40 Affordable Destinations for a Family Vacation

With one eye on a good time and the other on a good bargain, travel experts pick 40 places that will almost certainly float your boat.

from Reader's Digest

GREAT SMALL TOWNS

“Some Americans are putting off long-haul travel in favor of visiting destinations in neighboring states—sometimes for the first time,” says Daniel Levine, executive director of the Avant-Guide Institute in New York. It’s the perfect time to slow down and enjoy the pleasures of small towns.

Baja California Sur, Mexico: “This is a terrific last-minute destination because airlines frequently offer discounted flights. My husband, my toddler son, and I recently flew to Cabo San Lucas from LAX for $250 and drove from there to Todos Santos, an artsy little beach community. We had a blast and spent less than $100 in four days on food and shopping.”

—Kimberly Lisagor, coauthor, Disappearing Destinations

Door County, Wisconsin: “Known for its cherries, this gem sits on a peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan. Stay at the little inns in Egg Harbor or Sister Bay, explore lighthouses, and gather shells on windswept beaches. It’s called the Cape Cod of the Midwest and has its own version of the New England clambake: the fish boil. Whitefish, potatoes, and onions are heated in a kettle over an outdoor fire. Once the water boils, the chef tosses kerosene on the fire. When the flames die down, the meal is ready.”

—Laura Begley, deputy editor, Travel + Leisure

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: “It’s rustic and relaxing. Towns like Marquette are a step back in time. It’s never hot, and you get a real Yooper flavor (residents are called U-Pers—get it?). Don’t miss the tasty pasties (that’s a Cornish meat pie, not a typo). Munising is the gateway to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, an ideal spot for hiking.”

—Todd Dulaney, editor, AAA Living

On the road: “Take what I call a one-tank trip, itineraries you can plan on a tank of gas. Cincinnati, Ohio, to Louisville, Kentucky, is about 100 miles. Along the way, you’ll see Churchill Downs, the Louisville Slugger Museum, and the Kentucky Speedway.”

—Peter Greenberg

Bisbee, Arizona: “Spend the night at the Shady Dell trailer park in a 1949 Airstream, have breakfast at Dot’s Diner, then check out the rest of this historic copper-mining town.”

—Laura Begley

PEAKS & VALLEYS

“One of the amazing things in this country is the variety of natural environments,” says New York Times writer Matt Gross. “To experience America, you need to get out of the big cities and into the wilderness. It’s really the can’t-miss thing to do.”

Madison, Georgia, and Lava Hot Springs, Idaho: “Dude ranches aren’t all in the West. The Southern Cross Guest Ranch is in Madison, Georgia, among all those antebellum plantations. It’s an all-inclusive package—two horseback rides a day, meals, hayrides, and mountain biking. Summer rates start at $850 a week for adults, $350 to $700 for kids. If you want to play city slickers and round up cattle, brand calves, and mend fences, Andrus Ranch in Idaho is a working cattle ranch. Kids bottle-feed the animals, collect eggs, and learn how to rope. It’s also all-inclusive: $950 for adults, $750 for kids 4 to 14.”

—Pauline Frommer

Massachusetts and Vermont: “Ecotourism doesn’t have to mean roughing it in a jungle. You can do something in an afternoon, like a white-water adventure on the Deerfield River in Massachusetts. Put in at Florida and you end up farther south in Charlemont. Choose a group raft and a professional guide, or bring your own tubes and kayaks and do a self-guided trip. Kingdom Trails, voted best trail network for mountain biking in North America by readers of Bike Magazine, is in East Burke, Vermont.”

—Max Hartshorne, editor, gonomad.com

Sedona and Tucson, Arizona: “See the stars. Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson and Evening Sky Tours out of Sedona bring the night sky close. Go during the week, when the observatories are less crowded.”

—Brice Gosnell, publisher, Lonely Planet Americas

Vail, Colorado: “It’s known for its skiing, but it’s also a great summer destination: gondola rides, trails, white-water rafting, and horseback riding. Buy the new Epic Summer Pass, a four- or seven-day family package. One price gets you lodging, meals, all activities, and experienced guides. The four-day package is $695 for adults, $545 for kids 12 and under.”

—Peter Greenberg

Wyoming: “There is no better kids’ vacation than Yellowstone National Park, and it’s very inexpensive. Just $25 per car, per week, gets you in. Up to six people can camp out for $18.50 a night. It’s been called the Serengeti of America because it has the highest density of wildlife of any of the national parks in the lower 48. You’ll see wolves and herds of bison crossing the road. And in other areas of the park, the kids will love the geysers and bubbling mud pots.”

—Pauline Frommer

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness: “You forget we live in a modern country when you venture into this area on the Wyoming-Montana border. One night, a pack of white, hairy mountain goats came up to our fire to sniff around and butt heads. They were so close, we could hear them munching grass.”

—Matt Gross, “the Frugal Traveler,” New York Times

SUN & SAND

To some, summer will always mean sand. “There are lots of small lakes and smaller, less famous beaches all over the country that are great fun and especially relaxing for a family vacation,” says AP’s Travel Editor Beth Harpaz.

Amagansett, New York: “This is my absolute favorite spot in the Northeast. It combines a bit of the glitz of East Hampton and the fishing-village character of Montauk. It’s also near East End wineries, the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, which I love, as well as a slew of great restaurants, lobster shacks, bookstores, and the Sag Harbor Cinema, an art movie house.”

—Leigh Flayton, executive editor, Arrive

Cruises: “Cruise lines are taking a bath because ships have to sail and cabins have to be filled. I’ve never seen such low prices as what you can find now for ships sailing from Miami, New Orleans, San Diego, and Seattle. Look for deals in the range of $50 per person, per night, including room, full board, and visits to multiple ports.”

—Daniel Levine

Oahu, Hawaii: “Lanikai Beach is one of those beaches you think exist only on postcards: white sand, palm trees, and—somehow—no crowds. The water is a million shades of turquoise and almost always calm. My favorite thing to do here is rent a kayak in Kailua and paddle out to the twin islands Mokulua and Mokumanu, or the Mokes, as the locals call them, and hike around before heading back. You’re almost guaranteed to pass a few sea turtles. Afterward, I always go to Island Snow for shave ice. Get it with a snow cap, which is sweetened condensed milk drizzled over the top.”

—Beth Collins, associate editor, Budget Travel

San Francisco, California: “I love the Beach Chalet, a brewery-restaurant on the five-mile Ocean Beach. Arrive just before sunset and watch the orange ball slip below the Pacific Ocean. They make local beers with names like Riptide Red. Order a sampler of six ales for $8 and, with the fried calamari, have a sinfully wonderful happy hour. The view is priceless. Walk the beach, look for sand dollars, and slip your toes into the foaming waves.”

—Marybeth Bond, author, National Geographic’s 50 Best Girlfriend Getaways in North America

Plus: The Best Family Beach Vacation Spots