Anyone who has tried planning a family getaway recently knows that costs have skyrocketed, especially if you go the five-star resort or amusement-park route. That’s why we’ve rounded up five unexpected domestic destinations—from a major Midwest hub and a laid-back Florida beach town to a mountain resort with vintage campers—all of which will help you keep spending in check with their outdoor activities, free museums and attractions, affordable overnight accommodations and complimentary meals.
St. Louis, Missouri
This midwestern city on the Mississippi may be the Gateway to the West, but it’s also one of America’s most affordable family destinations, thanks to its many fabulous (and free!) museums and attractions.
While you’re there: Spend the day (or an entire weekend) at the expansive 1,300-acre Forest Park, where admission to five of the city’s finest cultural attractions are free of charge. There are playgrounds, bike paths, lakes and boat rentals, and you can visit the Science Center with its life-size animatronic T-Rex and hundreds of hands-on exhibits. You’ll also find the renowned St. Louis Zoo, home to 14,000-plus animals, including penguins, puffins, hippos and a famous tropical aviary. Later, snag a free loaner stroller at the Saint Louis Art Museum and explore the galleries; there’s even an outdoor sculpture garden where antsy kids can blow off steam.
Hungry? Order a chocolate malt at Crown Candy Kitchen, a retro soda fountain founded in 1913, sample the popular homemade pastrami at Bogart’s Smokehouse and visit family-owned Gus’ Pretzels, a third-generation landmark that’s been hand-twisting pretzels since the 1920s. Bonus: They also serve Ted Drewes frozen custard, another distinctly St. Louis indulgence.
Where to stay: Just a short walk from the city’s iconic 630-foot-high Gateway Arch, the historic Drury Plaza Hotel (from $200 a night for four) has a heated indoor pool for the kids, and room rates include a free hot breakfast and evening happy hour with appetizers and cocktails.
Splurge: Visit historic Grant’s Farm, the 281-acre bucolic Busch family (of beer fame) estate, where kids can interact with farm animals and visit the famous Budweiser Clydesdales’ stables. Admission is free, but parking passes cost $15 and fun extras—like camel rides, bottles for feeding the baby goats and behind-the-scenes tours—can add up. Beer samples, however, remain complimentary for adults.
Cocoa Beach, Florida
Instead of the sticker shock of Disney World, consider laid-back Cocoa Beach, about an hour’s drive from Orlando on Florida’s Space Coast. With its old-school surf vibe and beautiful, family-friendly beaches, it feels a world away from Mickey and friends but is equally as exciting for the little ones—and likely more relaxing for Mom and Dad.
While you’re there: Though no one would blame you if your family wanted to spend the whole time practicing cannonballs in the hotel pool or building sandcastles on the beach, do try to visit Kennedy Space Center. Your suntanned brood can take in a 3D IMAX film, stand beneath the Saturn V rocket, touch a moon rock and experience the thrill of a shuttle launch in a simulator. If you’re lucky, you might even meet a real-life astronaut.
Hungry? Join the line at Oasis Shaved Ice, a local hotspot for fluffy, neon-colored shaved ices in flavors like birthday cake and butterbeer. Later, head to nearby Titusville for dinner at Dixie Crossroads, a popular seafood restaurant that’s been serving fried shrimp, fresh-shucked oysters, lobster and irresistible corn fritters since 1983. They also offer a great $5.99 kids’ menu.
Where to stay: A block from Cocoa Beach’s historic fishing pier, the oceanfront Best Western Cocoa Beach (from $255 a night for four) offers a complimentary full breakfast, a fitness center, an outdoor pool and easy beach access.
Splurge: Need some real R&R? Consider enrolling your children in the Ron Jon Surf School’s surf camp for kids, which costs $275 for five half-days of lessons (all equipment provided). Hometown hero Kelly Slater, arguably the world’s best surfer, got his start on these breaks.
Despite its party-central reputation, Music City welcomes families too, with great food, easy access to nature and loads of fun, kid-centric activities—many of which are free.
While you’re there: Take the obligatory stroll down Broadway—the main drag downtown—and enjoy some live country music at Robert’s Western World, one of Nashville’s most venerable honky-tonks (admission is free and kids are welcome until 6 p.m.). Afterward, walk across the downtown pedestrian bridge for stellar views of the Cumberland River, the downtown skyline and the famous Batman building. Pack a picnic and head to Centennial Park, across from Vanderbilt University, to feed the ducks and climb the steps of Nashville’s life-size model of the Parthenon, built in 1897. During the summer, there’s a free concert series at the park’s Musicians Corner. You can also check out the free loaner bikes at Shelby Bottoms Nature Center, which boasts five miles of paved paths along the Cumberland. If you’re in town on a game day, the Minor League Nashville Sounds offer 10-buck “seats” on the grassy berm behind left field.
