The Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Vacations

Budget travelers can find great value and plenty of free activities in these inexpensive vacation destinations.

San Antonio Riverside Walkway

by NEA Member Benefits

Urban vacations have a reputation for being pricey—but they don’t have to be. The secret is choosing a destination that offers lots of low- or no-cost activities, whether that means soaking up a city’s culture, visiting free museums or exploring the great outdoors. Some of the country’s most popular cities are also among its most expensive, like New York City, Los Angeles and Miami. But the last few decades have seen an expansion of offerings in more affordable cities around the country. Whether its unique cultural experiences, impressive culinary offerings or improved infrastructure to better welcome visitors, cities from Memphis to Las Vegas make amazing vacation destinations. 

Here are eight of our top metro destinations for budget-conscious travelers. And, no matter which city you visit, don't forget that your NEA membership benefits can help you find deals on airfare, rental cars and hotels to help you get there.

Kansas City, Missouri

Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Vacations - Kansas City Missouri

An abundance of free attractions pulls Kansas City, Missouri, to the top of many lists for affordable city vacations. And, with free transportation care of the Kansas City Streetcar, you’ll be able to see and visit many of them without spending a dime. The KC Streetcar runs through a 2.2-mile route, which starts at Union Station and travels to the city’s River Market, with 16 stops along the way.

Kansas City also has plenty of free or low-cost outdoor attractions, including the 2-acre Kauffman Memorial Garden (don’t miss the Secret Garden behind the conservatory); the 300-acre Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens that features eight ecosystems; and the kid-friendly Penguin Park in Northland that features a 26-foot kangaroo slide and a 23-foot playable penguin.

If you have kids in tow, a stop at the Crown Center is worthwhile. It features several kid-friendly exhibits, such as Kaleidoscope, SEA LIFE Aquarium and Legoland Discovery Center.

No admission is charged to visit the city’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics and the Frontier Army Museum. The C.W. Parker Carousel Museum, American Museum of Jazz and Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop-Farm are cheap attractions you can stop by for a dose of history, music and fun. 

NEA member travel benefits: Be sure to check NEA Travel: Flights to search for deals on flights to Kansas City International Airport (MCI). On the hotels page, you’ll be able to find affordable accommodations at places like the Fairfield Inn Kansas City Downtown/Union Hill by Marriott, which averages $95 per night, including breakfast and WiFi, or for some extra entertainment, there’s Harrah’s North Kansas City, which features a casino and large, contemporary rooms.

Plan your itinerary: Visit KC | Visit Missouri

Salt Lake City, Utah

Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Vacations - Salt Lake City Utah

Much of Salt Lake City’s appeal is in the area’s spectacular natural beauty, which you can enjoy at little or no cost. Nearby canyons offer ideal locations for scenic drives, hikes, horseback riding and bike rides. The Great Salt Lake adds watersports such as kayaking and sailing, as well as bird-watching. The mountains that draw skiers in winter (when prices admittedly do go up) are a playground for hikers and mountain bikers in summer. Several state and national parks are within a few hours’ drive of the city.

Always-free attractions include Hill Aerospace Museum, the Utah Sports Hall of Fame Museum and Clark Planetarium (but expect to pay for IMAX movies and star shows). If you’ll be in town for several days, purchase a Connect Pass. It includes attractions such as the Natural History Museum of Utah, Utah Olympic Park, Utah’s Hogle Zoo and Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and it can save you 50% or more off regular admission prices.

The average hotel costs around $110/night.

NEA member travel benefits: Book your flight to Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) via NEA Travel: Flights, and then check for hotel deals to stay at area hotels with prices like an average of $156 a night at the conveniently located Salt Lake Marriott Downtown at City Creek, which has an indoor pool with a retractable roof in summer. Or, the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Salt Lake City averages $181 a night for spacious suites and it’s also right downtown. 

Plan your itinerary: Visit Salt Lake | Utah: Life Elevated

San Antonio, Texas

Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Vacations - San Antonio Texas

Many of San Antonio’s top attractions are free, including the River Walk and The Alamo. Join the tourists who flock to Paseo del Rio, a waterside promenade that follows the San Antonio River through the center of town But when hunger strikes, venture a couple of blocks away from the river for more affordable eats. You can also take a boat tour on the river for around $14.

Get around town on a budget by using the city’s extensive VIA Metropolitan Transit bus system, or use the bikeshare program BCycle for about $12 an hour. And, if you’re spending some time in the city, you might want to get hold of a Go San Antonio Pass, which provides access to 25+ attractions. Starting at $104 for an Explorer Pass (or $89 for kids), you’ll get entry to two attractions, including Six Flags Fiesta Texas, the Natural Bridge Caverns and more. 

