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New York City, New York
Why you’ll love it: Because it’s New York City! It’s time to stop believing that the Big Apple is a big expense. Rush tickets for Broadway and off-Broadway shows will get you in the door for a fraction of the face-value cost, and there are plenty of affordable hotels all across the city, if you know what to look for and where to go. If you have teens in tow, a visit to music venues like Irving Plaza or Webster Hall is a must. And the bookstores in that part of the city, the impossibly cool East Village, once the home of punks and poets, are world famous (The Strand’s used-book racks on the sidewalk are the stuff of legend).
Budget tip: What other affordable things can you do with the family while in the city? Walking the High Line doesn’t cost a penny, and neither does visiting Central Park, Tompkins Square Park, Union Square Park or Bryant Park. You’ll find a surprising number of lush and fun green spaces that feature farmers markets, free live music and dog parks. Add some time to explore these hidden gems in NYC even locals don’t know about. When you get hungry, grab a slice of pizza or take advantage of the many great lunch special deals and happy hour specials on drinks and food.
How to get there: Three airports and a rail service will easily get you and your family into and out of Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs, including LaGuardia Airport (the closest to Manhattan), JFK International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport.
Where to stay: Voco Times Square South won’t break the bank, but it will have you close to all the theaters and shopping in midtown Manhattan. Then you can take a short walk, bus or subway ride to the East Village, Lower East Side and Financial District to pay your respects at the 9/11 Memorial.
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Why you’ll love it: Want to know how to travel for free? Freedom from an expensive family vacation awaits in Philly. Downtown can be magical, thanks in part to Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, the always-free-to-see Liberty Bell, the free-to-climb Rocky steps at the Art Museum and plenty of places to indulge in a Philly cheesesteak. This is one of the best cities for budget-friendly family vacations.
Budget tip: One of the things that makes Philadelphia special is its music history. For free live music every week, take your kids to see famous (or soon to be famous) bands at World Cafe Live’s free Friday lunchtime concerts (Adele, Dr. Dog, St. Paul and the Broken Bones and many more have graced the stage).
How to get there: Philadelphia International Airport is less than a 20-minute drive from the center of the city.
Where to stay: You can’t go wrong with a stay near the Avenue of the Arts. Try the classy but down-to-earth Cambria Hotel, and you’ll be central to everything worth seeing and doing in the City of Brotherly Love.
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Los Angeles, California
Why you’ll love it: Southern California is not known for its affordability, but Los Angeles has a lot to offer those on the hunt for cheap family vacations. Really! There’s the mind-bending Broad Museum, a stroll along the legendary Hollywood Walk of Fame and a hike up around the Hollywood sign—all free.
Budget tip: L.A. offers star-studded trips great for families in large part because of its beaches. Venice, Santa Monica, Malibu and others are all free and ideal for people-watching, picnics and activities in the sand. Be sure to grab a bite at the legendary Malibu Seafood on California 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway). The fresh food is less than half the price of a fancy seafood house in the city, and it comes with free million-dollar views. Of course, a cheap family vacation out west would not be complete without at least one meal at In-n-Out Burger, the made-to-order, inexpensive and beloved fast-food chain.
How to get there: Venice Beach is less than 15 minutes (without traffic) from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and the Broad Museum is only 30 minutes away (without traffic) on the 110. Because LAX has so many flights in and out of the city, it’s a great destination to consider using any credit card travel rewards.
Where to stay: The many hotels near LAX offer good value, but they put you a drive away from everything. Instead, stay at one of the fantastic, artful and surprisingly wallet-friendly boutique hotels, like The Kinney on Venice Beach, which boasts playfully colorful rooms. You’ll be a short walk from the beach, and at the hotel you can enjoy a dip in the outdoor pool and rent a bike to pedal your way up to Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier.