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10 Low-Cost Family Vacations

  • Father And Son Hit The Waves In An Inner Tube, Low Cost Vacations
    Jeffrey Brown/Atlantis

    Warm Up to the Islands

    En español | You can’t afford a Bahamas vacation, right? Think again. At the Comfort Suites Paradise Island in Nassau, the breakfast buffet is free — and you get unfettered access to the higher-priced Atlantis Resort nearby, whose amenities include a marine exhibit, tennis courts and a waterpark. If all that sounds too exhausting, just amble around the luxurious Atlantis grounds, and soak up the ambience and free entertainment.

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  • Caucasian Family On Horseback In Snow, Low Cost Vacations
    Glenn Asakawa/Denver Post/Snow Mountain Ranch

    Take Your Tribe to Sleepaway Camp

    Year round, the YMCA of the Rockies’ Snow Mountain Ranch hosts so many free or modestly priced activities that your family may refuse to go home. Mini golf, ice skating, tubing, skiing — none of these will break the bank. An hour-long climbing-wall session or archery lesson costs a mere five bucks. You can cap off a full day with s’mores by firelight or a book from the library. There are casual dining spots on the premises, and your lodging choices include rooms, cabins or unheated yurts. (Y members, don’t forget your discount!)

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  • A Family Bikes On Path, Low Cost Vacations
    Pat & Chuck Blackley/Alamy

    Travel on 2 Wheels

    The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy lists bike paths nationwide — many following abandoned train tracks — from easy to challenging. You can search its website for routes by state or activity, read about the experiences of other riders and find places to stay and eat. At the extreme end, there’s the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal towpath from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C., or the Katy Trail from St. Louis to Clinton, Mo. For shorter rides, try Colorado’s Rio Grande Trail — a forested riverside path, with only a slight slope — or Iowa’s High Trestle Trail, featuring a bridge that makes you feel you’re traveling down a mine shaft. 

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  • Family Enjoys The Water In Lake Havasu, Low Cost Vacations
    Mike Goldwater/Alamy

    Go Jump in a Lake

    Hotels and restaurants are reasonably priced in Lake Havasu City, which styles itself “Arizona’s most affordable vacation spot.” This much is certain: The sunshine — all 300 annual days of it, on average — is free, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy it. Two of the area’s three beaches charge no entry, and hiking trails snake through the desert scenery (sometimes literally; wild animal sightings are always possible). Nearby is London Bridge, of falling-down fame — which came to pass in 1967, when Lake Havasu City founder Robert McCulloch bought the span for reassembly here. From October to April, the visitors center leads an inexpensive 90-minute walking tour.

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  • Baby Sheep Hang Out At A Farm, Low Cost Vacations
    Courtesy East Hill Farm

    Rusticate

    In the shadow of New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock lies the Inn at East Hill Farm, crowded with goats to feed and cows to milk. You can even collect your own eggs for breakfast. The rates at this all-season country retreat cover housing in rooms or cottages and family-style meals. Mountain climbing, sledding, and hay or sleigh rides will keep every member of your brood busy. Failing that, indoor and outdoor pools guarantee you can swim at any time of the year. Saturdays often end with contra dancing to live music. 

    In the shadow of New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock lies the Inn at East Hill Farm, crowded with goats to feed and cows to milk. You can even collect your own eggs for breakfast. The rates at this all-season country retreat cover housing in rooms or cottages and family-style meals. Mountain climbing, sledding, and hay or sleigh rides will keep every member of your brood busy. Failing that, indoor and outdoor pools guarantee you can swim at any time of the year. Saturdays often end with contra dancing to live music. 

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  • Two Young Caucasian Kids Eat Ice Cream In Front Of Their Parked RV Camper, Low Cost Vacations
    Istock

    Hit Some Parks

    Head for the hills — South Dakota’s Black Hills — to see six National Park Service sites in a single trip. Devils Tower (in Wyoming), Mount Rushmore, Minuteman Missile, Badlands, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave are all within a few hours’ drive of one another. For budget-friendly accommodations, base yourself in any of these four Dakota burgs: Rapid City, Keystone, Hill City or Custer. Only Badlands and Devils Tower charge entrance fees; Rushmore has paid parking, while the caves charge for underground tours. Other low-cost attractions nearby include Custer State Park, where bison roam free, and the work-in-progress Crazy Horse Memorial.

    Head for the hills — South Dakota’s Black Hills — to see six National Park Service sites in a single trip. Devils Tower (in Wyoming), Mount Rushmore, Minuteman Missile, Badlands, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave are all within a few hours’ drive of one another. For budget-friendly accommodations, base yourself in any of these four Dakota burgs: Rapid City, Keystone, Hill City or Custer. Only Badlands and Devils Tower charge entrance fees; Rushmore has paid parking, while the caves charge for underground tours. Other low-cost attractions nearby include Custer State Park, where bison roam free, and the work-in-progress Crazy Horse Memorial.