NEA members travel benefits: Log in to your NEA Travel Program account to search for deals on flights to San Antonio International Airport (SAT) and affordable hotel prices like an average of $125/night at the centrally located Courtyard by Marriott San Antonio Downtown/Market Square, which features recently renovated rooms and an outdoor pool and fitness center, and it’s walkable to River Walk and The Alamo. A bit outside the city in Hill Country, you can also get a great rate of $170/night on average at the four-star Eilan Hotel and Spa an Ascend Resort Collection Member, a Tuscan-inspired resort with a grand marble lobby, chic modern rooms, indoor and outdoor pools, a spa and fitness center and a restaurant serving Texan cuisine.

Plan your itinerary: Visit San Antonio | Travel Texas

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Vacations - Albuquerque New Mexico

Fueled in part by iconic images of red rocks against blue skies, the American Southwest is a frequent bucket-list destination. Albuquerque makes a great base for exploring the region. Admiring views of the Sandia Mountains, exploring Old Town, driving a portion of historic Route 66 and enjoying the area’s 310 annual days of sunshine are always free.

The city bills itself as the “hot-air ballooning capital of the world.” The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is held in October, but you can watch the colorful craft floating over the city almost every morning of the year. A flight will set you back $175 or more, but a visit to the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum is just $6 for adults ($4 for seniors), $3 for children 6–17 and free for kids 5 and under.

Other no-cost attractions include the 16-mile Paseo del Bosque Trail along the Rio Grande, Petroglyph National Monument, and the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History.       

NEA members travel benefits: Through the NEA Travel Program, you can search for deals on flights to Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ). Then look for affordable lodging options such as just $65 a night on average at the Querque Hotel, which has an indoor pool and gym and basic but comfortable rooms. For an average of $150 a night, the charming and historic Hotel Parq Central is locally owned and full of character, plus it includes a complimentary continental buffet breakfast and free shuttle service to and from the airport and around town. There’s an outdoor garden patio and Jacuzzi, fitness center and a rooftop bar with great city views.

Plan your itinerary: Visit Albuquerque | New Mexico True

Memphis, Tennessee

Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Vacations - Memphis Tennessee

Memphis earns its spot on our list in part for the street performers that make this music city a great destination for audiophiles on a budget. Stroll historic Beale Street, learn more about musicians on its Brass Notes Walk of Fame and maybe catch a free concert at Handy Park. Or, get a ticket to an intimate musical night at South Main Sounds.    

For more local history, time your visit to include a tour of Stax Museum of American Soul Music (admission is $15 for adults and $10 for children up to age 12 and free for kids age 6 and under), or get another perspective on the area at Mud Island River Park, where there is a scale model of the Lower Mississippi River that includes 20 cities and covers five city blocks.

Tickets to Graceland, Elvis Presley's former home, are admittedly a splurge and start at $79.75 for 11 and up, $45.50 for children 5 to 10 years old and free for kids 4 and under. But, if you're just there to snap a photo or visit the Meditation Garden (limited hours), you don't have to shell out a dime. 

NEA members travel benefits: Book your flight into Memphis International Airport (MEM) via NEA Travel: Flights. For lodging, book through NEA Travel: Hotels for prices like an average of $68 per night at Super 8 by Wyndham Memphis/Dwtn/Graceland Area to be right downtown. For a boutique upgrade for just a little bit more money ($134 per night), the Hu. Hotel near Beale Street offers stylish rooms and bathrooms with rainfall showerheads, plus a cute café serving breakfast and lunch and a rooftop lounge with great city views.

Plan your itinerary: Memphis Tourism | Tennessee Department of Tourist Development 

Las Vegas, Nevada

Sin City is a popular destination for its casinos, entertainment and nightlife, but you don’t have to break the bank to afford a vacation here.

The Strip is central to several attractions, including the famous Bellagio’s dancing fountains and its free daily light and water show accompanied by popular music. The resort’s Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, a 14,000-square-foot space featuring a rotating display, is also free.

The Volcano at the Mirage, just outside the Las Vegas Boulevard Main Entrance, is another free attraction that has been wowing tourists for 30 years. You can also visit the free Flamingo Wildlife Habitat at the Flamingo Las Vegas. Open daily from dawn to dusk, the 15-acre outdoor space is the residence of a flock of Chilean flamingos as well as ringed teal ducks, sacred ibis, a couple of brown pelicans, swans, koi fish, albino catfish and turtles. The Silverton Casino is home to a massive, free aquarium, which has live mermaids swimming through it at various times throughout the day.

