Summer is quickly approaching, and you’ve got travel on your mind. 2023 is ripe for exploration…but recently everything including items as simple as eggs (not to mention a nice vacation) has gotten more expensive. So, how can you feed the travel bug without breaking the bank? We’ve got you covered. Here are our tips for planning cheap travel plus our top five cheap vacation ideas in the USA for 2023.
But First, a Few Tips for Planning a Cheap Vacation
You’ve worked hard to save money for a trip, and it’s understandable that you want it to go as far as possible! Planning a cheap vacation is totally possible. But it does take a bit of planning and extra consideration. After all, it’s easy to just go online and book an awesome adventure quickly. But that might not be the cheapest option!
So if you are wanting to have a nice trip without breaking the bank, here are some general things to keep in mind that can really help keep your travel costs lower.
1. Stay Close to Home
What haven’t you explored nearby yet? Sticking close to home means saving on gas and plane tickets, and with a little bit of searching you just might find some hidden gems you’ve been overlooking for years. Is there a lake region near your hometown into which you haven’t yet ventured? Mountains you’ve yet to climb? Little-known beaches whose waters you haven’t swum in? Start the search close to home. You might be surprised by an exciting new vacation destination that was right under your nose the whole time.
READ MORE: Plan a Staycation to Remember
2. Be Open & Flexible When it Comes to Accommodation
If you are planning to be out and about most of the day while on vacation, then your hotel might really just be a place you sleep. In this case, it doesn’t need to be fancy, because the focus is on exploring the area rather than the room.
Ask yourself what accommodation options you’re comfortable with aside from a typical hotel stay. Would you consider staying in a private room in a shared Airbnb apartment or house? Sleeping in a hostel? How about camping? All of these options are many orders of magnitude cheaper than staying in a hotel, and are arguably also more fun and adventurous.
Lastly, a key factor in finding a cheap place to stay during a vacation is to be flexible on your travel dates. If you are able to travel during the week, you can certainly save money versus staying over a weekend for most vacation destinations.
You can read in a lot more detail about this in our budget travel tips – how to plan a cheap vacation post.
3. Consider All Transportation Options
Although flying is usually the easiest way to travel to a vacation destination, it’s seldom the cheapest. Instead of jumping on the cheapest plane ticket you see, research all transportation options. Can you take the bus or train? Would you be willing to make the adventure into a road trip by driving to the destination? Or maybe it’s a combination? The more open you are to these possibilities, the cheaper your vacation will be.
4. Self-Catering Facilities & Picnics!
Food can be an ENORMOUS expense when you are on vacation! When you think about eating out for every single meal, the cost adds up quickly. To maximize your savings, search for a place to stay that offers a kitchen. Having the ability to cook in your accommodation is far more affordable than eating every meal in a restaurant or cafe.
And sometimes having a nice picnic can be part of the vacation experience! Bring some cutlery and containers with you so that you can pack your meals and eat them on the go. Even just having a fridge or a microwave can help with easy meals like breakfasts or heating up leftovers.
5. Look for Cheap or Free Activities
There are a gazillion fun ways to experience a new destination without spending much (or any) money. Things such as strolling through a historic downtown area or relaxing in a park can be a fun and cheap day out. Seek out free museums. Take a free tour. You can also find many free audio tours online that you can download to your phone.
There are also so many free or cheap things to do just hanging out in nature! Especially in many of the US State Parks or US National Parks, there are so many hikes and things to do that will cost you very little.
READ MORE: Ultimate List of Ideas for Things to Do on Vacation (Including Free or Cheap)
6. Utilize Travel Reward Points
Check whether you have accumulated any airline, credit card, or other reward points. These often translate to substantial savings, like we discussed in our post about Travel Hacking – Using Credit Card Points for Free Travel. If you have enough time before your intended vacation dates, look for ways to accumulate even more points in order to offset travel and accommodation costs.
Cheap Vacation Destinations in the USA
Okay, now that you have an idea of some ways you can keep your costs down during your trip, let’s talk about some of the most popular inexpensive travel destinations here in the US for 2023. Depending on where you are located, some of these places may be closer to home than others. Our goal was to put together a nice mix for wherever you are.
Here are our top picks for some of the best and most popular cheap vacation destinations around the USA, curated by our expert team of longtime budget travelers.
1. Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Situated just outside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg offers a perfect balance between nature and city. The downtown itself is quite built up for a town of under 4,000; it features amusement park rides, an abundance of shops and cafes, and even a space needle from which visitors can take in an unforgettable view of the Great Smoky Mountains and the town.
Free and Cheap Activities in Gatlinburg
A stroll through the town or a hike in the mountains nearby will cost you nothing. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few national parks that does not charge an entry fee, although they do charge a parking fee. Parking is limited, and taking a shuttle from downtown Gatlinburg is recommended.
Gatlinburg’s ghost and haunt tour is also renowned for its spooky rendition of local history, and it only costs $30 per participant. Or, attend the town’s popular magic and mindreading show in the lobby of their historic space needle, and then end the night at the Ole Smoky Barrelhouse sampling their range of whiskey and moonshine for only $5, plus receive a $5 off coupon.
