Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of taking a full week (or several weeks) off from work—let alone the ability to pay for such a lengthy trip. But there are fun, relaxing and affordable places you can go for a long weekend instead, and steps you can take to reduce costs along the way, like choosing a time of year when crowds will be minimal (that means no peak seasons or holiday weekends) and avoiding traveling when well-known events will be taking place.
If your budget is less than $500, here are five places to visit for a three-night trip (airfare not included).
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Listed by U.S. News & World Report as one of “30 Cheap Weekend Getaways,” Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is an especially great option if you live on the East Coast and want to drive south for some warmer weather. Not only will you find free beaches—Myrtle Beach is the most popular, with its 1.2-mile-long boardwalk and famous SkyWheel ($16.99 for adults), the first observation wheel of its kind in the United States—but also plenty of free and low-cost activities.
Enjoy free nightly shows from June 1 until September 1 at Broadway at the Beach (think fire dancers, musical performances, stilt walkers and more), head to the Market Common for tons of free events and discounted activities (a full list here), go fishing or on a nature walk in Myrtle Beach State Park ($8 entrance fee for adults), sip delicious wines at La Belle Amie Vineyard ($7.70 for a tasting, $3 for admission to its Wednesday on the Decks events or $17 for its Saturday festivals), take a helicopter ride for spectacular views of the coastline and ocean (just $20 per person with OceanFront Helicopters) or check out one of the 50 miniature golf courses, many of which are themed—pirate ships, dinosaurs, volcanoes—and offer coupons (children under two are free at most; adults can expect to pay anywhere from $10 to $15). For more deals, look through Myrtle Beach’s official 2022 Coupon Booklet.
Where to stay: Three nights under $500 is a tricky one in terms of lodging, but you can’t go wrong with a Red Roof Inn that’s just an eight-minute walk to the beach. Even at the peak of the summer season, you can get a room there with two double beds for about $427. Or consider The Inlet Sports Lodge in Murrells Inlet ($487 for three nights in a deluxe studio), which has an outdoor swimming pool, restaurant and continental breakfast and is just a nine-minute drive to the beach.
Las Vegas, Nevada
You might be surprised to see this one on the list, but if you’re not booking swanky suites, going to see Adele or trying your luck at the big boy blackjack tables, Las Vegas can actually be a very affordable weekend getaway. In fact, there are many things you can do for less than $20: Take in the 360-degree views from the SkyPod Observation Deck (the tallest freestanding tower in the United States), get up close and personal with dozens of sharks at Shark Reef Aquarium, explore the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art and its unique exhibits, take a hike in Red Rock Canyon (25 miles west of Las Vegas) or see a Nathan Burton Comedy Magic show, which is exactly what it sounds like. You can also catch free concerts on Fremont Street and stroll along the Strip to see some iconic Vegas landmarks.
Where to stay: If you go to Las Vegas during the week (versus over the weekend), you can find dozens of hotels right on the Strip for about $30-$80 per night. But, if you can’t swing a Monday to Thursday-type of vacation, there are still a few affordable, well-rated places like The LINQ Hotel and Casino ($438 total for three nights before taxes and resort fees), which looks awesome and is in the heart of the Strip; the Golden Nugget Las Vegas Hotel & Casino (about $489 for three nights), which is downtown on Fremont Street; and the highly rated Downtown Grand Las Vegas, which wins pricewise at about $398 total. For more, this list seems to be pretty accurate.
If you don’t want to stay downtown, try Comfort Inn & Suites Henderson – Las Vegas ($480 for three nights for a king), which is a 20-minute drive to the Strip and has a gorgeous pool and free breakfast.
Salt Lake City, Utah
For those downtown vibes, excellent culinary options and a lungful of the great outdoors, consider visiting Salt Lake City. It’s an affordable destination with free mountains to climb, parks to explore and historic sites to see, including Big Cottonwood Canyon (about 20 minutes from downtown; you can also ski there in the winter), the architecturally pleasing main public library, Liberty Park (Utah’s oldest park), Sugar House Park (110 acres of forest, rolling hills, lakes and bike trails) and Temple Square, the most visited attraction in Utah.
