It’s no secret that costs are rising and life in general is getting more expensive. But that doesn’t mean travel has to get kicked off the budget list! There are plenty of cities in the US to take a low cost family vacation. You just have to find the right things to do! Read on for lots of ideas for cheap family vacations in the US that are easy on the wallet, but big on fun.
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How to Create an Affordable Family Vacation:
First, pick a city below with plenty of free things to do in each.
Then, make sure to sign up for flight alerts on your favorite airline or watch Google Flights for flight deals. That is the best way to find airfares within your budget. (Bonus savings if you can drive to your destination. But if you can’t, here’s where I find the best rental car deals ahead of time.)
Search hotel deals here for the best prices on where to stay (make sure to register a FREE account so you can start earning free nights).
Budget for your food, or do grocery store runs for meals (we do this often to save money on vacation.)
Now the big budget items are done and you just have to pick some fun, free activities to do in US cities listed below!
Free Things to do in Washington D.C. – cheap family vacation
Washington DC is so full of American history. While the US isn’t that old of a country, much of its young history lies on the east coast and surrounding the DC area.
Here are a few free things you can do in Washington DC with kids
Visiting the many museums of the Smithsonian could easily last you your entire vacation.
The Smithsonian is a museum and research complex, and the largest of its kind in the whole world. It’s made of several museums that you can explore for free. You are sure to find something for everyone in your family in over a dozen places.
Explore exhibits of different cultures, time periods, and famous people who made an impact. Kids will love the Air and Space museum, Museum of American History, National Zoo, Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Gardens, and so much more.
Admission to all are FREE!
Plan which museums you’d like to visit, and be sure to check which require reservations.
Get the kids excited by watching Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian
2- Stop and Smell the Cherry Blossoms
This is a seasonal activity, but if you visit Washington DC in spring, you’ll have this little bonus.
The cherry blossom trees are typically in peak bloom around the last week of March or first week of April.
This is quite a site to see, and one of my favorite things I remember about living on the east coast.
3- Go to the Top of the Washington Monument
This is a really fun thing to do in Washington DC for kids and adults. Ride to the top of this 500 foot monument, which was created to honor our founding father, George Washington.
The Washington Monument is part of the National Park Service, but even so, it is FREE to visit.
You can take a chance and walk up and get tickets the day of, or you can pay a $1 convenience charge to book ahead of time.
Everyone ages 2+ requires a ticket.
4- Walk the National Mall
This free walk will lead you to different sites. Get up close to the Lincoln monument, Jefferson, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
5- Visit the Library of Congress
It’s the largest library in the world, not to mention a beautiful building. The reader in your family will especially appreciate a visit to the Library of Congress, but really anyone can’t help but be impressed with a stop here.
Free Things to do in St. Louis for a cheap family vacation
St. Louis is the gateway to the West, a great place in the middle of the country for exploring. Plus, a vacation to St. Louis can happen on a budget. Many museums (including many art museums) are free in St. Louis, but here are a few things to do in St. Louis that kids will really enjoy!
Check out the top free things to do in St. Louis with kids.
The Saint Louis Zoo
The St Louis Zoo is located within Forest Park in St Louis. It’s one of a few zoos in the country where admission is always free!
Greet over 14,000 animals among 500 species in one of the top visited zoos, and also noted consistently by visitors as one of the top zoos in the US.
Gateway Arch is a cool monument to see on your family vacation to St. Louis. It is known as the Gateway to the West and commemorates the pioneers in the 1800’s.
Many aspects of visiting the arch do have a cost to them (riding to the top, watching the documentary…)
However, there are a few things you can do for FREE as well:
- Admiring the arch
- Walk through Explorer’s Garden
- Relax at Reflection Ponds
- Learn at the Gateway Arch Museum
World Chess Hall of Fame- free things to do in St Louis
Technically the chess museum is free to visit, but there is a suggested donation of $5 per family if you are able.
Check out all kinds of different themed chess sets and boards. Learn about incredible chess players and take a picture in front with the larger-than-life chess pieces in front of the store.
See Animals and History at Grant’s Farm
Grant’s Farm is filled with hundreds of animals that you can get up close with. It’s also the location of the Busch family home for over 100 years, meaning you’ll also see some Clydesdales.
Grant’s farm also displays Ulysses S. Grant’s log cabin.
Admission to Grant’s Farm is free and there is plenty to walk around and see. But do note that parking and any experiences and of courses food/drink have a cost.
Visit a State Park – free things to do in St Louis with kids
One thing I love about Missouri is that its State Parks are FREE to visit!
A few closer to St. Louis include:
- Babler State Park (west of St. Louis)
- Castlewood State Park (west of St. Louis)
- Edward and Pat Jones – Confluence Point State Park (Northeast of St. Louis)
Note that the parks are free to visit, but any museums at the park may have a small admission fee.
Visiting other parts of Missouri? You May Like:
Free Things to do in San Diego for a cheap family vacation
I have a full post on Top Ten Free things to do in San Diego, so check that out for more details. For now, here is a quick list:
- Hang out at Balboa Park
- Spend the morning with the sea lions at La Jolla Cove
- Check out the Model Railroad Museum
- Take a scenic hike in Torrey Pines
- Spend a few days at the beaches
Free Things to do in Custer, South Dakota
We went to South Dakota a couple years ago and had SUCH a blast. There are a few things you can do for free in the Custer / Black Hills area of South Dakota that kids will love. Here are a few:
Visit Mount Rushmore
It’s true, visiting Mount Rushmore is free. The men who created it wanted it to always be free and open for anyone to see.