If you’re in Downtown Las Vegas, don’t miss the Fremont Street Experience. It’s a five-block party where bands and DJs perform for free and street performers entertain spectators. While you’re here, check out the diverse murals on the side of the buildings, too. Visit the free The Arts Factory to see creative contemporary art exhibits year-round.

And while Las Vegas’ newest attraction, the Sphere, which is the world’s largest high-definition screen, can be quite pricy, seeing the changing outer projections on the massive sphere doesn’t cost anything. 

Travel discounts for NEA members: Through the NEA Travel Program’s Airfare page, you can search for deals on flights to Harry Reid International Airport (LAS). Vegas has some amazing hotel deals, which you’ll find on the hotels page. For example, the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino is an average of just $50/night, while the Paris Las Vegas Resort & Casino—with its famous Eiffel Tower—is just $30/night, on average. 

Plan Your Itinerary: Visit Las Vegas | Travel Nevada 

Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta is a city brimming with history but also with great outdoor spaces to rest and relax in. Don’t miss a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Sweet Auburn, the center of Black Atlanta. The city park features the home, church and neighborhood of one of America’s leading civil rights movement figures. Check out the Behold monument and stop to smell the roses in the “I Have a Dream” World Peace Rose Garden.

Then head over to the Georgia State Capitol, a National Historic Landmark representing more than 100 years of the state’s history and architecture. Get a copy of the Capitol brochure and go on a self-guided tour of the Capitol Museum, where you can find exhibits, memorials, artwork and other artifacts important to Georgia’s history.

Soak in more of the state’s history from a different perspective at the Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta’s first public park and also its oldest cemetery. Within its 48 acres of outdoor space, you’ll find a botanical preserve with magnolias and shady oaks. For more of Atlanta’s natural beauty, walk along the Atlanta Beltline, where you can enjoy about 10 public parks and 33 miles of multi-use trails; check first to see which parks and trails are open. 

Travel discounts for NEA members: Fly into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) by searching for airline tickets through NEA Travel: Flights. And then look for hotel deals like rooms at the ideally located Hyatt Regency Atlanta Downtown, which average $119 per night, and Aloft Atlanta Downtown, for an average of $110 per night, which has an outdoor pool and gym. 

Plan Your Itinerary: Discover Atlanta | Explore Georgia

Tampa, Florida

Tampa is blessed with year-round warm weather and beautiful outdoor spaces, and it’s more affordable than other Florida cities like Miami and Orlando. At the 3-mile Tampa Riverwalk by downtown’s waterfront, you’ll see people walking, jogging and biking, and if you join them, you’ll pass popular landmarks, such as the Tampa Museum of Art, where college students and children under 6 are free and other students are just $5, and Curtis Hixon Park. Or, take a tour of the public art installations. Another outdoor space that shouldn’t be missed is Bayshore Boulevard, the longest continuous sidewalk in the U.S., with scenic views of Tampa Bay and downtown.

If you’re more of an animal lover, head to Apollo Beach where the Manatee Viewing Center serves as the residence of manatees. This free attraction is best visited in winter when manatees flock to the warm waters of the city’s Big Bend power plant.

Or, pay $2 to enter Lettuce Lake Regional Park, where you can climb the observation tower to view the birds and wildlife that reside in the park’s 240 acres. You could also stroll along its 3,500-foot boardwalk, explore the river by canoe or kayak, or join a free guided nature walk.

For history buffs and culinary culture-hounds, a visit to Tampa won’t be complete without a trip to Ybor City, a historic district northeast of downtown that’s home to a large Cuban population. Browse the wares of vendors at its Saturday Market, or (window) shop for cool vintage gear and antiques. Ybor City is often credited as the birthplace of the Cuban Sandwich so be sure to get your hands—er, mouth—on one at Le Segunda Bakery or Columbia Restaurant (the oldest restaurant in Florida!). It makes a great affordable lunch. 

Travel discounts for NEA members: Visit NEA Travel: Flights to search for deals on flights to Tampa International Airport (TPA) and check for hotel deals at places like Aloft Tampa Downtown, which averages $181 a night in the shoulder season and has an outdoor pool, or the boutique, four-star Hotel Haya in Ybor City, which averages $141 a night and has stylish modern rooms and an outdoor pool. 

Plan Your Itinerary: Visit Tampa Bay | Ybor City | Visit Florida

Save even more with your NEA member benefits