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10 Budget-Friendly Family Vacations That Are Actually Super Fun

As a family of seven, saving money is the name of the game, yet I manage to take the kids on vacation all the time. How? I’m budget-savvy.

Having a blast with the family and saving money sounds almost too good to be true, but I promise it isn’t. If you know where to look and when to book, you can plan a fantastic family vacation inexpensively. You can use the extra cash toward souvenirs or food or pocket it for your next family outing.

So where are these low-cost vacation outings? All over the country, in some of the most popular spots in the US. Let’s take a look.

1. Gatlinburg, Tennessee

The crown jewel of Gatlinburg in eastern Tennessee is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a 520,000-acre behemoth.

Visiting the park is a cost-effective vacation, as it’s free to enter, and you don’t need an entry pass. However, you must have a parking tag as of March 2023.

The size of the park is so large that you and the family could easily spend a week here and probably not see and do everything. Depending on the time of year you visit, you can expect activities like wildflower and wildlife-viewing, hiking, fishing, cycling, and horseback riding.

The next best thing to taking the little ones to the park is riding the Sky Lift or Space Needle over 400 feet up to see the top of the tree-lined mountains of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A day at the Anakeesta theme park or Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokeys costs under $50 per head. You don’t even have to splurge if you’re interested in taking the kids to Dollywood. Five-day passes to both parks start at $129 for visitors 10 and up.

The Hollywood Star Cars Museum should also be part of your travel itinerary in Gatlinburg. Kids five and under get in free, and it’s only $10 for tickets for kids between six and 12 years old.

Gatlinburg Money-Saving Tips

  • The Moonshine Mountain Coaster is a cheaper alternative to Dollywood.
  • The Hollywood Star Cars Museum tickets cost less if you buy them online than at the door.
  • May is a good month to travel to Gatlinburg and save, and you might even be able to camp out at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, depending on the weather.

2. Yellowstone National Park

State and national parks are low-cost travel destinations, and beyond that, they give you and the family a chance to disconnect and rekindle your bond.

Yellowstone National Park consistently tops park lists for a reason – it’s a great place to visit!

Situated in parts of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, Yellowstone is an expansive 2.2 million acres. That’s right, 2.2 million acres.

Yellowstone requires an entrance pass but not a vehicle reservation. The standard entrance pass is between $20 and $35, but you can also purchase an annual pass for $70 if you’re interested in a return trip for the family.

The park has 12 campgrounds with more than 2,000 campsites, which start at $15 a night. That’s far cheaper than the cost of a hotel unless you have hotel miles to redeem.

Yellowstone is exceptional for summer vacations. You can take the kiddos hiking, check out a thermal basin, see the local wildlife, go horseback riding, cycle through the park, eat at any of the 52 picnic spaces, and roast marshmallows over a roaring fire after dark.

The park is just as enchanting in the winter. You should have more camping experience when staying in the frigid backcountry, but you can enjoy snowmobiling, snowshoeing, skiing, and guided tours.

» MORE: Camping with Kids: How to Plan Your First Family Camping Trip

Yellowstone Money-Saving Tips

  • Pack your food so you can enjoy the various picnic areas throughout the park.
  • Bring bathing suits, as you can swim in the park for free in the Firehole Swim Area and the Boiling River (a thermal hot spring) during the summer.
  • Schedule your campsite lodging in advance, as the spots go quick!

3. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

What if you’d rather take a traditional beach vacation but still save a buck? I can’t recommend Myrtle Beach enough!

The public beaches are free to access, but you will have to pay for parking. It’s $3 an hour, but it’s more cost-effective to pay $15 for all-day parking.

I suggest arriving at the beach as early as you can, as once the spots are gone, they’re gone.

Besides soaking up the sand and surf for free, you can also take the family to Broadway at the Beach. This entertainment hub is free to stroll through, but the attractions, shopping, and food are not.

» MORE: Road Trip from Chicago to Myrtle Beach, SC

You have plenty of options for filling your travel itinerary that cost $50 or under a head, such as the Family Kingdom Amusement Park, Broadway Grand Prix (a go-kart track), Brookgreen Gardens (a botanical garden), Myrtle Waves Water Park, WonderWorks Myrtle Beach (an amusement park), and the Hollywood Wax Museum.

You’ll put a huge smile on the kids’ faces if you can splurge for one night at the Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show. Prices start at $65 for two adults and five children between the ages of three and nine.

That’s less than you’d spend to feed your family at a restaurant, and you get an evening’s worth of entertainment.

Myrtle Beach Money-Saving Tips

  • Many area restaurants run early-bird deals for saving money on grub.
  • Broadway at the Beach sometimes has free live entertainment.
  • Book early, and try to get a room with onsite amenities so you can cook.

4. Branson, Missouri

Branson is one of my favorite vacation destinations to take my family. It’s not most people’s first pick until they get there and see what fun activities and amenities the town offers. Then they’re usually hooked!

