Think a big city vacation is off limits on a family budget? Think again. We gave ourselves a challenge: A world-class family vacation in one of America’s most popular cities for less than $125/night. Here, how to get “luxe for less” in San Francisco, New York City, Orlando, Las Vegas, and Chicago!
Look up, down, or side-to-side in SF and you’ll be greeted with gorgeous waterfronts (the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay), unforgettable architecture (like the multicolored Victorian "Painted Ladies"), and roller-coaster hills that only make the visit for charming, especially for the little ones.
Hop on one of the city’s classic cable cars for some fun ups and downs on SF’s famous hills; you can explore vibrant, unique neighborhoods like Chinatown with a one-day pass ($15). Head to popular Pier 39 on San Francico Bay to ogle the big, adorable sea lions and to grab a taste of a signature Northern Cal fave: clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl. Stroll through Golden Gate Park for its knockout botanical gardens, free concerts, and hands-on activites.
SF’s off-season is November through May.
Hotel Del Sol is a family-friendly hotel with vibrant design and a great location in the Marina/Cow Hollow area. Perks include afternoon cookies and milk, heated pool, and free breakfast. (jdvhotels.com, from $120 per night)
See Budget Travel Contributing Editor Darley Newman share "Big Cities on a Small Budget" on the Today Show!
Sure, the city that never sleeps is known for some astronomical prices ($1,000 baseball tickets, $100 hamburgers, anyone?), but this capital of art, music, design, fashion, and finance also offers more freebies (and near-freebies) than any other major city in America.
A must-see for families year-round is the American Museum of Natural History, with its awe-inspiring life-size blue whale model, dinosaur fossils on the top floor (or "in the attic," as the staff likes to say), and interactive Discovery Room. In summer, walk the High Line, an elevated park created out of an abandoned stretch of railroad track that offers kids programs with storytelling and sculpture-making. NYC’s parks offer free movies and concerts in summer, and a tasty snack is always a block away—nab a classic twisty pretzel from a hot dog stand.
Right after New Year’s, when rates are slashed at hotels and you can get two-for-one theater tickets during Broadway Week and free ice skating in Bryant Park.
The Jane, in Manhattan’s West Village, once housed the survivors of the Titanic. You’ll feel (almost) as lucky with this nicely appointed hotel’s bargain summer rates. (thejanenyc.com, from $105 this summer)
Orlando is designed around family-friendly vacations, with theme parks, themed restaurants, and activities everywhere you look.
All those theme park experiences come with a price tag, of course, but there are many ways to book smart. Right now, for instance, there are special deals like hotel tie-ins to get you into the new Harry Potter-themed Diagon Alley at Universal (see our hotel pick below), and a stay at a Disney-branded resort can land you discounted admission, re-admission, transportation, and other perks. Following the major theme parks on Facebook and Twitter can give you the fast track to flash promotions and other savings.
September is quiet(er) in Orlando. When school is back in session, you can find elbow room and savings around town. We won’t tell if you give your kids a few extra days off to shake hands with Mickey!
The Hilton Orlando is offering special deals timed to the opening of Diagon Alley at Universal Studios now through December 18. You can get four nights at the hotel, two three-day Park-to-Park tickets for Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure (to experience both Harry Potter sections), early admission to the parks, and more. (hilton.com, four nights from $102 per night)
If you’re thinking that Las Vegas is just for bachelor parties, girl getaways, and high rollers, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. The city’s major hotels and venues are wooing families with kids with low prices and tons of fun.
Viva Vision Light Show at the Fremont Street Experience is a lively music and light show on a projection screen the length of five football fields suspended 90-feet above you. Circus Circus offers free acts like jugglers, trapeze artists, and acrobats all day long.
Las Vegas is busy year-round, but also offers low prices year-round! The lowest prices are around Christmas and Easter week.
While the best prices are usually found off the Strip, Circus Circus is an affordable family-friendly option on the strip, and it includes a five-acre indoor theme park, The Adventuredome, which even includes a roller coaster! (circuscircus.com, from $39 per night if you book now)
Chicago is a world-class city in the heart of the Midwest, with great public transportation, unparalleled museums, theater, music, and food.
The Lincoln Park Zoo is open 365 days a year. Ogle the jaw-dropping views of the Chicago skyline (with some of the most beautiful skycrapers in America). Drop by the Navy Pier (one of Budget Travel’s 20 Most Awesome Boardwalks in America) for a ride on the immense Ferris wheel on the banks of Lake Michigan. And don’t forget to grab some deep-dish pizza: Two Chicago favorites are Lou Malnati’s and Gino’s East.
Crowds are spare and hotel rates are reasonable during spring and fall (before the legendary winter winds start blowing).
The Warwick Allerton Hotel offers pure luxury on the Magnificent Mile (warwickhotels.com, Expedia offers deals from $99 per night)
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