Is the warmer weather making you daydream about a summer trip? Then consider this your nudge to actually get plans on the books! If you’re bored of the usual theme parks and hotel resorts, consider these affordable and somewhat off-the-beaten path places suggested by real families across the country who’ve actually been there.
Here, in their own words, are what makes these destinations so great.
For a Cross-Country Getaway …
Try: An Amtrak journey from San Diego to D.C.
My wife and daughter agree this was our absolute best trip. First we took a train from San Diego to Los Angeles, then onto Chicago, and then onto Washington, D.C. The route follows one of the old cattle trails. We loved staying in a family compartment and eating in the dining car together. It was a great way for our family to see America.
Definitely find time to explore San Diego before you depart — we loved the San Diego Zoo, one of the best in the country. If you have time, head north to La Jolla and visit the sea lions on the coast for free.
Cost Breakdown: Train tickets for a sleeper car can cost upwards of $2,500 for a family of four, and meals are typically included.
— Bob Tupper; Bethesda, Maryland
For a New England Getaway …
Visit: Portland, Maine
Our hotel was close to a walking/bike path that took you along the ocean. The highlight of our trip was the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum, an awesome train museum with actual old railway cars you can take a ride on, which my 3- and 5-year-old kids loved. Other points along the scenic route included a sandy beach you can walk and play on and a nice big park overlooking the water.
Cost Breakdown: About $400 for gas, food, museum passes and lodging.
— Krystal Valiquette Ford; Garrison, New York
For a West Coast Getaway …
Visit: Lake Tahoe, California
We love Lake Tahoe in all seasons. It is a big tourist attraction, but the California side is a bit more laid back, and it’s easy to get off the beaten path.
When we took our two teenage boys, we stayed at the Hyatt Incline Village, which is right on the shores of the lake. The kids got a feel for sailing and got to gawk at all the mansions along the lake. Afterwards, we roasted marshmallows on the beach as the sun went down. It made for a fantastic day!
The next day we skied and snowboarded at nearby Mt. Rose (one of the higher ski resorts in the area), then we went rock climbing on the California side of the lake with amazing views over the Sierra Nevadas.
A handful of mom and pop restaurants and grocery stores are great for food. One of our favorites is Steamer’s — be sure to try their white garlic pizza.
Cost Breakdown: $200 a night for lodging, $25 a day for a rental car, and about $120 on food and drinks for a family of four.
— Carrie Simmons; Phoenix, Arizona
For a Mid-Atlantic Getaway …
Visit: Ligonier, Pennsylvania
My partner, William, and I hosted our 11-year-old niece here for a weeklong staycation. Ligonier is a historic town with a vibrant Main Street culture dotted with independently owned businesses. We loved grabbing a cone at the Ligonier Creamery and sampling toffee at Scamps. We also saved money on food by hitting the morning Ligonier Country Market on Saturday mornings from 8 a.m. until noon.
In true Americana fashion, the town boasts several museums, some with interactive activities designed specifically with kids in mind. Not only that, the surrounding area is perfect for nature enthusiasts who enjoy camping and hiking. Check out Linn Run State Park, which has a natural water slide.
Cost Breakdown: Less than $500 for the week for food, drinks and activities like the historic Fort Ligonier, the French and Indian War-era wooden fort and museum (tickets are $10 for adults, $6 for kids 5 and up). Lodging runs $80 to $150 a night at local hotels, or stay in Linn Run’s campsite, where a rustic cabin will set you back around $500 for the week.
— Andrew Thornton; Ligonier, Pennsylvania
For a Midwestern Getaway …
Visit: St. Louis, Missouri
My family of four spent a three-day summer weekend in St. Louis. We had an awesome and affordable time in the city, which is packed with iconic landmarks and tourist attractions, many of which are free. Families should check out Forest Park for cultural attractions, historic landmarks, sporting and outdoor activities. We also visited the science center, the planetarium and the zoo. Don’t forget to visit the Old Courthouse — brimming with great history lessons — where you can also buy tickets to go up the St. Louis Gateway Arch.
Save money by ditching parking fees and jumping onto the downtown trolley (all-day rides are $2 for adults and $1 per child).
We loved St. Louis so much that we plan to go back this summer!
Cost Breakdown: $600 for three days, including entertainment, gas, food and lodging at the Pear Tree Inn ($200 for two nights).
— Anitra Durand Allen; Louisville, Kentucky
For a Southwestern Getaway …
Visit: Sulphur, Oklahoma
Sulphur is right next to the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, which offers free-to-the public hiking, swimming and fishing. About 15 minutes to the west of Sulphur you can visit Bedré Fine Chocolate and try free samples, something my 3-year-old son and I definitely enjoyed. Insiders recommend stopping at Turner Falls Park, a swimming hole at the bottom of a waterfall. This whole area is amazing, plus you don’t get the crowds. And it isn’t going to blow a budget, because nearly everything outdoors is free! My son especially loved watching the bison roam from the viewing station in the Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
Cost Breakdown: Minus lodging, our day trip ran about $50 to $60 for food and gas. Try the Artesian Hotel ($149 for a family of four), or the Chickasaw Retreat and Conference Center ($109 a night for a family of four).
— Tracie Lowmiller; Moore, Oklahoma