The catch? The huge parking lot in front requires payment.
Hike Through the Black Hills
The Black Hills National Forest is free to enter and hike through. Here are a few easier and shorter hikes in Black Hills for kids that aren’t too far from the Custer area:
- Pactola Lake– 2.8 easy miles, about 35 minutes from Custer.
- Willow Creek Trail- 2.5 easy miles, about 20 minutes from Custer
- Spring Creek / Sheridan Lake- 2.4 easy miles, about 46 minutes from Custer
- Black Hills Centennial Trail- 2.2 easy miles, about 30 minutes from Custer (near Mount Rushmore)
See A Shootout Reenactment in Deadwood
Deadwood is about an hour from Custer, but worth the drive. This wild west town holds shootout reenactments on Main St. You’ll also get to see Saloons..
On Sundays (summer season), you’ll even get to meet characters in the streets and take photos and hear stories.
Air and Space Museum
Drive just east of Rapid City to discover over 30 aircraft at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum.
Some planes include a B-52, B-25, and B-29.
Of course, this is another FREE things to do in South Dakota with kids.
Badlands National Park
I’m often recommending the America the Beautiful Pass. It will get you into any National Parks and lands for a whole year!
If you have the pass, then there’s no extra cost to visiting Badlands National Park. If you don’t have a pass, then check your dates to see if you’ll be in town during the FREE National Parks entrance days.
Museum of Geology
Located in Rapid City, kids will love exploring dinosaurs and rocks at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
Kids will love seeing fossils, meteorites, minerals, fish, dinosaurs, and more.
Free Things to do in Denver for a cheap family vacation
I have a full, detailed post on Free things to do in Denver with kids, so make sure to check that out!
Here’s a quick list to see if Denver sparks your interest:
- Tour the Denver Mint
- Take a candy tour at Hammond’s
- Tour the Capital
- Hike through Red Rocks
- Check out Buffalo at the Wildlife Refuge
Free Things to do in San Antonio
There are so many fun, free things to do in San Antonio to make it a cheap family vacation. Here are a few:
Tour The Missions
By visiting The Missions in San Antonio, kids will learn about people from the 1700’s who came these Spanish Missions to live. This self-guided tour contains a few churches to visit that play a role in history.
This historical park is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with over a million visitors a year.
The Missions are part of the National Parks Service, but is a FREE site to visit.
Visit The Alamo
A very popular destination, The Alamo is free for visitors.
The Alamo is a huge part of Texas history. It was originally used as a religious sanctuary to teach Christianity. It eventually came in the middle of war, where Texas fought to protect it.
Stroll Through the Japanese Tea Garden
This beautiful garden is open to the public to enjoy. Kids will love discovering different plants and flowers, walking along the path, and enjoying the waters all around.
Check out my full list of fun things to do in San Antonio with kids!
Free Things to do in Seattle for a cheap family vacation
Walk through Pike Place Market
Normally I wouldn’t say walking through a big market is that exciting for kids. But once they get the fish out and start throwing them across the way? Now the kids are having fun too. It’s a place where you cheer where people throw their food.
Go Meet the Fremont Troll
In an effort to discourage drug deals happening under the Aurora Bridge, the city approved a little art competition to fill the space below.
Now a troll lives underneath, and has made it his home since 1990.
Amaze the Kids at the Gum Wall
This is quite gross, which is why kids will probably love it.
Ever since the 1990’s, people have been sticking gum on a wall not far from Pike Place. You can find this sticky exhibition at 1428 Post Alley.
Hang out at Alki Beach
A great place to relax, dip your feet in, or play on the sand. The beach is public, and there’s plenty of free parking.
Alki Point Lighthouse
While you’re at Alki Beach, head over to the lighthouse for a free tour. Kids must be over 6 years old to go all the way to the top. Check tour times here.
Check out the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center
It’s pretty common knowledge how much work the foundation does. But here, you can see exhibits and hear impactful stories of the work being done around the world.
This is a great way to teach or open up a conversation with kids about people who live in different parts of the world and in different circumstances.
Heading to more places around the area? Check out my road trip ideas from Seattle to Portland!
Free Things to do in Branson for a cheap family vacation
There are SO many things to do in Branson, Missouri that it can get expensive quickly.
Check out my Free things to do in Branson post for a full list. Here are a few:
- Watch the fountain and fire show at Branson Landing
- Stroll along Lake Taneycomo
- Visit Table Rock Lake State Park
- Go on a mural hunt
- Go on a hunt for unique statues
- Meet the horses of the Dolly Parton Stampede
Cities with Free Things to do for a Cheap Family Vacation
Really, you could find free things to do anywhere you go. But I love these 8 cities as they offer plenty of free things to do and they are somewhat unique to each city.
So if you are looking to plan a cheap family vacation, I hope you can use this list for some inspiration for cities with free things to do! You can still have a lot of fun without spending a lot.
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