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8 Affordable U.S. Destinations for 2023

Plan a trip to these dynamic locales for unique budget-friendly options that won’t break the bank

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Colorado National Monument in Grand Junction
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As rising prices take a bite out of your finances, you can travel more for less in the following destinations. These locales offer free and reasonably priced activities, and lodging opportunities for less than $200 per night. Prices and rates may change, depending on the season, so plan in advance to get the best deal.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Old Town Albuquerque
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For a strong mix of Native American culture, desert beauty and distinct cuisine at a nice price, head to New Mexico’s largest city. Albuquerque’s Old Town has the colonial adobe architecture people go to Santa Fe for, as well as vintage Americana in historic buildings along the nearby Route 66, including the restored 1937 El Vado Motel. Explore the area’s Native American roots at the free Petroglyph National Monument where short trails pass hundreds of ancient images of animals, people and symbols etched into rock, and meet the people of the state’s 19 pueblos at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (admission $12, seniors $8). Native American, Spanish and Mexican influences converge to create New Mexican cuisine, and signature dishes are smothered in red or green chile sauce (order “Christmas” to get both). Try it at the old-school lunch counter at Duran Central Pharmacy on Route 66.

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Grand Junction, Colorado

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On the western slope of Colorado, Grand Junction is an entertaining home base to take scenic drives among the geologic wonders. To the west, about 12 minutes from downtown, the Colorado National Monument boasts striking red-rock canyons and stone monoliths that are easy to see from the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive. For greater intimacy with the landscape, park and hike the 1.5-mile round-trip Devils Kitchen Trail to reach a cluster of upright boulders. To the east of town, take the scenic byway up Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flattop mountain rising more than 11,000 feet, featuring pine forests and alpine lakes. Return to downtown Grand Junction to peruse independent book and resale shops and sample local brews at the popular Trail Life Brewing. Stay beside the Colorado River at Camp Eddy in a tiny house or a vintage Airstream trailer.

Ithaca, New York

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Taughannock Falls State Park
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On Cayuga Lake, one of upstate New York’s Finger Lakes, Ithaca offers all the liveliness of a college town with access to the great outdoors. More than 150 waterfalls lie within 10 miles of town. You don’t have to go far to find flowing water — Ithaca Falls on Fall Creek is close to downtown — but it’s worth the trip to three state parks, including Taughannock Falls State Park with its namesake 215-foot plunge (entry $9 per vehicle). Ithaca’s Cornell University is home to the famed Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which maintains the 230-acre preserve Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary with 4 miles of trails for birders to explore (visit Saturday mornings for free guided bird walks). Spend Saturday afternoon exploring the Greater Ithaca Art Trail, which maps the route to 47 artists’ studios in surrounding Tompkins County. The Hotel Ithaca is a short walk from the independent shops and restaurants in Ithaca Commons.

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Key Largo, Florida

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Driving from Miami through the Florida Keys is a bucket-list ride, but stop early for the best values in Key Largo, the northernmost of the islands. Here, two state parks and one national park preserve the tropical forests and pristine waters. More than 80 protected species of plants and animals thrive in Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park where more than 6 miles of trails, mostly paved, offer birdwatching for colorful species such as black-whiskered vireo and the mangrove cuckoo (admission $2.50). See the area’s marine wonders on a snorkeling or glass-bottom boat tour at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first undersea park in the country (2.5-hour tours are $32 by boat, $38.95 with snorkeling). The park neighbors the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, together protecting about 178 nautical square miles at sea. The no-frills Key Largo Inn includes a free breakfast bar.

Las Vegas

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Container Park
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You can drop big money in Las Vegas, but the “Entertainment Capital of the World” is a steal if you can avoid gaming. Dancing fountains (the Bellagio), an erupting volcano (the Mirage) and gardens with flamingos (the Flamingo) are among the free attractions that casinos offer to keep visitors coming through the doors. Several attractions in downtown Las Vegas offer free entertainment, including Downtown Container Park, an outdoor mall made of former shipping containers hosting free concerts, and the Fremont Street Experience, where video screens form a ceiling over five pedestrian blocks projecting sound and light shows at night. Take the double-decker Deuce bus between downtown and the Strip for a scenic ride at a bargain rate (24-hour pass $8; $4 for riders 60 and up). Overnight in a downtown Vegas icon at the 1941-vintage El Cortez Hotel & Casino.

McMinnville, Oregon

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Willamette Valley
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Trips into wine country don’t have to break the bank. McMinnville, the unofficial capital of Oregon’s pinot-noir-renowned Willamette Valley, offers a more welcoming entrée to the wine world where early vintners began widely planting grapes in the 1970s. With a population of about 34,000, McMinnville retains its small town feel with a pedestrian-friendly downtown filled with shops, restaurants, boutique hotels and wine tasting rooms that don’t require you to drive while sampling. Stay at the Hotel Oregon, founded in 1905, to be steps from tasting rooms at vintners such as R. Stuart Co. Winery (tastings less than $20) and Pike Road Wines (tasting fee less than $25). The town’s affordable restaurants, including Pizza Capo, champion locally grown and raised ingredients. From May to October, visit the McMinnville Farmers Market on Thursdays to provision your picnic basket with locally grown fruit.

Milwaukee

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North Point Lighthouse
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The nation’s smaller cities usually offer savings over their bigger siblings, but Milwaukee does it with first-class art, impressive architecture and insightful tours. Start your visit at the Milwaukee Art Museum, a landmark building that seems ready to take flight over neighboring Lake Michigan ($22 adults, $17 seniors). Drop-in tours, included with admission, cover the museum’s art and architectural highlights. Exit at the lakefront to walk the Lake Line, a paved path that hugs the shore for 4 miles up to the North Point Lighthouse. Explore the industrial legacy of Milwaukee, nicknamed “Brew City” for its early beer making prowess, on a tour of the handsome 19th century Pabst Brewing works ($12; $10 seniors, including drinks). That early wealth enabled the city to build grandly — check out the 1895 Flemish Renaissance-style City Hall — as introduced on walking tours with Historic Milwaukee ($10), all within walking or streetcar-riding distance of the art deco-era Plaza Hotel.

New Orleans

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New Orleans offers up a gumbo of affordable attractions. You can easily DIY the atmospheric French Quarter, founded in 1718, but let a storytelling local lead the way in a two-hour amble with Two Chicks Walking Tours ($30). Ditch the crowds of the Vieux Carré neighborhood to stroll in the 1,300-acre New Orleans City Park, home to the largest grove of live oak trees in the world, and stop at a branch of Café Du Monde for powdered beignets. Find more oaks and more than 90 artworks — including Henry Moore’s Reclining Mother and Child and Robert Indiana’s Love — at the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden (free), part of the New Orleans Museum of Art in the park. From the French Quarter, take the St. Charles Streetcar ($1.25; 40 cents for seniors) out to the estate-filled Garden District to stay at the 1858-home-turned-inn Magnolia Mansion.

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