The Butterfly Palace & Rainforest Adventure is relatively low-cost (under $30 a head) and teaches your children about the wonder of butterflies. More than 1,000 exotic butterflies flit and flutter about, and the kids can even hand-feed them.

More entertainment options for under $35 a head are the Aquarium at the Boardwalk, the Hollywood Wax Museum, Beyond the Lens! Branson, WonderWorks Branson (an amusement park), World’s Largest Toy Museum Complex, and Fritz’s Adventure (another amusement park).

» MORE: 14 Incredible Things to Do in Branson, Missouri with the Kids

The Titanic Museum is a little costlier but still under $50 each.

I’d also suggest Dolly Parton’s Stampede, a dinner attraction. Bring your appetite, as you’ll be served a four-course meal that includes homemade biscuits hot from the oven, an herb-roasted potato, corn on the cob, multigrain rice, quinoa, and fire-roasted veggies.

For dessert, sink your teeth into an apple turnover. You can also enjoy unlimited beverages, and all starting at $67.99 for two adults and five children between the ages of three and nine.

Branson Money-Saving Tips

  • Consider visiting during the offseason for a cheaper vacation.
  • Book your entertainment options in advance, as you might be able to take advantage of deals.
  • Plan activities as a group, especially around Silver Dollar City, as you can usually save a lot of money this way.

5. Niagara Falls

Crowds congregate at Niagara Falls for its incredible sights, but it’s also a great place to visit because it’s inexpensive.

Niagara Falls State Park on the New York side in Niagara County is open all year long. Park access is free, but you’ll pay a fee per vehicle. It’s between $5 and $10 depending on the season, which isn’t bad.

The park is the oldest of its kind in the entire country. It’s a very cozy 221 acres and is home to Bridal Veil Falls, the American Falls, and some of the Canadian Falls, aka Horseshoe Falls.

» MORE: Cost to Get Into Niagara Falls State Park

Bring a raincoat if touring Cave of the Winds, as you will get wet! That’s also the case if you’re interested in the Maid of the Mist tour, which won’t disappoint.

The park has hiking trails and observation towers. Stay until nightfall if you can, as the Falls glow brilliantly after dark. Fireworks shows happen seasonally too.

You can also visit the aquarium and enjoy onsite dining and shopping if there’s room in the budget.

Park-hop to Devil’s Hole State Park from Niagara Falls State Park to save some dough. Entry into Devil’s Hole is free (you must pay for vehicle access). This is a small park, only 47 acres, but it features hiking trails, scenic overlooks, fishing holes, and picnic spaces.

However, Devil’s Hole is only a spot for day trips, as it has no overnight accommodations.

Niagara Falls Money-Saving Tips

  • Dine out further from the Falls. The restaurants are usually less expensive.
  • Better yet, pack food and bring it with you, especially when visiting the state parks in the area.
  • Buy a Niagara Falls Adventure Pass, which packs several activities into one for good cost savings.

6. Ocean City, Maryland

Ocean City, the eponymous Maryland town, features a 10-mile beach and a 2.9-mile boardwalk. You and the kiddos can access both for free between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Bask in the sun and splash in the picture-perfect Atlantic Ocean. Beach space is limited and becomes more crowded as the day goes on, so plan to arrive early. Wrap up your beach day by spending time on the boardwalk.

You can stroll through Inlet Park or the Ocean City fishing pier for free or play some beach volleyball at Dorchester Beach. Food, novelties, rides, and entertainment also await you.

Attractions like the Jolly Roger Amusement Park, Splash Mountain Water Park, Baja Amusements, Marty’s Playland video arcade, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! are inexpensive ways to fill the day.

You can also rent equipment from watersports companies in the area and spend the day jet skiing, kayaking, or paddleboarding.

You’ll make the kids’ whole vacation, and you can save some cash if you pack a lunch.

Ocean City Money-Saving Tips

  • Spend most of your days on the beach and then seek entertainment during the evenings. This will help control costs.
  • Research the price of cafés and restaurants before settling on a place to dine, as the costs can run the gamut here.
  • Book your hotel early to lock in a good rate.

7. Outer Banks, North Carolina

The Cape Hatteras lighthouse at Buxton on the Outer Banks of North Carolina

Do you want to get away from it all for a while? Unlock the quaint life in Outer Banks, North Carolina. This family getaway destination offers more than 100 miles of towns and villages, beaches, camping, and activities.

You and the little ones can check out the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Bodie Island Lighthouse.

Jockey’s Ridge State Park is great for family togetherness, as it’s free to get into the park for day trips.

Home to the East Coast’s biggest living sand dune, the park is 426 acres, making it the ideal spot for hiking, kite flying, hang gliding, and nature programs.

Bring a lunch, as Jockey’s Ridge State Park has picnic facilities.

» MORE: Outer Banks vs. Myrtle Beach: Which Is a Better Family Vacation?