If you’re feeling a little less thrifty, check out Red Butte Garden ($14 for adults), the Natural History Museum of Utah ($19.95) and eight-acre Tracy Aviary & Botanical Garden ($12.95). You can also do a little shopping at Trolley Square or enjoy a show at one of the many performance venues Salt Lake City has to offer (Utah Symphony, Utah Opera, Ballet West and the Eccles Theatre for Broadway musicals).
Where to stay: The Avenues and Capitol Hill neighborhoods are great places to stay for people traveling on a budget, with lots of affordable accommodations to choose from—like Ellerbeck Bed & Breakfast (about $400 total for three nights). Or try finding an inexpensive one-bedroom apartment or condo on Vrbo or staying at the highly rated Homewood Suites by Hilton (about $338 for two nights).
New Orleans, Louisiana
As long as you avoid visiting during famed events like Mardi Gras, New Orleans has plenty to offer the budget-friendly traveler—from its deep culture and eclectic street music to unique art and history.
First off, you can take a “name-your-price” tour of the French Quarter with Free Tours by Foot, during which you’ll visit and learn about Jackson Square, St. Louis Cathedral, Bourbon Street and more (you can also do a self-guided tour or download an audio tour for $2.99).
Royal Street in the French Quarter is said to be one of the oldest in New Orleans, but if you love gawking at gorgeous mansions, take a stroll along the oak-lined St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District—or get a $3 unlimited day pass and ride the adorable green streetcar though the neighborhood.
For a little nature fix, discover 1,300 acres of walking and biking trails, massive trees, catch and release fishing, boating and more in City Park, New Orleans’ largest outdoor attraction. For a little art fix, head to the Besthoff Sculpture Garden (free) for more than 90 unique installations or to Studio BE, a massive warehouse with huge murals and powerful graffiti art ($15 for general admission). For a little history fix, check out The Sazerac House and learn how the famous cocktail was distilled into creation (self-guided tours are free but the guided ones with tastings are only $20-$30). And last, for a little selfie fix, explore the funky, experiential rooms at JAMNOLA ($29 for adults).
Where to stay: You’ll want to stay away from the pricey French Quarter (although Hotel Villa Convento has decent prices), but there are loads of affordable places a short distance away, like the Prytania Park Hotel in the lower Garden District (about $350 for three nights), a European-style hotel just one block from the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
If you hate crowded cities, Gulf Shores in Alabama along the Gulf of Mexico is a wonderful, underrated gem of a place. Even better, you’ll find it on pretty much every affordable weekend getaways list for the United States. The area is known for its 32 miles of distinctive white-sand beaches where you can spend your long weekend sunbathing and enjoying the warm weather (even in the spring and fall, the temperatures are quite comfortable for beach lounging). For something slightly more adrenaline-inducing, head over to Orange Beach for water sports and cruises—like a $20 dolphin cruise or paddleboard rentals starting at $15.
You can also spend a full day at Gulf State Park (free or $5 to access the beach area), where you’ll find hiking trails, the Gulf State Park Pier (a popular spot for fishing) and a 28-mile paved trail system that is great for walking and biking (the park has a bike share program that allows you to borrow a bike for free for up to three hours). And for all you bird nerds (like me!), you won’t want to miss the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. For more recommendations on what to do and where to eat, check out the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism Official Vacation Guide.
Where to stay: There are multiple great-value options available right on the beach, like Sugar Beach Condominiums ($150 per night), Summer House West ($114 per night) and Grand Caribbean ($157 per night). Just read the reviews first and filter your search for places with high ratings.
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Katie Perry is a travel blogger based in Philadelphia. She has spent more than 10 years abroad and has lived long-term in Portugal, Brazil, Peru and Costa Rica.