Other Example Costs – Food & Hotels in Gatlinburg
The availability of nice, affordable accommodation is one of the reasons Gatlinburg is such a cost-effective destination. Search Airbnb for Gatlinburg, toggle the filters to ‘anytime’ and search for a 1-week stay, make the maximum budget $105, and then make sure you’re sitting down and prepare to be surprised.
There are a few options with great reviews right in Gatlinburg itself for well under $100 per night, as well as a number of affordable places situated off the bypass just to the west of the city, with gorgeous mountain vistas. We really like this one, a cozy and clean condo that’s quite reasonably priced. The view just outside the building is stunning. Many similar options are available.
You’ll also find a range of good food options that don’t break the bank. Try Cliff Top Restaurant at Anakeesta for delicious fare with a spectacular view. They offer many dishes for under $20.
Driving is the most convenient way to see the sites around Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains. However, you can save money by taking the Gatlinburg Trolley around town or shuttles to the park for hikes.
2. Grand Teton National Park
Located on a sprawling expanse of land in Wyoming, Grand Teton national park draws hikers, mountaineers, and backcountry fishing and camping enthusiasts from all over the world. It includes the Teton mountain range, 4000-meter Grand Teton Peak, and a gorgeous green valley known as Jackson Hole.
Free and Cheap Activities in the Tetons
$35 will get you and the other people in your vehicle entrance to the national park for 7 days. Once inside, visiting beautiful places is completely free. We highly recommend Jenny Lake for the picture-perfect mirror reflection of the Teton Mountain Range that can be seen when gazing into its water. After that, hike 5 miles on the Hidden Falls Trail to arrive at a stunning 100-foot waterfall deep in the forest. Hike back after basking in its beauty or take the shuttle boat for $20 to return to the east side of the lake.
Adrenaline-seeking visitors to the park can’t miss Snake River’s rapids. A half-day whitewater rafting tour with Jackson Hole Whitewater is $120. For those who want to spend less, simply walking around the park affords you the opportunity to get that adrenaline pumping when you see beers, moose, coyotes, and other wildlife.
Other Example Costs – Food & Accommodations
If you’re willing to camp, you can do this vacation in a truly economical way. Lizard Creek Campground, for example, charges only $26 per night for campers with vehicles and $11 per night for hikers and cyclists. Similarly, Signal Mountain Campsite (our favorite) will set you back $31 per night for campsites without electricity or $50 with electricity, and Jenny Lake Campground accommodates hikers and bikers for $13 and offers standard campsites for $50.
When camping, save more money by cooking on a camp stove and packing simple food in containers to take with you during the day. In fact, the Grand Tetons are the perfect place to have a picnic and enjoy the incredible views!
If you prefer to stay in a hotel, then the nearby town of Jackson has some beautiful hotels will be the area you want to look. You can stay in town or on the outskirt areas where you’ll feel like you are in the heart of nature. The downtown area itself is quite walkable and there is plenty to see and do in town.
The best way to explore the park is by car. So if you live within driving distance, you can save a lot on transportation and be able to explore the park on your own.
3. Destin, Florida
White, sandy coastline extending as far as the eye can see. Crystal-clear emerald water mixed with deeper azure hues. Warm, balmy air that beckons you to sprawl out and relax on the endless beach. If this sounds like your idea of a vacation, you’ll love Destin. In fact, this is our favorite part of the Florida panhandle and we’ve spent a lot of time here.
Although the climate is warm year-round, Destin is milder than other parts of Florida and remains relatively comfortable throughout the summer. And, despite that you don’t actually have to leave the mainland to reach it, the island vibes are strong here.
Free and Cheap Activities in Destin
There are many public access points along the coastline south of Destin, so you won’t need to pay any money to spend time on world-class beaches. When you’re not lounging on the beach or submerging yourself in those beautiful waters, there are plenty of other fun things to do without spending much. See a free alligator show at Gator Beach and feed the gators for just $5.
Alternatively, visit Henderson Beach State Park for $6 per vehicle and walk the nature trail, or have a picnic at one of the park’s scenic pavilions with barbecue grills. If you’re hungry for seafood, try fishing–Destin is known as the world’s luckiest fishing village. You might catch Pompano, Red fish, Whiting, Catfish, Flounder, and Cobia.
Other Example Costs – Food & Hotels in Destin
There are a number of nice Airbnb rooms and apartments available for $60-$100 per night just a few minutes to the west of Destin itself, around the Fort Walton Beach area (which is also a really funky and fun area with quaint shops and restaurants). Some of these are mere steps to the sea, and with a car you can easily access the region’s most pristine beaches. If you want to be in Destin itself, stay at Village Inn Destin in a king room that can sleep two for just $89 per night during a 1-week stay.
To eat for cheap, check out The Local Market. Most dishes are under $15, and their reviews are superb.