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  • Indian Family Poses By The Bull In New York Financial District, Low Cost Vacations
    Len Holsborg/Alamy

    Nosh on the Big Apple

    New York City abounds in free museums; others charge no admission at certain times on weekdays. (To reach them, buy a seven-day, unlimited-ride subway pass.) The no-cost Big Apple Greeter program, staffed by volunteers, offers treks through various neighborhoods — and enforces a strict no-tipping policy. A similar outfit, Free Tours by Foot, operates on a pay-what-you-wish basis. (Both require reservations.) For zoos, head to Central Park — less expensive than its sister menagerie in the Bronx; for hotels, head across the river to New Jersey, where rooms aren’t as pricey and an express bus or train can whisk you downtown.

    New York City abounds in free museums; others charge no admission at certain times on weekdays. (To reach them, buy a seven-day, unlimited-ride subway pass.) The no-cost Big Apple Greeter program, staffed by volunteers, offers treks through various neighborhoods — and enforces a strict no-tipping policy. A similar outfit, Free Tours by Foot, operates on a pay-what-you-wish basis. (Both require reservations.) For zoos, head to Central Park — less expensive than its sister menagerie in the Bronx; for hotels, head across the river to New Jersey, where rooms aren’t as pricey and an express bus or train can whisk you downtown.

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  • Cowboys Wrangle A Young Calf, Low Cost Vacations
    Courtesy Malibu Ranch

    Evoke Your Inner Cowpoke

    Relive the Old West in the Pocono Mountains? Yes, that’s the experience offered by the rarity of a dude ranch east of the Mississippi. At the 800-acre Malibu Dude Ranch near Milford, in northeast Pennsylvania, you can shoot a bow or rifle, ride horses on woodland trails, or take a hayride and sit around a bonfire afterward (activities and meals are included in the daily rate). There’s also swimming, boating and fishing — and, for an extra charge, rodeos and a cattle drive.

    Relive the Old West in the Pocono Mountains? Yes, that’s the experience offered by the rarity of a dude ranch east of the Mississippi. At the 800-acre Malibu Dude Ranch near Milford, in northeast Pennsylvania, you can shoot a bow or rifle, ride horses on woodland trails, or take a hayride and sit around a bonfire afterward (activities and meals are included in the daily rate). There’s also swimming, boating and fishing — and, for an extra charge, rodeos and a cattle drive.

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  • Multigenerational African American Family Enjoy The Beach, Low Cost Vacations
    Ronnie Kaufman/Getty Images

    Bask at the Beach

    Galveston, a historic Gulf of Mexico town on a barrier island 50 miles southeast of Houston, offers budget sun and fun along 32 miles of shoreline. Take the Bolivar Ferry — it’s free — for a 20-minute ride to see dolphins at play, or watch a taffy-making demonstration at La King’s Confectionery, replete with a 1920s soda fountain. Galveston Island State Park charges only a modest entrance fee; the ranger talks and kayak expeditions are gratis. You can pitch your own tent at the park or stay in one of its two cabins, which sleep up to eight people.

    Galveston, a historic Gulf of Mexico town on a barrier island 50 miles southeast of Houston, offers budget sun and fun along 32 miles of shoreline. Take the Bolivar Ferry — it’s free — for a 20-minute ride to see dolphins at play, or watch a taffy-making demonstration at La King’s Confectionery, replete with a 1920s soda fountain. Galveston Island State Park charges only a modest entrance fee; the ranger talks and kayak expeditions are gratis. You can pitch your own tent at the park or stay in one of its two cabins, which sleep up to eight people.

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  • A Group On A White Water Raft On The Water, Low Cost Vacations
    Courtesy Ace Adventure

    River Run Through It

    Nothing bonds a family like adrenaline — the primary by-product of a raft trip through West Virginia’s New River Gorge. The Ace Adventure Resort in Minden has specials year round. Two of note: In fall, the Triple Play Whitewater package gets you three days of rafting on both the New and Gauley rivers, plus three nights camping and all meals. Come April, the Spring Double Dare package offers a full day on the water and two nights in a tent (bring your own, or rent what you need on site). Any aquaphobes in your group can opt to zip-line or play paintball instead.

    Nothing bonds a family like adrenaline — the primary by-product of a raft trip through West Virginia’s New River Gorge. The Ace Adventure Resort in Minden has specials year round. Two of note: In fall, the Triple Play Whitewater package gets you three days of rafting on both the New and Gauley rivers, plus three nights camping and all meals. Come April, the Spring Double Dare package offers a full day on the water and two nights in a tent (bring your own, or rent what you need on site). Any aquaphobes in your group can opt to zip-line or play paintball instead.

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  • Cheap Family Vacations
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