrain, and the fly-fishing is world-class.
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