4. Las Vegas, Nevada
Located in the vast Mojave desert of the southwestern USA, Las Vegas has a lot more to offer than just casinos. Think vibrant bars, live shows galore, and bright shiny lights that light up your soul. Aside from resorts, indulgence, and entertainment, Vegas also offers a thriving art scene and multiple museums.
Free and Cheap Activities in Las Vegas
Of course, one of the most popular and totally free things to do in Vegas is walk the Strip and explore the different hotels along the way. It feels like you are traveling the world for free by checking out Vegas’ interpretation of famous places, such as its Venetian hotel, Paris Las Vegas hotel, or the Eiffel Tower and Saint Mark’s replicas.
When you need a break, sit down and watch one of the free water shows at the Fountains of Bellagio. When you get hungry, take a free self-guided tour of Ethel M Chocolate Factory. The list goes on. There is no shortage of free and cheap things to do in Las Vegas.
You can also explore the flourishing craft beer scene in the arts district and check out breweries like Hop Nuts, CraftHaus, HUDL Brewing, and Able Baker Brewing. Once you’ve had a few beers, walk them off while browsing the district’s art galleries. If you’re feeling adventurous, get a tattoo for only $10 at the iconic Koolsville tattoo shop. Visit the Burlesque Hall of Fame for $15.
Other Example Costs – Food & Hotels in Vegas
If you live within driving distance then it can be cheap to get to Las Vegas. But you can also score some pretty cheap flights to Las Vegas, especially on Southwest airlines or similar. Red-eye flights from most major cities and many smaller cities to Las Vegas are notoriously cheap, so you won’t have to spend much money. A round-trip ticket from Newark, for example, could cost around $300, around $350 from Washington DC, only $170 from Dallas, and $280 from Chicago. And from cities out West it may only cost you $100!
There are also a few ways to find cheap accommodation in Las Vegas. If you’re willing to sleep in a hostel dormitory, you can experience the city for only $75 per night. We recommend Bposhtels for its fantastic location right near Vegas’ arts district. There are also a surprising amount of Airbnb options for under $50. However, many people want to be right in the heart of the action on the Strip (and I don’t blame them!). Hotels on the Las Vegas Strip can be quite expensive. However, sometimes you can find a good deal – especially during off-peak times and during the week.
Uber and Lyft are the cheapest and most convenient options for getting around Las Vegas. You’ll pay only around $10-$15 for an Uber of Lyft from the arts district to the popular Vegas strip area, for example. For food, Vegas offers tons of options at every price point; look around and you’re sure to find something within your budget. Even on the Strip, it’s possible to find quick and cheap eats.
5. Our Most Unique Pick: Hostel in the Forest, Brunswick, Georgia
This one-of-a-kind destination deep in one of Georgia’s most beautiful forests has long been a haven for the environmentally and spiritually conscious among us. For anyone who lives in the southeast (like we do) this is a really cool place for someone who wants an inexpensive getaway where they can recharge their batteries and enjoy nature!
Hostel in the Forest teaches and promotes hands-on approaches to ecological sustainability through their facilities and lifestyle as well as through workshops they host on disciplines such as natural building, fermentation, organic gardening, and more. The hostel also offers personal and spiritual development retreats and workshops.
However, be warned: If you’re not a total nature lover, this place might not be for you. If sleeping in a treehouse or geodesic dome and waking up to birdsong sounds like your jam, though, you’ll love it here. You can bathe in a large outdoor bathtub immersed in the forest (add some essential oil to make the experience even more luxurious), relax in a rejuvenating sweat lodge, get creative in the art room, or rest and stretch as you peruse the many books on offer in the library/yoga hut.
Free and Cheap Things to Do Here
Hostel in the Forest is very much a community atmosphere, and as such, there is no shortage of social activities. You’ll meet other like-minded travelers and eat and cook together. You might find yourself sitting around the bonfire after dinner, singing along while someone strums their guitar, doing yoga with new friends, or simply strolling the trails on the 140 acres of pristine forest and wetlands owned by the hostel. This is a vacation destination that will recharge your soul without depleting your savings.
Other Example Costs:
The price is $40 night for adults, $20 per night for ages 7-17, and free for kids under the age of 7. This is just about the best value you’ll find anywhere, especially considering that the price includes immersion in breathtakingly gorgeous surroundings and access to a vibrant community.
Guests typically bring their own food and cook breakfast and lunch in the hostel’s kitchen, which is equipped with spices and basic materials for guest use. Dinners are eaten communally and cooked by volunteer staff, with the help of whichever guests feel like participating. Dinner is included in the price of the hostel, and many of the ingredients come from the onsite organic vegetable garden.
Parking is free, so you can come in your own vehicle if it’s convenient and this way you can explore the nearby area too. However, there are buses to Brunswick, Georgia and then you can pay the hostel $5 to come and collect you from the station.
A Relaxing & Fun Vacation Can Actually Be Quite Cheap!
As you can see, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy some of the USA’s best vacation destinations without spending too much. If you commit to staying flexible and follow our money-saving tips and recommendations above, we guarantee you’ll have an unforgettable vacation that stays within budget.