The rest of the Outer Banks boasts water activities galore, from canoeing to kayaking, boating, and fishing across Hatteras Village, Manteo, Wanchese, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head.

Aviation Park on Veteran’s Drive has a playground, and you can also book a historic walking tour for you and the kiddos without breaking the bank.

Outer Banks Money-Saving Tips

  • Free and low-cost activities are galore here, so fill your travel itinerary with them.
  • Camp out to save on lodging.
  • Cook as many meals as you can, limiting fine dining to a night or two.

8. Yosemite National Park

Make your family’s vacation dreams come true by taking them to Yosemite, which spans nearly 760,000 acres.

Yosemite offers something for everyone between the wetlands, rivers, meadows, viewpoints, lakes, waterfalls, rock formations, and crane flat areas. Its unparalleled wilderness and beauty make it a wondrous place for hikes and tours.

You can enroll the kiddos in an interpretive or ranger program or go birdwatching, horseback riding, fishing, cycling, picnicking, and stargazing as a family.

The Merced River is a hotbed for fishing, boating, and swimming in the summer, while the park has great winter activities too.

Other excellent swimming spots to explore include the Wawona Domestic Water Intake, Lake Eleanor Reservoir, Emerald Pool and Silver Apron, the Tuolumne River’s Dana Fork, and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

» MORE: What City Is Closest to Yosemite National Park?

Yosemite costs $35 per car. Your parking pass lasts for a week, so you can plan several day trips and lodge outside of the national park without spending an arm and a leg.

Alternatively, you can camp out within the park, with 13 campgrounds spaced out across Yosemite. Camping isn’t free, but you’re spending under $50 a night at most of the campsites, so it’s very cost-effective.

Yosemite Money-Saving Tips

  • Camp in large groups so you can divide the costs.
  • Pack food and water, especially when camping.
  • Consider visiting during the offseason, which is October through February.

9. Grand Canyon National Park

Imagine the look on your family’s faces as they see the wonder and majesty of the Grand Canyon in real life. It’s so much more magnificent than social media posts or videos could ever do justice.

Better yet, visiting the Grand Canyon doesn’t have to chew through your family’s savings. Grand Canyon National Park requires entrance passes between $20 and $35. The pass is good for a week and allows North and South Rim entry (depending on the season).

The park also has several free days, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, the beginning of National Park Week, early August for The Great American Outdoors Act, National Public Lands Day in September, and Veterans Day.

» MORE: Can You Drive the Grand Canyon?

The Grand Canyon is so much more than a gorge. The South Rim is open all year long and features the Historic District with a railroad depot, the Market Plaza business center, and Mather Point, a visitor center.

Desert View is a settlement and campground within the South Rim, but you must reserve a spot if you wish to camp here.

The North Rim is only open during the winter. It’s the home of the Grand Canyon Lodge and hiking trails. Ten percent of the visitors make it to this side of the park, so it doesn’t get terribly crowded.

You and the family can plan to go rafting on the Colorado River, ride the Grand Canyon Railway (it can hold over 230,000 passengers), take a three-hour mule ride along the rim of the canyon, or go cycling.

Overnight mule trips are also an option, with a stopover at Phantom Ranch.

Grand Canyon Money-Saving Tips

  • Book early. This is good for saving money and ensuring you have a spot at a campground.
  • Bring your bike so you don’t have to rent one.
  • Pack meals instead of eating at the restaurants around the canyon. 

10. Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

Wisconsin Dells is a family vacation destination that’s rapidly exploding in popularity, and rightfully so! It has so many family-friendly entertainment options no matter what you and the kids like to do. Better yet, you don’t have to spend a fortune.

You can stay at the Wilderness Resort, selecting from lodging options like Wilderness on the Lake, Glacier Canyon Lodge, or the Wilderness Hotel. This resort also has indoor and outdoor water parks and attractions, so it will be like paradise for the kids.

Noah’s Ark Waterpark is a day park with a cost-effective Family 4-Pack plan. It includes park admission and a meal.

Kalahari Resorts is another resort and water park if you’re looking for a place to stay in the area. Booking a room means free admission to the water park.

Spend an evening at the Rick Wilcox Magic Theater, which has tickets for under $50 per head. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not offers a similar brand of entertainment.

You can also explore the great outdoors on the cheap, spending time with your family at the Wisconsin Deer Park, Timbavati Wildlife Park, or the Riverwalk.

You’re also not terribly far from Rocky Arbor State Park, a 244-acre park with playgrounds, picnic areas, and self-guided nature trails. It’s a family-friendly spot with campsites available. They’re certainly cheaper than the hotels and resorts in the area.

Wisconsin Dells Money-Saving Tips

  • Check for package deals, especially for young children or large groups, as you can shave the costs of your overall trip.
  • Book early, whether staying at a water park resort or a state park. You don’t want to miss out on availabilities!
  • Plan a vacay during the offseason. Rocky Arbor State Park offers winter activities, and the water park resorts have indoor parks so the kids can still splash around and play.