Hungry? Don’t leave Nashville without trying two of Music City’s best (and least expensive) restaurants. No-frills Mas Tacos Por Favor dishes up an amazing chicken tortilla soup and a rotating cast of fabulous $3 tacos, while Hattie B’s nails the city’s signature hot chicken (the pimento mac & cheese and black-eyed pea salad are great too!). P.S. Kids with tender taste buds can order their bird sans the spice.
Where to stay: You can’t go wrong with Glo Best Western Nashville ($163 for four), which includes a complimentary full breakfast.
Splurge: Hit the Nashville Zoo, where youngsters can brush a goat, feed a lorikeet and pet a kangaroo, or check out vintage concert reels of Elvis and the sparkly dresses worn by the likes of Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift at the Country Music Hall of Fame, which features interactive exhibits as well as a coloring station and a scavenger hunt (with prizes) for kids.
Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, about 50 miles south of Los Angeles, is well-known for its family-friendly beaches, restaurants and galleries.
While you’re there: Few areas offer the kind of views you’ll find at Crystal Cove State Park, a nearly 4,000-acre mix of Pacific coastline and backcountry wilderness. Walk along the park’s 2.5-mile paved coastal trail and explore the marine life that flourishes in the tidepools at low tide. If your family likes birds, bring binoculars and download the park’s free bird guide before you go: You’ll likely see brown pelicans, sanderlings, great blue herons, black oystercatchers and more. And don’t miss the chance to tour the Crystal Cove Historic District—a seaside colony of 46 charming beach cottages from the 1930s and ’40s—with a volunteer docent. If you’ve seen Beaches, starring Bette Milder, you may recognize her house from the movie!
Hungry? Treat the kids to breakfast on the oceanside deck of the Beachcomber, known for its beignets served with syrup, whipped cream and powdered sugar.
Where to stay: Moro Campground at Crystal Cove State Park has 57 family campsites, all with picnic tables, restrooms and showers. Rates start at $55 per night—a real deal considering hotels in the area sometimes charge upward of $500 a night.
Splurge: Take a two-hour, naturalist-guided boat trip with Dana Point Whale Watching & Dolphin Tour to see dolphins, sea lions and blue whales ($56 for adults; $39 for kids 3 to 12). For a 20% discount, sign up for their newsletter online or visit on a Tuesday, when trips are half-price.
Weaverville, North Carolina
Minutes from the spectacularly beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway, this charming mountain enclave is a great home base for communing with nature and taking day trips to bustling downtown Asheville, just 12 miles to the south.
While you’re there: Explore the quaint shops along Weaverville’s walkable Main Street, grab a beer at one of the three breweries or sit on the patio at Twisted Laurel for some Mediterranean-inspired comfort food. You’ll want to stay at the June Bug Retro Resort (see below), where you can hike or bike the trails, hit the swings at the playground and enjoy the resort’s organic farm (they grow vegetables and flowers and cultivate mushrooms), which stretches along the river that runs through the property. There’s also a sleek, two-level treehouse with seating areas, creekside hammocks and an air-conditioned bath house, which far exceeds your average campground lavatory.
Hungry? Try the flagship White Duck Taco Shop, which has outdoor seating overlooking the French Broad River in Asheville. The popular eatery serves fresh-made chips and salsas, yummy queso and inventive tacos like the Thai peanut chicken with tropical salad. And there’s a special chicken-and-cheese quesadilla for kids that will set you back less than four bucks.
Where to stay: June Bug Retro Resort is a magical, 50-acre property that offers guests their choice of 10 vintage campers (starting at $130 a night), including a spacious Airstream that sleeps six and a cozy 1959 pink-and-white Shasta trailer just big enough for a parent and one child.
Splurge: Spend the day at the gorgeous 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate ($60-$85 for adults; kids 9 and under are free). Tour the 250-room French Renaissance chateau, America’s largest privately owned house, which was built as a summer residence by George Vanderbilt II. The mansion has 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces; kids will love the enormous kitchen and the indoor bowling alley and pool, both cutting-edge when construction started on the house in 1889. Afterward, stretch your legs in the beautiful gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame.
Monica Michael Willis is a former editor-at-large at Modern Farmer and a food, lifestyle and sustainability writer.
Millie content is licensed from Dotdash Meredith, publisher of Millie, Real Simple, InStyle, Investopedia, The Balance and more.